Just as California is settling to its position as the largest state to legalize recreational marijuana, the federal government under President Donald Trump is signalling a possible crackdown on a drug that is still banned under federal law.
But pot enthusiasts and entrepreneurs have a vocal, if unexpected, advocate on their side: Orange County Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.
Perhaps better known recently for reports linking him to Russia, Rohrabacher was in his district recently burnishing his pot credentials at UC Irvine.
Rohrabacher faced a packed room at the student center for a panel on medical marijuana. He wore rumpled, khaki pants and an army-green canvas jacket underneath a sling cradling his left arm.
“You’ll notice that I have this arm sling on and just so you’ll know, no they did not try to twist my arm to go to the other side on this issue,” he said at the podium, eliciting chuckles.
Rohrabacher, who will turn 70 in June, was actually recovering from his second shoulder surgery due to decades of hard paddling to catch waves off the Orange County coast. In any case, he’s made it clear during his 28 years in Congress that he doesn’t succumb lightly to arm-twisting.
“I have tried to be principled,” Rohrabacher said from the podium. "Which means I make people on the liberal half of the spectrum mad at me half the time, really mad at me, and I make people on the conservative end of the spectrum really mad at me half the time.”
Throughout his congressional career, Rohrabacher has been alternately described as “colorful,” a “maverick,” and “Crazy Dana."
In the late 1980s, the former speechwriter for President Ronald Reagan briefly took up arms with Afghan freedom fighters battling Soviet occupiers. Later he became a dogged defender of Russia, which put him on the fringe of the Republican Party — until President Donald Trump took office.
Rohrabacher’s pro-Russia posture has been in the spotlight lately. The Washington Post recently reported on a recorded conversation last year in which House majority leader and fellow California Republican Congressman Kevin McCarthy said he thought Rohrabacher and President Donald Trump were on Putin’s payroll.
McCarthy says he was joking and Rohrabacher denies taking any money from Russia.
Rohrabacher's domestic pet cause of marijuana used to be controversial, too. The congressman has been advocating for states' rights to legalize pot since 2003, when California became one of just eight states to allow medical marijuana.
Now 29 states do, while eight states and the District of Columbia have also legalized recreational, or adult use of marijuana.
But the drug's move solidly into the mainstream coincides with the most anti-pot federal administration in decades. Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, opposes legalizing marijuana, and he recently took steps to reinvigorate the war on drugs by ordering federal prosecutors to pursue the toughest penalties possible for drug offenders.
That leaves Rep. Rohrabacher at odds with an administration he has generally supported. But he told cannabis backers at UC Irvine that his dedication to reforming federal marijuana policy — and, most immediately, making sure the government respects states’ right to legalize it — is unwavering.
“I believe that this country was founded on the ideal of individual freedom and liberty, and it is up to adults to determine for themselves what they consume on their property. Period. Zero. That’s what freedom is.” The room erupted in applause.
Rohrabacher is fresh off his first victory for cannabis under the Trump administration: The federal budget bill signed by President Trump on May 5 included an amendment — known as the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment for current co-sponsor Oregon Democrat Earl Blumenauer — prohibiting the use of federal funds to interfere with state laws allowing medical marijuana.
But President Trump, when signing the bill, essentially reserved the right to ignore it, noting his "constitutional responsibility to take care that the laws be faithfully executed."
The administration's stance has caused concern among officials in Orange County and elsewhere in California at a time when the state is gearing up to regulate medical and recreational, or adult use, marijuana. Several Orange County cities, most recently Laguna Woods, have cited uncertainty about the federal government’s reaction to state legalization as a reason to bar dispensaries and other marijuana businesses from city limits.
After the conference, Rohrabacher said Attorney General Sessions means well, but his views on marijuana are outdated.
"He’s not a monster. He’s a guy who thinks he’s doing well by helping other people from being addicted to opiates because marijuana leads to opiates,” Rohrabacher said. "Well, I gotta have a nice talk with him and say, 'No, marijuana does not lead to opiates.’”
A growing body of research indicates, in fact, that marijuana could be a less harmful solution to pain management than opiate pain killers, The Washington Post recently reported. (Sessions dismissed the notion during a speech in March, but said “maybe science will prove I’m wrong.")
Though 60 percent of Americans now support legalizing pot, Rohrabacher said conservatives, in general, are stuck on the by-gone cultural connotations of marijuana as a free-love drug.
"[They] think marijuana is back in the hippy days and that you’re going to have people smoking marijuana and thus they’re going to be fornicating in the park and they’re going to be quitting their job and they’re going to be coming to work stoned," he said.
Still, Rohrabacher said his former congressional colleague Sessions has agreed to meet with him to discuss federal policies on marijuana.
"If I can convince the Trump people that the best way to go is to allow states to make the decision on this, then I’ll be very happy,” Rohrabacher said.
Given the administration’s skepticism about marijuana, the congressman’s more ambitious goals for reforming federal drug laws, which include ensuring access to medical cannabis for military veterans, facilitating research and, ultimately, legalizing marijuana nationwide, will likely have to wait.
Rohrabacher and pro-pot colleagues will be focused through the summer on getting the Rohrabacher-Blumenhauer Amendment included in the budget bill due before the current, temporary one runs out at the end of September.
Still, that amendment only protects states’ medical marijuana programs, not adult use marijuana schemes like the one approved by California voters in November. A congressional battle over whether to extend protections to recreational cannabis will likely take place in the coming months.
Pro-pot in a purple county
A short car ride away from UC Irvine, Rohrbacher and conference attendees converged on the Bud and Bloom medical marijuana dispensary, located in a nondescript warehouse district in Santa Ana. Employees gave tours of the posh dispensary while next door bartenders served drinks and waiters passed around chips and tacos.
Rohrabacher swapped stories about Afghanistan with an army vet while sipping a margarita.
“I was there when the Russians were there, we were fighting the Russians,” the congressman explained.
Though marijuana legalization has historically been a cause of the left, the libertarian congressman is a hero in California’s pro-marijuana community.
“He’s done a wonderful job,” said Dale Gieringer, director of the California chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, of Rohrabacher’s leadership on marijuana issues.
"We needed a real, good, strong libertarian-leaning conservative to carry this, and Dana’s also close to President Trump and he knows Jeff Sessions. So I think he’s the ideal person to be doing this.”
Rohrbacher's supporters in the cannabis industry recently threw him a fundraiser on the rooftop of the High Times media company in Los Angeles.
Former Democratic state Senator Joe Dunn, who participated in the UC Irvine marijuana conference, said Rohrabacher’s support for cannabis "comes from the heart."
"I’m sure in earlier years he was under enormous pressure from Republican leadership not to be so aggressive about the issue of cannabis, but to the best of my knowledge, the congressman has never backed down on it,” Dunn said.
Or course, Californians’ attitudes toward marijuana have also shifted. In 2010, Rohrabacher’s district — which then included parts of Los Angeles County — voted against legalizing and taxing marijuana by 55.5.
In November, 54 precent of his district voted in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana under Proposition 64.
Several Orange County Republican leaders said Rohrabacher’s consistent views and honesty about marijuana have earned him respect from constituents.
One of those constituents, 69-year-old Terry Jack from Seal Beach, agreed. “That’s bold for him as a politician,” she said of Rohrabacher’s public stance on marijuana. "I think it’s a personal choice,” she said of using pot. “So there again, [Rohrabacher] thinks of all of his citizens.”
Democrats hope to unseat Rohrabacher in the 2018 election. Though the congressman won reelection in November by a nearly 17-point margin over Democratic challenger Suzanne Savary, his district favored Hillary Clinton over Trump by more than 5,400 votes.
Cris Robinson, a 70-year-old attorney from Huntington Beach who said she didn’t vote for Rohrabacher in November, expressed approving surprise about his pro-marijuana activism. But she said it probably wouldn’t change her vote.
“I know he’s very conservative, and I’m not, so I wouldn’t support his policies,” she said.
Who’s really holding up federal marijuana reform?
Marijuana currently enjoys rare bipartisan support across the country, with voters in conservative states like Arkansas choosing to legalize medical cannabis.
Rohrabacher and Alaska Republican Don Young recently joined two Democrats to form the first ever Congressional Cannabis Caucus to push for reform of federal anti-marijuana laws.
While marijuana advocates welcome the move, they see little hope for such legislative efforts as allowing legal state marijuana businesses to hold money in federally insured banks — a major problem cited by pot entrepreneurs in California and other states where it's legal.
"No bills are going anywhere in this Congress,” said Gieringer from NORML. He said Rohrabacher’s Republican congressional colleagues are the ones really holding up marijuana reform, not President Trump and Attorney General Sessions.
Gieringer said congressional leaders have put social conservatives in charge of key legislative committees where drug reform bills go to die.
“It’s impossible for any legislation, no matter who sponsors it, to advance,” he said.
Gieringer doubted the federal government would try a widespread crackdown on marijuana.
"They have nothing to win by that. Medical marijuana is wildly popular and legal marijuana, by state law, is widely supported, as well," he said.
Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert and UCLA professor emeritus, agreed.
"I’m sure Sessions is aware and [Trump advisor Steve] Bannon is aware that marijuana is more popular than Donald J. Trump," Kleiman said.
Still, both said there’s a chance the administration could take hits at the industry, and that banking problems and other headaches faced by legitimate marijuana businesses are unlikely to get resolved anytime soon.
If President Trump or Attorney General Sessions do decide to go after pot firms operating legally under state law, Congressman Rohrabacher said he’ll fight them all the way to the Supreme Court.