Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Author: Marc Sandalow, Washington Bureau Chief
Published: Thursday, May 5, 2005 - Page A - 1
Copyright: 2005 San Francisco Chronicle
Contact: [email protected]
Washington, D.C. -- Hundreds of suit-and-tie-clad marijuana advocates
feasted on chicken Kiev and Petite Sirah on Capitol Hill on Wednesday
night in what may have been the most button-down gathering of pot
enthusiasts in history.
The music was contemporary jazz, not reggae. The dessert was a caramel
parfait with chocolate drizzle, not Oreos. And the featured Cheech and
Chong video was a snippet of a documentary on actor Tommy Chong's recent
The event, a strictly nonsmoking affair that drew members of Congress, a
prominent television talk show host, and seasoned Washington operatives,
was a mainstream coming-out of sorts for the Marijuana Policy Project,
the nation's pre-eminent marijuana lobbying organization.
The sober organizers -- who insist the greatest danger associated with
smoking pot is jail time -- are intent on being taken seriously in this
"We decided from the outset, no scrungie beards. No ponytails. We'd be
mainstream and professional. We'd try to look like Republicans as much
as we could," said Rob Kampia, the group's executive director who got a
significant haircut when he helped found the group 10 years ago. "I
don't mind having short hair if it can help change the world.''
Neither Congress nor the Justice Department has shown much sympathy for
the organization's agenda of legalizing the use of medicinal marijuana
and reducing penalties for recreational use. A study released this week
found that nearly half of all federal drug arrests were for marijuana.
"We try to make it very clear that we are not pro-marijuana,'' said
Steve Fox, the Marijuana Policy Project's clean-cut director of
government affairs. "We are anti-jail. We are not out there celebrating
marijuana use. We're just saying it's insane to send people to jail for
making the personal choice of using marijuana.''
The organization has worked hard to be taken seriously on Capitol Hill,
where lobbyists representing the alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical
industries are familiar, but where the pot lobby is still making itself
Fox recalled the start of a meeting with a member of Congress, in which
a senior aide opened the member's door and announced: "The potheads are
In order to bridge the gap with lawmakers, the group distributed $50,000
in campaign contributions to members of Congress during the last
election -- a sure way to make friends in Washington -- and Wednesday
night honored Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, for his work promoting
legislation in Congress.
"Often people joke about marijuana, but due process and respecting state
laws is a serious issue," Farr said. "Beyond that, I think it's high
time the federal government recognized that one of the best ways to
prevent recreational use of a drug is to let doctors prescribe it in
closely regulated ways.'' Farr was joined at the gala by Reps. Barney
Frank, D-Mass., Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, and Linda Sanchez, D-Lakewood
(Los Angeles County).
Intellectually, it's very easy,'' Frank said of convincing his
colleagues. "Politically, it's hard.''
Nearly 100 million Americans have tried marijuana, according to
estimates by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, and nearly 15
million use it regularly. Still, its mention rarely fails to draw
snickers in Washington, forcing lobbyists to be vigilant about cleaning
up their act.
A column in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, noted that Farr and
Sanchez were expected at Wednesday night's gala and suggested that they
might be forgiven if they were spotted giggling and munching cookies the
following day in the halls of Congress.
"The puns and jokes deter members of Congress from embracing the
issue,'' said Eric Sterling, one of the group's founders and the
president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "They are genuinely
afraid of the issue.
"The Marijuana Policy Project from day one has been very professional in
its presentation. There is an insistence at not having people come in
tie-dye shirts, and there won't be pot smoking. It's a serious issue
that deserves to be taken seriously.''
Among the group's top legislative authorities is a bill to bar the
Justice Department from spending money to raid and prosecute pot-using
patients and caregivers in states such as California where voters have
approved the use of medical marijuana. They are also seeking to overturn
rules that forbid students with marijuana convictions from receiving
"We've come a long way,'' Kampia told the gathering. "But we're not
blind to the fact that the members of Congress who have to get elected
every few years are reluctant to work with an organization with the
'm-word' in the title.''
Though most of the support comes from Democrats, there are nearly two
dozen Republicans who consistently support the group's agenda on
"My position is that people ought to make their own decision on almost
anything if it doesn't hurt anybody else,'' said Rep. Ron Paul, a Texas
Republican who said his support for medicinal marijuana had not cost him
votes in his "conservative, Bible-belt district.''
"Perceptions on the House floor are very different from the perceptions
around the country,'' Paul said.
Television talk show host Montel Williams, who spent years speaking out
against drug use at high schools, has been vocal in his support for
medical marijuana, which he uses regularly.
Williams, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999, said he had
tried many legal painkillers, which left him in a stupor and still in
pain. Then, at his doctor's recommendation, he tried pot, which worked.
"It's been a hard day, a real hard day,'' Williams told the dinner
crowd, breaking into tears. "I've been chasing my pain all day.''
Williams described the nation's refusal to legalize medicinal marijuana
as "so simple, it's ignorant.''
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which describes
marijuana as a "greenish-gray mixture of the dried shredded elves,
stems, seeds, and flowers of the hemp plant,'' takes a less upbeat view.
The government Web site describes impaired cognitive functions from
smoking marijuana and says the drug can impair memory and learning
skills, lead to addiction and increase the risk of cancer.
The Marijuana Policy Project has 18 full-time staffers in Washington,
one in San Francisco and another in Los Angeles. It boasts 17,000
dues-paying members and more than 150,000 e-mail subscribers and has an
annual budget of more than $2.5 billion.
At Wednesday night's event, just one man sported dreadlocks in crowded
ballroom three blocks from the Capitol. There were no marijuana leaf
banners or signs of paraphernalia. And not a wisp of smoke.
Still, the references to the less serious sides of pot smoking were
When Frank asked to speak early in the program so he could get home,
Kampia explained to the crowd: "If we're not following the agenda, it's
not that we're stoned. We're being accommodating.''
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