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May 5, 2005 - The San Francisco Chronicle (CA)

Marijuana Advocates Play It Straight In D.C.

'Pothead' Stigma Makes Lawmakers Wary, Lobbyists Know

By Marc Sandalow, Washington Bureau Chief

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Washington - 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 imprisonment.

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 serious town.

"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 known.

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 here."

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 college loans.

"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 libertarian grounds.

"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 inevitable.

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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