Q: How did you come to work for a marijuana lobbying group?
A: I’ve always done advocacy work, but I especially liked that the Marijuana Policy Project’s focus is privacy and civil liberties and that getting hired is a rigorous process; it screens out people who are just interested in marijuana.
And I like the way MPP approaches the issue. We know there are stereotypes to overcome. People think we’ll have posters on the office walls and it will smell like patchouli. But we’re the opposite of that. We’re all very serious policy wonks who are in it to change laws for the better; there is no greenhouse in the office.
Q: So your group focuses on legalizing pot?
A: First and foremost, we do lobbying to change state and federal laws for people who want to use marijuana responsibly.
We never use the word “legalize,” because there is always confusion over what that really means. Does it mean legal like alcohol? Like tomatoes? Like prescription drugs? What we want to do is tax and regulate marijuana similar to how alcohol is regulated.
People think no one gets arrested for marijuana possession, but every 38 seconds someone is arrested for it. Eighty-nine percent of arrests are for simple possession. There are more marijuana arrests than for all violent crimes combined.
And, in the U.S., the government spends $7.7 billion per year enforcing marijuana laws.
Q: What kind of arguments do you use to convince people to tax and regulate pot?
A: Well, if our goal is to keep it out of the hands of kids, then the current system isn’t working; drug dealers don’t card to see how old someone is. Additionally, our marijuana laws keep police from focusing on real crimes, cost taxpayers billions of dollars a year, and especially penalize seriously ill patients who face arrest and jail simply for following the advice of doctors who recommend that they use medical marijuana. When you look at the facts, marijuana prohibition has failed and it’s time to seek a better approach.
Q: And what kind of arguments do people use against legalizing it?
A: People argue that it’s a gateway drug and it leads down the road to harder drugs. But it turns out that it’s the criminalization of marijuana that’s the gateway to hard drugs. When adults enter a liquor store to buy alcohol, they don’t find cocaine sitting on the shelf next to bottles of vodka; similarly, if marijuana were regulated, adults who buy marijuana would not be exposed to hard drugs, as they currently are, via drug dealers.
Q: I don’t know much about lobbyists. Do you basically just go to legislators and harass them?
A: We build relationships with legislators and their staff, help draft legislation, try to push good bills and fight bad ones. A lot of it is about helping legislators see that their constituents want to see marijuana-policy reform, that it’s not a political risk.
We also do a lot of statewide ballot initiatives. For instance, in 2006 in Nevada, our measure was on the ballot to tax and regulate marijuana, and we got 44 percent of the vote. This was an all-time high tied only with Alaska, where we also got 44 percent of the vote on a measure to remove criminal penalties for marijuana use by adults.
Q: Do you think you’ll see taxed and regulated pot during your lifetime?
A: Each year, we see about a 1 percent increase in support of our goals. So, yes, definitely.
Q: Tell me how medical-marijuana laws work.
A: It varies from state to state, but in general, in most of the 12 states that have passed laws allowing medical marijuana use, your physician certifies that he or she has recommended that you use medical marijuana for a specific condition. Each state has its own list of conditions that it permits you to use it for, usually things like cancer, MS, AIDS, severe chronic pain, and so forth. For cancer patients who have chemotherapy, medical marijuana combats nausea. In patients with MS, it eases very severe pain.
Q: Does the federal government ever try to stop the states from dispensing medical marijuana?
A: There is a big state/federal conflict right now. In California, federal DEA agents are raiding dispensaries and arresting local patients. These are state-sanctioned dispensaries. The conflict between the states and the federal government is eventually going to reach a critical point where Congress has to act.
Q: When people smoke pot, do you recommend that they use a bong or a pipe or …?
A: We never recommend that anyone use marijuana—it’s illegal. We don’t encourage people to break the law, but, if you are going to choose to use marijuana, using vaporizers is a far better option, as far as your lungs go.
Q: Is there an office subscription to High Times?
A: No. We’re not pro-marijuana or into marijuana culture. We really bend over backwards to make it clear that we’re about changing laws, not promoting the use of marijuana. In fact, we take that so seriously that we generally don’t use the color green or images of a marijuana leaf on any of our materials. It makes it hard for our graphic designer.
Q: How is your company funded?
A: We’re entirely funded by individual donors. We reach out to people who support our work and want to see marijuana laws changed, and we depend on them to fund our work. We also do some special events that raise money for our work. For instance, we have an annual party at the Playboy Mansion that is a wildly successful fundraiser.
Q: Have you gone?
A: No, I never have.
Q: You seem like you really enjoy your job.
A: I love it. I can’t imagine where I’d go that I’d like as much. It’s such a tight ship. I think I’d go crazy if I worked somewhere that wasn’t as organized.