Exclusive: House Republican, in a first, backs legalizing marijuana

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is the first GOP congressman to support legalizing recreational marijuana. Government control of personal behavior, the Californian tells the Monitor, is 'totally contradictory to what our country is all about.'

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California is shown here during a visit to Russia last year. The congressman said Monday he would support a likely ballot measure in his home state to legalize recreational marijuana.

[Updated July 14, 1:30 EDT] US Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California says he backs legalizing recreational marijuana, the first Republican member of Congress to publicly support such a shift.

The longtime libertarian congressman from affluent Orange County told the Monitor on Monday he would "probably" endorse a 2016 California referendum to permit marijuana use by the general public, should it qualify for the ballot.

“If they put it on the ballot that they would legalize it, I’d probably support that ballot measure,” Representative Rohrabacher said in a phone interview. Elaborating on the issue nationwide, he adds: “By providing the federal government the right to control personal behavior, it’s totally contradictory to what our country is all about.”

Proponents of legalizing marijuana for recreational use in California plan to put such a measure on the state ballot in 2016. 

With those remarks, Rohrabacher becomes the first Republican congressman to endorse legalization, says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, a group that supports looser marijuana laws. 

“He’s a beachgoing surfer from a ... coastal town in California,” Mr. St. Pierre says of Rohrabacher, calling the Republican’s support “monumental.”

Although former US Rep. Ron Paul (R) of Texas had sponsored bills to decriminalize the drug and had expressed support for legalization in the abstract, Rohrabacher is the first Republican to endorse a concrete measure for legalizing marijuana.

Forty congressional Democrats have already expressed interest in legalizing the drug, Mr. St. Pierre said, dubbing them the “cannabis caucus.”

Democratic-leaning voters are more in favor of marijuana legalization than are independent and Republican-leaning voters, says St. Pierre, but ballot referendums in the states are forcing Republican legislators to adopt more a laissez-faire view.

“Up until very recently, the issue was driven by their constituents,” says St. Pierre. “It will change in Republican districts when more legislation and initiatives force the hands of Republicans.”

So far, Rohrabacher is an outlier among Republicans on this issue. He says the matter should be decided at the state level, and that his view is influenced by economic costs and concerns.

“It is a total waste of money when we’re facing a fiscal crisis, we’re wasting money on trying to stop people from smoking weed,” Rohrabacher said.

While he supports legalization for adults, the congressman also says that a boss has the right to fire an employee for smoking off the job. That’s what occurred in Washington State last week, when the state’s first resident to buy marijuana legally was fired – and then rehired. 

“It would be an employer’s prerogative to say whether or not who he wants to hire,” he says. “If someone is fired for smoking marijuana, I understand that there are people who think it's very dangerous.”

Rohrabacher also expressed concern about the downsides of pot-smoking. Marijuana is classified as a Schedule I drug by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and both possession and sales remain illegal under federal law.

In recent years, the public's views on marijuana usage have shifted. Fifty-eight percent of Americans now support legalizing use of the substance, according to a Gallup poll conducted in October 2013.

The trend is especially apparent among young people. About 67 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 polled in favor of legalization, the Gallup study showed.

Just as Republicans 10 years ago used opposition to gay marriage to drive conservative voters to the polls, Democrats are tapping the legal marijuana issue this year to try to bring out their voting base, St. Pierre says.

“In Florida, Democrats have placed on the ballot a medical marijuana initiative in order to draw out more independent and young Democratic voters,” he says.

"They are trying to take a page from Karl Rove’s playbook,” he adds, referring to former President George W. Bush’s strategist, who was the chief architect of the anti-gay-marriage state ballot measures in 2004. 

A recent bill in the House of Representatives demonstrated the shifting political winds, with legislators voting 219 to 189 for a motion to prevent the DEA from going after medical marijuana operations in states that permit them. Nearly 50 House Republicans, including Rohrabacher, joined most Democrats in supporting the amendment.

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