Dana Rohrabacher Hashes Out the Politics of Pot

Conservative firebrand and anti-Communist warrior Dana Rohrabacher is lighting up a new political issue: marijuana. The former California congressman and Ronald Reagan speech writer is set to take center stage on Thursday at the International Cannabis Business Conference in Zurich, Switzerland. His mission: To sell the message of legalized pot.

In 1968, Dana Rohrabacher — a tan, blonde, California surfer filled with political fire — joined the front lines of the Prague Spring to confront the heavily armed Communist regime. Exactly two decades later, he was once again facing down the Communist threat, this time armed himself, fighting side by side with Mujaheddin in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.

Soon after the Berlin Wall came crashing down, the newly minted congressman found himself hosting three, young Russian politicians in his nation’s capital. After a game of touch football, the rollicking crew headed to the Kelly’s Irish Times, a popular watering hole near Capitol Hill, to continue their sweaty, beer soaked competition. Rohrabacher challenged the Ruskies to a little friendly arm wrestling. One of them, flanked by burly body guards, was the then-Deputy Mayor of St. Petersburg Vladimir Putin. Rohrabacher recalls that Putin won.

As a senior speech writer and special assistant to President Ronald Reagan for seven years, no one wrote more speeches for The Gipper than fellow Californian and Cold Warrior, Dana Rohrabacher.

Now, back in private life after 30 years on Capitol Hill, Rohrabacher has turned to his second passion: marijuana. Rohrabacher insists that his friend and political ally, the famously teetotaling President Donald J. Trump, “is the greatest hope for future cannabis reforms.”

At the International Cannabis Business Conference in Switzerland the 71 year old pot activist intends to convince a world audience that pot legalization is the future.

Over the weekend, Die Weltwoche scored the first interview.


Dana, you were one of President Ronald Reagan’s senior staffers and speech writers. Please tell us: How does a person who was winning for The Gipper become a pothead?

Well, years ago, in 1967, I spent some time in Vietnam. And in 1968, I spent some time in Prague. I was fighting Communism. I was part of a group recruiting and helping people resist Communists. Soviet troops ended up destroying the Prague Spring and reasserted their Marxist-Leninist authority. They did it by shooting people on the street, and I knew some of the people who were killed. In Vietnam, I was up in the central highlands with tribesman (“Montagnard”) who worked with us against Communism. Quite frankly, I and the United States, abandoned them.

They went all in with America, and we left them at the mercy of people who were our enemy and wouldn't have been their enemy had we not gone in and recruited them to be against the Communists. The late 60s were a disillusioning time in my life. I ended up being a beach bum. I hitchhiked around the country. I went surfing in various beaches and camped out on a number of them. I was a vagabond.

You were a drifter.

And, as one would expect, I got into the consumption habits of my fellow vagabonds. However, that ended when I was 23 years old. I got a job as a writer for a news service, here in Los Angeles. I felt that cannabis was calming me down too much. And it was making it easy for me not to excel. Quite frankly, that does not get you far in your life, and I realized that. When I was 23, I stopped. I never started again until just recently.

Because you have some problems with your shoulders. What happened?

Perhaps people in Switzerland might not understand this, but I've been a very heavy surfer. That's my sport. I go out, and when the surf is rough it really screws your neck. Even worse, you're using all of the weight of your body and the surfboard directly on your shoulders. My shoulders were getting worse for the last ten years. I had surfed all of the cartilage away in my shoulders.

At this point, my shoulders are metal. And as far as my neck concerns, I was advised by some other cannabis activist friends to put some CBD (Cannabidiol) cream on my shoulder. They told me, “You're the guy who made it legal for us to do it. Why don't you do it? Why don't you try?” I put this cannabis cream on my neck, and it's very clear, now, that for two or three days the pain is gone. Then, I just put some more on, and there you go.

Now, you promote the free use of marijuana. Your mission reminds me of the famous 1976 Peter Tosh tune where he sings, “It's good for the flu, good for asthma, good for tuberculosis, even numara thrombosis. So, legalize it.” Medical use: Is this why you're pushing for legalization of marijuana?

Oh, yes. I am absolutely a strong and very clear advocate of legalizing not only medical marijuana (which is what I mainly focused on), but I also believe in cannabis freedom for all adults. Whether you use it as medicine or for recreational use, it's your business, your body, and the government should butt out.

You're promoting a system where the federal government shall have little say and should leave all decisions to the states.

My approach to cannabis in the United States is to let the states decide what kind of restrictions or controls on cannabis will they put into place. If the federal government tries to enforce a cannabis law to protect an adult from himself or herself, that is ridiculous and totally contrary to the idea of liberty. The United States was founded on life, liberty, and guess what? The pursuit of happiness.

Those are the foundations of the American psyche and also of our commitment to each other as Americans. So, for us to try to punish an adult for consuming a weed is really stupid.

You're a friend of Donald Trump.

I'm a very strong supporter of our president, and I actually have talked to him about cannabis. It's very clear that our views are, in general, consistent with each other.

Does the president agree with you on marijuana legalization?

Yes. And, in fact, after we talked at several stops during his campaign (his first campaign), he reconfirmed that position. His position is medical marijuana should be legal. After that, cannabis for adult consumption should be left up to the states.

You even said, “Trump is the greatest hope for future cannabis reforms."

Absolutely right. A large segment of the Republican Party has opposed any legalization of cannabis laws. I've been at this for about 15 or 20 years, now. The roadblock has always been my fellow Republicans. They have been afraid to legalize cannabis, even for medical purposes. Basically, they are afraid their constituency would vote them out.

I know a lot of people who think that Big Pharma has been the evil source nixing cannabis liberalization. It wasn’t Big Pharma that kept it illegal, it was Republican Congress members who were afraid that a majority of their voters would not approve this and they wouldn't be reelected.

What I did is I found the one way to reach those congressional Republicans so they could defend themselves against political attacks from within their own party. The winning approach was focused on states rights. After years of trying, I finally managed to get a vote on the House floor on restricting the federal government to supersede those laws in the states that legalize the use of medical marijuana. It’s called the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment. [It passed by a 219–189 vote in May of 2014 and was signed into law by President Obama in December, that year.]

Trump is a pragmatic businessman. Does he see marijuana legalization as a part of respecting grown adults to make their own decisions and collecting the tax revenue?

Yes. I think that he is a practical person and that he's been a businessman all of this time. He has not been someone who is trying to impose his religious beliefs. I think Trump honestly believes that there's limited government. And he also, as a businessman, recognizes the incredible waste of the billions of dollars that are being spent in order to prevent adults from consuming a weed. What a waste of money when our resources are already limited.

More and more states in the US legalize the use of weed. Marijuana has become a booming business.

Oh, yes. What's happening is cannabis is becoming a real part of the economy in the United States and a real part of the medical community. And by the way, yes, it works. The absolute worst element of this whole discussion on cannabis is that cannabis can help many of those who are suffering, guys like myself. I'm 71 years old. I have an arthritis pain in my neck. There's no reason for older people to be left suffering in pain when they can put on a CBD cream, just like I have been doing.

The worst irony is that Big Pharma and American businesses interests have been pushing opiates knowing that these types of painkillers are brutally addictive. They have been fully aware that those using these drugs would become addicted. And, yet, they push these dangerous prescriptions anyway. The most fascinating part of this scenario (legalizing weed) is there is reason to believe that people can break away from using such opiates. In fact, cannabis is a gateway out of addiction.

Nowadays, weed is getting stronger. Some of it is hybridized and blows your mind. Critics say this can’t possibly be healthy. Don’t you see any downside to smoking marijuana?

There are lots of downsides to keeping marijuana illegal. There are lots of upsides to actually legalizing it. For example, right now, there are millions of people who actually use cannabis, and all of the profit that is being amassed as part of those transactions is going to gangsters, criminals, and drug cartels. And they're building up evil forces in the world. And you don't know what you're getting. You don't know how strong it is. You don't know who is supplying you. If cannabis becomes legal — essentially the medical marijuana — you'll have labels. You'll know who produced it. You'll know the exact strength. Furthermore, you will be dealing with honest people rather than a criminal gang.

Voters in Denver, Colorado decided, last week, to decriminalize psilocybin, known as “magic mushrooms,” making it the first city in the US to do so. Medical researchers have found that the substance can be used to help treat anxiety and depression in cancer patients. Are we not getting on a slippery slope when we start to decriminalize more and more drugs, namely psychedelic drugs? Where is your red line in legalizing drugs?

Let’s only deal with one drug at a time. But the consumption of any drug has to be put in perspective. In terms of a general policy of protecting people, we must recognize that there are other elements in our society that are very destructive. I am 71 years old. Some of my friends didn't live to be 50 or 65 before their hearts gave out because they were fat. They were consuming too much sugar, and they were eating things that were unhealthy. Furthermore, over the years, about 10% of my friends became alcoholics and destroyed themselves and destroyed their families.

What about heavy marijuana smokers?

I know some people from my early youth who continued smoking marijuana and ended up not performing as well as they could have. These people were capable of getting PhD’s, and writing books, and making major contributions to society. I remember this one guy. He ended up running a little book store. It's nice to run a little book store. A lot of people can run a little book store who have no capabilities like this person had. But I think smoking marijuana made him too content to the point that he lost the “oomph” to move forward and to climb up the ladder. But not everybody needs to climb up the ladder. If they don't want to climb up the ladder, that's their business not the government’s by forcing restrictions on someone's behavior. We don’t need a nanny state to protect us from ourselves.

Former House Speaker John Boehner was an early investor in the marijuana industry. But neither you nor Boehner are now on Capitol Hill. Who up there — House or Senate — in the GOP supports your point of view? And are you getting traction?

I just left Congress a couple of months ago. For one year, I'm not permitted to go up and talk to people on Capitol Hill on any issue.

Who's currently leading on your issue there?

There are a number of people. The name that crosses my mind is Matt Gaetz from Florida. He is really someone who is going to be a leader on the Republican side. And Earl Blumenauer, who was my partner when I was there, continues to be a leader on the Democratic side.

Is legalizing marijuana one of the issues in divided Washington, DC that could find bipartisan support?

I think that is exactly correct. And it should be, especially when we have a president who’s made it clear that he wants medical marijuana to be legal and adult use of cannabis to be left up to the states.

Dana, you have had such a lively career. You fought with Mujahideen. You wrestled with Putin in Washington before he was known to the world. And you were involved in Reagan's historic speech he held at the Brandenburger Gate in 1987 when he called out to the Soviet leader: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

A fellow writer, Peter Robinson, wrote the speech. I'm the one who smuggled it to the president.

Image: Wikimedia

What happened? Can you tell us this anecdote?

Had I not been that person to smuggle that speech to the president, he wouldn't have gotten it because the major powers were trying to prevent him from saying anything.

You smuggled the speech past the State Department and the CIA?

The State Department and the CIA, and some of the Reagan senior staff were adamant in their opposition the president mentioning the wall when he stopped in Berlin. They claimed the German people would be upset with the president for mentioning the wall because they now accepted it. They would see Reagan tearing the scab of a wound that had already healed. They didn't want to make waves. They didn't want to stir things up. In politics you have to make waves in order to ride one.

They did not want something that they knew would be disruptive. But we knew that that (“tear down this wall”) is what Reagan would want to say. The most important thing in my career was to bring that speech past all of the obstacles and put it in the hands of the president. And that's what I did. Once I handed it to him, I knew that the Cold War was over.

You actually helped to end the Cold War?

I experienced the Cold War even when it was hot. I engaged in combat against Soviet troops in Afghanistan. In the end, it was Communism, not the Russians, that was the enemy.

Do you remember how that line "tear down this wall," how that came to life?

Let me put this way: All the speech writers knew the president very well. I travelled with him in '76. I was with him 24 hours a day for six, seven months while he was running for president and lost. And then I travelled with him again in the ‘80s. The president would edit our speeches, and he taught us his style. He was a great writer. We thought this was how he wanted it — “tear down this wall.” And if he didn't like what we put in his speech, he would cross it out. The substance and the style had to be his and not ours, that is what a speech writer is all about.

Very rarely did he ever have to cross anything out I wrote. During the seven years I spent with him in the White House, I think he probably crossed things out maybe two or three times. A number of my speeches worked. I wrote more speeches for him than anybody else.

Thank you, Dana, for your time. I hope surf's up today in California and that you get to catch some great waves before you come to Zürich.

All right. By the way, that was the Cold War era. Ronald Reagan talked often about peace through strength. Too many people look at the strength part. Strength was the method. Peace was the goal. I'm trying, now, to promote as much peace and cooperation with former enemies as possible. Look at Germany, Japan. They were horrible enemies of ours. My dad fought in World War II. We should be trying to find ways of cooperation, now.

I have faced a lot of criticism because I am advocate of seeking ways where we find mutually beneficial cooperation with Russia rather than unrelenting belligerence or even a return to the Cold War. Let’s use the gifts that God gave us when he created the cannabis plant to alleviate pain and to enjoy ourselves, if that’s what we want to do. 



Dana Rohrabacher, 71, served for three decades as a Representative from California in the US Congress. He will be the keynote speaker at the International Cannabis Business Conference in Zurich, Switzerland. Working as a consultant, and sitting on the Board of Directors for CBD Global Sciences, Rohrabacher will discuss his experience with cannabis and the industry.



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