DRCNet Interview: Marijuana Policy Project Director Rob Kampia 2/11/05

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Rob Kampia and Chuck Thomas split with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in 1994 and formed the Marijuana Policy Project in early 1995. Since then, MPP has grown from a pair of relocated Pennsylvania activists operating out of a home office to a drug reform powerhouse operating out of offices on Capitol Hill offices in Washington, DC. With its fingers in many political pies over the years and some significant victories under its belt, MPP is definitely a player in marijuana and related drug reform issues across the country.

Chuck Thomas has since left MPP to found Unitarians Universalists for Drug Policy Reform and the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative -- he now goes by "Charles" -- but Rob Kampia has stayed on as the group's executive director. DRCNet spoke Tuesday with Kampia to look back at where the group and the movement has been and look forward at what comes next.

Drug War Chronicle: Let's begin by looking back. MPP just celebrated its ten-year anniversary a couple of weeks ago. How have things changed in the past decade?

Rob Kampia: That's right, our ten-year anniversary was January 25th, and we'll celebrate it with two galas in Los Angeles and Washington, DC, in May. Looking back, it's been a very good decade for marijuana policy reform, and MPP can take some of the credit for that. Things really started changing soon after we started MPP, with changes in the federal sentencing guidelines that released hundreds of federal marijuana prisoners early. Families Against Mandatory Minimums was the primary engine behind that, but MPP helped out. Then, for the first time in a decade, Congress started looking at medical marijuana legislation again in 1995, and support for that has been increasing steadily on the Hill for the last 10 years, and we can take a lot of credit for that. We have the only full-time marijuana lobbyist in Congress; Steve Fox is working everyday on this.

In the states, back in 1995, medical marijuana was not legal anywhere; now it's legal in 10 states, and we can take credit for getting it through in Montana and Vermont. We also assisted in Hawaii, and we were instrumental in passing the Maryland law. We don't include Maryland in the 10 states because it isn't legal there, but we did get a medical marijuana defense bill passed. With marijuana regulation, our Nevada initiative made the cover of Time magazine in 2002, but it failed with 39% of the vote. Last year, we were back in Nevada, and also invested in the Oregon and Alaska campaigns. Nevada will be our flagship project; it will be the mother of all initiative campaigns. Now that we're qualified again, we have 18 months to build a majority. We're currently leading with 49% to 47%, with 4% undecided, and our numbers will go upward.

But probably the biggest development in the last decade has been the degree to which state legislatures have begun debating medical marijuana legislation. When we were first working with Pam Lichty and others in Hawaii in 1999 and 2000, people said a state legislature would never pass the same kind of laws as we could get with the initiatives. But we, Pam and MPP and others, succeeded in enacting that law, and that opened up the floodgates. We got Vermont last year, and there are five states -- Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Minnesota, and Illinois -- where we think we have a reasonably high chance of success this year. I would not be surprised if we got at least two of them this year.

I am also encouraged by the trajectory of public opinion regarding regulating marijuana. In national public opinion polls in 1995, we had 27% for legalization; by 2002, that figure had climbed to 34%. It seems like it goes up a point or so a year. We are about to do a new national poll next month, and we hope to see a figure in the 38% range.

Chronicle: Still looking back, 2004 seems to have been something of a mixed bag. There were a number of victories -- medical marijuana in Montana and the votes in the Massachusetts districts -- but there were also significant defeats, such as the loss on the regulation vote in Alaska, the voting down of OMMA2 in Oregon, and the failures to get on the ballot in with medical marijuana in Arkansas and marijuana regulation in Nevada. It's easy for critics to say that you should have done this or that, but let me ask you instead if, looking back, there is anything you would have done differently?

Kampia: Yes. But I want to say first that with the local initiatives, those were an unequivocally resounding victory. Of 18 local initiatives on the ballot -- 17 on the November 2nd ballot and the Detroit initiative in August -- we saw 17 pass. Local activists in those places deserve heaps of credit, and the MPP grants program helped fund almost all of them. Everyone should be very excited about the possibilities for local initiatives passed on the track record so far. As for the state initiatives, Montana in November scored the all-time record vote for medical marijuana, 62%. I think we have perfected how to run a medical marijuana campaign. Of all the states we have been in, Montana should have gotten the lowest vote, based on the nature of the electorate and the polling we did, yet it came in with the highest ever because the campaign was focused and well-run.

In Nevada, where we got knocked off the ballot, I don't think there is anything we could have done differently. It is impossible to prevent the error that occurred -- an employee losing a box of signatures for five days -- unless I was literally there looking over his shoulder the whole time. We did, however, learn a lesson, and that is that we should run our own signature drives from now on. Most recently, in September and October we ran the signature drive ourselves; we took Larry Sandel out of DC and moved him to Vegas, we hired our own people and micromanaged the campaign, and we got signatures at the rate of 3,000 a day and came in under budget.

In Arkansas, we could have done things differently. We could have prevented a problem there by doing a site visit and checking out the system we had in place. We had an outside firm collecting signatures, and the process was a shambles. If we ever use outside firms again, we will be doing site visits.

In Oregon and Alaska, where the initiatives were defeated, people can complain, but we didn't draft those initiatives, we didn't do the signature drives, we came in at the end. We had a commitment to both states. In Oregon, we said if they got on the ballot, we would run TV ads. We thought it was morally incumbent on us to do so. In Alaska, we had no deal cut at the beginning, but when we saw it was under-funded, we could either watch them fail or try to help them succeed. I have no regrets about trying to help the activists in those two states.

Chronicle: Can you tell us about MPP's strategic plan for 2005? What's in store for this year?

Kampia: Our plan is really a two-year plan. Obviously, on medical marijuana, we are pushing hard in those five states and we're also coordinating with activists in other states to see how far they can get running their own shows and trying to support them through our grants program. We'll see medical marijuana bills introduced in about 20 states this year. We're working with groups like Texans for Medical Marijuana down in Austin to see how far they can push this year, and similar people in a bunch of other states. If some of those efforts begin to look promising, we would invest more heavily in future legislative sessions. As I said, we're already pushing hard in five states and working with activists in others, and in those states, the ones that look like the best prospects will become target states in a year or two.

As for local medical marijuana initiatives, our grant program is interested in supporting them to engender statewide debates. If there are cities that have an initiative process, activists there should apply. Those local initiatives should generate media coverage, and they should pass, if history is any indicator. We are also willing to support local initiatives on regulation or decriminalization or making marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority, given the successes last year in places like Oakland and Columbia, Missouri.

We are also trying to get marijuana regulation bills introduced in a few states this year. Maybe there will be states debating this year whether to regulate it like alcohol. None will pass it this year, but just getting the theme introduced and heard in committee would be a record. No state legislature has ever considered regulating marijuana. But this year, the Nevada initiative will be our flagship effort on marijuana regulation.

At the federal level, Congress will be looking at Hinchey-Rohrabacher (a bill which would bar the DEA from raiding seriously ill patients) for the third time this summer. And we're already lobbying to get a record number of sponsors on Barney Frank's states' rights medical marijuana bill.

Also part of our strategic plan is our continuing "war on the drug czar" campaign. We are filing campaign finance law complaints in Alaska, Oregon, and Montana because Walters campaigned in those states and didn't file any campaign statements. We will try our best to get him in trouble for that. We are also suing the drug czar on constitutional grounds; we're trying to push a couple of new legal theories on why it should be unconstitutional to spend taxpayer money to convince taxpayers to believe certain things or vote a certain way. I'm not sure if we'll go after his so-called educational ads, but we think we have a strong argument for getting a court to rein him in.

Chronicle: Let's talk about the federal level. What can be accomplished, given this overwhelmingly conservative Congress we face? Or are we butting our heads against a brick wall on Capitol Hill?

Kampia: I think we can make progress. If you look at the 150 members of Congress who have solidly supported medical marijuana, all of them won reelection. There are also some members who have voted for us once and against us once, and there are some good freshmen, too. When the vote on Hinchey-Rohrabacher comes down this summer, we will hit a new record in the number of representatives who will vote to prohibit the DEA from harassing medical marijuana patients. Will it pass? Probably not, but marijuana is not an issue that people are being attacked on. It was not raised once in any race; there is not one instance of a vote for medical marijuana being used against someone.

There are also two new factors that could make an impact. One is Montel Williams. We have never had a high-profile, highly-respected, outspoken celebrity patient before. He has agreed to lobby with MPP and he will make an impression between now and the vote. Also, the Raich case decision is likely to come down a month or two before the House votes. If the court rules our way, then the federal war on medical marijuana is essentially over and the whole world has changed. If the court rules against us, as many think will be the case, then Congress has to provide a solution to the problem. The news stories should be that the court has ruled against medical marijuana and the ball is now in Congress' court. That will increase the pressure on Congress. It's a public relations challenge to make sure those stories come out right and Congress gets the point, but if we do our job properly, it could provide a boost to the legislation in Congress.

Chronicle: MPP has, of course, supported both regulation efforts and medical marijuana. But even if medical marijuana were available across the land, we would still have millions of marijuana consumers criminalized. Why, aside from human kindness, should recreational pot smokers get behind the medical marijuana push? How is that going to lead to some respite for recreational users?

Kampia: Why should recreational smokers get behind medical marijuana? For the same reasons non-pot smokers get behind medical marijuana. Some 75% of the population doesn't believe patients should be put in jail, and I would hope that recreational users would actually work on this issue. But I don't really view the medical marijuana issue through the lens of the recreational smoker, I look at it through the lens of how many people can we keep out of prison in the short run and let's not hurt our chances in the long run. Medical marijuana is a worthwhile issue on its face, the lobbying is relatively inexpensive, there is no downside.

It is also possible that through educating legislators on medical marijuana, you get people who are finally convinced they shouldn't put a seriously ill person in prison and who will suddenly realize they shouldn't discriminate against healthy people who use marijuana. Our foes have claimed that medical marijuana will lead to all-around legalization, but that hasn't happened. I'm not sure what the nexus is, but we are working on medical marijuana because it's the right thing to do and because we can win. When you're trying to build a social movement, you need to have occasional victories.

Chronicle: How are your relations with activists on the ground in the various states?

Kampia: I think the story is that we generally work well with local activists. We hear complaints sometimes, but it might be interesting to actually talk to the activists that we do work with. In Minnesota, we've been working with Billie Young and her team; in Rhode Island, we're working closely with the SSDP crowd in pushing medical marijuana; in Illinois, we're working with Matt Atwood and his group Ideal Reform not only on passing a medical marijuana bill, but also on thwarting Andrea Barthwell.

Recently, the only black eye has been in Arkansas. In Arkansas, the reason we pulled out was because of local activists, or, actually, one local activist. It only took one bad egg to ruin the statewide campaign. We were two-thirds of the way through the signature gathering process, and we could have finished if we so chose. It could have gotten on the ballot; in fact, local activists very nearly did it on their own. One Arkansas activist was impossible to work with, and she gets the blame for the failure of the initiative. She actually wanted us there, and we worked with her on campaign strategy and what the initiative should say. We wouldn't have gone in if they had said don't come. After we pulled out, she was so indiscreet as to even say nasty things about MPP and the consulting firm to local newspapers. All the fight was coming from her. In an initiative campaign like that, it only takes one to tango. By late summer, we had to give up on one state campaign because, like other drug reform groups in that presidential election year, our fundraising wasn't going so well. We had a choice of giving up Arkansas, where we were experiencing those problems with our local partner, or Montana, where things were going smoothly, or Alaska, where they wanted us there. We chose to pull out of Arkansas.

Chronicle: You're sitting on a pot of money thanks to Peter Lewis. What do you do with it besides running campaigns? What sorts of activities is MPP interested in funding? And how much money each year?

Kampia: Peter Lewis gives his money on two tracks. In the past it came in four ways: through the Drug Policy Alliance, the ACLU's Drug Policy Litigation Project, MPP's core work, and the MPP grants program, but Peter hasn't made any final decision about any of this for this year. In the past, Lewis paid for about 60% of the MPP budget, and our 17,000 members paid for the rest. This year we expect Lewis's share to be closer to 50%. For the grants program, he started with a million dollars a year. I was able to get him to increase it to $2 million last year, but what it will be this year, I don't know yet. I think it is just as important to fund the grants program as it is to fund MPP, because we can't do it all. We're lobbying in five states, we're working the Nevada initiative, we're pushing in Vermont, and we're helping to defend legal marijuana in one's home in Alaska, so we're involved in eight states. From a management perspective, there is no way we could run campaigns for initiatives or bills in 15 or 20 states. That requires the ingenuity, energy, and autonomy of activists on the ground; we just act as a conduit from Peter to the best activists. The Lewis money does not go 90% to MPP; it's actually more like 50-50 between the MPP core budget and the grants program.

Chronicle: Does DRCNet get any money from the MPP grants program?

Kampia: We gave money to DRCNet that was earmarked for the HEA anti-drug provision repeal campaign. It was 501(c)(4) money (not tax-deductible), and that is hard to find. The HEA grant helps demonstrate that while grantees have to show that their work is going to somehow help end marijuana prohibition, there is not just one path to that end. We believe that changing the law so that hundreds of thousands of students aren't getting shafted will keep marijuana users in school and keep them productive citizens, and that will help build the movement in the long term.

Chronicle: In the Washington Post's farewell piece on NORML's Keith Stroup, you were quoted as saying some pretty harsh things. Would you care to throw sand on the flames, fuel on the flames, or just stand by the article?

Kampia: Hah. Thanks for asking. The total number of quotes I had in that piece was two sentences -- that's what they took out of a 45 minute interview with me for the story. In the context of a much larger conversation, I was asked to explain my view of what NORML did right and what it did wrong. The reporter asked me if NORML is doing anything useful, and I explained that they are playing a role. I explained about the 1970s, about what Keith had done right, and I talked about what NORML does now, which is providing information on drug testing and helping people in trouble find the right lawyers and giving them advice and information on how the marijuana laws work. Those are two things no one else is doing. I didn't say those were the only things they were doing. In fact, the only part of the article that explained what they were doing now came from me.

For me, when I'm being interviewed, the number one rule is not to lie. I gave a pretty balanced view of NORML, but it would have been ridiculous to say that everything was peachy keen. I was slightly misquoted -- I said some people view NORML as a small and shrinking dinosaur, but the Post had me saying I thought that -- but I won't complain about that because the point was still on the mark. In that sense, it was an accurate quote, but it was one quote from a 45-minute interview.

There is a lesson to be learned, though. Some folks at NORML, including Keith, have actually bad-mouthed MPP repeatedly and gratuitously, specifically regarding the 2002 initiatives. The lesson is if you are indiscreet and say bad things about us in the newspapers, maybe we'll say something back sometime.

Chronicle: Does this mean we won't see you at the annual NORML conference in San Francisco in April?

Kampia: No, I'll be there. I go every year.

-- END --
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Issue #374 -- 2/11/05

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Editorial: A Cautious First Step | First North American Heroin Maintenance Study Now Underway in Vancouver | DRCNet Interview: Marijuana Policy Project Director Rob Kampia | DRCNet Book Review: "It's Just a Plant," by Ricardo Cortes (2005, Magic Propaganda Mill, $17.95 HB) | Drug War Chronicle's Phil Smith Featured in New Book -- "Under The Influence" Available as DRCNet Premium | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | Newsbrief: Memphis Taxpayers to Pay Big Time for Police Drug Raid Killing | Newsbrief: Bush Budget Slashes Funds for Local Police, Increases DEA Funding | Newsbrief: What Meth Epidemic? National Survey Shows Amphetamine Use Unchanged from Year Earlier | Newsbrief: Death Squad Killings Spike Upward in Davao | Newsbrief: Indian Government Blinks in Face of Threatened Drug Shortage | Newsbrief: Marijuana Reform Under Attack in Western Australia | Newsbrief: Bob Marley Birthday Bash in Addis Ababa Comes Off Without a Hitch | Newsbrief: London Police Chief Ramps Up Rhetorical War on Middle-Class Cocaine Use | Web Scan: Debra Saunders, Drug War Carol, DPA Web Chat, Drug Truth Radio | This Week in History | Errata: Meth Bill Sponsor | The Reformer's Calendar

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