Nonsmoking pot lobbyist opens minds

It’s every stoner’s dream job. Strolling down the halls of Congress, Dan Riffle spends his days convincing lawmakers to legalize pot. The marijuana lobbyist is slowly but surely changing the way Washington thinks about weed.

The only thing is, Riffle’s not a stoner.

“Everyone thinks you’re a stoner if you support marijuana reform, but that’s just not the case,” Riffle, director of federal policies at the Marijuana Policy Project, told The Hill in a recent interview. “I don’t enjoy smoking pot. I don’t wear tie-dye shirts. And I don’t wear flip-flops.”

Riffle and his colleague each meet with about five or six lawmakers a day to discuss marijuana laws. Together over the last few years, they have discussed the issue with staff members from nearly every senator and member of Congress, as well as the White House.

The discussion about marijuana has become more mainstream over time, but it wasn’t always so easy to get meetings with lawmakers on such a contentious issue, Riffle noted.

“It’s interesting how much more professional my meetings have gotten since I first started,” Riffle said.

“When I used to walk into congressional offices, people would joke, ‘Hey, do you have any free samples?’ ” he recalled.

These days, lawmakers are eager to learn more about how legalized pot could affect their states and districts, and they take him much more seriously.

Riffle’s views on marijuana have changed over time. 

Once a prosecutor from southeastern Ohio, Riffle grew tired of indicting people for possession of pot, so he became a marijuana lobbyist and began pushing to change the law.

It wasn’t an easy decision.

“One of the things I struggled with when I took the job was whether I wanted to have the word ‘marijuana’ on my resume,” Riffle admitted. 

“Five years later, most people I talk to are pretty impressed that I’ve had a leading role in arguably the most successful social policy movement in the last decade,” he added.

This comes as pot politics are heating up on Capitol Hill.

As the stigma about the drug fades, more Republicans are warming up to the idea of legalizing it, Riffle says.

The weed campaign has gained momentum as possible GOP presidential contenders like Jeb Bush, Ted CruzTed CruzBreitbart, liberal activist cooperated on GOP primary disruptions: report Juan Williams: When WikiLeaks leaked my cell number 56 memorable moments from a wild presidential race MORE and Rand PaulRand PaulWhat the 'Bernie Sanders wing of the GOP' can teach Congress GOP senators avoid Trump questions on rigged election How low is the bar for presidential candidates, anyway? MORE have been linked to smoking pot when they were younger.

“I think that’s the trend we’re seeing on the Hill lately,” Riffle said.

“By and large, the vast majority of Democrats support this, but we’re seeing more and more Republicans stepping up and supporting sensible marijuana reform, as well.”

Two longtime advocates in Congress — Reps. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) and Earl BlumenauerEarl BlumenauerOvernight Finance: House GOP grills IRS chief on impeachment | Bipartisan anger over Iran payment | Fed holds rates steady but hints at coming hike Panel votes to extend nuclear power tax credit DEA decision against reclassifying marijuana ignores public opinion MORE (D-Ore.) — introduced legislation last week that would legalize pot.

Their marijuana legislation could be seen as a result of Riffle’s lobbying efforts. He meets with their offices about once a week to talk shop.

Though it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of marijuana, President Obama also waded into the debate last year, when he declared that pot is not “more dangerous” than alcohol.

“I smoked pot as a kid, and I view it as a bad habit and a vice, not very different from the cigarettes that I smoked as a young person up through a big chunk of my adult life,” Obama told The New Yorker magazine. “I don’t think it is more dangerous than alcohol.”

Some would even venture to say it is less harmful to public health than alcohol and tobacco.

This belief is shared by a growing number of health officials and, in turn, lawmakers like Polis and Blumenauer, who say this is reason enough to treat the drug like alcohol and tobacco.

Not only would legalizing marijuana allow the federal government to raise money from pot taxes, but it would also help cut down on crime, Riffle said.

“By punishing people who use marijuana, we’re essentially steering them to drink,” he said.

“It just doesn’t make any sense to me to arrest and prosecute people for using marijuana, but have liquor sold on every street corner and every bar and every restaurant that you go to.”

Marijuana advocates are turning legalization into an issue of race.

When Riffle meets with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, he tells them black people are eight times more likely to be arrested for smoking pot than white people, even though they use it at about the same rate.

“Marijuana should not be a criminal justice issue,” Riffle said.

Marijuana laws vary around the country. Twenty-three states allow medical marijuana, while it can be used recreationally in Colorado, Washington, Oregon and Alaska.

But many of these state laws come in conflict with the federal prohibition on marijuana. The Drug Enforcement Administration still lists pot as a federally banned substance along with drugs like heroin and cocaine. 

This paradox presents problems for marijuana businesses that operate in a gray area between what their states say they can do and what the federal government forbids.

For example, they cannot open bank accounts, because federal law prohibits financial institutions from taking deposits from illegal businesses. This would be considered money laundering.

This is another issue Riffle is challenging lawmakers to address.

“They don’t have any banks to put their money in,” he said. 

“You can’t have businesses dealing with tens of thousands of dollars in cash, because it puts a bull’s eye on their business and on all their employees for robbery,” he added.

Federal laws also prevent medical marijuana patients from buying weapons and taking advantage of public housing units.

“We’ve had sick people with cancer who have been evicted from their homes because their doctor recommends medical marijuana,” Riffle said.

Beyond legalizing marijuana for recreational use, Riffle is also encouraging Congress to expand medical marijuana protections.

When he speaks to lawmakers from districts with hospitals run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Riffle tells them that, while medical marijuana can be an effective treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, many veterans are often denied treatment.

Federal law also restricts research from being conducted to better determine the drug’s effects on public health and safety, Riffle says.

“That makes it a Catch-22,” he said. “The federal government says there is not enough research to legalize pot on one hand — but on the other hand, it is actively blocking that research.”