The marijuana lobbyist

So this is how he is: The chief lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project has short, clean-cut blond hair, and wears crisp, dark suits and conservative red-and-blue patterned ties. There is not a hint of dope pusher about him. He’s 28, married with three children, and possesses a boyish face, easy laugh and driven demeanor. He doesn’t even have a tattoo.

And his office? Downtown Geekville. His desk is neat and tidy. Volumes of Riddick’s Senate Procedure and Deschler-Brown Precedents of the U.S. House of Representatives are displayed prominently on it. Like other buttoned-up lobbyists, he dines at locales such as Bistro Bis, The Monocle and Sonoma.

His only nod to liberal living is that he lives in Takoma Park, Md., a hippyish community where people stick anti-war and “Impeach Bush” cardboard signs in their front lawns.

Last week, Showtime aired “In Pot We Trust,” a documentary that shines light on Washington’s marijuana lobby by spending days with Houston and four chronically ill patients who rely on marijuana but are tripped up by federal narcotics laws. The youthful lobbyist walks the halls of the Rayburn House Office Building and has a chance encounter with the chief opponent of the marijuana lobby, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who closes a door on him. Souder insists there is no such thing as medical marijuana.

Houston also has hugfest encounters with lawmakers who support the cause, such as Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Sam Farr (D-Calif.).

Houston lobbies for the Medical Marijuana Amendment, which would stop the federal government from interfering with state medical marijuana laws. The bill would end Drug Enforcement Administration raids on medical marijuana patients; it does not prevent arrests of those using marijuana for non-medical purposes. So far 12 states have legalized the use of medical marijuana with 163 lawmakers backing the amendment last year. Another vote is expected next week. There is much work to do and many lawmakers to sway.

Houston is on a personal crusade. His father has prostate cancer. His grandfather has had it, too. His aunt had breast cancer and died of lung cancer. He once lived with his grandmother who has Alzheimer’s disease. Houston says medicinal marijuana helps block the plaque that leads to Alzheimer’s.

The film does not address Houston’s recreational use of marijuana, so I will. He first smoked pot at 16. “I don’t think there is a single college student in this country who didn’t use it,” he says.

He was growing up in Denver and spent his summers working in a landscaping job. The crew smoked pot and “did very, very little work.” He won’t say whether he still uses pot. “I don’t really like to answer that question,” he says. Hmm, wonder why?

He adds, “When the president comes clean about his record, I’ll come clean about mine,” although he also says President Bush, with his Nixonian low approval ratings, is not an ideal role model.

These days, at least in public, Houston’s drug of choice appears to be coffee. He sips constantly, and seems to have caffeine twitches.

He describes his motivation: “I was attracted to this job because I wanted to use my skills not to work for personalities but to work for issues to help people directly. I think it’s reprehensible that we’re arresting and raiding sick people. It’s a moral outrage.

 “I am very impressed with how many members take this issue deadly seriously.”

But he is also used to people laughing and cracking jokes about marijuana use, and suggesting it is “so people can get high.’”

Still, he meets and talks to lawmakers and gets invited to many of the big-ticket events, such as last month’s President’s Dinner at the D.C. Convention Center, a Republican reception. Many GOP lawmakers were there; Houston reports that they often tell him, “I think the libertarian side of me agrees with you.” Even Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), a conservative, voted with the marijuana lobby last year, Houston notes.

 “The chief challenge is helping politicians realize that this is not at all politically risky. I talk to a lot of members. The members don’t always realize that.”

To that end, the Marijuana Policy Project has brought on former GOP Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) to help lobby the tougher members of Congress.

Houston says working with Barr is wonderful: “I have a great deal of respect and admiration for Bob Barr. Some people hate him. People who are contemptuous of him are happy he’s lobbying with us. Even if they don’t like what he did in Congress, they still realize the potency of somebody like him coming to them and saying, ‘You should take another look at these issues.’”

Houston and his wife watched the Showtime film with their children: a 7-month-old son, a 2-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. “They wanted to see Daddy in the film,” Houston says.

The marijuana lobbyist told his 5-year-old that pot is a “medicine like any other drug.” What will he say in years to come if his children want to use it recreationally?

“We don’t use drugs unless we need them,” he says, mimicking what he’d say. “Marijuana is not good for developing minds.”  


“In Pot we Trust” airs again on Showtime tonight at midnight and Thursday at 6:45 p.m. It airs on “On Demand” until Aug. 6.