By Russ Belville
(Download this interview at from our archives and listen every weekday at 4pm Eastern to NORML SHOW LIVE at http://live.norml.org for more marijuana reform news and interviews. You can also subscribe to our podcast via iTunes or download on-demand at The Stash Blog at http://stash.norml.org)
From our interview with Colorado’s US Rep. Jared Polis on NORML SHOW LIVE, Feb 7, 2011 – questions and answers have been abbreviated for clarity.
NORML SHOW LIVE: How has your stance on marijuana reform affected your interactions with your colleagues in the House [of Representatives]?
REP. JARED POLIS: You know, I find that a lot of members of Congress privately agree that we need to change our drug policy, they’re just still too timid or scared to come public with it. That’s kind of what I find. I find very few that are ‘hard core’ on the other side.
NSL: Have you been working with Rep. Barney Frank and Rep. Ron Paul and do you have plans to introduce federal legislation?
POLIS: We really have a growing group that support decriminalization at the federal level and changing the schedule of marijuana. It’s not a majority yet, but it’s growing rather than shrinking. One of the things I’m working on the political front is FearlessCampaign.com [Polis mistakenly says "dot-org"]. If you go to FearlessCampaign.com you can sign up. We’re basically creating a grassroots movement towards changing our federal drug laws.
NSL: Coming from an area that has so embraced medical marijuana, what are you telling your fellow legislators on Capitol Hill as far as what they can expect from medical marijuana in their state?
POLIS: Well, they can expect jobs, reduced crime, increased tax revenues, and reduced suffering of patients. When Colorado voters overwhelmingly passed the medical marijuana law, the legislature took their responsibility pretty seriously and passed laws to implement that. So there’s a very… I mean, it’s far from perfect… but compared to where other states are there’s a decent regulatory structure here and there’s specific rules that the marijuana dispensaries have to play by and it’s truly allowed them to grow and flourish in the communities that allow them. We’ve had some communities that exercise their local discretion and have chosen not to allow those kind of businesses as well.
NSL: Recently some of those regulations that have been passed in Colorado include Senate Bill 1284 that came up with a lot of of these new rules for dispensaries. How do you see these regulations playing out in Colorado and do they bode well for other states that are looking to pass medical marijuana?
POLIS: You know, I think some of the fears of people that are opposed to medical marijuana they’re just worried that you could have these stores anywhere and what’s the control on whether they’re doing it right. We’ve had a regulatory structure for liquor stores for a long time and also for pharmacies. I mean, we know how to do this kind of thing, it’s just a matter of doing it right. Having background checks for the people involved, we have the video cameras monitoring the premises, audits to make sure people have the right medical permission, so, it’s not as difficult as it sounds and in many ways it’s easier than some of the other substances that are already regulated.
NSL: We’re curious about your background. How did you come about the marijuana reform issue: was this personally important to you or just what shaped your views on this issue?
POLIS: Well, it’s important to a lot of my constituents. It wasn’t really an issue until Colorado passed the medical marijuana law. That was the will and law of the voters of Colorado so at the federal level I try to back that up. I try to make sure that we don’t have federal agents coming in and arresting law-abiding people in Colorado. We’re trying to open up the banking resources for Colorado dispensaries that have really faced a lot of discrimination and difficulty with normal banking services. We’re really just trying to support local businesses and my constituents.
NSL: You were the first openly gay man elected to the House as a freshman representative. In marijuana law reform we’ve often heard that cannabis consumers need to “come out of the closet” and admit that they are just regular law-abiding folks that use cannabis. Of course that’s a reference to the whole “come out of the closet” in the gay rights movement that has led to so many positive strides in that area. Do you see a comparison between the two movements in that respect?
POLIS: Yeah, I do think they need to. It’s been something that wasn’t talked about, something that was secretive, even though, oddly enough people would frequently brag about or talk about being on much harder-core substances, they say, “oh, my doctor gave me morphine or something to kill the pain,” or “I had to take a Percocet after my dental surgery,” but yet they don’t talk about using medical marijuana. Like any other issue, the visibility helps, because it helps people realize “Oh, it’s my friend, it’s my neighbor, it’s my cousin,” rather than just something abstract, and once they have that human face to go with it I think it really helps shift their attitudes.
NSL: One of the things we’ve been disappointed with in the Obama Administration is that they said they would base their decisions on science and bring science back to the fore, and we’re finding, though, in the area of marijuana research and medical marijuana that doesn’t seem to be the case. If you had the chance to speak with Mr. Obama and educate him on the issue, what would you tell him?
POLIS: I think first of all the scientific jury is very much still out. There need to be a lot of double-blind studies to look at the different impact of different substances. There’s still a lot of science that needs to be done and it is being done. Part of the problem is the laws have gotten in the way of the science. It’s very difficult to conduct research with marijuana and still is, by the way, compared to many other substances. So we need good science, but we need the laws to allow the good science to occur. That’s the type of policies and we try to give some backbone to our members of Congress which is why we launched the FearlessCampaign.com to try to move the country forward. We’re at this point where close to half the country supports medical marijuana and it’s close to that for marijuana legalization, it’s probably on the order of 40%. And yet, far from 40% of Congress supports it, I mean you only get a handful of members, myself included, who are willing to say that, but it’s nowhere close to where society itself has evolved on this issue.
NSL: On Mr. Obama’s answer to the LEAP question on YouTube on ending the War on Drugs, and Mr. Obama responded with talk about more treatment and more education and shifting that, but of course our federal budget doesn’t recognize that at this point – it’s still two-to-one in favor of incarceration and interdiction. What kind of political obstacles are in our way from moving toward a budget shifted more toward treatment?
POLIS: I think the budgetary pressures – and there’s going to be cuts across the board in every area – do provide a good entry for discussion of decriminalization because not only do you have the savings from the reduced incarceration and the ability of law enforcement to focus on criminals rather than users of medical marijuana, you also have increased revenues from the taxation of the legal and regulated sale of marijuana. It’s something that as we’re looking at this budget situation, it can actually reduce costs and increase income. I think that will be more desirable for most people in our country than having tax increases or having cuts in programs that they care about.
NSL: It’s like the call we’ve seen from a lot of our organizations to the new GOP majority that if you’re looking to cut wasteful inefficient government spending, look no further than the DEA. Is that something you’re on board with?
POLIS: You don’t have too many people running around saying “Please tax me!” but I think that’s something the marijuana industry is saying “Please tax us rather than sending all the cops to burst down our doors!” I think the least we can do is tax it.
NSL: What’s your take on and what are you doing for industrial hemp?
POLIS: I think industrial hemp has a lot of economic opportunities for farmers in our area and nationally it’s a very durable crop and a very strong market to be in yet we still have laws that prevent it from being cultivated in any areas. I’m actually very much involved with trying to get that legalized as well – I’m a co-sponsor of that bill – we’ll continue to push for hearings on it as well. I think it’s a much easier case than anything else that we’re talking about. It doesn’t make any sense to prevent the industrial cultivation of hemp.
NSL: Congress has allowed DC to proceed on its medical marijuana program. What’s it going to be like in DC with yourself and your colleagues walking around town and perhaps happening upon a medical marijuana dispensary or two? Can you imagine that looking forward?
POLIS: The visibility is good. Just as we were saying, it really is. The fact that people will be your staff people, your friends, they will see the world doesn’t end. Hopefully crime in DC will go down because of it, tax revenue will go up. Still, the majority of members come from areas that don’t have medical marijuana, so they don’t have any exposure to it like the people from California, Colorado, Nevada do. At least they’ll get exposure to it in DC and I think that will be a positive thing.
NSL: What are your plans for the future? Running for re-election to the House, maybe moving to the Senate, or just a couple of terms and then return to private life?
POLIS: Well, one thing at a time, I just got elected to a two-year term… it’s a fun job, it’s an exciting job, and I’m honored to be able to serve the country. We have a ways to go on this issue, marijuana legalization, and we have a ways to go on a lot of other issues. If everything that I wanted that I supported happened tomorrow then I wouldn’t have any need to be in Congress anymore, but I don’t see that happening. We’ve got to work hard to make it happen and we’ll get there eventually.