Published on February 10th, 2014 | by Thompson0
Congressional Star Wars: A New Hope
Congress is divided. Like the Rebels and Empire of the sci-fi opera, Star Wars, this division is responsible for our dysfunctional government (or lack thereof). On one side, you have the Emperor (John Boehner) filling the pockets of corporations building his Death Star and attempting to control Vader (Eric Cantor) who is attempting to control members of the Evil Empire (the Tea Party). On the other side, you have Yoda (Harry Reid, only because he kind of looks like him) and Obi-Wan (Barack Obama, because he would become more powerful in death) attempting to train Jedi and raise a resistance. Along the way, you have Luke (young, aspiring politicians) tempted by the Dark Side of the Force, but who is flying this ship? Where’s Han Solo? Could you imagine Star Wars without Han Solo? Of course not. It would be sacrilegious. Why do you think the new episodes sucked? No Han. So the answer to our dysfunctional government is Han Solo – or better yet – a bunch of Han Solos…pilots to lead the charge.
I had the honor of meeting the closest thing to Han during a trip to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress regarding marijuana legalization with Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). His name is Aaron Houston, and he was the only paid marijuana lobbyist in the country at the time, but it was Chewbacca that got me to D.C. in the first place.
I was working at McGregor Winery in Keuka, New York, visiting a college friend and staying at his lake house, when I was abruptly thrown out by his father who felt his son didn’t need any distractions given his recent DWI. Frankly, his father needed someone to blame because he couldn’t come to terms with the fact that he didn’t raise the son he thought he did. So I was stranded and homeless. I had a flight to Minneapolis August 24, but changing the departure date would cost $600. I could have booked a new flight in a week for $250 but couldn’t exactly afford it. Then came a text from Chewbacca. Chewy, otherwise known as Drew Stromberg, director of my region’s SSDP chapters, is one of Houston’s right hand men. I had applied for a scholarship to visit D.C. for SSDP’s Federal Marijuana Lobby Day on June 17. My application was accepted, but I now had no way to get there. Stromberg texted me saying they came across some extra funds and could cover a flight to get me from New York to D.C. and back to Minneapolis. I booked the flight and worked three more weeks at the winery while camping in a tent on Keuka Lake.
When I arrived in D.C. it was too early to check into the hotel, so I did some walking around the capitol. I had just read Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, so being on those streets surrounded by an aura of historic protests and marches was a bit overwhelming. I was excited about what we were doing, but I’m also a realist, so I wasn’t about to let my emotions get the best of me.
That night, after checking into the hotel, we had a training session with Houston, who gave us the basics of lobbying our Congressmen and women. “Kill them with kindness. Tell them a story that appeals to their emotions. And remember, you are the experts on this subject. They need you.” It was a moving and empowering speech, and I think all of us felt like we were ready to make a difference. Many of us stayed up late into the night discussing our approach and what to expect for the future of the marijuana movement. Then the sun peaked through the skyscrapers of downtown D.C. and it was time to go to work.
I had no meetings scheduled because none of the three Montana Congressional offices had gotten back to me regarding my requests for a meeting. I had submitted requests online and called repeatedly with no reply, so I figured I’d just stop in and see if anyone would talk to me. After speaking with all the office secretaries on the phone over breakfast, I showered, and stepped into the suit and tie I was borrowing from Alfred (let’s call him R2-D2). Since I was living out of a backpack the last month, I didn’t have professional attire, which is essential on Capitol Hill. “If you’re not adequately dressed, you will actually feel uncomfortable,” Houston told us the night before.
I set out for the Cannon House Building to visit our rookie Republican Representative, Steve Daines, and when I arrived the office was empty. The only person there was the secretary, so I left information regarding our initiative and was told I would be contacted by a legislative assistant, Patrick Buell. Patrick never called.
I then visited the Congressional cafeteria, where SSDP set up headquarters. Walking through those underground tunnels surrounded by people trying to make a difference, I felt a sense of power I had never experienced before. I picked up some extra materials to hand out and spoke to some of the lobbyists about their meetings. They all seemed upbeat and invigorated by their experience, and I longed to feel as they did. I got some lunch and was appalled that all the cups and plates in the Congressional cafeteria were styrofoam. The President is pushing for green jobs to delay the apocalypse but allows styrofoam to end up in D.C. landfills. Pathetic. But all I could hope for was that the plates and cups be made from hemp in the future.
After lunch I made the walk to the Senate offices in the Hart Building. Longtime Republican Senator Max Baucus was not in, and the secretary wouldn’t let me speak to one of his assistants or even give me a card to contact someone in the future. Needless to say, it’s a good thing Baucus is stepping down.
I finished with Democratic Senator Jon Tester’s office because I figured that would be the place I’d find even a little success. I was right. I stepped in the office and the secretary asked me to take a seat while she found out if there was anyone I could speak to. There was. Mollie Binotto, a legislative correspondent for the Senator, met me in the waiting room in just a few minutes. We sat down and discussed the issues I was hoping the Senator would support: to introduce a companion bill to H.R. 499, The Ending Federal Prohibition of Marijuana Act of 2013, to permanently cut funding for the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Media Campaign, that has not only been proven ineffective, but actually increases drug use in some cases, and to end federal interference in states that have legalized medical marijuana or adult-use marijuana. Mollie was very receptive, took notes, and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say. She said, understandably, not to expect anything to happen until the Farm Bill and immigration reform is handled, but assured me change was on the horizon due to public opinion and the recent bipartisan effort behind the marijuana movement.
That’s right — bipartisan. You see, H.R. 499, the bill that ends federal prohibition of marijuana, does not make marijuana legal federally, and that’s why it will work. It would let states decide their own marijuana policies without the threat of federal interference, and would set up a regulatory process for states that decide to regulate marijuana. Even a Tea Partier can get behind this bill because it’s a states’ rights issue, not a drug issue. Frankly, I don’t know why the Tea Party hasn’t been behind marijuana legalization from the beginning since they want less federal interference in the lives of their constituents. They don’t want the federal government controlling the lives of citizens unless its regarding what we put in our body, what women can do with theirs, and who we can share our bed with. That’s why they’re the Evil Empire, but things are changing. Aaron Houston has brought the two sides together. At our reception after lobbying, Grover Norquist, a right-wing Federalist, was joined by Jared Polis, a left-wing Democrat, to speak to the crowd. In that moment, I knew what we were doing had merit, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before we got what we came for. In fact, just a few weeks later, the House passed a bill to allow universities to cultivate hemp for research purposes. My Congressman, Republican Steve Daines, voted for it.
This movement of ours is picking up steam, but it’s going to take a whole lot more Hans to “make the jump to hyperspace.” This movement is in need of leaders from all over the country. Start an SSDP chapter (ssdp.org). Call your Congressmen and women. Email them. Hell, if you’re visiting D.C. don’t waste all your time seeing the sights. Take the time to do something. It’ll make your trip so much more rewarding. Stop in their offices and speak to someone. Tell them you want federal prohibition to end and to support states’ ability to serve as laboratories of democracy for legalized marijuana. Talk to your neighbors and educate them. Remember, you are the experts, and your country needs you. With enough Hans, there will be a new hope for legal cannabis in this country.