Meet the Man with "Every Stoner's Dream Job" — Selling Weed to Congress
Dan Riffle, the director of federal policies for the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project, admits that weed is not his "drug of choice."
"I prefer bourbon," he told Mic.
Nonetheless, Riffle has labored for years on behalf of legalization in the halls of Congress as the MPP's top lobbyist on Capitol Hill. And he's staked his claim as one of Washington, D.C.'s most interesting and increasingly influential characters in the drug policy debate.
Riffle, a 33-year-old former prosecutor, has become a minor celebrity in the nation's capital. The Hill said in February that he had "every stoner's dream job," and he has frequently appeared on cable TV programs to offer the pot lobby's view on marijuana issues. His very public role is the latest sign that the tide might finally be turning for proponents of a massive overhaul of federal marijuana policy in America.
When he arrived on the job in 2009, Riffle says, he could barely get his calls returned, let alone schedule a meeting with a lawmaker. As he tells it, a lot has changed in six years. With voters in four states and Washington, D.C., having passed measures to end marijuana prohibition, and dozens more considering loosening their laws, the long debate over legalization has been reframed from a question of "if" to a matter of "when."
Riffle spoke with Mic about what he describes as the moral and fiscal imperatives created by decades of failed marijuana policy, and why he's uniquely qualified to make the case for legalization on Capitol Hill.
Mic: Walk us through a day as one of the leading pro-legalization lobbyists on Capitol Hill. How many meetings are you likely to have and how are you preparing to make your pitch?
Dan Riffle: I'm on the Hill maybe three or four days of the week, with four or five meetings on the calendar each day. Usually I'll bring a couple of articles on current events that are going on around marijuana. So I might bring an article on CDC stats showing teen marijuana use has dropped in Colorado since legalization and another one on a study showing marijuana is much less harmful than alcohol.
I write a lot of one-pagers and policy pages and I bring some of those, some information on the CARERS (Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States) Act, the Senate medical marijuana bill that was recently introduced. I bring those in with me and sit with legislators or staffers usually for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, tell them about bills that have been introduced, ask them what sort of questions they're getting in the office, what constituent feedback has been like on the issue, whether they're interested in sponsoring any of those bills. Just generally, I'll talk them through the issue based on what's happening today.
Mic: You're obviously dealing with a pretty wide range of views on the issue. How do you adjust your pitch, whether it's to a Democratic senator from a big liberal state, or to a small town congressman from a heavily-Republican district in a deep red state?
DR: Lobbying is all about knowing your audience. So if I'm talking to the Congressional Black Caucus, I'm going to be sure to bring up the work the ACLU has done highlighting the tremendous racial disparities in arrest rates. African-Americans, depending on the jurisdiction or the state, are about three to eight times more likely to be arrested for marijuana even though they use it at the same rates as whites. Some Democrats might be interested in hearing about tax revenue, and how that tax revenue could be spent for infrastructure, healthcare, education and other important purposes.
If I'm meeting with a conservative Republican, I'll talk about states' rights, federalism and the 10th Amendment. I'll talk about all the $9 to $10 billion we spend every year arresting and prosecuting 800,000 people a year for marijuana, and how we should save those resources and redirect them toward real public safety threats — real crimes with real victims.
The other thing, too, is that there are just a lot of people who are never going to come around on the issue. Part of the trick is recognizing when you're in one of those offices, saving your time and getting out of there.
A lot of marijuana reform over the next few years is basically going to be waiting for old people to die, to put it impolitely. It's a generational divide issue. People who have spent 30, 40, 50 years, entire careers, fighting a war on drugs are not just going to wake up one day and admit they were wrong. Until they retire, or they exit the voting pool, they're going be anti-marijuana and anti-legalization.
So, like I said, part of it is just sort of recognizing who those offices and who those members are, and not wasting your time with them.
Mic: How have things changed since you first started? Are you getting a lot more meetings? How do you introduce yourself to people who might not know exactly what business you're in?
DR: It's worth noting there are very few offices that won't take my calls or won't meet with me anymore. That wasn't necessarily the case five or 10 years ago, but these days everyone understands that this is a mainstream, legitimate topic of conversation on Capitol Hill.
The other thing is, the people leading the marijuana legalization argument on the Hill back then were pro-marijuana advocates, people like NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) who weren't really taken seriously. These days, the folks talking to members of Congress about the need to reform marijuana laws aren't necessarily pro-marijuana and legalization is not necessarily a pro-marijuana issue. It's more about recognizing that arresting and prosecuting people has failed and so we need to start looking at other approaches, like regulating, taxing and controlling it.
So when we talk about what people's hang-ups are, I think it's an initial misconception that I'm there to be a pro-marijuana advocate, that I want marijuana to be more available in society — that's not the case. I was a prosecuting attorney, I have a law enforcement background. There are issues we need to address, but we can address them through regulation and I think instructing Senate offices on that opens their minds to the issue.
Mic: We're seeing a whole bunch of states legalizing pot via these voter initiatives. Do you think that as more of those initiatives get passed that legislators are going to try to get more proactive in saying, "If this is gonna happen, we should just write the law ourselves"?
DR: Maybe if poll numbers move another 10 or 15 points. But as long as legalization is within earshot of a 50-50 issue, politicians aren't going to want to touch it. It's going to be initiatives for the first 10, 15 states and then maybe six, seven years from now — when we have 10 or 15 states and legalization is a 60-40 issue — that you might start seeing a lot of state legislatures enact this.
Mic: So if these polls are 50-50 now, trending in legalization's favor, why do we have incidents like at the end of 2014, when Republican members of Congress threw a shady rider into a massive federal spending bills, trying to keep Washington, D.C., from funding their voter-approved legalization and regulation law?
DR: A couple of reasons: First of all, most of the people in Congress are ancient old white men, so they have views on the issue that correspond to those of old white folks.
If you look at the end of the line polling demographics, you understand that young people are more likely to support legalization, minorities are more likely to support legalization, but there are no young people and very few minorities in Congress. It's mostly old white men. And so they have views on the issue that are behind the times.
The other issue is gerrymandering. The people who are the anti-marijuana zealots in Congress generally come from districts that are very, very dark red. These are folks that come from districts that are and will for decades be anti-marijuana and anti-legalization. When you think about alcohol, there are still dry counties all over the South, so there are still areas that see alcohol through the same lens that they see cocaine or methamphetamine, or marijuana. There are gonna be folks like that in Congress for 20, 30, 40 years.
Mic: Naming names, now. You have Democratic Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.) and Republican Rand Paul (Ky.) cosponsoring a bill that would legalize medicinal marijuana. In the House, there are Reps. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and Jared Polis (D-Colo.), both working on legislation. Are there any other people we should be keeping an eye on, or anyone you have seen come around on the issue a bit during your time on the Hill?
DR: I don't know that there are necessarily people who were anti-legalization before and now they've looked at the evidence and they're pro-legalization. Now, members of Congress don't generally like to admit they are wrong or change their minds on issues.
I have seen a lot of members who will say behind closed doors that they support legalization, or will vote all the right ways on the bills, but won't necessarily co-sponsor the bills or make the issue part of their stump speech. But they are increasingly recognizing how popular this is and that their constituents support it, so they're getting more active on the issue.
I think [Rep.] Jared Huffman is a great example. He's from Northern California. [Rep.] Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) is a great example of somebody who's been in Congress for a couple of decades but over the last five years has really been a champion among people on the right, among the GOP, talking about how this is a states' rights issue and a limited government issue.
Over in the Senate, a lot of credit to Rand Paul, who is running for president, and at the same time understands where the public is on this issue and is willing to be a leader on it at the same time he has got to win a Republican primary. You see guys like [Florida Sen.] Marco Rubio and [Texas Sen.] Ted Cruz, they answer the question the right way, if they're forced to, but they don't actually lift a finger to do anything about it. In Ted Cruz's case, he said that states should be able to decide this issue, but at the same time he's criticized President Obama for not enforcing federal marijuana laws. He's trying to have it both ways. So kudos to Rand Paul for his consistency on the issue.
Mic: You mentioned that you had spent time as a prosecutor. How did the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) approach you and what was your reasoning for making a pretty significant switch?
DR: The MPP didn't really recruit me or attract me; I was more attracted to them. Like I said, I was a prosecuting attorney in southeast Ohio, a part of Ohio that looks a lot more like West Virginia if you saw it on a postcard. It's rural, Appalachia area. Folks did a lot of marijuana trafficking, marijuana growing, we also had a college next door so we had a lot of kids driving back and forth through the country with marijuana. So we had a lot of marijuana cases in our courts and they were really just clogging it up. I was spending an hour, two hours, three hours a day on these cases.
Meanwhile, down in Common Pleas Court I had files on rape, assaults, aggravated assault, burglary, robbery, real threats to public safety. There were real crimes with real victims and that's really what I wanted to spend my time on, and not be tied up with marijuana cases.
I also came to realize that the marijuana cases that I was trying did not involve public safety. These were not violent people. And to the extent that there were problems associated with the marijuana trade, it's because it's an underground market, because it's illegal. If you tax and regulate, bring it above ground, you're taking what are right now illegal jobs and making them legal jobs. And you're collecting tax revenue off of them. You're taking a product that's currently in a classic clear plastic bag and, instead, you would be putting a label on it, you would be testing it, making sure that there aren't fertilizers or pesticides being used in cultivation. You would be improving public health, collecting money and saving law enforcement resources. So it just made more sense to me.
Mic: But really. You don't smoke pot?
DR: Well, my answer to the question is that I prefer bourbon. That's my drug of choice. I mean, I have smoked marijuana in the past — I went to college. Like the vast majority of Americans, I have used marijuana in the past. But it's not my drug of choice. It's not something that I enjoy doing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.