COSTA MESA, Calif. — Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, one of the GOP’s earliest champions of marijuana legalization, says his party should field a presidential candidate who will support states’ rights to legalize pot.
Mr. Rohrabacher insists he has not touched marijuana since he was 23 and says he isn’t advocating its use.
But he said the federal government should not be in the business of deciding the issue and that the argument should be a central part of a broader Republican push to empower states, with an agenda that also includes scrapping the Department of Education.
“I think we ought to look for a presidential candidate who will make that part of his message,” the 13-term California Republican said. “Just transfer it all to the states. Now this government would have nothing to do with education, and how about, from now on, drug laws are considered criminal matters, which is what our Founding Fathers had in mind, and that is up to the states.”
He said it’s an issue his former boss, President Reagan, would have embraced.
“In about half of Ronald Reagan’s speeches, look real close and you see him saying, ‘Our goal is not to put people in jail’ — and I wonder who worked with him on the speech?” he said, alluding to his role as speechwriter in the Reagan administration.
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“Reagan did not want to put people in jail,” he said. “He did not want to militarize our county in order to stop people from smoking weed.
“He oversaw the greatest reduction in the use of illegal drugs than any other time period, and it had nothing to do with enforcement. It had everything to do with ‘Just Say No,’” he said, alluding to the 1980s ad campaign that was part of the “war on drugs.” “It was cultural messaging. That is what made the difference.”
Mr. Rohrabacher made the comments as the Republican Party and the country as a whole shift stances on legalization.
In a March poll from NBC News/Wall Street Journal, more respondents said tobacco, alcohol and sugar are more harmful to health than marijuana. The Washington Times/Conservative Political Action Conference poll this year found that a plurality at the grass-roots gathering thought marijuana should be legalized.
Mr. Rohrabacher has been at the forefront of that push for years.
In 2005, he joined Reps. Ron Paul, Texas Republican, and Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, and television talk show host Montel Williams, who has multiple sclerosis, at a press conference in Washington to call on the federal government to stop interfering with states that have medical marijuana laws on the books.
He also pushed to bar the Department of Justice from using federal tax dollars to arrest and prosecute physicians and pharmacists in states, including his home state, that had approved medical marijuana.
Mr. Rohrabacher now is sponsoring the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act of 2013, which would end the enforcement of federal marijuana laws in states that have legalized marijuana for either medical or recreational purposes.
The proposal has been bottled up in the House.
Some potential Republican presidential candidates — including Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Texas Gov. Rick Perry — have signaled that they want a shift in federal policy that would leave the issue up to the states. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, meanwhile, has left the door open to supporting medical marijuana, as voters in his state prepare to take up a ballot question in November on whether to legalize it for medical purposes.
Since 1996, when California became the first state to enact legislation allowing medical marijuana, 20 other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Colorado and Washington have approved referendums allowing people 21 and older to possess a limited amount of marijuana for personal use. Several other states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of the drug.