Serving as K St.’s ‘Pothead’ Lobbyist

Posted March 19, 2004 at 2:05pm

For a lobbyist, the first meeting with a Member of Congress is always memorable — even more so for Steve Fox.

As Fox walked into his first meeting in a Congressional office, a staffer greeted him and escorted him to see the lawmaker.

“The potheads are here,” the staffer said.

Not the typical greeting for a well-dressed lobbyist in Washington.

But it is what Fox often faces as director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest U.S. organization devoted to reforming laws related to marijuana use. He is the only full-time lobbyist in Washington working to loosen federal restrictions on marijuana use.

Fox, a former aide at the Commerce Department, joined the lobbying group in 2002 because he wanted to convince lawmakers that U.S. marijuana policy is unrealistic and even dangerous.

“The fact is, the laws we have now are extremely harmful,” Fox said. “It is seriously harmful to our kids the kind of messages that are going out now.”

At the Marijuana Policy Project, Fox oversees a staff of nearly two dozen and a $2 million yearly budget funded by donations from 14,000 dues-paying members.

Fox believes it is a mistake for children to be taught that marijuana is on par with harder drugs such as heroin and cocaine. He believes that as a result of that indoctrination, teenagers who experiment with marijuana think it is OK to use other drugs.

The lobbyist rejects the notion that marijuana is a “gateway” to harder drugs. The majority of marijuana users, he maintains, do not try other substances.

Rather, Fox insists that marijuana users are exposed to other substances only because the nation’s anti-marijuana policies force them to purchase marijuana from drug dealers.

“We need to understand that the government is causing the gateway effect,” Fox said.

Convincing the government of that, of course, is a bit of a challenge.

Many lawmakers do not view the issue as something worth discussing, partly because marijuana groups do not have the money to make their voices heard, said Nick Thimmesch, a media consultant for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. 

“They don’t have the kind of money that a lot of corporate interests have,” Thimmesch said.

He added that lawmakers “just figure this is a grassroots movement at best.”

But Fox feels that strides are being made ever so gradually. The Marijuana Policy Project recently started a political action committee to support Congressional candidates who support access to medical marijuana for doctor-approved patients. 

Bruce Mirken, the spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the PAC has raised $25,000 and recently handed out about a dozen checks to Congressional candidates, half of whom they believed could potentially become allies. All six refused.

Fox said the candidates’ refusal to accept the donations was unfortunate.

“It’s just another example of elected officials, even those who have been supportive in the past, being out of touch with the public on this issue,” he said.

However, five other Members took the PAC contributions. “We gave checks to five good supporters of the issue,” Fox said.

And the Marijuana Policy Project has received some outside support. Peter Lewis, chairman of auto insurer Progressive Corp., recently gave $340,000 to a 527 account of the Marijuana Policy Project, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Lewis also gave $5,000 to the group’s PAC.

The problem remains in swaying Members.

Fox and other lobbyists say they work hard to battle the preconceived notions most have about marijuana — and its lobbyists.

“We are very conscientious here about our image and how people perceive us,” said Fox, who is married and has two young children. “While we’re educating, we are also fighting the stereotypes.”

No pictures of marijuana leaves hang in the office of the Marijuana Policy Project, and its Washington-based staff dresses in the business suits typical of most aides on Capitol Hill.

Fox also does not like questions about his own personal use of the substance, although he does admit he has smoked marijuana in the past. “It seems like an unfair question from our perspective,” he said. “It’s something that’s better not to get into.”

Mirken said that Fox “is about as wholesome an American as you will find. He could be on a box of Wheaties.”

As Keith Stroup, founder of NORML, noted: “The last thing we would need is a long-haired hippie going around to Members of Congress talking about marijuana reform.”

In his pitch to lawmakers, Fox argues that current marijuana laws are a waste of time and money. He also tries to demonstrate that much of the U.S. public is supportive of marijuana policy reform.

But the Marijuana Policy Project faces an uphill climb, especially at a time when the government is controlled by Republicans.

Even the organization that runs Washington’s Metro system and public buses recently refused to run advertisements that promote change in the government’s policies against marijuana usage.

The refusal by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority stems from a decision by the Republican-run Congress to cut off federal funding to any local transit authority that displays ads promoting the legalization or medical use of marijuana. 

The Marijuana Policy Project joined other groups, including the ACLU, in seeking to overturn the law in court, arguing the ban tramples on the First Amendment’s right to free speech.

Marijuana lobbyists are waging an even bigger battle over the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.

While Fox touts poll numbers indicating public support for medical marijuana, many lawmakers steadfastly refuse to alter the law.

“For many Members of Congress, the first time they heard of marijuana was during the Vietnam War,” said Stroup. “That baggage the issue assumed still lingers for many.”

Still, Fox believes that progress is being made. Last year, more than 100 House Members voted for a measure that would have prevented the Justice Department from prosecuting medical marijuana patients who are in compliance with state laws.

Though the measure was defeated, the 273-152 vote was far closer than expected, according to Fox.

Fox thinks more lawmakers would have voted for the legislation if they were aware of the public’s backing of the issue. Such floor votes give Fox and other marijuana lobbyists hope that they are slowly making progress.

“I find it hard to believe that 10 years from now … we will still be arresting people for marijuana possession,” Fox said.