[This article was originally written in March 2008]
[In the spring of 2008, I sat down with Rob Kampia at his office in Washington, D.C. He came off as highly intelligent, politically savvy, and very amiable. Yes, those of you wanting to question his politics, methodology, or attitude, he’s actually a nice guy.]
Rob Kampia isn’t your average Congressional lobbyist. Nor is he your average pothead. Then again, an office address in Washington D.C.’s haughty Capitol Hill district coinciding with a business card containing the term “marijuana” pretty much predicts how much normalcy you’re likely to find in this interview.
Kampia is most known for his role as Executive Director of the Marijuana Policy Project. In fact, he’s devoted most of his professional career to the non-profit organization that he co-founded more than 13 years ago, after working at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in the mid-1990s. Kampia left the then-singular national pot advocacy group after nearly two years to found a competing organization that has, more than a decade later, helped enact medical marijuana laws in nearly half a dozen U.S. States and donated nearly $12 million in grant money to grass roots organizations.
A biography that begins with his graduation from Penn State in 1993 and ends with the current string of state-level MPP successes misses the critical turning point in Kampia’s career: his three-month prison term for cultivation for personal use. However, bitterness over the loss of a quarter year of his freedom wasn’t his prime motivation for joining NORML or starting MPP. Suddenly Kampia was the proud owner of three felony violations, any one of which prevented him from fulfilling his dream vocation of NASA astronaut (Kampia’s degree is in Engineering Science).
Kampia’s current role is one born from ongoing personal loss, not charitable politics or a natural flair for speaking with the media. If Kampia’s prohibitionist foes are unfairly equipped with billions in taxpayer money, this establishment-savvy activist has his own secret weapon: the next 40 years of his life. Time that should have been spent exploring the asteroid belt or the moons of Jupiter will now be obsessively and strategically devoted to the single mission of preventing others from suffering Kampia’s fate under the same antiquated prohibitionist laws.
Gooey Rabinski: Why did you leave NORML?
Rob Kampia: There was a difference in opinion on strategy between some of the folks in the office–including me–and the management of the organization at the time. It was the kind of thing that I discussed with the management over the course of many months and it became clear that there was just a difference in opinion on strategy. The person who was running NORML at the time, who is no longer there, felt like it was useless to lobby Congress at all. He said, first, we have to change public opinion and then we can implement the public’s will in the form of legislation.
He looked at the process as linear. I look at it as symbiotic, where legislation should be introduced whenever possible and we should lobby on that legislation. Inevitably, this generates media coverage around the legislation, which helps inform and educate the public and change opinion.
Also, having legislation pending and lobbyists on Capitol Hill gives activists around the country something to organize around. I look at media coverage, legislation, and fund raising as [forming] a triangle. Each of the corners helps the other corners.
But that’s what ultimately led to my departure [from NORML]…just my frustration of not feeling like the organization was doing all that it could.
GR: Now that there’s been several years of MPP and concrete accomplishments, how do you feel that your model stacks up?
RK: I think in the 13 years that I’ve been running MPP that the proof is in the pudding. MPP has changed a number of state [medical cannabis] laws. We helped with Hawaii. We were solely responsible for Maryland. We were solely responsible for Montana. We were solely responsible for Vermont. We were solely responsible for Rhode Island. And we’re on the brink of passing legislation in Illinois, New York, New Hampshire, and Minnesota.
GR: You don’t smoke pot because it makes you paranoid. That occurs in some people with sativas. Have you tried a nice strong indica?
RK: No, I haven’t tried an indica that I know of, but I actually use marijuana now. I got back into smoking, very occasionally, a couple of years ago. I’m an occasional recreational marijuana user now. I smoke low potency marijuana in situations that are comfortable for me.
GR: So you’re every pothead’s best friend because you want their shwag, eh?
RK: Actually, that’s right. I’ve even traded down before.
GR: [Laughing] It’s gotta be a nice life, you know? It’s nice to be a cheap date.
RK: [Laughing] Right on. I’m a minimalist when it comes to it, really.
GR: Let’s talk about Peter Lewis and how you met him and how he came to be such a big part of MPP’s mission.
RK: I met him at the Drug Policy Alliance conference in Albuquerque in the summer of 2001. He had already donated five figures to us, but he and I had never had any real contact, including even a phone call, prior to the conference.
It was really just a combination of luck and perseverance. Since co-founding MPP in 1995, my attitude was that, if we did really good work, eventually it would be funded. I didn’t know how it would happen, I didn’t know where it would happen, but I knew it probably would happen because there are lot of people out there, in the U.S. and abroad, who have a lot of money and support ending prohibition.
It turns out, what I didn’t know, was that [Lewis] was at the conference looking for someone to handle his marijuana philanthropy.
GR: Sounds like it was a nice synchronicity and the planets came together.
RK: Yea, exactly. He had just, a couple of months earlier, retired as CEO of Progressive Insurance Company. He wanted to get serious about investing money on an annual basis into ending marijuana prohibition in the U.S. and needing someone to handle that. But I didn’t know this. So when I was meeting with him, he surprised me and we talked about what MPP had done. He said he wanted to not only fund MPP at a higher level, but also to start a grants program to fund other organizations in the U.S. working toward MPP’s mission–so we wouldn’t be putting all of his financial eggs in the MPP basket.
GR: It sounds like Lewis stepped in and gave you a shot in the arm while you brought in the organizational leadership and networking to handle the cash infusion. Overnight, MPP became a real player.
RK: That’s right. Because we already had the infrastructure setup and my colleagues and I already had years of experience working the issue, we knew the laws inside and out and who the players were, both good and bad, on every side of the marijuana issue. [Lewis] investing in us was like raising a child, rather than giving birth to a child.
GR: Did it not also validate your efforts? Just the phenomenon of people perceiving that, if a smart wealthy guy like Lewis was willing to support MPP, there must be something to your organization?
RK: That’s right. Once he started investing in us, it became easier for me to raise money from other sources. So it just snowballed.
GR: Is George Soros still working with MPP?
RK: Interestingly, I’ve never even spoken with him. He was actually the number one contributor for the first few years of our development. Then he didn’t donate anything for a while. Last year, he gave $400,000 to a Massachusetts ballot initiative supported by MPP.
GR: It’s nice to know you have a couple of heavyweights on your side. The prohibitionists certainly have a boatload of money and power in their court.
RK: Yea. They have guns and jails and guys with badges and something like $60 billion a year that they’re spending fighting the drug war. We, as a movement (MPP and the Drug Policy Alliance, etc.)–the collective anti-drug prohibition budget, I guess you could say–is about $32 million. So they’re outspending us by a factor of 2,000 to one.
GR: Holy shit. Those aren’t good odds. Speaking of the bad guys… You’re a lobbyist in D.C. Why are Nancy Pelosi and the other Democrats such spineless bastards?
RK: The name of the game with the Democrats in Congress is that they’re always restraining themselves in the present from what they want to achieve in the policy arena so they can win the next election so they can achieve their policy goals after that election. But because the House in the U.S. is elected every two years, once [an official] is in, they immediately have to begin campaigning for the next two-year cycle.
So they’re actually addicted to elections, just like someone who uses alcohol or other hard drugs. It’s kind of like they’re saying “I swear, just one more time, and I’ll quit tomorrow….”
GR: Just one more two-year shoot up….
RK: That’s really what it is. We have majority support for medical marijuana in Congress–if you ask people privately what they think. But we can’t get a majority vote because they’re saying they don’t want to take a risk, that it’s more important for them to get re-elected.
Not only is that an amoral position, in my opinion, but–setting morality aside–what they don’t understand is that it’s actually a foolish position politically. Because medical marijuana is more popular than they are! They should be embracing medical marijuana because it’s an issue that makes them appear bold, like they’re leaders willing to stand up. But, in fact, they wouldn’t be–because they have majority [constituent] support.
GR: MPP has been working with Playboy. Let’s talk about that.
RK: This June will be our third benefit at the Playboy Mansion [in Los Angeles]. It raises about $150,000 for us each year. It’s also a great way to connect with celebrities. We’re always trying to get in touch with celebrities to leverage their popularity for our cause. But calling celebrities to ask them to meet with us in their offices doesn’t get us many meetings. When you have a party at the Playboy Mansion, however, more people are willing to come out and have a good time and have a positive association with MPP.
The Playboy parties are good for short-term fundraising and long-term relationship building with celebrities and the funders who show up for the party. And we get a bit of positive media coverage.
GR: If legalization occurs in the U.S. at the federal level, will the rest of the world follow?
RK: I think you’ll see reforms in Europe at a much faster pace–if Europe isn’t already there by the time the U.S. gets there. I think it would free European countries that want to tax and regulate marijuana, but just don’t want to deal with the hassles of George Bush or a drug czar hassling and threatening them.
But I don’t think you’re going to see any dominos falling in places like Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, or China. In these cultures, the political leadership and the people both support prohibition.
GR: That actually sounds like more of a democracy than we have here in the States, where the leadership doesn’t agree with the popular opinion….
RK: [Laughing] Exactly. Right. If the people [in those countries] want to put themselves in prison, who are we to stop them?
GR: If a Democrat enters the White House this fall, will it really improve things for pot smokers?
RK: It’s going to make a difference in terms of the DEA’s raids on medical marijuana clinics in California. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have said they would end the DEA raids. This is something that could be done with no action from Congress. McCain said he would continue with the raids and doesn’t seem to show any compassion. Not to mention fiscal conservatism, because he’s willing to spend taxpayer money having the DEA chase down cancer patients in California–in violation of state law.
You might also see a difference in the DEA allowing a marijuana production facility in Amherst, Massachusetts, for the purpose of providing laboratory-grade marijuana for FDA-approved research.
GR: Do you think NORML began the fight to legalize cannabis and MPP will finish it?
RK: I don’t think NORML began it and I don’t think MPP will finish it. [Laughing] I was only one year old when NORML was founded in 1970, so my knowledge of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s is just from reading and talking to “the elders.” But NORML wasn’t the only organization back then. They were the ones who became the pre-eminent organization after a few years, but there were others–some in California–that were working on various aspects of marijuana policy reform.
There was a state-wide ballot initiative in California in 1972 which was funded and staffed by Californians. That effort received pretty close to no funding from NORML. Of course, it failed, but it did make the ballot in 1972. That was the first state-wide vote to roll back marijuana prohibition in the history of the country.
That’s my view of the beginning. In terms of the end, I fully intend for MPP to be instrumental in engineering the end of marijuana prohibition, which could be in 10 years, or 15 or 20 from now. But there will always be other organizations working in partnership with us. In 15 years, when president whoever is signing the bill to end prohibition on the federal level, I can’t imagine that I’m going to be the only person at the signing ceremony. There’s gotta be people from the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance…there will be other players. Maybe someone from the American Medical Association, maybe someone from the American Bar Association….
Gooey Rabinski is a technical writer and instructional designer who has contributed feature articles to magazines such as High Times, SKUNK, Heads, Weed World, Cannabis Health Journal, Green Thumb, and Treating Yourself. He is the author of Understanding Medical Marijuana (2015 Edition), available on Amazon Kindle, and a contributing writer at Whaxy.com.