Why conservative California Rep. Tom McClintock wants to ease federal marijuana laws

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Rep. Tom McClintock doesn’t approve of marijuana use.

He sees “clear evidence” its use can cause neurological problems in children.

He’s a reliable Republican, conservative vote in Congress.

Yet he’s one of the few congressional Republicans who for years has consistently called for easing federal restrictions on the drug’s use.

“He has the best record on the marijuana issue of any Republican congressman in California,” said Dale Gieringer, California NORML director.

“He’s pretty unique. He’s a pretty conservative Republican and conservative Republicans tend not to be the best friends of cannabis reform,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow in governance studies at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution and author of “Marijuana: A Short History.”

This year, McClintock, R-Elk Grove, joined with liberal Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland and Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon, to sponsor a measure to withhold money to enforce federal laws against marijuana activity that a state has deemed legal. The House could consider the proposal when it returns next month.


McClintock has a long history of opposing most federal restrictions on the drug.

When he ran for governor in 2003, he was asked during a debate about the state’s 1996 Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana.

“The people of California spoke clearly on that subject. The federal government has no right to intervene,” he said. Federal laws on marijuana have been tougher and more restrictive than state law.

Part of McClintock’s view stems from a libertarian streak, that people should be able to live as they please as long as they don’t endanger others.

Another part of his philosophy is practical, he says. Current laws, he says, simply are not working.

Hudak saw another reason. “He’s representing his constituents. Northern California is fairly pro-cannabis,” he said.

Over the years, McClintock has been resolute.

“Just laws protect us from others. Tyrannical laws try to protect us from ourselves,” he said in 2018.

At a House crime subcommittee hearing the next year, he explained that “Personally, I believe cannabis use in most cases is ill-advised. But many things are ill-advised that should not be illegal, but rather be left to the informed judgment of free men and women.”

Current laws are often ineffective but counterproductive, he argued. Asked for a comment last week, spokeswoman Jennifer Cressy cited those 2019 comments.


For years, McClintock has used this example of how current marijuana policy spawns trouble:

A deputy sheriff once said that if he gave two high school students each a $20 bill, sent one to buy marijuana and the other to buy alcohol, the child seeking cannabis would succeed first, McClintock relates.

“They know where to get it and the dealer’s entire business is built on ignoring the law. The youth sent to buy alcohol would visit one liquor store after another, get carded and get thrown out — precisely because the dealer’s entire business depends on obeying the law,” McClintock said.

What’s needed are sensible state regulations and enforcement, he has argued.

“I believe very firmly that treating marijuana in a regulated, legal environment is a far more effective way of keeping it out of the hands of young people and it is a far more effective way of (stopping) the crime we see right now,” he has said. “We don’t have a problem with lettuce growers. We don’t have a problem with rice growers.”

McClintock has been trying for years to get Congress to go along with easing federal restrictions, usually with the help of Democrats.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-San Marcos, explained the GOP reluctance. “Republicans have been pro law and order. As long as the government and scientists within the government continue to say any drug is dangerous and should be illegal, support for enforcing the law is the Republican mainstream,” he said.

Issa predicted, “There will be a federal change in the foreseeable future to liberalize or legalize marijuana,” but added “We’ve got a long way to go to figure out where the bounds should be.”


McClintock has tried to set some of those boundaries.

During his first congressional term, in 2014, he supported a measure to bar federal agencies from preventing states from okaying the use of medical marijuana. He also backed prohibiting a state from penalizing a bank for providing financial services to marijuana businesses.

The proposals passed in the House largely with Democratic votes. One drew 49 Republican votes, the other, 45.

In 2015, McClintock tried again to deal with federal policy involving state regulation of marijuana.

“This amendment is NOT an endorsement of marijuana. I’ve never used it; my wife and I raised our children never to use it. And I believe local schools should assure that every American is aware of the risks and dangers that it poses,” he told the House.

“This amendment addresses a larger question: whether the federal government has the constitutional authority to dictate a policy to states on matters that occur strictly within their own borders. I believe that it does not. And even if it does, I believe that it should not.”

His proposal won the support of 45 Republicans, while 198 were opposed.

In recent years, he’s been behind the Safe Banking Act, which generally bars a federal banking regulator from penalizing an institution for providing banking services to a legitimate cannabis-related business.

The bill passed the House in 2019 but went nowhere in the Senate. It won House approval again in April, and its Senate fate is unclear.

The odds for McClintock to succeed are improving.

“The train’s left the station on this. We’re at a point where we’re not asking whether cannabis should be legalized,” Hudak said.

“We know it has been legalized in states with hundreds of millions of Americans. Now how do we make this industry safer, more equitable, more accountable. That requires some federal intervention.”

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