In his seven years on Capitol Hill, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., has become known in some circles as a founding father of Congress’ burgeoning marijuana movement. The young, wealthy and openly gay congressman from Boulder, who’s been dubbed “Mr. Cannabis” by some in the pot industry, is the man behind a bill that would essentially decriminalize the drug nationwide, making him among a handful of legislators on the front lines of the push for federal marijuana reform. It’s a fight Polis has waged mostly on his own dollar, but he’s also gotten increasing support from national cannabis groups, whose members have recently begun putting their money toward influencing U.S. pot policy.
As the political winds slowly shift in favor of marijuana legalization – the most recent polling shows a majority of the country now supports legalizing weed for the first time ever – more entrepreneurs in the growing legal industry are spending their money on making state and federal policies more cannabis-friendly. In Colorado, which opened the country’s first-ever retail pot shops in January 2014, lawmakers who once might have turned away money from the industry have embraced it.
Last year, pro-marijuana lawmakers in the state received some $20,000 from marijuana special interest groups like Drug Policy Alliance, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Americans for Safe Access and the Marijuana Policy Project. There is also a growing number of individual marijuana business owners and supporters who write checks to pro-pot legislators without referencing the drug in campaign-finance disclosures. Their support helped pass the 2012 marijuana ballot measure, Amendment 64, over the opposition of high-profile figures like Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper – a microbrewery owner who made millions selling alcohol to Coloradoans, but publicly denounced marijuana legalization.
Polis, 39, who was first elected to the House in 2008, was one of the first federal lawmakers to voice support for legalization. “It’s a growing constituency, but Jared Polis was there when very few people were in the room,” said Dan Riffle, director of federal policy at the MPP, the nation’s largest and best-funded advocacy group for marijuana legalization. “I met him well before his days in Congress when he was head of the state board of education, and I believe he had reached out, out of curiosity and interest in the subject. ... I honestly recall being surprised to hear from him.” Polis became a fixture at fund-raising events held by marijuana groups thereafter.
MPP is by far the country’s biggest political donor among pro-marijuana groups, doling out approximately $150,000 to federal candidates in 2014. That was an increase of $40,000 from the previous year. The group maxed out its contribution to Polis’ Fearless PAC last year to the tune of $5,000, and did the same for other pro-marijuana legislators like Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a conservative Republican with libertarian leanings from California.
Not that Polis needs much outside support. The multi-millionaire congressman made the bulk of his fortune in 1999, at the height of the dot-com bubble, by selling his online greeting card company BlueMountain.com for $750 million. He sold a second Internet venture in 2006 for another $470 million. His wealth would allow him to largely bankroll his political career, which he started by donating about $5 million of his own money to his House campaign.
“I doubt he’s depending on marijuana industry money to help fund his campaign to a significant degree,” said Art Way of the Drug Policy Alliance. “He does have a fairly safe seat. I don’t think we can ignore that.”
By many accounts, supporting marijuana legalization has made his seat even safer. Polis represents Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District, which includes Boulder, a traditionally liberal city with a reputation for being pot-friendly, and Adams County, whose large Latino population tends to favor Democrats. “I’ve been to a couple of his town halls, and sure enough every fifth question is about weed,” said Todd Mitchem, Denver-based CEO and co-founder of High There, a social networking app for cannabis consumers.
Polis won his left-leaning district in 2008, after using his personal fortune to far outspend a Democratic primary opponent in a tough-fought race. He went on to win re-election in 2010 with 57 percent support and held on to win his third election in 2012 with 55 percent. Last year, his count jumped slightly, to 56.7 percent. His constituents are also solidly blue. In 2008, 64 percent of Polis’ district voted for President Barack Obama, compared to 52.9 percent nationally.
That support has helped him push a wave of pro-marijuana legislation. Polis’ most recent bill, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, would remove cannabis from being listed as a schedule 1 drug, a label it shares with heroin and LSD, and allow states to regulate the possession, production and sale of marijuana, similar to what’s in place at the state level in Colorado and Washington. The bill was submitted along with one from Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., called the Marijuana Tax Revenue Act, which would impose a federal excise tax on recreational marijuana sales.
Polis has also backed bills in Congress that would give medical marijuana businesses access to financial services currently barred under federal law, and co-sponsored legislation that would have decriminalized the possession of cannabis at the federal level. “I don’t think it’s a mistake or coincidence that Colorado has really the most far-reaching congressional representative on this issue,” said Way. In an interview with “Washington Unplugged” in 2011, Polis criticized the country’s so-called War on Drugs, calling it a “failed” policy.
Despite Polis’ Mr. Cannabis persona, not everyone agrees with his characterization as simply the czar of pot. “He’s been around state politics for quite some time,” said Mason Tvert, communications director for Marijuana Policy Project. “There’s folks out there who don’t see him as ‘the marijuana guy,’ but the guy working on fracking.”
Polis faced criticism from his constituency in August for backpedaling on two bills aimed at restricting hydraulic fracturing in the state. The first would have required a greater distance between drilling rigs and private residences, the second would have given local governments more say in their fracking rules. Polis ultimately killed the bills after being pressured to ditch the cause by the pro-fracking Hickenlooper and state Democrats, who feared that alienating the oil and gas industry and forcing liberal lawmakers to take a hard-nosed stance against fracking would hurt them in an election year. Polis backed down despite a Denver Post poll showing that his proposed ballot measures were widely popular in the state. In the end, the Democrats lost a few legislative seats and control of the state Senate, and Hickenlooper narrowly won re-election.
To his supporters, Polis is less an ideologue than a problem-solver when it comes to marijuana reform. He sees an industry with huge potential and has gotten in on the ground floor, much as he did in the dot-com era, they say.
But one man does not make an army. It takes supporters, and more importantly money, at all levels of government to make large-scale social changes. Compared to spending by “big tobacco” or the pharmaceutical industry, the marijuana dollar is a penny in the bucket of political contributions. The emerging enterprise only recently became profitable, meaning there’s simply not as much money to go toward pushing federal reform. “You won’t see a lot of cannabis lobbying dollars being pumped into massive campaigns just yet,” said Mitchem of High There. “For big cannabis to emerge, we’re talking probably a couple of years.”