Former Georgia Rep. Lobbies for Marijuana Group
WASHINGTON — As a Republican, former Georgia congressman Bob Barr spent years fighting efforts to soften the nation's drug laws, including blocking a 1998 referendum in which nearly 70 percent of Washington, D.C., voters approved medical marijuana use.
Now, as a Libertarian and a lobbyist, he's changing sides.
Earlier this month, Barr signed on as a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project, where his duties ironically will include pushing for repeal of his own "Barr amendment," which the lawmaker attached to a spending bill and which overturned the results of the Washington, D.C., ballot initiative to allow medical marijuana.
According to the group's director of government relations, Aaron Houston, Barr also will be working to persuade his former colleagues to adopt broader medical-marijuana legislation and to get the federal government to stop airing what critics say are misleading and ineffective anti-drug ads that link dope-smoking to terrorism and violence.
"We're working together pretty closely right now," Houston said. "He brings a great deal of credibility and a lot of gravitas to the cause… We hope he serves as an example to some of his former colleagues, particularly on the GOP side of the aisle."
A spokeswoman for Barr said he was not available for comment Friday.
Barr, a former federal prosecutor, served eight years as a Republican congressman representing an Atlanta-area district before losing his seat in 2002.
He became well known for his persistent attacks on President Clinton in the 1990s. He was among the first to press for impeaching Clinton and later was involved in a failed effort to build a "Counter Clinton Library" in Little Rock.
Late last year, he announced he was leaving the GOP and joining the Libertarian Party, which generally advocates smaller government, including on social issues such as drug policy. At the time, he said he had become disillusioned with the post-Sept. 11 erosion of civil liberty protections and with Republicans' failure to cut government spending even as they controlled the White House and Congress.
According to its Web site, the Marijuana Policy Project's mission is to eliminate criminal penalties for marijuana use. The group, which Friday advertised a fundraising party at the Playboy Mansion on its Web site, had particularly pushed for legalizing marijuana use for people with serious illnesses.
"Barr always has had that libertarian streak," said Rep. Jack Kingston, a Republican from Savannah. "Everybody's entitled to change their mind once."
Bob Barr Flip-Flops on Pot
Bob Barr, who as a Georgia congressman authored a successful amendment that blocked D.C. from implementing a medical marijuana initiative, has switched sides and become a lobbyist for the Marijuana Policy Project.
But that doesn't mean he has become a bong-ripping hippie. He isn't pro-drug, he said, just against government intrusion.
"I, over the years, have taken a very strong stand on drug issues, but in light of the tremendous growth of government power since 9/11, it has forced me and other conservatives to go back and take a renewed look at how big and powerful we want the government to be in people's lives," Barr said.
Aaron Houston, the project's government relations director, said Barr brings a "great deal of credibility, particularly among people on the Republican side of the aisle."
"He certainly would not have been the first person I would have expected to sign off to us, but I'm very pleased that he has," Houston said. "I'm very pleased that he has come around, and I hope he serves as an example to his former colleagues."
Ironically, Barr said he will help lead the fight to give District residents a say on whether to allow medical marijuana — the very thing the "Barr Amendment" denied them in 1998. He will lobby for the rights of states to set their own medical marijuana policy without federal interference.
The four-term former Republican congressman will also work to unplug a youth anti-drug campaign which a recent study showed actually increased the likelihood that all teens would smoke pot.
"A lot of conservatives have expressed great concern over the taxpayer money that is being wasted on this poorly run advertising campaign," said Barr, who left Congress in 2003.
Houston said the project is a non-profit that seeks protections for medical marijuana patients and caregivers and advocates no jail time for marijuana use. Barr said there might be "legitimate medical uses of marijuana and we ought not have this knee-jerk reaction against it, and people ought to be allowed to explore."
He said "explore" — not experiment.
Up in Smoke
Former Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) was a major buzz kill when he was in Congress.
Termed "the worst drug warrior" on Capitol Hill by the Libertarian Party, he led the charge among conservative Republicans against the drug legalization movement.
Advocates for medical marijuana once blocked the door to his Congressional office in protest, and when he lost a primary race in 2001, the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project called it "glorious news."
So you might think you've smoked something to hear the latest: Barr just signed up to work for the marijuana lobby.
"You reach the point where you realize the federal government has become so big and so intrusive that it really forces you to take a look at a range of issues in a new light," Barr said in an interview.
As of this month, Barr has signed a contract to lobby for the Marijuana Policy Project. That's the same group that once sued the government over the "Barr Amendment," a law that forbids D.C. residents from legalizing pot for medicinal purposes. Now, Barr said, he may be working to overturn it.
The turn is the latest in Barr's dramatic political evolution since leaving Congress. In the wake of disagreements with the GOP over privacy and spending issues, he quit the party and officially became a Libertarian in 2006. He has since built a platform as a political commentator, ringing the alarm about what he calls the "curtailment of personal liberties," and he founded an Atlanta-based lobbying and consulting firm called Liberty Strategies.
Nobody seems more surprised about the new arrangement than the folks at the project. Aaron Houston, the group's top lobbyist, said Joe Seehusen, a former Libertarian Party director who once worked at the group, made the introduction. He said, "I've got a friend you should talk to, and you won't believe who it is," Houston said. "Obviously we're happy to have him with us, and we hope he'll set an example for some of his conservative colleagues."
So far, Barr is working with the group to pare back spending on an anti-drug advertising campaign he said "is not a wise use of federal money," and to forbid federal agents from conducting raids to enforce state drug laws.
Barr said he has only conducted a few Hill visits so far, but "the couple Members I've spoken with have actually been very supportive."