Monday, December 22, 2003

Dornan to make drugs an issue Rohrabacher's youthful substance use and medical-marijuana bill are targets.

By MARTIN WISCKOL The Orange County Register

Bob Dornan thinks he's found Rep. Dana Rohrabacher's Achilles' heel, the issue that will be the Huntington Beach incumbent's downfall when the March Republican primary rolls around.

Drugs.

In his challenge to Rohrabacher, Dornan has quickly made the subject an issue, focusing on his opponent's drug use as a young man and his support for legalizing medicinal marijuana.

"Anybody who wants to legalize marijuana or any other illegal substance is the enemy of this country," said Dornan, who served nine terms in Congress before being upset by Loretta Sanchez in 1996 and has now set his sights on Rohrabacher's coastal district.

A key component of Dornan's attack is a statement Rohrabacher made on Comedy Central's "Politically Incorrect" in response to a query about drug use.

"Listen, I did everything but drink the bong water when I was young," Rohrabacher told host Bill Maher in 1996.

In an interview last week, Rohrabacher, 56, would not give specifics and dismissed the drug use as being in his distant past.

"I have not touched any illegal drug since I was 23, and I don't intend to detail for anybody the mistakes of my youth," he said. "I have never pretended to have lived a puritanical life. When I was younger, I did some pretty wild things, and I have no apologies for anything I've done. ... But when you grow up, you become more responsible."

As for medicinal marijuana, Rohrabacher cast a ballot in favor of the 1996 statewide measure legalizing use of the drug with a doctor's prescription, which was approved by 56 percent of voters.

Currently, Rohrabacher is co-sponsor of a congressional bill that would prevent the federal government from interfering with states that have legalized such use. The federal government continues to enforce federal marijuana bans in California and other states that have medicinal-use provisions.

"I do believe that marijuana is a threat and is harmful," Rohrabacher said. "But that doesn't mean that if someone is sick and it will help their appetite, we should arrest them. I'm not for changing federal laws, but if the states want it, they should be allowed to proceed."

Rohrabacher is also critical of some drug laws that result in users being imprisoned, saying intervention and even mandatory drug testing for high school students would be better. However, he said he is not advocating changing any drug laws. Dornan, 70, questions the motive behind Rohrabacher's medicinal-marijuana bill.

"This is all a bogus smokescreen for the legalization of recreational use of mind-altering chemical substances," Dornan said. "Anybody's who's ill is told, 'We can give a THC (marijuana's active ingredient) substance to you, a legal pill or patch.'"

Medicinal-marijuana advocates argue that the pills and patches don't always work as well as regular marijuana, most commonly used in medicine to increase appetite and suppress nausea in people receiving cancer treatment.

But there are plenty of people who share Dornan's skepticism. Huntington Beach resident Yvonne Wachter met Dornan and Rohrabacher last summer at a reception for her son, an Air Force pilot who bombed Baghdad on April 7. A conversation she overheard between the two men prompted her to do Internet research on Rohrabacher which led to her discovery of his co-sponsorship of the medicinal-marijuana bill.

"He's an advocate for reefer," said Wachter, a Dornan campaign volunteer. "When you give states' rights on this, you give growers a free pass. We'll have fields of reefer."

But other GOP constituents say that although they oppose the use of medicinal marijuana, they agree with the states' rights issue. Nadia White was among those at an Aug. 27 meeting of the Huntington Harbor Republican Women, Federated, at which Rohrabacher laid out his position on the issue.

After his explanation, he asked the 50 or so women in the room to raise their hands if they agreed with him. Like most of the others, White raised her hand.

"I don't think we need (marijuana) for medicinal purposes," said White, a registered nurse. "But we don't believe in federal intervention. ... In my opinion, drugs are a nonissue in this election."

White volunteered on Dornan's 1998 effort to regain his seat from Sanchez, but said she'll be sticking with Rohrabacher in March.

The slings and arrows that Dornan has for Rohrabacher are hardly new. Dornan has complained that Rohrabacher didn't adequately support the federal investigation into alleged voter fraud in Sanchez's first victory and didn't back Dornan in the primary two years later.

Drug use isn't Dornan's only campaign issue against Rohrabacher. Middle East policy is among the others certain to arise. And it's a good thing for Dornan that his campaign is not resting on the drug issue alone, said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.

"Nobody is going to be surprised that a baby boomer experimented with drugs," Pitney said. "And I don't think medicinal marijuana is the kind of issue that will turn a congressional election."