WASHINGTON -- Rep. Beto O'Rourke ran for Congress as a pro-pot legalization candidate, but even though he has focused on other hometown issues like immigration and veterans affairs since entering office, the Texas Democrat tells HuffPost he isn't forgetting about drug policy reform.
"I will be getting more involved ... but I will do so through the perspective of the community I represent," O'Rourke said in an interview Friday. "I have three kids. I never want them to use it. I want to do everything I can to keep them away from it. But I've come to the conclusion that I stand a far better chance as a parent of controlling their exposure to that if it is controlled, if it's taxed."
O'Rourke, one of the few members of Congress who publicly supports overhauling the country's drug laws, added that "the least bad of a number of awful alternatives in front of us is to end that prohibition and in a very responsible way control the sale of marijuana."
But as a freshman member with little political sway in his caucus, O'Rourke instead has worked on improving benefits for veterans and undocumented immigrants, issues that are close to home in his district. The heavily Democratic 16th District includes El Paso, a large military base and a sizable population of poor constituents.
O'Rourke is not co-sponsoring the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act offered by Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), a bill unlikely to pass the House this year that would essentially remove the Drug Enforcement Agency’s authority over marijuana. He has signed a letter by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), however, calling on President Barack Obama to direct the attorney general to soften penalties for marijuana use.
He also co-sponsored legislation by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) that would require the federal government to recognize marijuana laws in states where they have relaxed enforcement, such as Colorado and Washington. He told border officials during House Homeland Security Committee hearings that marijuana trafficking contributed to violence along the Mexican border, and over the summer, he helped the Drug Policy Alliance roll out "Exit Strategy" for the war on drugs.
Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, expects Congress to reform marijuana laws by 2020 and told HuffPost that the "longer O'Rourke stays in office, the greater opportunity there will be for him to move this issue forward."
O'Rourke's pro-legalization stance inspired residents in his district to launch a chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). Colt DeMorris, the president of the local chapter, said he is "really pleased" with O'Rourke, and thinks the congressman will eventually join Polis as a leading voice on the issue on Capitol Hill.
"It takes a lot for somebody to do that especially when you're sitting in an elected position because you got to hope that the voters agree with you ... so we thank him for doing that," DeMorris said.
Legalization has become more popular as more people want to spend less on enforcing current laws, view marijuana as less harmful than alcohol, or simply want recreational access to pot. Although most people who are 65 and older oppose legalizing the drug, 51 percent of Americans think the use of marijuana should be made legal, according to a recent CBS News poll.
Opponents claim marijuana use has serious health consequences, and argue that the drug is often a gateway to harmful and addictive substances.
Greg Rocha, a political science professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, said if O'Rourke, 41, holds onto his seat this year, it is likely he could serve eight or 10 more terms -- long enough to help overhaul United States' drug laws or play a major role in shaping legislation. "For him, he can be there for quite some time. ... Once you're in, you stay in," Rocha said.
In 2012, O'Rourke defeated former Rep. Silvestre Reyes in the Democratic primary in Texas’ 16th. Reyes, an eight-term congressman who defended the current drug laws, was plagued by scandal during his last days in Congress. He tried to turn the race into a referendum on marijuana legalization -- and lost. O'Rourke went on to easily defeat Republican Barbara Carrasco in the general election.
This year, O'Rourke's main challenger is Republican Corey Roen, a newcomer to politics who lacks name recognition and opposes reforming national drug laws.
Ahead of the midterm elections, O'Rourke is holding frequent meetings with constituents, outreach that has given him lasting popularity with some voters, said Rocha, who adds that "we never saw that with Reyes."
O'Rourke grew up in El Paso where a mix of workers, college students and soldiers make up a community that struggles to thrive economically. Local businesses are trade partners with Mexico, and the Army base helps support commerce in the downtown area. In 2005, O'Rourke won a seat on the El Paso City Council and his position on marijuana was popular among voters who agreed its illegal trade contributed to violence in Ciudad Juarez, a city across the border.
"We know all too well in El Paso, Juarez was one of the cities that suffered the most in recent memory from the consequences of the drug war," O'Rourke told HuffPost. "More than 10,000 people in a short period of time -- five or six years - lost their lives ... It was really out of that experience that I began to think about and question the wisdom of our current policy when it comes to the war on drugs."