WASHINGTON – During the three months Robert Kampia spent locked in prison, he never bought “extra food or toys” at the commissary, and he did not let himself watch MTV.
“I wanted to make it as bad as possible without being painful,” Kampia said of the 20-bunk dormer at Centre County Prison in Pennsylvania.
Bad enough to fuel his determination to change the laws that got him there.
Kampia, 27, was imprisoned Nov. 6, 1989, for growing marijuana in his apartment when he was a junior at Pennsylvania State University. In the seven years since his release, he has worked single-mindedly to legalize the recreational and medicinal use of marijuana by adults, currently as the co-founder and co- director of the Marijuana Policy Project.
Until now, the project has primarily lobbied the federal government for marijuana reform, with some success. Testimony before the U.S. Sentencing Commission last year helped spur the commission to reduce federal sentencing guidelines for people charged with possession of 50 to 100 marijuana plants.
The project plans to continue pressing Congress for decriminalization of marijuana for medical uses.
But because of the passage this month of initiatives in California and Arizona, allowing some people to use marijuana medicinally, Kampia said the group will begin vigorous lobbying efforts in some states to try to get similar bills introduced.
Maryland is one of the states the group will focus on when its legislature convenes in January, he said.
Kampia’s work with the “Yes on 215” California campaign proved integral to its passage, campaign spokesman Dave Fratello said. Kampia, along with MPP co-founder Chuck Thomas, issued a report documenting that six states were allowing marijuana to be used for medical reasons. It was “enormously valuable,” Fratello said.
“If you’re telling Californians that voters in Ohio, Idaho and Florida have rights that Californians don’t have, that’s a real motivator for Californians,” Fratello said.
In demeanor, disposition and habit, Kampia breaks virtually every Cheech-and-Chong stereotype about marijuana activists. He used to look the part of a drug-using hippie, but cut his long blonde hair, took out his earring, and put away the tie-dyes and torn jeans he sported in college to adopt the grooming and grey suit of a Washington lobbyist.
A native of Harleysville, Pa., outside of Philadelphia, Kampia described himself as a precocious bookworm who achieved his adolescent goal of being valedictorian of Souderton Area High School. He and his five younger siblings were raised church-going Lutherans by a “Catholic pro-life” mother and an “intolerant Republican” father who believed the Bible should be taken literally and voted accordingly, he said.
His father’s creed of politics was one that Kampia passively ingested in his teen years and purged in college.
Kampia talks to his father and others in his family occasionally now, but said he is explicit with them and his friends that work is his first priority. He said he typically devotes 70 hours a week to his job.
“Work is more important to him than eating, sleeping, breathing and socializing” said Alison Green, a friend and former colleague.
Kampia went $6,000 into debt to start the MPP in January 1995. That first year, he could not afford to pay himself or Thomas. Kampia said both of them will get a $16,000 salary this year.
Kampia pays his living expenses by scrimping on food and clothing: He’s bought no clothes since 1994.
But grants and new members are flowing in. The group’s dues- paying membership has almost tripled since December 1995, from 237 to 700. The group plans to hire one or two more people and become a “full-fledged, five-person lobby” by December, he said.
For now, his office is his 10-by-12-foot bedroom in a town house on the fringes of Dupont Circle. His only phone line is his business line.
His closet houses office supplies, his walls are decorated with a map of congressional districts and “things to do” lists and the floor is almost completely consumed by a desk and three file cabinets.
His few personal effects include a mattress on the floor and a dresser, upon which sits his stash of drugs: Vivarin, aspirin and instant coffee. But no marijuana. He said he no longer smokes it.
He quit more than six years ago when he started getting what he called “anxiety reactions” – nervousness and paranoia – to the drug. He said he has tried marijuana several times since quitting, but is not optimistic he will ever enjoy it again.
Kampia openly acknowledges that the drug can have deleterious effects and did for him. “But if we’re going to criminalize all behaviors that could negatively affect you, we should criminalize eating eggs, riding in cars and airplanes, and especially using alcohol, tobacco and almost all prescription medicines,” he said. “Such legislation would obviously be ridiculous.”
His prison time for marijuana use still rankles him. When he was arrested, Kampia was a straight-A physics student on so many merit scholarships that after paying tuition and all living expenses, he was making a profit.
Prison derailed his plans to be an astronaut, he said. “I don’t think NASA would be very likely to choose an ex-con,” he said wryly.
His sarcastic deadpan belies an outrage that he and others should “suffer an absence of real life” in prison for marijuana use. “Health risk? The health risk is putting these people in prison where they could get raped, get AIDS and die,” he said.
That he was not raped “or even punched” in prison did nothing to quell his contempt for the laws that put him there. When he returned to Penn State, Kampia successfully ran for campus president on a platform that included softening school penalties for marijuana possession.
Three days after he graduated with honors with an engineering sciences degree, Kampia began working for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Washington as chapter coordinator. But Kampia and several other employees clashed with the major marijuana advocacy group over strategy.
He and Thomas left NORML Jan. 18, 1995, and formed the policy project one day later. Their departure was messy enough to require lawyers, and both sides say they are legally prevented from speaking badly of the other.
Kampia “didn’t leave under the best of circumstances,” said NORML deputy director Allen St. Pierre.
Green, who worked with Kampia at NORML and left with him in January 1995, describes the conflict candidly. “NORML was running a social group, not an organization for political change,” she said.
Kampia is consumed by the prospect of political change, confident that several states will follow the lead of California and Arizona within the next two years.
Not all are convinced. Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the national drug policy director, said in a recent press conference that he did not think groups like Kampia’s would be successful in pushing medical marijuana laws. “Americans don’t want to see a drug- stoned America,” he said.
As McCaffrey spoke, Kampia was on the street outside, handing out a press release. He had anticipated that he would be barred from the conference, anticipated the content of McCaffrey’s speech and diligently prepared a three-page rebuttal. -30-