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Legalization Advocate Rep. Tom Garrett Drops Re-election Bid, Citing Alcoholism

Published on May 28, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
Freedom Caucus member Rep. Thomas Garrett, R-Va., with Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-S.C., speaks to reporters during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, July 19, 2017, calling on the House to vote on clean repeal of the Affordable Care Act. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Rep. Tom Garrett (R-Charlottesville, VA), a rising conservative voice for cannabis legalization in Congress, announced Monday that he would drop his bid for re-election. In a video statement released over the weekend, Garrett said he was ending his campaign in order to treat his alcoholism.

Garrett, a member of the Freedom Caucus, was a rising conservative freshman, but erratic behavior and alcoholism have ended a promising political career.

“Any person — Republican, Democrat or independent — who has known me for any period of time and has any integrity knows two things: I am a good man and I’m an alcoholic,” Garrett said in the video, which was obtained by the Washington Post. “This is the hardest statement that I have ever publicly made by far. It’s also the truth.” 

The withdrawal of the 46-year-old Garrett adds one more name to the list of 48 Republicans who have announced they would not seek re-election this fall. The move also deprives cannabis advocates of one of their newest and most promising allies on Capitol Hill. The Virginia Republican, a conservative with a strong libertarian streak, introduced a bill (HR 1227, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017) to federally legalize cannabis shortly after taking office last year. “I really don’t care about marijuana,” Garrett explained at a political conference in Washington, DC, last year. “What I do care about is individual liberty. What I do care about is justice. What I do care about is economic opportunity.”

The bill didn’t get very far. Legislation from first-year Congress members rarely does. But it was a strong symbol of the growing bipartisan nature of the legalization movement. Since Garrett’s bold move, other old-line Republicans, such as Sen. Orrin Hatch and former House Speaker John Boehner, have spoken out in favor of medical marijuana (Hatch) and full legalization (Boehner).

Faced a Tough Challenger

Leafly noted last month that Garrett faced one of the more interesting challengers this fall, as the “60 Minutes” correspondent Leslie Cockburn jumped in as the Democratic party nominee hoping to turn his red seat blue. Garrett’s fundraising ability seemed to shrink as the campaign wore on, alarming fellow Republicans and Congressional leaders concerned about losing his seat.

Cockburn’s web site doesn’t specifically address cannabis legalization, but she vows to reform the student “school-to-prison pipeline,” reduce mass incarceration, reform the bail and asset forfeiture laws, and support healthy solutions to the opioid crisis.

What a Week

Garrett’s decision came after a particularly wacky and difficult week for the Congressman.

The week’s Politico headlines pretty much told the tale. Early in the week, the site featured the banner, “Garrett in Turmoil, Might Quit Congress.” The following day, the House member refuted the claim: “Reeling Garrett Decides to Run Again.” Then last Friday, the political outlet ran a highly critical portrait of Garrett that claimed the Congressman mistreated his staff, often making them run personal errands for himself and his wife. “Ex-aides Say Congressman Made Them His Servants” was the header on that one. Also last week, Garrett’s chief of staff abruptly quit, apparently over a dispute about the use of government resources. 

Politico’s Alex Isenstadt and John Brenahan reported:

Those who worked in Garrett’s office described a deeply toxic atmosphere. Many staffers feared they would suffer professionally if they did not abide by commands to do personal work for the congressman and his wife.

Some aides were expected to shuttle Garrett’s children several hours to and from his district. Others were expected to pick up the congressman from his home when he overslept. Others walked the dog, who would sometimes defecate on the office floor.

“Not for fear of losing or for lack of love for our great nation, today I am announcing that I will not seek reelection,” he said in his videotaped statement. “Sometimes winning means knowing where your priorities should be. My devotion to the ideals and beliefs in America has not wavered, but my commitment to be the best husband, father and friend means addressing the only truth I’ve been heretofore unwilling to tell. God has blessed America and he’s blessed me. I am not dying. I am starting anew. With work and dedication, great things can be done. This isn’t an ending for me or my values of service to my fellow man. It’s just a new beginning.”

Others in Trouble

Garrett wasn’t the only conservative Republican legalization advocate facing a tough re-election battle. Longtime Congress member Dana Rohrabacher, who represents the traditional Republican stronghold of Orange County, Calif., is struggling to retain his seat, which he has used to defend the rights of medical marijuana patients around the nation.

Leafly’s Peter Hecht wrote earlier this year that Rohrabacher’s bid for a 16th term “is in peril of wipeout amid a political rip tide of Trump and the Russians. Changing times and district demographics are also taking a toll.” A poll by the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies found that 48th district voters, by a 51 percent to 41 percent margin, say they are unlikely to back him in November.

Last week the Orange County Register reported that “for the first time in 15 terms, Rohrabacher, a perennial shoo-in, might finally have cause to worry about his incumbency.”

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Bruce Barcott
Bruce Barcott
Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott oversees news, investigations, and feature projects. He is a Guggenheim Fellow and author of Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America.
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