Pete Stark's Faltering Re-Election Campaign Could Hurt Marijuana Legalization Advocates

Pot advocates have already been hard hit by the retirement announcements of Reps. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who've long lobbied to remove marijuana from the list of federally regulated substances. Now they could lose another political figure who has been a key supporter of the movement.

Rep. Pete Stark, the irascible California liberal and 20-term veteran of Congress, is facing a surprisingly competitive race in California's 15th congressional district, where a string of campaign gaffes have left him vulnerable to the attacks of his relatively unknown competitor in the Democratic primary, Eric Swalwell.

Stark has made a series of confounding assertions and unsubstantiated charges in recent weeks. In an interview with The San Francisco Chronicle, he confused failed California solar company Solyndra with the electric car company Tesla, telling the Chronicle's editors, "I wish I had enough expense allowance to get one of those new S's that Solyndra's going to make down there -- the electric car. They run $60,000 to $90,000."

Stark is a liberal icon. He has opposed America's involvement in ill-conceived wars, come down hard on irresponsible financial institutions, supported health care reform and a slew of social programs, and fought for the poor.

Stark is an Air Force veteran and was a banker before defeating a 14-term incumbent for his House seat in 1972 on an anti-Vietnam War platform. Now California's longest-serving member, he's also Congress' only avowed atheist.

A son from his first marriage is an Alameda County deputy district attorney. He also has a 16-year-old son and 10-year-old twins from his current marriage.

In all his years in office Stark, 80, has had only one primary challenger, whom he beat resoundingly with 84 percent of the vote. But significant redistricting coupled with a new primary system that sends the two candidates with the most votes into the November general election, whatever their political party, has placed Stark's seat suddenly in danger.

Stark has been a vocal advocate for medical marijuana dispensaries, introducing legislation, HR 1985, pushing back against the Internal Revenue Service when the IRS sought to keep shops from deducting ordinary business operating expenses like payroll, rent and insurance from their taxes.

"Federal intimidation is the primary impediment to fully implementing state medical cannabis laws," reported Cannabis Times Magazine earlier this year. "We cannot have a well-regulated, transparent medical cannabis program until the federal government and agencies step back and let the states do their jobs. Congressman Stark’s HR 1985 is a step in that direction. Medical cannabis advocates should support HR 1985 and other new federal legislation, so that we can finally put a stop to the federal interference."

A Chronicle video documents some of the gaffes that could spell trouble for Stark's campaign.