A once-powerful organizer in the marijuana legalization movement has picked up a new cause and is lobbying for the decriminalization of sex work—over objections from some women alarmed by sexual misconduct accusations in his past.
The organizer, Rob Kampia, was a fixture in the highly successful push to legalize marijuana for almost two decades. But when allegations that he slept with employees and created a sexualized office culture resurfaced this year, he was forced out of two major roles.
Now Kampia has taken on a new position as co-director of the multistate organization Decriminalize Sex Work, despite the urging of some in the movement for him to stay away.
The group—launched this week by Kampia, a criminal defense attorney, a social worker, a former sex worker, and three activists from the marijuana legalization movement—aims to pass state laws that would allow consensual adult sex work in private residences, hotel rooms or licensed businesses.
Kampia told The Daily Beast the group has been in the works for years, with support from major marijuana-legalization funders, but gained traction after a summit last year in the Bay Area.
Multiple sources with knowledge of the situation say activists who attended that summit were shocked to learn of the sexual misconduct accusations against Kampia and urged him not to attach his name to their movement.
Some 20 attendees presented Kampia with a list of demands, these sources said, including that he not associate publicly with any decriminalization groups and that he not share any information from the summit publicly. The sources said Kampia was dismissive of their concerns.
Kampia said the concerns were expressed by approximately half of the attendees, but that he did not expect everyone to agree on his plans. He also suggested that some of the dissenters were simply upset about a newcomer invading their “turf,” and boasted that he was one of the few people with the resources, experiences and expertise to mount a successful campaign.
“I don’t like it when people try to push me into an area where they're trying to portray me as needing to be on some kind of sex offender registry list, because I didn’t do anything to deserve that kind of treatment,” he said. “So just because some people want to blow it up and make it a bigger deal, it doesn't mean I have to abide by that.”
The allegations of sexual harassment date back to Kampia’s time as executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest organization lobbying exclusively for marijuana legalization in the United States. The non-profit has been very effective—41 states have legalized marijuana since its founding—but has also been roiled by tales of rampant sexual misconduct in the workplace.
In 2010, former employees told the Washington City Paper that Kampia had dated a 19-year-old MPP intern, told another female employee that he wanted to give a “breast massage” to a friend who had recently gotten a breast augmentation, and regularly hit on women staffers. One former employee told the paper that he started telling new employees, “Rob is probably going to hit on you. You do not have to do what he says.”
That year, after Kampia slept with a female employee following an office happy hour, four workers quit in frustration. Kampia maintained that the encounter was consensual but agreed to take a three-month medical leave to get therapy, telling the Washington Post, “I just think I’m hypersexualized.”
In 2017, when the allegations resurfaced in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Kampia’s former chief of staff, Alison Green, labeled him a “serial sexual harasser.” Kampia left his role at MPP shortly thereafter, and was ousted from the National Cannabis Industry Association’s board of directors the following year. The NCIA said an internal review uncovered a “pattern of behavior unbecoming of a board member.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast last week, Kampia did not deny that he slept with a subordinate in 2010 or used “crude language” in the office, but said he had not broken any laws or violated any office policies. He noted that MPP instituted stricter sexual harassment policies following the 2010 incident and said he’d lived with “a halo over [his] head” since then. He said the NCIA board had not specified what the complaints against him were this year.
“Two-thirds, three-quarters of the [MPP] staff was using crude language, inappropriate remarks, et cetera, and the reason that people kept doing that is because no one was complaining,” he said. “And so I wasn't even nearly the biggest culprit. The only reason I was in the news and no one else was in the news is that I’m actually more famous.”
Kaytlin Bailey, the group’s communications director, said the members of Decriminalize Sex Work were aware of the previous allegations against Kampia but were personally comfortable working with him in his capacity as a fundraiser. She emphasized that the group was being co-directed by a group of activists with years of experience in the movement, including a lawyer who has defended sex workers and survivors of trafficking for more than a decade.
“I don’t claim to speak for sex workers, no one can. We’re not a homogenous group,” Bailey said. “But sex workers ought to know better than anyone that no one is disposable. Everyone makes mistakes and no one is perfect. Righteousness is a helluva drug, but it doesn’t get results.
“I believe that as a movement if we continue to attack the people trying to help we will inevitably fail,” she added. “Moral purity and righteous rage is for the other side, the people trying to put sex workers behind bars.”
Stacey Swimme, an activist who worked with Kampia on marijuana legalization and connected him with several sources in the sex workers’ rights movement, disagreed. She said she was warned Kampia had sexually aggressive tendencies when she first met him nearly 15 years ago, and now regrets introducing him to advocates.
“It’s time for him to step aside and let the funders who genuinely care about the rights of sex workers have these relationships with trusted organizations with sex workers,” she said. “He just wants to create something he can be in charge of. This is really a vanity project, not a functional rights organization.”