NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Run down the list of names and titles at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the biggest conservative confab of the year. There are at least a dozen potential presidential candidates. The head of the Republican National Committee. The former CEO of the National Rifle Association.
And then there was … Ann Marie Buerkle, the commissioner of the Consumer Product Safety Commission… from the Obama administration?
“It’s great to be back!” she told Fusion in an interview at the conference on Thursday.
“My foundation has always been Republican and conservative,” added Buerkle, who was at the conference in a personal capacity unrelated to her official position. “And that’s what my record was in Congress too.”
Buerkle was seemingly the most unlikely guest at the party this week. But she’s a familiar name to conservatives. She’s a one-term congresswoman from an upstate New York district that includes Syracuse, and she first swept into Congress during the Tea Party wave of 2010.
This was her first appearance at CPAC since 2013, before President Barack Obama appointed her to fill one of the two Republican slots on the commission. She was at the conference in a capacity unrelated to the office, speaking as a private citizen. But incidentally, the only person who happened to be there from the Obama administration at the conference was arguing in favor of perhaps the least progressive policy stance there.
Buerkle debated former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson at the conference about the legalization of marijuana, on the same day it became legalized in the nation’s capital. (The debate started, promptly, at 4:20 p.m. ET.)
Johnson, a staunch libertarian who supports legalization, and Buerkle, who opposes it, went back and forth for nearly an hour on the stage of the main ballroom.
Buerkle played the part of mother and grandmother of 16 grandchildren, warning against what she called the dangers of marijuana. She cited statistics to bolster her case, including a one-in-five risk increase for heart attacks . It made Johnson, who is now the CEO of a company that hopes to sell recreational marijuana, keel over in laughter.
But Buerkle was unwavering, arguing that the U.S. was on the verge of discovering that marijuana is just as harmful as tobacco.
“We are on the cusp of finding out just what kind of damage this drug can do,” Buerkle said during the debate. ”Do we want to stupefy our youth? That’s what marijuana and drugs do.”
Buerkle told Fusion she was invited to speak on the panel because of her background as a nurse and health-care professional. But she is keenly aware of the fact that she might be on the wrong side of a trend, even with the conservative crowd she spoke to at CPAC.
A recent Pew Research poll found that 52 percent of Americans now support legalizing marijuana. And 63 percent of Republican millennials — the kind of crowd that dominates CPAC — support legalization, compared with minorities in every other generation.
“I think public opinion is only shifting because of a failure to recognize the truth about today’s marijuana and a failure to admit it,” Buerkle said. “I think it can be stopped.”
In a personal capacity, she also was critical of the way the Obama administration’s Department of Justice has approached legalization in the states of Colorado and Washington. In mid-2013, the department issued new guidelines in light of the state-ballot initiatives and announced they wouldn't legally challenge the states' policies.
Drug policy is one area where Buerkle favors the federal government getting involved, because of what she repeatedly referred to as a public-health issue. She made the argument that marijuana today is much more chemically potent, and therefore dangerous, than it was decades ago.
“I am a states-rights person,” she told Fusion. “However, when you’ve got a federal statute that says marijuana is illegal under the Federal Controlled Substances Act, then you have a problem when you start letting the states do that.
“If you’re going to change it, then that’s the law that has to be changed, and then let the states decide. But in my mind, as long as there’s a federal statute, then that’s the law of the land.”
Buerkle isn't ruling out a return to politics someday. But on paper, she's becoming more of an unlikely guest as a Republican than as a member of the Obama administration.
In addition to the legalization debate, CPAC also featured panels and discussion about reforming the criminal-justice system, an issue that is gaining traction on both the left and right. A major part of that discussion includes doing away with the mandatory-minimum penalties that are a recurring feature of marijuana-related offenses.
But if the audience during and after her panel is any indication, although public opinion may be clearly shifting to one side, it's still an issue that inspires passionate debate. As this reporter waited to speak with Buerkle after the panel, at least four young Republicans came up to her and thanked her for speaking.
Said Buerkle: "That's why I do it."
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.