A conversation with Benjamin Thomas Wolf on his career, his politics and, of course, his love of cannabis.
Last week, we reported on a groundbreaking campaign ad run by Benjamin Thomas Wolf and his team. Wolf is currently in the running for a seat in Congress, hoping to represent the 5th District of Illinois. Wolf is competing against the current congressional face of the 5th District and fellow Democratic Party member Representative Mike Quigley.
The primary elections will take place this month, on March 20. Wolf and his campaign team have been working tirelessly to win over voters in his district. But his most recent campaign ad went viral throughout the nation.
The ad was simple, yet powerful. It was a photograph of Wolf sitting in an armchair in front of a painting of the American flag. Wolf wears professional attire and a calmly defiant expression. He vaguely resembles the iconic Mad Men protagonist Don Draper. The difference is that he isn’t holding a glass of liquor. Instead, in his hand is a joint, complete with wisps of smoke wafting over his head.
Now known as the Cannabis Candidate, Benjamin Thomas Wolf has made this photograph and his openly pro-legalization stance central to his campaign.
We caught up with him over the phone to discuss his background, his politics and his love of cannabis.
Benjamin Thomas Wolf was born and raised in Kent, Ohio. Both of his parents were public school teachers. They instilled in Wolf and his siblings the value of education and hard work. Wolf remembers sitting at the table doing his homework next to his parents who were grading papers.
“We watched them work night and day,” Wolf says. “I credit my parents for most of my early success in life.”
But while he had always been a good student, a class trip to Washington, DC when he was in 8th grade proved revelatory.
“It was magic for me,” he tells us. “I remember it like it was yesterday—standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, looking out at the reflecting pool, seeing the Washington Monument, the Capitol, the White House, the Jefferson Memorial…I stood there transfixed. I just remember saying to my friends, ‘I feel really good here. I want to live here one day.”
“Everything in my life was to get back to Washington, DC,” he says. “Everything.”
From that point on, Wolf set out to achieve his goal with a laser focus. He volunteered every summer at various agencies, courts and sheriff departments.
“I worked through high school and college because I knew that any government agency would want someone who was mature, had good leadership skills and was a complete person,” he says.
Wolf attended college at Kent State University. There, he studied political science and criminal justice. He also joined an ROTC program, where he learned military tactics.
During his senior year, he was accepted to an internship on Capitol Hill. It was called the Washington Program in National Issues. It was an internship that changed his life.
Wolf tells us about the most eventful day of his internship. When he was leaving the building to go home for the day, he bumped into a woman who was also leaving.
“She looked me up and down and asked me what I wanted to do with my life,” he remembers. “I said, ‘Well, Ma’am, I want to serve my country one day.’ She said, ‘Good’, handed me a business card, and told me to see her the next week.”
The woman worked for the FBI. When Wolf went to see her the following week, she gave him the disappointing news that at 22 years old, he was too young to be a special agent. But she quickly made up for it by handing him an application for a classified job.
“She couldn’t tell me what it was,” he says. “It was like something out of a movie.”
He turned in the application and consented to a background check. When he graduated, he drove himself to Los Angeles for a well-deserved break. He lived with his uncle and spent his days surfing and enjoying the sunshine. Then he got a phone call from his father. The FBI had been asking his family and friends about him.
“My dad asked, ‘What did you do?'” Wolf laughs.
Eventually, Wolf received a conditional letter of employment from the Bureau. He completed his training at Quantico and was assigned to a covert unit that investigated espionage, counterintelligence and terrorists.
He tells us that his first big case was the Robert Hanssen investigation. It was his team that surveilled and trapped the spy for Soviet and Russian intelligence agencies.
He was also one of the first responders at the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, and was among the first 20 agents to volunteer to go to Iraq at the beginning of the war.
In 2003, Wolf was transferred to the State Department as a special agent and a diplomat. In this position, he investigated kidnapping, fraud and trafficking.
Additionally, he served in Interpol for two years and worked in Africa for four.
“I was in Algeria for two years and Senegal for two years,” he says. “[I saw] the beauty and romantic aspects of countries that are often neglected.”
Wolf eventually relocated to Chicago to work towards a Ph.D. in International Psychology. It was in Chicago that his political career took off. And it was all thanks to a city-wide ban on Airbnb.
He started a nonprofit to overturn the ban. During this time, he started to get increasingly concerned about the city officials and management of Chicago. And about the management of the nation as a whole.
“Can we talk about cannabis for a minute?” he suddenly says.
Wolf recounts how he started smoking cannabis two or three years ago in Chicago. He had a asked a friend, who was entrenched in the cannabis community, if he could try it with her. He had never consumed it as a teenager or adult because he didn’t want to risk his future career in the government.
“We sat on the couch and shared a small joint. I only had one hit,” he says. “We just sat on the couch and laughed and talked and it was just such a wonderful, happy experience.”
“The government does a great job of vilifying it.”
While Wolf tells us he uses cannabis “routinely,” it’s not an every-day thing for him. He says he uses a one-hitter “maybe every other evening.”
“I think it makes me a better person,” he says. “It makes me calmer, more creative, more empathetic. I couldn’t be happier to have cannabis in my life.”
For Benjamin Thomas Wolf, there was no question that marijuana legalization would be central to his political platform.
“I am proud to be the Cannabis Candidate,” he says. “I knew that I wanted to talk openly about cannabis and I knew that a picture would be powerful.”
He’s talking, of course, about the campaign ad.
“My campaign consultant said, ‘All you have to do is stand in front of an American flag with a beer; it’ll win the campaign for you. I said, ‘we need to evolve further. I want to stand in front of an American flag smoking a joint.'”
He tells us that the photo was taken right in his living room. The painting of the American flag is his own.
He goes on to talk about the finer points in his pro-cannabis political stance.
“Number one, cannabis is medicine. Cannabis is medicine for millions of Americans,” he starts. “That is the most important thing to me. Number two, [legalization] is the first step to true criminal justice. And number three, cannabis brings billions of dollars to the states that legalize it. They have billions of dollars for education, for counseling, for drug rehab.”
“With the opioid epidemic, cannabis is really the answer.”
Wolf brings up the Trump administration, Jeff Sessions and the Republican majority House and Senate.
“There’s a silver lining to this presidency,” he says confidently. “People are waking up and organizing. People will vote more. I think in the long run, this is a good thing for us. Trump’s tenure as president will end. There’s no doubt about that. In the meantime, if we win, we will go around the country and help other Democrats win to flip the house. Right now, I think the United States is looking for Democratic leadership.”
“Every day, every hour, every breath I will be fighting this president,” he pledges.
The other issues that Wolf is fighting for are universal healthcare, the environment and gun control.
“Every person in America deserves health care, both medical and mental,” he says. To go along with medical and mental health care, he brings up the hot-button issue of civilians owning assault rifles.
“We released an ad with me holding an AR-15 assault rifle,” he tells us. “I carried this in the Iraq War. It’s not appropriate to sell this weapon to civilians. These are weapons designed to kill tens of people at a time. They have no place in American society. Kids come home and talk about active shooter drills. We have to act quickly as a nation.”
Healthcare and gun control are polarizing issues among Americans. But Benjamin Thomas Wolf is confident that cannabis brings people together.
“It really is the common denominator for this campaign,” he says. “Cannabis is the one platform that truly extends to all people. It is the most popular platform since starting this campaign. Cannabis legalization transcends all age groups and demographics.”
Benjamin Thomas Wolf calls cannabis a “wonderful substance” and is confident that federal legalization is imminent. His goal for the cannabis-centered campaign, in addition, of course, to win votes, is to help eliminate the stigma that is still attached to consuming the herb.
“I am a more evolved person, a better father and a better public servant because of cannabis,” he says.
He also credits his progressive political stances on yoga (“I’ve done yoga every day for the past 20 years.”) and attending Burning Man, on the recommendation of his yoga teacher.
“It’s the freest a person can be in America,” he says of the experience.
The primary elections in Illinois take place March 20. Wolf’s campaign website includes links to voter registrations and lists of locations where one can cast their ballot.
Wolf emphasizes his faith in voting and the democratic system. And he’s confident that he’s the right candidate to lead his district.
Our conversation ended with these parting words of wisdom from Congressional Candidate Benjamin Thomas Wolf:
“Great leadership isn’t taking people where they want to go,” he says. “But where they need to go.”
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