Marijuana legalization has been a long, uphill battle, but Representative Earl Blumenauer is positive things will only improve from here.
“I know for a fact that this is the most pro-cannabis Congress in history,” the Portland-based legislator said over the phone. “It’s going to continue.”
The Democratic representative for Oregon’s third district since 1996, Blumenauer is a lifelong public servant who has fought for legalization since his time in the state legislature and Portland City Council. A state legislator fresh out of college when Oregon became the first state to decriminalize marijuana in 1973, Blumenauer points to those early debates as foundational for his long standing outlook on the issue.
“I became firmly convinced then as a part of the debate’s research that the failed policy of prohibition of marijuana was ill-advised and unfair and made no sense. It’s something I have continued to work on, it’s an issue I have felt strongly about in Congress.”
At 70 years old, Blumenauer is the fiercest advocate for marijuana in Congress. Assisting nearly 90 candidates throughout the 2018 campaign season, he has become a source of information for those curious about the substance’s current legal standing and future legislative opportunities. The bow-tie loving Congressman may represent one of the safest Democratic districts in the country, but he understands the importance of working across the aisle to end the federal government’s restrictive outlook on weed.
Blumenauer is a co-founder and co-chair of the Cannabis Caucus, a bipartisan group that works to narrow the cannabis policy gap and support other members of Congress with their legalization proposals. Originally established in 2017, the Cannabis Caucus is now co-chaired by Democrats Blumenauer and Barbara Lee (CA-13) as well as Republicans David Joyce (OH-14) and Don Young (AK), another co-founder. Blumenauer calls it a forum for members and staff “to exchange ideas and work together.”
When asked why legalization is often labeled a Democratic issue, Blumenauer blames President Nixon’s “blatantly political” War on Drugs. The restrictive, law enforcement heavy approach proceeded despite the lenient recommendations made in The Report of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse. In Blumenauer’s view, the policies enabled the administration to “demonize people they perceived as their enemies, people of color and kids,” and that attitude set the tempo for the Republican party.
Even though the Congressman can point to numerous examples of Republican leadership torpedoing cannabis legislation, including his own amendments that would have made it easier for the Department of Veterans Affairs to access medical marijuana, he believes federal legalization is becoming an increasingly non-partisan issue.
“We work with Republicans,” Blumenauer said of his ongoing efforts. “All our legislation we work to have bipartisan support to give them another chance, but I think the reason it’s been perceived as something more oriented towards Democrats is Republicans have been on the wrong side of this issue.”
Countering the narrative that marijuana is a gateway drug, the Congressman pointed out that states with legal medical marijuana have fewer opiate deaths per year. Furthermore, he believes that the current system has made it easier for black markets to thrive and target young customers, with dealers often introducing new products as a way to diversify their selection and retain their clientele.
“Having a failed policy of trying to suppress cannabis, failing to regulate, tax and educate, is key to having a thriving black market,” Blumenauer said. “I’ve been campaigning all over the country for years on this and I’ve never been any place where people felt that a young person had a harder time getting a joint than a six-pack of beer.”
To assist his allies in the 116th Congress, Blumenauer released a memo laying out a multi-pronged approach to achieving legalization. With Democrats firmly in control of the House for the first time since the 2010 elections, Blumenauer wants to see a number of different committees hold hearings related to marijuana policy. He even introduced his own bill, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, aptly designated H.R. 420, in January.
The Financial Services Committee, chaired by Maxine Waters (CA-43), was recently approved by the House Financial Services Committee. If signed into law, the bill would allow businesses and individuals associated with the legal cannabis industry to use federal banks, allowing them to safely deposit their cash and access expanded lines of credit.
“The problems surrounding denying the state-legal cannabis industry access to banking services is so ludicrous on its face if you care about money laundering, or theft, or tax evasion,” Blumenauer said of his support for the bill. “This is going to be evolutionary.”
Of critical importance to the Congressman are issues related to social justice, like expunging criminal records and performing acts of restorative justice, to make it easier for communities who were impacted by prohibition to benefit from the legal changes.
“Being able to give them a clean slate, give them an opportunity to participate in a growing economic sector, is important. [The marijuana industry is] going to be bigger than the N.F.L. in a few years and I think that’s going to be an important conversation that we’re going to have more attention on.”
As Congress hums along, the early days of the 2020 campaign have also brought renewed attention to the issue with multiple candidates talking about their former use and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) reintroducing the Marijuana Justice Act. No matter what happens in 2020, Blumenauer isn’t ambiguous about his beliefs for the future as more states get behind legalization of some form.
“Let me just state unequivocally: there will never be another president elect who’s anti-cannabis. It will not happen.”
Of the nine states that had legalization measures on the ballot in 2016, including swing states like Florida and Nevada, cannabis often received a higher percentage of votes than Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, meaning it has become a nonpartisan issue as far as the electorate is concerned. 2016 even saw medical marijuana breach the Bible Belt with the passage of Arkansas’ Issue 6, breaking the seal for neighboring states to develop their own medical industries in the coming years.
It’s a bit of an understatement to say that Blumenauer is optimistic about where things are headed. Sure, someone may rise up and become the new Pete Sessions, a fiery anti-marijuana Republican who Blumenauer referred to as “public enemy number one” in Congress, but with the debate finally moving towards substantial policy questions that’s not what Blumenauer’s focused on.
“There may be a few other people who are there, but I think in the main, it’s highly unlikely that people are going to run out there and lift this banner and crusade against this,” Bluenauer theorized. “We’ll be ready if they do, but I think it’s much less likely.”