Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a chief advocate for marijuana reform in Congress, told Marijuana Moment in a new interview that sees the finish line to get a comprehensive legalization bill through the House coming up in the near future.
And in the meantime, he’s secured another victory in the House after his spending bill amendment to protect all state, territory and tribal cannabis programs from federal intervention cleared the chamber in a notably bipartisan vote this month.
While the congressman is focused on advancing federal marijuana policy change, he’s also paying close attention to broader drug policy reform movements that have materialized in his home state of Oregon, where voters will be deciding on historic ballot measures to decriminalize all illicit drug possession and legalize psilocybin mushrooms for therapeutic purposes this November.
Blumenauer is supportive of all these efforts, he said. Congress might be generally preoccupied with coronavirus relief and policing reform legislation, but he’s working behind the scenes to see through his step-by-step blueprint to end federal marijuana prohibition—while maintaining a focus on racial equity for communities targeted by the war on drugs.
In a phone interview, the Cannabis Caucus co-chair discussed his work on marijuana policy, his thoughts on presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s ongoing opposition to legalization, drug reform beyond cannabis and more.
Marijuana Moment’s Patreon supporters can listen to the audio recording of our conversation with Blumenauer. In addition to the topics covered in this publicly available writeup of the interview, the congressman also talks about reports that the House could vote on a standalone bill to deschedule cannabis next month and how that could procedurally happen.
The exclusive audio clip is available for supporters who help make our cannabis journalism possible with monthly pledges of $10 or more.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Marijuana Moment: To start things off, I wanted to hear about next steps since the House passage of your amendment to protect state marijuana laws from federal interference.
Earl Blumenauer: We were quite pleased with the vote… The next steps as far as I’m concerned, first and foremost, we’ve been working so that the racial justice package should include legalization of cannabis. The latest year’s statistics were available, over 700,000 people were arrested or cited for something that now more than two-thirds of the American public thinks should be fully legal. That point of intersection has a whole host of negative consequences for black lives. And I’ve been pretty relentless arguing that this needs to be in the justice package. Now, this was the result, as you know, of black leadership and I respect them. I have quietly lobbied that this be included.
I’ve taken it to the caucus, saying, ‘remember this.’ It is probably the single most profound thing we could do to protect black lives. I mean, there are repeated examples of where a point of contact with police for cannabis goes bad with tragic consequences. Even if it doesn’t result in some sort of violent altercation, getting primarily black young men involved with the criminal justice system is not a healthy circumstance, particularly when there’s no reason for it to happen.
We’re arguing that it’s time. We also have, as you know, seen the passage of the MORE Act through the Judiciary Committee. It’s actually ready to come to the floor. And so I’m lobbying to not go through the other subsequent referrals of other committees. But let’s just bite the bullet and pass this. I think this is something that is supported. I know it’s supported by the chair of the Judiciary Committee, and we have areas of support for the legislation from Commerce and Ways and Means, arguing we just cut to the chase and get this passed.
We’ve got the SAFE Banking Act that House leadership was kind enough to make part of our last COVID package and sent to the Senate in the HEROES Act—a relatively small step and it is strongly supported by a number of Republicans in the Senate. This is something that will make a big difference to allow the industry to be able to function normally. It’s of particular interest to the smaller operators—people who are literally the mom and pop, many minority license holders. It’s really tough for them to go through the rigmarole. We’re working, taking care of the banking, supporting our amendment in the appropriations process and arguing that this ought to be included in the package for racial justice.
MM: Have you been talking to any Senate offices about introducing identical language to your protect-states amendment in their chamber’s version of the Justice Department spending bill?
EB: I have not yet, but I’m planning on it.
MM: I think you might agree with me that one of the more surprising vote flips this year compared to last came from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), the former Democratic National Committee chair. We observed you have a fairly animated conversation with the congresswoman on the House floor just prior to her vote—is there anything you can share about the arguments you made that might’ve convinced her to vote favorably?
EB: You know, I don’t feel that it’s useful to talk about conversations with colleagues. This has been an area that Debbie and I have talked about over the years, just in terms of substance, but I don’t really have any comment.
Marijuana Moment asked Blumenauer about our recent report about congressional leaders’ plans to advance a cannabis descheduling bill to the House floor in September.
The congressman’s answers to that question, and the full audio of our interview, are available exclusively for Marijuana Moment supporters pledging at least $10/month on Patreon.
MM: Advocates were disappointed last month when the Democratic National Committee’s platform committee rejected an amendment to add legalization as a 2020 party plank. What’s your reaction to that vote?
EB: I’m not particularly concerned. The way that we’re going to be able to end the failed prohibition of cannabis is with legislation. Party platforms, I’m sorry, I’ve been to a number of national conventions. I’ve never read a platform all the way through. I’ve never seen a platform drive legislative achievement. Occasionally, there are things that are in the platform that are targets for weird ads. But platforms? No, I’m sorry, I’m not going to waste any time and energy on the platform.
The majority of people on that platform committee actually support what we’re trying to do. I think you’re going to see, in the course of the next couple months, it’s going to be clear that the Democratic Party supports ending the failed policy of prohibition. I’m quite confident of that and I’m not worried at all about that hiccup. I spent no time on it and don’t think it’s worth it. I think the things we’re working on in terms of moving legislation for research, for banking, for ending prohibition, those are the things that matter, and we can actually get them enacted this Congress.
MM: There are some who suspect delegates on the panel felt pressured to vote against it because former Vice President Biden remains opposed to the policy change. What message would you send him on the need to embrace legalization, especially given supermajority support among Democrats?
EB: I have had conversations with team Biden, talking about the overwhelming support for ending the failed prohibition of marijuana. I’ve talked about the political support. I’ve talked about the criminal justice implications. And I’ve had some encouraging conversations. I think at the end of the day, I don’t think the vice president is going to be opposed to full legalization.
I think when we get to the point where there’s a Biden administration, which I desperately hope for, I don’t think there’s going to be any interference with what we’re doing on the federal level and the state level. I have absolute confidence in that.
Let me just say, the vice president has a long and detailed policy history on hundreds and thousands of issues, and we’ve watched the vice president really be engaged this last year. I’ve been impressed with his genuine effort to understand issues. I’ve seen overwhelming evidence that he and his team are getting behind looking at a variety of things. I’ve witnessed a degree of flexibility and willingness to take in new information and new circumstances. You’re seeing it on an ongoing basis.
I have no doubt that when all is said and done, the Biden administration and a Biden Department of Justice will be a constructive player.
MM: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been criticizing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) over her defense of including cannabis banking language in the chamber’s latest coronavirus relief legislation. What do you make of that?
EB: Well, he can check with some of his own endangered Republicans and ask whether or not it’s “germane.” I mean, cannabis was deemed, in state after state, an essential service. We’re talking about $10 billion or more in terms of economic activity. We’ve already talked about the challenges in terms of the safe banking implications. It is real life medicine for millions of people. And the notion that somehow this is just arts and crafts, this is a tangential issue—this is from the guy who stuffed in to the first COVID relief package completely unrelated, $140 billion tax break for people who made a minimum of a half-million dollars, with no showing of impact from the COVID-19 crisis, and he’s going to talk about germaneness? I think there’s a little bit of chutzpah there.
Being able to help this industry stabilize and thrive, reducing a serious public safety threat by having people conduct transactions with duffel bags full of $20 bills, which is an invitation for money laundering, theft, tax evasion. It’s insane and everybody agrees. I was pleased that our leadership took a bill that passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. It wasn’t just that every Democrat but one voted for it. It was 40 percent of the Republicans. There aren’t very many items that would actually help people that have that measure of support.
Finally, I would just note that there are lots of things that Leader McConnell has said. He didn’t want to give any help to state and local governments. Let the states go bankrupt, I believe was his prescription. I think what you’ve seen is that the Senate understands that Democrats are united and that we have a stronger position in terms of doing things that will make a difference for the economy and the health of citizens. He’s got a pretty weak hand. And I don’t take that talk seriously. I mean, it’s not gonna be easy and he has not been helpful except for his Kentucky hemp growers. So you take your help where you get it.
MM: There are two non-marijuana drug policy reform initiatives that qualified for the ballot in your state of Oregon: drug decriminalization and psilocybin legalization for therapeutic use. What can tell me about any plans you have, if any, to help build support for the measures ahead of November?
EB: I think they both have strong merit. I’m going to be making my position clear. I will probably put a voters pamphlet page in, do a little social media, maybe some advertising. I think that the notion of decriminalizing drug use as distinct from legalizing—but dealing with decriminalization, dealing with psilocybin in terms of the research and therapeutic aspects, I think the more attention people pay, the better off we are. And I think it’s important to allow voters to be heard, and I’m certainly going to share my strong feeling that this is a step forward.
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Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.