On the Front Lines CULTURE's exclusive interview with Rep. Earl Blumenauer

Photo credit: Steven Purcell. Brookings Debate: Should the federal government remove marijuana from its list of Schedule I drugs?

Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer is doing more for the cannabis industry than almost any other politician in Washington. Alongside other politicians who are in favor of cannabis reform at a federal level, Rep. Blumenauer has introduced a large number cannabis-centric bills to Congress. These bills support veterans’ access to cannabis, gain racial equity for cannabis businesses and criminal justice equity for individuals affected by the failed “War on Drugs.” He has also been part of various bills that aim to regulate and tax state cannabis operations on a federal level. CULTURE recently obtained an exclusive interview with Rep. Earl Blumenauer, as he was in the middle of a House voting session.

 

The “War on Drugs” has failed, yet refuses to die.

It has been a tremendously upsetting process. First of all, we’ve wasted a trillion dollars that we could have spent on other things. It has fallen disproportionately on young people, especially young men of color, African-Americans, particularly. It’s contributed to disrupting a million lives. We’ve needlessly incarcerated nonviolent drug offenders for long periods of time, in some cases for things that most Americans think should no longer be illegal. It really does have a devastating effect on individuals, on neighborhoods and criminalizing behaviors on otherwise law-abiding citizens. It’s frustrating, because cannabis has been part of human society for thousands of years. It has proven therapeutic effects, and the “War on Drugs” has destroyed the fabric of many communities. It has put people at a disadvantage for their entire lives, and it has denied access, in some cases, for therapies that could have transformative impacts. We’ve embarked on international policies that have dramatically disrupted countries in Latin America, promoting violence, destabilizing governments. It’s hard to overstate the dramatic sweep and negative impact of this 40-year failed [“War on Drugs”].

 

The Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment has been extended at least nine times. Why is it only extended for months or weeks at a time?

That’s a reflection of how seriously flawed the budget process has been here in Congress. It is tied to Prohibition on expending federal money to interfere with otherwise state-legal activities. It has been limited, in some cases, to a few months or a few weeks because that is how the federal government has been funding its operations. Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment is a victim of the dysfunctional budget process.

 

You introduced the SAFE Banking Act HR-2215. Who or what is currently blocking depository institutions providing services to cannabis businesses?

We have administrations that have been very skittish about enacting broad regulatory reform. There’s no reason. Not a single good reason to deny state-legal cannabis businesses access to banking services. In fact, I’ve been working in this issue for decades—I think longer than any other elected official in the United States. It’s at risk for robbery and theft; it’s an invitation to money laundering, to tax evasion, and it [hampers] the ability of emerging businesses to be fully functional. No other business is subjected to that treatment and no other business should be. Because there are people in Republican leadership here who are unwilling to allow us to actually deal meaningfully with these issues, it’s very hard to get a chance to vote on it. Ironically, the Trump Administration actually has not rescinded the Obama-era guidance to Treasury, surrounding banking. But people in the financial industry are leery of running [afoul] of federal regulations that were designed to deal with money laundering and illegal activities.

 

House seats are being flipped from the deep south to the rust belt. Is this working in your favor?

Absolutely. Because it looks now like there’s an excellent chance that there will be a change in leadership in the House of Representatives. Having a change in leadership is going to make all the difference in the world. We haven’t been able to get a fair shot to be able to deal with this. The amendment we talked about earlier, the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment, has had stronger support every year in Congress. I have legislation that would provide veterans with access to legal marijuana. When we first introduced that years ago, it was close; we got a strong vote, but not the majority. Since then, we’ve had subsequent votes and each one has more strength and last Congress; it passed both the House and the Senate. I’m optimistic that the election is going to produce a Congress that is even more strongly supportive of marijuana reform and the emerging cannabis industry.

 

Would you say that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ approach to state cannabis laws is backfiring?

I think it has had a significant amount of blowback. Sessions is on the wrong side of history. Plus, he’s wrong about the facts. Nobody dies from a marijuana overdose. We’re in the midst of an opioid crisis with real people dying in increased numbers. And there’s evidence that when we’ve had access to medical marijuana, we’ve had fewer opioid deaths. Sessions is wrong on the facts, he’s wrong on the politics, and he’s building backlash. If they actually go ahead and become more aggressive and intrusive, I think it will have a major effect on the 2018 elections. Cannabis has already galvanized voters. If they go ahead and attack, it’s going to create a tidal wave of support. When Donald Trump was on the ballot, cannabis got more votes than Donald Trump. He’s had a lot of supporters who support what we’re doing and oppose the Sessions interference.

 “Sessions is on the wrong side of history. Plus, he’s wrong about the facts. Nobody dies from a marijuana overdose. We’re in the midst of an opioid crisis with real people dying in increased numbers. And there’s evidence that when we’ve had access to medical marijuana, we’ve had fewer opioid deaths.”

The REFER Act of 2018 would create protections for both recreational and medical cannabis. Why is this needed now?

This is one of over two dozen pieces of legislation that we have. We have a bipartisan Cannabis Caucus where we’ve been working on these items for the last three or four years. They’re not able to move, because of the opposition of Republican leadership. I think it’s a good idea to basically expand the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer Amendment [provisions] to all state-level activities.

 

What legislation are you working on currently that involves cannabis?

We have matrix developed—over two dozen bills in the House of bipartisan nature. I personally work with other members to support these ideas. There are a couple of elements that I think bear special attention. One is bipartisan legislation with Congressman Harris from Maryland on cannabis research. Right now, the paramount problem that prevents research from going forward on marijuana is that you can only get marijuana for research purposes from one plantation legally in Mississippi. It’s very difficult to get, and it’s poor quality. Researchers can’t just score cannabis from state-legal operations, because it wouldn’t be recognized for purposes of approved research for federal purposes.

“I’m optimistic that the election is going to produce a Congress that is even more strongly supportive of marijuana reform and the emerging cannabis industry.”

blumenauer.house.gov

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