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Earl Blumenauer was a 25-year-old “child legislator” in the Oregon House of Representatives in 1973, as he recalled it, when he realized there was something wrong about marijuana.
Not that he knew this firsthand.
“At that point, I don’t think I’d ever seen anybody even smoke marijuana,” said the Democratic U.S. representative, now 75 and a year from his recently announced retirement after 50 years in public life, the past 27 representing the 3rd District of Oregon, including deep-blue Portland, in Congress.
And not that he knows that now, at least not in a firsthand way: The co-chair and co-founder of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus – who predicts the 2020s will be the decade when Congress legalizes marijuana federally – swears he’s never used marijuana.
Instead, he recognized early on that how society treated cannabis users was way off.
Back then, he recalled in a recent phone interview with MJBizDaily, Oregon was still jailing late-stage alcoholics – a punitive and cruel approach that didn’t solve anything.
“It was during a time we were going through a reset to not criminalize people’s addictions,” he said.
Incarcerating marijuana users, it stood to reason, was also an unjustified waste of resources, according to Blumenauer.
But the more he learned about cannabis during a six-month research period, the more he became convinced marijuana should not be criminalized at all.
This was something that was, for the most part, relatively harmless when compared to alcohol and tobacco – and, in the eyes of many, it was a well-established medicine.
“It was stunning to me to learn that cannabis had virtually no effect on people compared to what happens when they smoke tobacco,” he said.
“The further I got into it, the more powerfully I felt that changing this policy was the right thing to do.”
Late bloomer in cannabis circles
Despite the early start, marijuana reform was a relatively late act for Blumenauer.
In fact, it is possible to discuss Blumenauer’s long career in public life and not mention “marijuana” once, as NPR did recently.
NPR’s “exit interview” with the 13-term congressman focused on his decadeslong advocacy for public transportation and bicycle commuting.
To this day, Blumenauer is rarely photographed without his signature bow tie and bicycle-shaped lapel pin.
But his national profile has never been larger over his career than it’s been over the past decade.
And this coincides with the wave of states legalizing marijuana that began in Colorado and Washington in 2012 and spread to Oregon in 2014 – the third U.S. state to approve recreational sales.
In that time, Blumenauer firmly staked out a lane as a leading voice calling for federal banking and taxation reform for the cannabis industry.
He lent support – and later his name – to the landmark budget amendment handcuffing the U.S. Department of Justice from taking action against state-legal medical marijuana businesses.
Legalization had better organized and better funded campaigns, yes.
But advocates still had to convince voters.
‘Their position softened’
So it was just a measure of more and more Americans having the same revelation Blumenauer did – an inevitable development, as long as the facts were available to them.
“I found the more I was able to talk to people, their position softened,” Blumenauer said.
Now, 70% of Americans share his view on marijuana legalization – and more than 90% support medical cannabis.
“It’s like the Fourth of July,” he said. “Almost everybody agrees.”
Now, a half-century after the Controlled Substances Act was signed into law by then-President Richard Nixon, the job of undoing that policy remains undone.
“I will tell you that when we started on this issue, the case was so strong for reform I thought we’d make more progress and we’d make it faster,” Blumenauer said.
But he recalled the culture shock when, arriving in Washington DC in 1996, the high-level officials he met were “completely consumed by ‘Just Say No’ and Nancy Reagan.”
Among these, many would include then-Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the sponsor of the 1994 crime bill now seen as responsible for filling U.S. prisons with nonviolent drug offenders.
That would be the same Joe Biden whose October 2022 executive order to revisit marijuana’s status under federal law led to a rescheduling recommendation this past August.
Clearly something is working. And prohibition won’t return.
If nothing else, it’s just practical politics.
The marijuana-Biden tie
Blumenauer is convinced marijuana played a role in Biden’s election as president in 2020.
That year, young voters flocked to polls in Arizona to pass an adult-use legalization measure.
And Biden won the state – but by only 21,000 votes.
Blumenauer is also convinced marijuana is what gave Democrats control of the Senate, with now-Sen. John Fetterman’s advocacy for cannabis as a lieutenant governor the difference-maker.
“It was the cannabis voters that made the difference,” he said.
Regardless of what they may do or say publicly, the White House gets it. Blumenauer’s tried to make sure of it.
“I have taken every opportunity when dealing with senior members of the administration and their political team to make the case that, first of all, nobody has ever been punished for embracing cannabis reform,” he said.
“Second, what I just told you a moment ago: If it weren’t for cannabis voters, Joe Biden would not have carried that state.
“I’ve beaten this drum and I’ve talked to cabinet secretaries, and I think on some level, there’s understanding.”
That might lead to something beyond the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s expected approval of moving marijuana from Schedule 1 to Schedule 3, which would provide immediate tax relief to legal marijuana businesses.
Biden’s 2024 reelection campaign – polls indicate the president faces a tough challenge from Donald Trump – just might turn to marijuana, according to Blumenauer.
“If I wanted Joe Biden to win, and if I wanted to energize young voters and speak to the cries for racial justice, what better way to do it than to finish the job of legalization and ending the failed war on drugs?” Blumenauer asked.
As he prepares to leave office next year, Blumenauer said his marijuana advocacy “has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in 54 years. And I don’t say this lightly, but I think it helped transform society.
“And we’re not done yet – we’re going to get it across the finish line.”
Blumenauer then made a prediction that, 50 years ago, might have been seen as absurd and, in the era of congressional stalemates, feels bold: The 2020s are when federal legalization finally happens.
“I think this is the decade,” he said. “This is the decade of decision.”
Chris Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.