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'It's possible lightning can strike': Cannabis-focused congressman says legalization outlook cloudy short-term, bright long-term

Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels

Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer is one of the most prominent voices advocating for marijuana legalization in Congress -- he's one of four founding members of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus.

The Portland, Oregon-based lawmaker’s name might be best known as part of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment — a measure that prevents federal funds from being used to prosecute state-legal marijuana businesses and is considered a key protection for the medical marijuana industry. He said he’s been working on expanding marijuana legalization for four decades (Oregon led the charge by decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1973) and has crisscrossed the country in support of state legalization ballot measures.

But it’s been a tough road for people like him in Washington, D.C. because of the dynamics in the Republican-controlled Congress. Foes of broader marijuana legalization hold key posts on decisive committees and have not allowed such legislation to come up for hearings or advance through the traditional legislative process.

Meanwhile, public opinion polls show changing attitudes on cannabis among voters at large as legalization expands to more states. A Quinnipac University poll released in April, for example, showed 63 percent of people support legalization of recreational marijuana, while 93 percent support medicinal use.

Blumenauer visited Nevada during the August congressional recess to meet with people in the marijuana industry, visit with public television advocates (he’s co-chair of a caucus focused on bolstering funding for public broadcasting) and help fundraise for Democrats Susie Lee and Steven Horsford among animal welfare advocates (he’s advocating for limiting the wild animal trade and says he believes animal issues can be a unifying, bipartisan issue).

He also took time to answer questions from The Nevada Independent about the outlook for marijuana legislation in Washington, D.C. Here are some takeaways from the conversation.

Future of Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment

While the amendment expires in September along with spending authorization, Blumenauer said he’s optimistic the idea won’t die in an election year.

“As a practical matter, I'm confident that it will continue,” he said. “They can't afford to have the government shut down immediately before the election. That's just not going to happen.”

He said he’s been frustrated with Republican leadership, which “has become just aggressively hostile and has not allowed us to vote on these individual provisions.” For example, earlier this summer the rules committee blocked an amendment that would have allowed doctors within the Veterans Administration to recommend medical marijuana, preventing it from coming up for a vote in the full House.

But he said that among individual members, support is growing, and he has more hope in the long-term outlook than in the short-term.

“We've got more support now in Congress than ever. We have virtually every single Democrat who's on board and we have several dozen Republicans and if they allowed it to be voted on on the floor of the House it would pass overwhelmingly,” he said.

Banking issues

Marijuana businesses have been stymied by lack of access to banking services, which has emerged because cannabis is still illegal on the federal level.

“We've made real progress dealing with the banking problem,” Blumenauer said. “We've had more and more people align with legislation we've introduced that would fix it legislatively. We've had more and more support for a potential amendment through the appropriations process like we did with Rohrabacher-Blumenauer.”

He said there was bipartisan support for a legislative fix through the appropriations process, but several people “turned on it” last month.

“Very disappointing,” he said.

Outlook this session

Blumenauer said the chances of passing any marijuana legislation during this session of Congress are slim.

“Given the just intransigent opposition of Republican leadership, it's very remote,” he said. “It's possible lightning can strike.”

Blumenauer said the momentum is good, though. Although some Republicans are secretive about their support for marijuana, he said about 65 Republicans have voted for at least one marijuana expansion provision — including support for hemp, veterans access to marijuana, or Rohrabacher-Blumenauer.

“[Oregon] Sen. [Ron] Wyden and I have had what is kind of the gold standard for comprehensive legislation that would pull all this stuff together but this last couple months we've had Cory Gardner, a Republican in the Senate, Elizabeth Warren, and then a partner of mine, Dave Joyce, a Republican from Ohio,” he said. “And it's significant because Gardner was opposed to legalizing marijuana in Colorado and I think it's kind of dawning on him and others that you really don't want to be on the wrong side of your voters. Marijuana got more votes than any politician in Colorado in 2012.”

Jacky Rosen

Rep. Jacky Rosen, who’s in a tight, high-stakes Senate contest against Republican Dean Heller, announced last week that she had signed on to a bill that would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. Democratic Reps. Dina Titus and Ruben Kihuen had signed onto the bill months earlier.

Blumenauer said he thinks Rosen’s support is genuine.

“Jacky has been supportive. I first met her at a campaign event for legalization when she was running for Congress. I was impressed with her support," he said.

Cole Memo

When the Trump administration rescinded the Cole Memo, an Obama-era document that had directed prosecutors not to prioritize prosecutions of state-legal marijuana marijuana businesses, there was fear that there might be a crackdown on the cannabis industry. But the doomsday predictions haven’t come to pass.

“It has not been dramatically different,” Blumenauer said. “What happened is it unsettled the industry, significantly, and it was kind of a cloud.”

He pointed out that 31 states have legalized medical marijuana, recreational marijuana or both. Counting states that don’t allow medical marijuana per se but permit people to use CBD (cannabidiol) oil to treat certain medical conditions such as seizures, 97 percent of people live in a state that has legalized cannabis at some level.

“Part of the reason, for me, that I wasn't really spun up about it, is that if he followed through and really pulled the trigger, it would create such a backlash that even this Congress would cave,” he said. “If they tried that ... they would have lost control of the Senate and the House. There would have been a ferocious backlash.”

Overall, Blumenauer said rescinding the memo “is troubling, it really hurt the industry with some of their planning and development, and it is a threat that somebody can go off and do something stupid. But it's basically not much different than what the Obama administration had except for the rhetoric and the uncertainty.”

During the Obama years, there was plenty of resistance for widespread legalization.

“We spent a lot of time in negotiations with their Department of Justice and Obama made it clear that he wasn't — he had other fish to fry was I think the line he used,” he said. “You've got a lot of people in the federal government who were still frying those fish. So we needed to get our amendment, we needed to be vigilant, we needed to push back.”

In the meantime

Although the outlook for federal legalization looks bleak in the near term, Blumenauer said he’s focused on building support and arguing to policymakers that they should align with an increasingly pro-cannabis electorate.

“It's making the case in the building, allowing people to express their support and find out ‘gee, not only does not anything bad happen, but good things happen’ — that they get positive reaction.”

He’s also eager for Democrats to take control of the House, something he thinks would unleash a wave of laws to expand marijuana legalization.

“I want my team in charge,” he said. 

“Democratic control of the House, which I think virtually every independent analyst thinks is highly likely, means that this will be resolved in a year. We won't have a judiciary [committee] chairman that bottles up the bill, we won't have a chair of the ways and means committee that bottles up the tax, we won't have problems with commerce,” he said. “It will be aggressively embraced and addressed and I think all of these things will be passed in the first year of Democratic control and if that stuff roars out of the House, it will be virtually impossible for the Senate to ignore it.”


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