THE CONGRESSMAN handed me a ROOR bong filled with fresh ice, which he had crushed with a bike wrench. The bowl was packed with OG Blueberry Bowtie Kush, a signature strain created by master growers in Bend. He cranked up the Hendrix, settled into the patched-up beanbag chair in his office, and grinned at me broadly. "Right on, man—let's rap about jazz tobacco..."
No, dammit. None of that happened. None.
But considering how supportive Congressman Earl Blumenauer has been to the cannabis industry over the years, it's how I would like to remember our interview. (In reality, we conducted it by email. I do have a photo of us at a recent event, though! I even look high in it... but I was not.) In fact, Congressman Blumenauer doesn't even smoke marijuana. His interest in this issue isn't about personal experience with pot. After watching years of failed prohibition policies, he's convinced there's a better way. Elected in 1996 to the US House of Representatives (D-3rd District), he's introduced numerous bills aimed at wide-reaching changes in federal laws regarding cannabis, and recently hosted a delegation of 25 cannabis industry professionals from Oregon during a three-day lobbying effort in Washington, DC.
MERCURY: You've been a stalwart champion for the reformation of cannabis laws. At what point did it become an issue for you?
EARL BLUMENAUER: I became deeply involved in this issue as an Oregon legislator in the 1970s, when Oregon became the first state to decriminalize marijuana. As a result, I became convinced that our policies were unwise, unjustified, ineffectual, and counterproductive. Over the years, as evidence of our failed policy of prohibition continues to mount, that conviction has only strengthened.
What are the major obstacles for national cannabis legalization?
There still is a lack of knowledge and political courage on the part of elected officials. This has been changing, as witnessed in our work in Congress over the last two years, but it's still an obstacle.
There is abundant evidence that cannabis has multiple therapeutic benefits, and if it were properly researched and managed, we would discover many more. The evidence has been clear for decades that marijuana is far less addictive and damaging than tobacco. It should be regulated like alcohol, allowing the states to decide appropriate policies to guarantee responsible use. The public believes this. Elected officials need to catch up.
Why do you think people still fear legalization?
They have been fed anti-marijuana propaganda for decades. Even though marijuana is demonstrably safer than a multitude of legal substances and has proven therapeutic benefits, it still is misclassified under federal law as a Schedule I controlled substance, like heroin and LSD.
Others somehow believe that it will put children at risk if it is legalized. This is ironic because no dealer checks the ID of children, and it is likely that children would be exposed to other more dangerous drug products by people who are operating outside the law.
Georgia recently passed a medical use law, allowing for high-CBD, low-THC products to treat conditions like pediatric epilepsy. Yet they didn't include a manner for residents to acquire such products. Oregon makes them, but can't ship them there. What needs to change so we can?
I have heard from families across the country that the use of marijuana with high-CBD and low-THC is successful for the treatment of children with violent seizures. The fact that access is still a question demonstrates the problem with our current approach. We have not dealt with the nuts and bolts of the growing medical marijuana industry, including dealing with issues of product access and reliability. Having a federal framework to sort out these issues and allowing states to craft their own policies appropriate for their citizens is the logical next step.
Since the federal government has the authority to regulate interstate commerce, and marijuana is listed as a Schedule I substance, you cannot transport and sell marijuana products across state lines, even between states where it is legal. We need to change the classification of marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act, or at the very least change how high-CBD, low-THC products are treated.
It's also important, however, for individual states to push further to deal with marijuana policy on a comprehensive basis. To make a vital, life-altering medication legal but provide no legal effective way to obtain it continues to keep this important industry in a gray area. States should do a better job while they wait for federal clarification.
How is it possible that any business even remotely connected to handling, growing, processing, or selling cannabis can't get a bank account?
There is absolutely no justification for the fact that thousands of businesses across America are being forced to do their business on an all-cash basis. Forcing people to pay their taxes with shopping bags full of $20 bills only encourages money laundering and tax evasion. It's also a public safety issue, making business owners and employees vulnerable and a target for theft and violence.
This is why I support the Marijuana Businesses Access to Banking Act (HR 2076), introduced by Representatives [Ed] Perlmutter and [Denny] Heck, which would allow banks to do business with marijuana businesses.
In addition to banking reform, the marijuana industry is focused on repealing a draconian provision in the tax code, 280E, that prevents state-legal marijuana businesses that are involved in the sale of marijuana from deducting their business expenses. This results in punitive rates of taxation that are two to four times higher than an ordinary business. Senator [Ron] Wyden and I introduced the Small Business Tax Equity Act earlier this year to remedy this unfair and unrealistic tax burden on these businesses.
I recently attended a record-breaking fundraising dinner for you, held by members of Oregon's cannabis industry. Do you think events like this help bring attention to the economic force of the industry?
I was surprised and honored that people who respect and admire the work I've been doing on this issue for decades came together in Portland for a political event in my honor. It was a powerful signal of an industry coming together. Virtually all the accomplishments in the last 20 years for this emerging industry have been accomplished using the tools of democracy, starting with California's successful 1996 initiative legalizing medical marijuana. Since then, these advocates have been focused and tireless in their efforts to professionalize the industry and work to change federal law to treat their businesses fairly.
Having people not just from Oregon, but from up and down the West Coast, New York, Florida, Nevada, and more coming together, giving voice to their legitimate political needs, was a watershed moment. I think that over the course of the next five years we are going to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana across the country. We are going to allow this industry to innovate, research the therapeutic benefits, and stop the criminalization of adult behavior while we more effectively protect our children. This event marked the evolution, perhaps the coming of age, of this movement with voices of civil liberty, social justice, economic growth, fair treatment, and research of health benefits.
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