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Congress’ Top Legal Pot Advocate on the Future of Marijuana Policy

“The United States, when it thinks something is right or important, it doesn’t hesitate to stand alone. Why not drug policy?” asks Rep. Earl Blumenauer

Marijuana, Policy

Pot legalization activists in front of the White House earlier this month. Rep. Blumenauer says he told President Obama recently, "I hope you consider doing more [on this issue] before you leave" office.

MIKE THEILER/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been a lonely 20 years for Democratic Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, one of legal marijuana’s biggest champions in Congress. He’s introduced or co-sponsored more than two dozen pieces of legislation over those two decades, each one designed to chip away at the federal anti-marijuana monolith: laws that would make it legal for Veterans Administration doctors to speak to patients about marijuana, that would make sure students with marijuana-related convictions remain eligible for financial aid, and that would allow owners of marijuana-related businesses to have bank accounts and file normal taxes.

Most of them have failed, but the margins they’ve been defeated by have shrunk in recent years. That’s one of the signs Blumenauer sees indicating the anti-pot tide is finally turning at the federal level.

Blumenauer, who’s in New York to attend the United Nations’ Special Session on Drug Policy this week, spoke with Rolling Stone about how close we are to ending the federal prohibition on marijuana, who he thinks the best presidential candidate would be with respect to weed policy, and the prospect of a pot-related surprise announcement from President Obama in the last few months of his final term.

Tell me about the UN special session. What is a congressman like yourself doing there?
Part of what’s in the background of the effort to reform federal drug laws is the fact that we’re kind of hamstrung by previous UN conventions on drugs. We’re limited in our ability to unilaterally make major changes because we vowed to help other countries fight this scourge of illegal marijuana and other drugs.

The United States has not been an agent of change in terms of drug policy reform. We’re not aligned with the countries that are seeking to reform, like Yugoslavia and Switzerland. We’re not talking about more drug executions, like China, but we’re not reforming. We’re kind of in the comfortable middle — kind of leading from the middle. Ambassador William R. Brownfield [now the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs] was explaining to me in my office that he was really pleased that the United States is right in the middle: “That sweet spot.” But the United States, when it thinks something is right or important, it doesn’t hesitate to stand alone.Why not drug policy?

What’s going on now falls too heavily on the poorest and most vulnerable people, who are literally caught in the crossfire between these militarized forces and law enforcement and the cartels. They’re desperately poor. Why wouldn’t we be aggressively shifting from this hard-edged and expensive enforcement and spend some of this money to help these poor farmers profitably go into other crops? Why don’t we work hard to change the nature of incarceration? And not just in this country, which is an embarrassment, but in Central America, where prisons are community colleges for crooks. It’s a recruiting ground for the cartels; it’s where they learn the trade. The notion that we wouldn’t be able to help take the profit and the violence out of this, and try other approaches, and support the enlightened in different countries, I find it appalling.

You’ve been in Congress for two decades now — how have you seen the attitudes toward marijuana change?
It started when I came to Congress in 1996. That year California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana. And then Oregon followed, Arizona, and it just kind of cascaded. There is a growing awareness about the impact of medical marijuana — and it was driven by the public, not the politicians. Exactly the same thing happened with organized marijuana reform groups and citizens out there with these more recent legalization votes.

“The United States, when it thinks something is right or important, it doesn’t hesitate to stand alone. Why not drug policy?”

In Oregon, it was a textbook case. I campaigned all over the state for legalization and watching the public respond. A small-town rotary club, for instance — people you would think would be skeptical at best, if not hostile — were very welcoming to the argument. We passed it with the largest majority and we did it in a non-presidential year. Just huge.

Being able to supplement what’s happening at the state level with evidence that people in Congress are paying attention [has been a big deal]. We’ve had I want to say eight successful votes in the last two Congresses that were favorable to cannabis, on hemp, on not having the federal government interfere with state legal medical marijuana. It was very encouraging to see those votes and watch the numbers grow. And that’s a sea change. 

And I think this is the year that it crests. It’s been building since ’96. It’s been slowly building and it really mounted in 2012, 2014, 2016 with the ballot measure in California, Arizona. Medical in Florida, where they got like 58 percent two years ago, and I think they’ll crack the stupid 60 percent threshold required [to pass as a ballot measure and amend the state constitution]. A judge pushed it back on the ballot in Maine. It’s on the ballot in Massachusetts, in Nevada, it may actually be legalized via legislation in Vermont and maybe Rhode Island this year. I mean, these are huge developments.

How close are we to ending the federal prohibition of marijuana?
I think it’s a lot closer than people feel. We’ve had an announcement from the DEA that they’re going to have some sort of an announcement about the schedule before July. [Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule I drug.] Nobody knows quite what that means.

What do you think the announcement will be about, if you had to guess?
I can’t imagine. The DEA can be so far out of sync with the administration. I mean President Obama is the only president who has told the truth about marijuana: He smoked it, he inhaled, and it was less dangerous than another habit that he had to fight: tobacco.

His administration could have shut down the adult legalization [measures that started being enacted in states], and they didn’t. They issued a very useful memo that called to clarify the rules. Obama famously said that he had bigger fish to fry when they said, “Are you going to stop Washington and Colorado?” But there’s still people in the administration who are frying those fish.

A change to how marijuana is scheduled could only be a good thing, right? It can’t get worse than Schedule I. 
True! It couldn’t get worse. I am concerned, however, that we don’t get in a posture where we have people feel like they’ve solved the problem by taking a quarter step forward that really keeps us trapped where we are. If that takes away the public pressure to be able to accelerate reform, that doesn’t help us.

If they go Schedule II, that doesn’t really help us with research. That doesn’t help us with banking, and giving people the latitude to take the full advantage of this emerging industry. But it’s not beyond question, I think, that when Obama goes out the door that he might do something else administratively.

What does “something else” mean? A surprise announcement on marijuana policy?
Well, there are things that he may be able to do: dealing with things like banking or rescheduling. There are all sorts of procedural problems that have been built in to de-listing marijuana but, ultimately, it resides in the hands of the administration and the attorney general. And I sincerely believe that if he told Attorney General Loretta Lynch to delist she probably would.

I did have an opportunity to have a one-on-one with Obama in the Oval Office going over some things we were working on together, and I took advantage of having my parting shot. I said, “Mr. President, this is part of your legacy. You’ve made huge strides: being honest, allowing reform to go through, and getting some of the unfortunate souls that got trapped in the criminal justice system out. And I hope you consider doing more before you leave.”

What was his response?
I mean, he’s Obama, you know? But I do think he recognizes what he’s done here, and he’s very deliberate. His life could’ve been profoundly different, as a young African-American male, if he had been caught with marijuana. I don’t think he would’ve been editor of the Harvard Law Review, and probably not president of the United States.

You’re supporting Hillary Clinton for president. Can you tell me about your decision to endorse her over Bernie Sanders, particularly given the fact that Sanders introduced legislation to end the federal prohibition on marijuana?
He introduced the legislation 14 minutes ago. I mean, I’m sorry. When you’re riding this wave that Bernie is trying to develop, finally jumping on this bandwagon after Cory Booker, after Kirsten Gillibrand, after Rand Paul [have been working on this issue for years] — I don’t know that it’s a profile in courage.

You don’t feel like Bernie has been there the whole time?
Well, he may have been. But he hasn’t been active. He’s never introduced a piece of legislation [until this fall]. All the time I served with Bernie in the House, I never saw him doing something out of the ordinary on it. I think he’s sincere. I do think that’s his position. But he certainly hasn’t been a leader on it.

I had a couple conversations with Hillary Clinton before I decided to endorse and support her, I have no doubt in my mind that she will build on what the Obama administration has done. She understands the insanity of the banking prohibition. So I think we can get banking, tax equity, research and a couple of little fixes that give the industry the certainty that it needs going forward under Hillary. The difference between Hillary and Bernie is Hillary can get stuff done. Hillary Clinton is somebody who understands how to govern. She was a very effective senator.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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