As communities of color still face repercussions from ‘selectively enforced’ prohibition, Congressman Earl Blumenauer says the cannabis industry must make amends.
Earl Blumenauer, who represents Oregon’s 3rd District in the House of Representatives, has been a staunch advocate for cannabis reform and legalization since Richard Nixon was president.
The Congressman says that while plenty progress has been made in terms of legal cannabis, federal prohibition means advocates still have a lot of work to do to ensure cannabis can be researched for medical applications, cannabis businesses are treated fairly and communities harmed by prohibition can see justice.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been a fierce advocate for legal cannabis since you were first elected to the Oregon House of Representatives. Why is it such an enduring issue for you?
This isn’t about legalizing something people want to use recreationally. Federal prohibition has devastated the lives of a million young African American men. It’s absolutely outrageous. We’ve still got a long way to go, even in Oregon.
When I started campaigning for the issue, I had zero experience with it. I still have never used cannabis. But it is foundational in terms of who we are, and how we use the law to help people.
How did you get started as a cannabis advocate?
I was in the Oregon Legislature when we began the decriminalization of cannabis. At this point there had been a national coalition appointed by Richard Nixon that recommended decriminalizing cannabis, which Nixon turned down. I found the evidence compelling.
I heard the most compelling political speech I can remember by a conservative hog farmer from Eastern Oregon. He held up a pack of cigarettes on the floor of the House and he says, “This kills hundreds of thousands of people a year, and you can buy it legally.” Then he puts a bottle of Jack Daniels on his desk and says, “There are thousands who die each year from alcohol-related illness and drunk driving.”
Then he holds up a bag with a marijuana cigarette and says, “This doesn’t kill anybody, and yet we treat it so differently.”
We voted to decriminalize it then, and everything I have seen since then shows our federal policy regarding cannabis is irrational and it is unfair. That unfairness has really weighed on me.
How have prohibition policies been unfair?
Communities of color do not use cannabis any more frequently than white Americans, but they bear the consequences. One arrest can have catastrophic consequences on the life of a young person, consequences that might never be abated.
Millions of young African American men have paid the price, and had their lives turned upside-down because of our selectively enforced marijuana policy.
How do we create restorative justice for communities harmed by cannabis prohibition?
Part of the challenge with communities of color is that they are still discriminated against. We’ve worked with the Minority Cannabis Business Association to support model legislation for set-aside business licenses for people of color, particularly African Americans.
There has been progress, but one problem is in order to qualify for having a license issued you have to have a clean record. That’s why there is great interest at the local level for expungement of minor offenses.
Rep. Jerry Nadler [Congressman for New York’s 10th Congressional District] has had his hands full with impeachment, but he put some of his best people on designing the MORE Act, which would decriminalize marijuana federally, create set-asides and expunge minor offences.
It’s the most comprehensive bill we’ve seen that deals with restorative justice on a national level.
We have grant programs to help individuals who have been impacted by prohibition to get job training and provide funds to economically disadvantaged people to get into the industry.
What are the barriers preventing newcomers from getting into the industry?
Primarily it’s access to financial services. We got the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act, which would allow cannabis businesses access to a bank account, through the House with overwhelming support.
Every single Democrat and at least 40% of Republicans voted for the bill. It has broad support from businesses wanting to be involved with this growing economic hotspot.
There’s also the challenge that expenses from your cannabis business are not tax deductible.
People who want to be involved in this industry end up being economically disadvantaged because their tax rate is three or four times higher than a typical business.
What are other pitfalls of cannabis being illegal federally, even in states that have ended prohibition?
Research is extraordinarily restrictive. There’s only one marijuana plantation in the country, in Mississippi, where you can legally grow cannabis for research purposes. It is not very good quality and it’s hard to get a hold of.
We don’t have a good test for impairment.We also don’t know enough about the integration between alcohol and cannabis.
The most heart-wrenching stories as far as research goes comes from families with children with epilepsy, who sometimes are having hundreds of fits in a day. The only thing that helps them is medical cannabis, but these parents have had to figure it out on their own because there are no accepted standards.
Another promising application of medical marijuana is its ability to restore appetite to people undergoing chemotherapy. Cannabis can serve as an alternative to opioids when it comes to pain management, which could save billions of dollars annually.
We can’t pursue any of that unless we can do the research and ask the questions.
You’ve mentioned how these problems disappear when cannabis is legalized federally. How do you make the argument for legalization to your colleagues in the House of Representatives?
You’re not going to be able to suppress a black market. Some people worry about big tobacco getting into cannabis. There’s already big cannabis, it’s just called the illicit market. The illicit market won’t go away until you legalize it, and have a national body to regulate it and tax it.
I speak with people who have legitimate concerns about cannabis being accessible to children. One of the reasons it’s harder for a junior high student to go out and buy beer as opposed to buying marijuana is because someone could lose their liquor license over it.
There are a few Jeff Sessions-like true believers who only want harsher enforcement. There are also people who use prohibition politically to demonize young people and people of color. Then and there are those who just have to come face to face with the facts.
We can show those people there has not been a spike in cannabis use among young people. We can show them there hasn’t been a rise in public safety concerns. We can show them that states with legalized cannabis have fewer opioid deaths, saving lives and tens of billions of dollars every year.
It’s why we work to bring in people from law enforcement and the medical community to explain things. The facts are powerful.
How close are we to federal legalization?
Some time in the next five years we will turn this corner. I think it could happen in two years if this election in November goes the way it should.
This is a movement that has been driven by advocates, people who roll up their sleeves and make a difference. They are the reason over two-thirds of the adult population favors full legalization. The American public is so far ahead of the Congress on the issue, it’s laughable.
You just have to be optimistic because the people are forcing the issue. It’s a revolution.
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