Jan 01 2017 . 12 min read
Elevating the Conversation with Congressman Earl Blumenauer, 3rd District of Oregon
Elevating the Conversation with Congressman Earl Blumenauer, 3rd District of Oregon
For more than 40 years Congressman Earl Blumenauer has been supportive of ending marijuana prohibition, first voting in the Oregon legislature to decriminalize small quantities in 1973. Elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996, Blumenauer has worked tirelessly for cannabis reform. In 2013, Blumenauer along with fellow Congressman Jared Polis co-authored a report “The Path Forward: Rethinking Federal Marijuana Policy,” which outlines several opportunities to reform and clarify marijuana law at the federal level.
We were in the midst of a reevaluation of our drug and alcohol policy which basically didn’t work very well. It wasn’t humane; it didn’t help people who had real problems. We were treating chronic, late stage alcoholics like criminals by locking them up in in jail when they were sick. It was part of an effort to see if we could treat people with mental illness more humanely and, frankly, part of the reappraisal of our drug and alcohol policies focused on cannabis. It was shocking for me the more that I got into the issue to realize that we were treating marijuana as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which was actually far less addictive and deadly than tobacco. It made no sense to me then and certainly makes no sense to me now to criminalize the behavior of otherwise law-abiding adults. I felt very strongly about it. In fact, we had a vote at the same time to legalize adult use. It was the first state that there was a vote like that. It didn’t quite pass; although I was told by people who were more knowledgeable than I was that if the people who voted ‘no’ but smoked pot had voted with us it would have passed, and Oregon would have been the first state to legalize adult-use. I have long felt that it was important to treat this more rationally. Oregon was one of the first states to decriminalize medical marijuana and, over the years, I have had countless interactions with people who tell me how access to medical marijuana has changed their families’ lives for the better and it continues to be a critically important reform for me.
There are a number of things that I don’t personally use that I don’t think should be criminalized. I don’t smoke tobacco but I don’t want to lock people up who make that choice. I don’t think that’s where the heavy hand of the law ought to come down. I think people ought to have the discretion of things that are not harmful. I think the evidence is that marijuana for medicinal purposes or for adult-use has less serious consequences than other substances that are legal. That ought to be the right of individuals. I am a huge believer in medical marijuana, if I or a member of my family was suffering from a condition that would lend itself to treatment by medical marijuana, I would not hesitate for a moment to use it. If there was a baby in my family with an extreme seizure disorder, I would not hesitate for a second to be able to use the cannabinoid treatment that stops those violent seizures that torture the baby. I have had too much evidence, too many personal examples from people I know. It’s kind of interesting -- the states that have medical marijuana prescribe fewer pills. The opioid crisis is killing people, unlike marijuana. This is something that is very easy for me to get passionate about because it’s important, it’s the right of individuals. It’s also something that when we break the federal shackles on marijuana research and we have bipartisan legislation to do that, I think we are going to be pleasantly surprised by all the applications that we will develop to use marijuana medicinally.
I think the elections in the fall of 2016 were the cresting of this wave. It has been building for some time, but now we won eight out of nine elections. Cannabis got more votes than Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. The Florida vote was overwhelming at over 70 percent but it also passed in Arkansas and North Dakota. This is not just a left coast, Oregon, Washington, California hippie new-age thing, this is a national phenomenon. I have been involved with these efforts from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. We now have 28 states with access to medical marijuana, but if you take the other states that have enacted legislation that deals with the infants with extreme seizure disorder that use a low THC high-CBD medicine, that’s another 10 states. I think this means that Congress is going to be even more favorably disposed. We have been making real progress in the recent session of Congress, we are getting votes on the floor of a Republican-controlled House, we are seeing action in the Senate for the first time and now with the issue cresting in all these other states, I think there is going to be even more energy, interest and progress in Congress.
Overnight the number of state legal cannabis businesses exploded. People may or may not agree with us that it is time to end the failed prohibition of marijuana -- although I will tell you that more and more people are taking that position, which is basically the position of 60 percent of the American public. But even those who are agnostic or even opposed are representing state-legal businesses that have a difficult time getting a bank account and can’t fully deduct their business expenses. Those aren’t partisan issues. I have been working in this area for years. I have never met anybody who, regardless of who they feel about legalization of cannabis, thinks there is any purpose served by forcing this industry to be conducted on an all-cash basis. It’s preposterous. It promotes theft, money laundering, tax evasion and it’s hard to grow a business without the simple expediency of a bank account and people understand that. People paying their state marijuana taxes with shopping bags full of $20 bills is outrageous and because they cannot fully deduct their business expenses, these otherwise perfectly legal, legitimate businesses are paying effective tax rates that are two, three or four times higher than similar businesses, it’s not fair. And this is an area of the economy that experts tell us will be bigger than the NFL in just a few years. It’s already over a $7-billion-dollar-a-year industry and is growing by leaps and bounds.
Yes, I do. I think we have good bi-partisan legislation in both the House and Senate to make it possible for state-legal businesses to have access to bank accounts. Even within the existing framework, developments are also taking place to make it easier. In Oregon, for instance, we have a system to follow from seed to sale which might raise the confidence level of some financial institutions who actually want to provide services to this industry. But, regardless, I think there is an opportunity for us, as legislation starts moving, to find a vehicle to attach it. In Ways and Means, we have had legislation in the House and in the Senate Finance Committee. My partner is Ron Wyden on the Senate Finance Committee who is supporting legislation that would eliminate provision 280E, that prevents the full deduction of their business deductions. I think there will be tax legislation that will be moving between the two chambers. I think it’s not much of a stretch to imagine it being attached to one of the bills that’s moving.
As I mentioned, cannabis got more votes than Donald Trump in every state when they were both on the ballot together. He has famously said that he thinks the state experiments should be allowed to continue and let the states do what they want to do. I think his instinct is right in that we will be working to try and encourage him to remember what he said and to respect it. Jeff Sessions would not have been my first, second or third choice for attorney general, and not just because he has said some pretty outrageous things about marijuana but the gentleman has other disqualifying issues. The strength in Congress is growing and it would be an epic mistake for a new administration that already is taking office with the lowest approval ratings in history to all of a sudden reverse itself again from what he said during the campaign, and pick a fight with the American public and many of his supporters. I see nothing to be gained. In the long run he won’t win. And whatever short-term dustup there might be with Senator Sessions -- this train has left the station and history is going to deliver a victory for a rational marijuana policy and repeal the failed approach of prohibition.
I think what will make the most difference on Capitol Hill and with any administration is having these thoughtful, hardworking well-spoken business people continue to make their case on Capitol Hill and to be involved as they have been increasingly in their various home states. We have had hundreds and hundreds of very thoughtful people come and make their business case to the people in Congress. It’s critical that people continue it. I have watched their growing sophistication, their advocacy is stronger, they have trade associations, they hire lobbyists, they have been involved with political campaigns just like a real industry and it makes a difference.
The days of the federal prohibition of marijuana -- scheduling it like a Schedule I controlled drug, unfair taxation – they’re numbered. Whether it is two years, four years, six years, those policies will be changed. I am willing to go on record stating unequivocally that within five years most of America will have access legally to medical marijuana and I think the states will be able to treat marijuana how they would like, just like with alcohol. Today, states technically could go back to prohibition of alcohol, they don’t, in part, because it doesn’t work and because of public opinion. I think within five years, that’s where we will be with marijuana.
I think being able to start sooner is better. The sooner you start to discourage the black market the better. Also, it takes time to just put the regulatory structure in place to get people to be involved with the different way of doing business. Enabling people to start earlier, slower, to acquaint the state regulators, the business and the public with the new approach I think makes sense. And I don’t think anybody will complain about a few million dollars more that’s available for treating people with substance abuse issues, helping mental health, education, law enforcement. Both Oregon and Nevada could use a little extra money for things that the public cares about. And I would much rather have this be paid legally to businesses that are operating under the law than have the profits disappear into the black market or worse to foreign drug cartels.