Marijuana reform competes with coronavirus, recession for attention from Congress

Earl Blumenauer

Congressman Earl Blumenauer has been the tip of the spear for decades when it comes to marijuana reform in the U.S. House of Representatives. But he’s never been as optimistic as he is this year about the possibility that significant marijuana reform might pass through Congress.

“I came out of the last session of Congress feeling better than I’ve ever felt. It’s coming together,” Blumenauer said. “If we do our job right, I think the prospects of success are very high.”

Still, Blumenauer’s optimism is tempered. The longtime Oregon Democrat—who was first elected to the House 25 years ago—told Marijuana Business Magazine in mid-February that federal legalization is not a given, despite all the hopes industry insiders might have for the Democrat-led Congress and White House.

Here are excerpts from the interview Blumenauer gave to Marijuana Business Magazine:

Since Democrats took control of the White House and both chambers of Congress, will this be the year Congress gets a significant marijuana reform bill to the president’s desk?

Certainly, we’re in the strongest position that we’ve been in ever. You saw what happened in the House last Congress: We passed the SAFE Banking Act overwhelmingly. We had bipartisan research legislation that was enacted. And, of course, the MORE Act—kind of the gold standard of reform that included restorative justice. All of those were bipartisan victories.

We are in a situation now where there is an opportunity to move forward. It’s not going to be easy. And there are huge competing interests: We’re dealing with this pandemic, we’re dealing with the near-collapse of the economy, the things that took place with the riot on Capitol Hill. You just go through the list, and it is daunting.

But … the MORE Act has been championed now by (Sens.) Chuck Schumer, D-NY, Cory Booker, D-NJ, and Ron Wyden, D-OR—three of the most influential and committed people dealing with reform. There were six states this past year that passed interesting drug reform legislation.

So, you’ve got momentum around the country, you’ve got leadership in the Senate that is strongly supportive of this. And we have demonstrated in the House that there’s bipartisan support. I like our chances.

Do you know what might be in the comprehensive cannabis reform bill that Sens. Schumer, Booker and Wyden are working on?

I defer to my Senate friends. We are in consultation with them.

Also, (Kamala Harris), the person who was our lead with the MORE Act last Congress, is now vice president of the United States. So that doesn’t hurt.

I had some good conversations with Senate friends in the last couple of weeks … and we want to be supportive of their efforts. The outside advocates are consolidating and organizing along with the Senate leadership.

What can improve the odds of cannabis legislation passing in Congress this year or next?

I think this is an area where people need to weigh in. The advocates, who are so passionate about this, along with those of us who have been fighting for this in Congress, have an opportunity. This is something that can happen.

There are competing priorities in terms of criminal justice reform. This has been an area where, at times, people have been unduly timid. We know that this is broadly supported by the American public. And what we have seen around the country (is that) people have stepped up and been successful with ballot measures—particularly in red states. It’s been fascinating.

The movement for legalization and the growth of the industry is not waiting. This is galloping ahead. We’re looking at probably $20 billion next year. We have 108 million people who live where cannabis is legal for adult use. There are over a quarter-million people who work in this industry. So this is a movement that is not waiting for the federal government to finally get its act together.

Do you feel there’s a window open to cannabis reform that might close after the 2022 election?

I think people ought to have the sense of urgency that this is the critical year.

People need this legislation to be enacted. People need to have access to banking to be able to deal with this $20 billion industry that is growing exponentially.

What do you see as the biggest obstacles to federal reform?

Well, when you’re dealing with a complex, important issue, there are a number of ways that it can be derailed. We have to crush this coronavirus. That is probably Job One. It spills over into the way that our economy has been battered. And it’s going to be slow going recovering.

This is going to be arguably the most consequential session of Congress in a century. I mean, we’ve not seen anything like this. This is unprecedented. And it’s at a time when there are deep divisions in our country and in Congress.

One of the nice things about reform of our cannabis laws is this is an area that doesn’t have to be intensely partisan. This is an area where voters in red states have spoken, as well as New Jersey and Oregon. It can be something that brings people together.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.