As He Exits Congress, Blumenauer Wants His Party to Embrace Pot Legalization

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As a 23-year-old serving his first term in the Oregon state legislature, Representative Earl Blumenauer cosponsored the first bill in the country to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.

More than 50 years later, the congressman from Portland is preparing to retire after nearly three decades on Capitol Hill, and mounting a lonely campaign to persuade his fellow Democrats, including President Biden, to press for legalization of marijuana at the federal level as a central plank of their political platforms.

“I have been doing this longer than any other politician in America, and I can say unequivocally, no politician was ever punished for being on the cutting edge of legalization of cannabis,” Mr. Blumenauer, who has become Congress’s top advocate for changing marijuana policy, said in an interview. “This is something every candidate should embrace.”

Mr. Blumenauer has urged officials close to Mr. Biden to make the issue a more prominent part of the president’s re-election message. He argues that legalization is not only good policy, but a potentially “electric” political issue that could help the 81-year-old Mr. Biden appeal to young people who polls show have drifted away from him, and whose backing could be vital to his chances of winning a second term.

“I take every chance I get to nudge my friends in the Biden administration,” he said this month at a cannabis policy forum. “The quickest way to engage young people, minority voters, to break the mold, is to come out foursquare for legalization. For compassion. For people who have been caught up in the legal morass of the failed war on drugs, and make a clean break of it.”

Legalization, in some form, is overwhelmingly popular across the country, with 88 percent of Americans saying marijuana should be legal for medical or recreational use, according to a January survey by the Pew Research Center. Twenty-four states have legalized small amounts of marijuana for adult recreational use, and 38 states have approved it for medicinal purposes.

But federal law still prohibits the use and possession of weed, and it puts marijuana under a classification reserved for the most dangerous drugs, including heroin and LSD, that the government deems to have a “high abuse potential” and “no accepted medical use.” Advocates have urged the federal government to re-evaluate that classification and remove it from the list of controlled substances altogether.

Mr. Blumenauer, now 75 with a splat of white hair, estimated that he has been involved, in some way or another, with every state-level cannabis policy initiative that has cropped up since his days as a “child member” of the state legislature. Back then, the government was still jailing chronic late-stage alcoholics and a movement to relax anti-weed laws was growing in the face of the war on drugs.

On Capitol Hill, Mr. Blumenauer, with his signature bow tie and bicycle-shaped lapel pin (he is an avid cyclist and commutes by bicycle), has led the charge to make marijuana more widely accessible. He has pushed legislation to expunge federal marijuana use and possession crimes from criminal records, expand medical marijuana research, ensure veterans can access medical marijuana, tax and regulate marijuana, allow legal marijuana businesses to access financial services and more.

He founded and is a co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, and he was honored this month by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws with an inaugural “Trailblazer Award” named for him.

“He has literally been our most important and most influential advocate. He’s played an enormously powerful role,” Keith Stroup, the organization’s founder, who lobbied the Oregon state legislature on cannabis policy during Mr. Blumenauer’s early statehouse years, said in presenting the award.

Mr. Blumenauer, who announced in the fall that he would not seek re-election, argued that this was the year to “break the logjam” and get federal changes across the finish line.

He cited a spate of successful state ballot initiatives to legalize marijuana in some way, on top of bipartisan backing in the House for various pieces of cannabis legislation and support from top Democrats including Senators Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, and Ron Wyden of Oregon, the chairman of the Finance Committee, for federal legalization.

With Republicans, many of whom have opposed cannabis legalization, in control of the House, congressional action this year is an exceedingly long shot. But Mr. Blumenauer pointed to Mr. Biden’s own evolution on the issue as a glimmer of hope.

The president, who has long been personally conservative on marijuana policy, directed his administration to “expeditiously” review how marijuana is scheduled under federal law. Though that review is still underway, U.S. health officials recommended the Drug Enforcement Administration downgrade marijuana to a lower classification that covers drugs, such as ketamine, that are viewed as less dangerous and that can be obtained legally with a prescription.

Mr. Biden also made a high-profile mention of the issue during his State of the Union address this year, and he has pardoned thousands of people convicted of nonviolent drug offenses in an effort to remedy racial disparities in the justice system.

Vice President Kamala Harris recently called marijuana’s federal classification “absurd,” and said that “nobody should have to go to jail for smoking weed.” And this month, just before April 20 — considered a holiday by marijuana devotees — Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, emphasized that Mr. Biden had been “very, very clear he doesn’t believe that anyone should be in jail or be prosecuted just for using or possessing marijuana.”

Still, Mr. Blumenauer said, Mr. Biden needed to do more to prioritize changes in the law, including by directing the D.E.A. to remove cannabis from the controlled substances list altogether, which would end the federal prohibition on the drug. Doing so, he argued, would make a bold statement to voters and telegraph a commitment to ending the war on drugs, promoting social justice, expanding medical research and boosting businesses.

“Honestly, I can’t think of anything else that would have this impact immediately, in terms of aligning interests with young people, with racial justice, solving real-life problems for thousands of businesses and millions of people,” Mr. Blumenauer said.

He diagnosed slow federal action on the issue as “inertia” generated by 40 years of a policy of prohibition and once-broad public disapproval of marijuana usage.

But he argued that decisive action was necessary to reap the potential political benefits of the issue in what Democrats have cast as an existential election cycle.

“It would send shock waves. People wouldn’t expect Joe Biden to do this,” Mr. Blumenauer said, adding that a strong position for legalization would likely set up a contrast with former President Donald J. Trump. “It’s one of the few things that could really upset the apple cart.”

In fact, Mr. Blumenauer contended that it was an embrace of pot legalization that won Democrats control of the Senate. Senator John Fetterman of Pennsylvania, whose victory in 2022 provided Democrats with their two-vote majority, included legalization in his platform. Mr. Blumenauer also noted that a marijuana ballot initiative in Arizona had drawn progressive voters to the polls in 2020 to help clinch the battleground state for Mr. Biden.

“It’s time to unlock the full power of legalization, being straight with the American public and making sure that we mobilize the pro-cannabis electorate, because we need it,” Mr. Blumenauer said at the marijuana policy summit. “Democracy is on the line this election.”

Mr. Blumenauer, who has about seven months left in Congress, vowed to keep pushing for policy changes, even after leaving office.

“If we can break the logjam,” he said, “I think it ceases to be very controversial — except it’s controversial that we’re not doing more, faster.”



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