Congressman Earl Blumenauer looks more like Bill Nye the Science Guy than some tie-dyed, Cheech & Chong-loving marijuana activist. But the 67-year-old member of Oregon's delegation to the U.S. House of Representatives is at the vanguard of the effort to change pot policy on a national scale.
Blumenauer is pro-pot for many of the same reasons other non-tokers are—though he notes he wouldn't hesitate to use medical marijuana should he develop a qualifying condition. He believes that treating marijuana more like alcohol, and less like heroin, will lead to a more just society, a safer world for children, and a major economic opportunity for Oregon businesses.
We sat down with the congressman to talk about his efforts to tug at Oregon's loose thread of legalization and ultimately unravel the federal prohibition on pot.
Why he's so focused on weed
It's important. This is something that I have been working on literally for decades, but it has just exploded in the last three or four years. I did a lot of campaigning around the state for Measure 91, but now we have an opportunity for Oregon to really help lead the way for the next round of marijuana reform. Measure 91 was the best proposal that has yet been offered to voters. And the [Oregon Liquor Control Commission], the legislature, and the industry have been amazing in terms of how they've approached it. I'm very impressed. I've been interested in making sure that we understand what's going on, that we avoid unnecessary problems, and that the federal government does its job to allow this emerging industry to be able to function and to thrive.
How Oregon is leading the way
The smoother the rollout is here, [the more] it's a signal for other states to use the same sort of deliberate effort. We have an opportunity in the next five years for this issue to ultimately be resolved. I'm quite confident if Oregon is successful, if we do our job right, and the federal government allows the thousands of legal marijuana businesses that are in states that have over 200 million people, if they are able to be taxed fairly and pay that tax with a check, we're halfway home.
On the dangers of all-cash businesses
And you probably know, under federal law, provision 280-E, legal marijuana businesses cannot fully deduct all their business expenses, so they end up paying, two, three, four times the taxes they would as a normal business. It's really hard for them to function and actually, punitive taxes discourage compliance. It's just a vicious circle, and the insanity of forcing these legal businesses to be conducted on an all cash basis is an invitation to theft. I mean, every day there are people with shopping bags of cash, with backpacks of cash to pay their taxes, it's ludicrous. It's not fair. And if you care about protecting against robbery, it's an invitation to have someone rob them. If you care about money laundering and theft, tax evasion, making them be all cash is probably the worst thing you could do.
Why prohibition does more harm than good
The failed policy of prohibition has not kept marijuana out of the hands of children. I've never had anybody tell me that it was harder for their junior high daughter to get a joint than a six pack. Nobody checks the license. No ID. And it is an invitation to have thugs and cartels involve kids in other, more dangerous stuff. Also, the inequity, the racial injustice is outrageous. It has for years infuriated me. African American men who don't use marijuana any more frequently than their white classmates are two, four, six, eight times more likely [to go to prison]. For a young black man, it ruins their life. So the racial injustice, the waste of money. I am confident that once we get this right it will be over $100 billion in a decade, and it could be much more than that. That will shift from spending money on a failed prohibition policy to regulating and taxes that we collect. It's going to be huge. And I think it's an opportunity to have a more rational conversation about drug use and drug abuse. The head of DEA [once] sat across the table from me as a witness in a congressional hearing and couldn't answer my questions, "Are you telling me, sir, that marijuana is really more dangerous than meth? How many people have died from a marijuana overdose?" We'll be able to be more honest and effective. Because kids shouldn't have it, pregnant women shouldn't use it, people should know what they are getting into. And we can focus with enforcement and with money that we raise and money that we save to be able to deal with treatment.
Reaping the economic benefits
It's going to be a huge economic boost for Oregon. We can be the Napa Valley or the Willamette Valley of pinot for cannabis. We have some of the finest growing conditions and we have a worldwide reputation already. There's advertising, there's product, there's people that work with them. I think it can really revitalize a damaged rural economy in a way that can be sustainable. I think over the long haul, few counties will opt out. I think the public supports it... I'm perfectly content to let it play out. But I think in five years, it won't be an issue.