27 long years ago in 1996, widespread cannabis reform and nearly half the American states having fully legal recreational cannabis seemed like nothing more than a delusional dream that would never come to fruition in the slightest. A handful of less populous states and municipalities had passed low-level decriminalization measures and California had just passed the first statewide medical cannabis bill in the country via Proposition 215, but any state fully legalizing cannabis and authorizing the retail sale of cannabis products would still be decades away. Even though it had been a full seven years since President Ronald Reagan had sat in the Oval Office, his notoriously anti-drug policies stayed very much in place. Worse even, then-Delaware senator Joe Biden authored and then-President Bill Clinton passed The 1994 Crime Bill two years earlier, which caused the population of prisons throughout the US and those living with a criminal record to balloon exponentially, giving new and powerful life to the New Jim Crow.
Even if there were dedicated cannabis advocacy groups already doing grassroots work for cannabis reform, the horribly combined draconian policies of the yesteryear of the Reagan administration and the immediate aftermath of The 1994 Crime Bill made any monumental cannabis reform nearly an impossibility. Once you consider that the 1994 Crime Bill passed the Senate by an overwhelming majority vote of 94-4-1, you’d be able to understand why the demand for cannabis and further criminal justice reform was so minimal.
Yet 27 tumultuous years of game-changing grassroots advocacy later, cannabis is now recreationally legal in soon-to-be 23 states and is medically legal in one way or another in all but four states. The American cannabis industry has become a $30 billion industry and approximately 430,000 people are employed in this industry.
During all these years, one of the strongest advocates on Capitol Hill for cannabis reform on both the state and federal level of government has been Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer. From serving on the Portland City Council to a career in Congress spanning nearly three decades, Blumenauer has either directly authored, sponsored or otherwise supported nearly every important piece of cannabis reform discussed in The House. Through several administration changes, Blumenauer has been a cornerstone of cannabis support in a chamber that wasn’t always so open to discussing cannabis reform as it is today. Becoming equally as known for his steadfast dedication to cannabis reform as he is for his endless collection and donning of bow ties, the Oregon Congressman has remained a champion for all cannabis-related causes in a body of government known for painfully obvious flip-flopping career politicians.
Throughout his career since his first days in the historic halls of Congress and even many years before that, Blumenauer has supported or directly sponsored several groundbreaking pieces of federal legislation that would’ve had revolutionary ripple effects for the cannabis industry and greater cannabis policy.“Since 1973,” Blumenauer’s website explains, “Earl has been working to end the failed federal prohibition of cannabis.” Even before Congress, Blumenauer served as a crucial representative in the Oregon House of Representatives when the state became the first state ever to decriminalize cannabis way back in 1973.
“I have helped make cannabis reform a mainstream position in American politics and been involved in every successful state legalization initiative. We have set the stage for the final steps of legalization and racial justice.” said Blumenauer.
In his decades of experience in championing cannabis bills, he made it a point to prove and fortify the recently growing bipartisan support behind these bills. One of the most far-reaching bills that Blumenauer has sponsored in recent memory was the SAFE Banking Act, which would greatly reform the very prohibitive federal laws on FDIC-insured banks offering financial services to cannabis companies. His co-sponsor on the bill surprisingly wasn’t another ultra-liberal Democrat from a majority blue-leaning coastal state. Instead, his co-sponsor on this landmark piece of legislation was Rep. Dave Joyce, a Republican from Ohio. Blumenauer also worked tirelessly with Rep. Brian Mast, a Republican from Florida, to craft the Veterans Equal Access Act. Given that Mast served in the United States Army for a dozen years in total and lost both of his legs from an IED explosion, this bill especially hit close to home.
The Oregon Congressman has supported or sponsored several other pieces of federal cannabis reform, including the Small Business Tax Equity Act, VA Medicinal Cannabis Research Act and the Free to Grow Act. Blumenauer cemented his status as the anti-Jeff Sessions in 2012 when he authored a staggering and extensive 32-page report entitled “The Path Forward: Rethinking Federal Marijuana Policy” with future Governor of Colorado Jared Polis. Since 2003 when he cosponsored a bill to amend the Controlled Substances Act and to provide defense against state-legal medical cannabis operators dealing with federal law issues. In total, Blumenauer sponsored or supported over 100 bills and pieces of legislation during his decades in Congress, yet his unwavering support of all those legislative measures wasn’t the most powerful pro-cannabis action he did during his tenure in Congress.
In 2017, Blumenauer created the Congressional Cannabis Caucus with Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Don Young (R-AK) and the aforementioned Jared Polis (D-CO). An equally bipartisan effort, this caucus was the very first official Congressional caucus to be created to advance medical cannabis bills while working to close the gaps and disconnects between state and federal cannabis law. To their credit, Rohrabacher and Young were certainly standouts among their party with their support of cannabis.
Even when Rohrabacher lost his re-election in 2018 and Young passed away in 2022, the caucus remained equally bipartisan, as two more Republican representatives took their seats. Rep. Brian Mast of Florida and Dave Joyce of Ohio, are the two Republicans currently serving in the caucus and they’re valuable additions given their professional and personal backgrounds. Being a Purple Heart veteran, Mast would certainly be able to provide context and insight into how certain pieces of legislation could impact or assist veterans. Before becoming a prosecutor, Rep. Joyce was a public defender in Cleveland for five years and likely witnessed countless times how damaging the cannabis policies of yesteryear were for generations and entire communities in America.
However, just recently, Rep. Blumenauer announced that he won’t be seeking reelection.
“Congressman Blumenauer is a committed leader, an effective legislator, and a good friend. His advocacy in the cannabis space and leadership within the Cannabis Caucus has helped bring us to where we are today, right on the cusp of badly needed federal reform,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) told Marijuana Moment. “The Cannabis Caucus will continue to carry the torch toward cannabis justice, but we have big shoes to fill. I wish him the best in this next chapter of his life and congratulate him on a well-deserved retirement.”
While there’s no update yet on who would possibly replace him in both Congress and as the unofficial chairman of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, Blumenauer promises that his influence on cannabis-related issues will remain just as present in Congress. “But simply said,” Bumenauer wrote on his website, “it is time to continue my life’s mission without the burden of day-to-day politics.
“I have dedicated my career to creating livable communities where people are safe, healthy, and economically secure. This mission has guided my involvement in Congress on a wide range of issues. I may best be known in Portland for work on light rail, streetcars, and bicycles. But our work also included critical issues of war and peace, championing the fight to end the failed war on drugs, helping to write the Affordable Care Act, rescuing independent restaurants, food and farm policy, animal welfare, and writing the single largest investment in renewable energy in history.”
Congressman Blumenauer will be a keynote speaker at the upcoming National Interdisciplinary Symposium.