Congress' Weed Guy Grapples With The Trump Administration

Earl Blumenauer tries to pass the peace pipe between Washington and the cannabis industry

WASHINGTON ― Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has been selling weed for years.

Actually, let’s rephrase: Blumenauer, the bespectacled, bow tie-clad, bicycle-riding lawmaker whose district covers much of ― where else ― Portland, has been one of America’s most outspoken public officials on liberalizing America’s marijuana laws.

It now has fallen on Blumenauer to partake in a different type of weed dealing: serving as an unofficial liaison between official Washington and a cannabis industry that is, even by its own vigilant standards, pretty spooked by the prospect of a federal crackdown on it.

Though voters in eight states voted to legalize recreational or medical marijuana consumption in November, Donald Trump’s election and the confirmation of Jeff Sessions, an outspoken marijuana critic, as attorney general has stepped on a lot of buzzes.

“The Trump presidency has sent shockwaves virtually everywhere,” Blumenauer told HuffPost this week, “and it has been an area of special concern for people who deal with marijuana because it appears that Jeff Sessions is no great friend of the industry.”

“I think people are kind of torn,” Blumenauer said. “They see this amazing groundswell of support for state legal marijuana ― we’ve seen a huge shift in public opinion ― but they’re apprehensive and they should be.”

Marijuana remains classified a schedule one narcotic under the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, meaning the federal government deem it to have a “high potential for abuse” and “has no currently accepted medical use.” That puts it in the same class as heroin and flies in the face of decades of research.

Overall, twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized some form of marijuana consumption. The Obama administration took an increasingly hands-off approach to federal enforcement of marijuana laws, crystallized by a 2013 Department of Justice memorandum known as the Cole Memo, which effectively let marijuana policy up to the states.

The Trump administration, however has sent mixed signals about its approach. While Sessions made favorable comments about the Cole memo earlier this year, in a March speech he referred to marijuana as “only slightly less awful” than heroin. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said in February that states should expect “greater enforcement” of federal marijuana laws.

Blumenauer set out to calm nerves this week by holding meetings with cannabis industry representatives in Washington for a lobbying blitz. At a Wednesday press conference on Capitol Hill, Blumenauer and six House colleagues touted a set of bills aimed at allowing cannabis companies access to banking services.

While Blumenauer didn’t provide the event’s best lines ― that honor went to Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.), who quipped that “the industry is not a little head shop with a poster of Che Guevara” and that Congress needed to “puff puff and pass” the bills ― he was undoubtedly the most animated of the group.

“Ultimately we are going to legalize access” to marijuana nationwide, Blumenauer, wearing a bow tie patterned with cannabis leaves, told the crowd of journalists and marijuana advocates, “but the main items we can act on now are not controversial.”

Blumenauer, 68, has been working on the issue since 1972 when, as a state legislator, he helped make Oregon the first state to decriminalize marijuana consumption. This congressional session alone, Blumenauer and three other lawmakers (including two Republicans) launched the Congressional Cannabis Caucus to focus on efforts to liberalize the nation’s marijuana policies. Blumenauer has introduced four bills on the matter and co-sponsored another five ― legislation that would, among other things, legalize the substance federally and regulate its taxation.

If that weren’t enough to burnish his reputation with the cannabis industry, Blumenauer has at least one strain of marijuana named after him, described by the Portland marijuana site The Potlander as a “high-CBD, low-THC flower grown on a mountainside.” It even made the website’s list of the year’s best weed products.

After Wednesday’s press conference, Blumenauer decamped to National Harbor, Maryland, to attend the Marijuana Business Conference and Expo ― or MJBizCon ― the nation’s oldest professional gathering for the cannabis industry. Navigating the maze of vendor booths, Blumenauer remained upbeat about the prospects for the industry, insisting that nationwide legalization is four years away, at most.

“Last fall, in the nine states where marijuana was on the ballot, there were more votes cast for marijuana than for Donald Trump,” Blumenauer told HuffPost, “and hundreds of thousands of his supporters also supported the legalization effort.”

He speculated that legalization could come about in a number of ways, including through legislation or by executive action from “the new administration that will replace Trump” that de-lists marijuana as a controlled substance.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions' views on marijuana have rattled the cannabis industry.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions' views on marijuana have rattled the cannabis industry.
Yuri Gripas / Reuters

The sheer normalcy of MJBizCon buttressed Blumenauer’s sunny outlook that widespread legalization of marijuana is inevitable.

True, a handful of psychedelic-themed convention booths decorated with rastafarian caricatures could be found, along with an above-average number of steampunk-looking dudes with tiny wireframe glasses and waxed mustaches. Yet aside from the companies’ preference for green-hued logos and their tendency to incorporate marijuana wordplay into their names (booths belonging to CannaGuard and CannaPro were within shouting distance of one another), MJBizCon resembled any other business conference. It was replete with vendors handing out memory sticks stamped with their company’s name and throngs of middle-management types exchanging business cards.

Indeed, the workaday nature of the proceedings drove home how much whiplash the industry must be experiencing to have developed so far only to have the prospect of bankruptcy, or even jail time, become a possible, if still unlikely, threat.

“I’m nervous, I’m really nervous,” said Steph Shever, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, a marijuana advocacy group, during a MJBizCon panel on federal drug policy.

“Investors have [asked], ‘What’s Trump going to do?’” said Daniel Macris of Halcyon Organics, a Georgia-based medical marijuana provider, “And I say, ‘Dude, I don’t know, what’s he going to do with anything?’”

Blumenauer told HuffPost that cannabis-related companies are “concerned, they want clarity ... because they are investing millions of dollars, they’re building business, they’re watching the public support grow, and they’re apprehensive” about the Trump administration.

He said he believes that strong support for marijuana legalization ― 60 percent of respondents supported it in one recent poll ― will stay the administration’s hand.

“Don’t give up on the federal government,” Blumenauer said during the panel discussion. “After four decades, I have never been more optimistic.”

“The movement continues to grow, the industry continues to grow,” Blumenauer told HuffPost after the panel ended. “And I think it’s just going to be a case where events will overwhelm.”

JM Rieger contributed reporting to this article.