Why Congress might legalize marijuana (this time)

Rep. Earl Blumenauer explains to Salon why his legalization bill may succeed where others have failed

Topics: marjiuana legalization, earl blumenauer, marijuana,

Why Congress might legalize marijuana (this time)Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Oregon(Credit: AP/Rick Bowmer)

In 1973, Oregon rode the hippie wave to became the first state in the country to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Within five years, eight other states had followed, but momentum soon lagged, and then reversed in the Reagan era.

Lately, however, it’s beginning to feel like the ’70s again, with numerous polls showing a majority of Americans in favor of legalizing marijuana and the recent referenda in Colorado and Washington to do just that.

Earl Blumenauer voted on that first decriminalization bill 40 years ago in Oregon — as a “child legislator,” he jokes — and now that he’s in Congress representing the state, he thinks we’re approaching a moment where things are about to speed up very quickly for drug policy reform advocates.

“It’s just come to a head,” he told Salon Thursday afternoon. “This is largely going to be resolved in the next five years.”

Blumenauer, along with Colorado Democratic Rep. Jared Polis, introduced legislation this week to make the federal government treat cannabis like alcohol and let states decide whether to keep it illegal. And they think they have a real chance of getting somewhere this time.

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This is hardly the first time lawmakers have introduced legislation to decriminalize or legalize marijuana in Congress. Massachusetts liberal Democrat Barney Frank and Texas libertarian Republican Ron Paul worked together on a number of legalization bills, but both have now left Congress and passed the torch.

“They were very busy people with financial reform and running for president, and I think we have an opportunity this time for some added focus from a number of members of Congress,” he said, noting Frank was a lead author of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform bill and Paul was busy being Paul.

“I think we are in a position now to have a group of members of Congress who are able to spend a little more time and energy in a focused way on this. I think we’ve got a little bit more running room; I think our coalition is broader, and we’ve got people who have not normally been involved in this,” he added, pointing to more conservative members from Colorado who now care about marijuana after the state legalized it in the fall.

On top of his and Polis’ bills (which tax marijuana and end the federal prohibition on it, respectively), he said he anticipates “about a dozen” different pieces of legislation dealing with drug policy reform moving forward. With “a number of folks” already working together in an informal working group, he explained, “We’ve got more people working more systematically.” He declined to elaborate on other members, saying they would be making public statements in the coming months.

More modest goals include ending the federal prohibition on industrial hemp production (it’s legal to make things out of hemp, but illegal to grow it, so the fiber has to be imported), and changing the federal government’s classification of marijuana as more dangerous than cocaine or meth.

The long-term goal, however, is to get the federal government to end the prohibition on marijuana and leave it to states to regulate the drug, just as Congress did when the prohibition on alcohol ended, something that two-thirds of Americans seem to support. “I honestly think that in their heart of hearts, most members of Congress would support that,” Blumenauer said.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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