After a half century advocating for marijuana reform—including 27 years representing Oregon’s 3rd district in Congress—Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) announced on Monday that he will not be seeking reelection next year.
The congressman, a founding co-chair of the Cannabis Caucus and architect of a federal marijuana legalization “blueprint,” has earned the respect of advocates, stakeholders and lawmakers across the aisle as he’s worked to navigate challenging waters on Capitol Hill, where even modest cannabis legislation has consistently stalled despite the ever-growing state legalization movement and increasing voter support.
Those congressional waters remain stubbornly volatile. Even a bipartisan cannabis banking bill that moved through a Senate committee last month is on pause as legislators reassess political dynamics in the GOP-controlled House, which has a new, anti-marijuana speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-LA).
Blumenauer’s pending departure from the House has left some wondering who might take up the mantle. There are several other bipartisan leaders on the issue, but none who can necessarily tout the same credentials and history as the Oregon congressman. Besides sponsoring legislation, Blumenauer has also led the charge to hold administrations of presidents of both parties accountable to the public, a majority of which is ready to disband with prohibition.
“I am proud that for more than 50 years I have championed the effort to end the failed war on drugs and decriminalize cannabis,” Blumenauer said in a press release announcing his retirement on Monday. “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.”
The congressman, who helped enact marijuana decriminalization in Oregon during his time as a state legislator a half-century ago, also says he’s not stepping away from the issue after his term ends next year. He pledged to “continue championing common-sense policy and strategizing on federal legislation with advocates, industry and impacted communities.”
What that kind of outside advocacy looks like is yet to be seen. But for members who’ve worked with him inside the Capitol, there’s a newfound sense of responsibility to make the most out of the remainder of the two-year session and then carry out his legacy.
“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 retirement well-deserved.”
Blumenauer’s congressional record goes much further back, starting in 2003 with a cosponsorship on a bill to amend the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) to provide an affirmative defense to people facing prosecution over medical cannabis-related activity made legal at the state level. His name has been attached to nearly 100 marijuana bills and resolutions (in addition to countless amendments) over his tenure in Congress, and he’s been the lead sponsor of more than a dozen cannabis reform measures himself.
Legalization, banking, state protections, social justice, tax equity, veterans’ access and research have all been on the congressman’s routine roster of reform priorities. He was also one of the first sitting members of Congress to advocate for psychedelics legislation. On research, he sponsored legislation to remove marijuana study barriers and allow scientists to access cannabis from state-licensed dispensaries; a Senate version without that latter provision became the first marijuana reform bill in history to get signed into law last year.
“Earl has been an incredible friend, colleague, and advocate for the cannabis industry,” Rep. Dave Joyce (R-OH), a Cannabis Caucus co-chair, told Marijuana Moment on Tuesday.
“Over the last decade, we have worked together as Co-Chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, and introduced legislation ranging from the SAFE Banking Act and STATES Act, and pushed to increase medical cannabis access for veterans,” he said. “I look forward to working with him through the end of 2024 to advance commonsense cannabis priorities and wish him and his family the best as they begin their next chapter.”
Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL), another Cannabis Caucus co-chair, told Marijuana Moment that there’s “no doubt that Earl’s work on cannabis is a cornerstone of his legacy.”
“We didn’t always approach the issue in the same way, but he’s been instrumental in the progress that’s been made,” he said. “I look forward to building on that progress to make sure federal cannabis policy is based on science, based on what will keep communities safe, and based on what will respect states’ rights.”
Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) said that he’s watched Blumenauer lead on issues, including cannabis, since he was “in high school” and thanked him for his “public service.”
Another member representing Oregon, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), also recognized the congressman’s work on cannabis issues.
Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA) said it’s “hard to imagine the House without my dear friend Earl Blumenauer.”
“He is one of our bravest and most thoughtful members, a great leader on cannabis reform, trade, and especially on climate,” he said.
Advocates will miss having that kind of consistent ally that they found in Blumenauer. While it wasn’t the congressman’s only issue (the bike-riding member is also well-known for championing climate policy, for example), but he’s been a voice for activists, often at times when marijuana was far from front-of-mind for the rest of the Democratic conference.
“Congressman Blumenauer has a special credibility all his own when it comes to good cannabis policy,” Shaleen Title, a former member of the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission and founder of the Parabola Center for Law and Policy, told Marijuana Moment.
“In my interactions with him, he was always enthusiastic, kind, and unwavering in his support for legalization. He is simply a legend,” she said. “We’ll miss his bowtie and his sense of humor. We hope that the next champions of marijuana law reform in Congress will bring the same courage and integrity he has always brought.”
Justin Strekal, founder of the BOWL PAC, told Marijuana Moment that there’s “no one who is more knowledgable, tenacious, or effective on cannabis reform than Earl Blumenauer and the team he has led.”
“When we win legalization, we should name the bill after him,” he said.
(Disclosure: Strekal supports Marijuana Moment’s work through a monthly pledge on Patreon.)
Blumenauer’s advocacy was also marked by a willingness to challenge bipartisan administrations to take on cannabis issues. Just last week, he led a letter with 30 of his colleagues, pressing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to take a holistic look at the marijuana policy landscape as it carries out a scheduling review directed by President Joe Biden.
Bespectacled and bow-tied, Blumenauer’s affability could turn biting when given the chance to confront those still defending what he sees as the failed and harmful policy of prohibition.
“The importance and impact of Rep. Blumenauer’s leadership in cannabis policy reform cannot be overstated,” Morgan Fox, political director of NORML, told Marijuana Moment. “From making Oregon the first state in the union to decriminalize possession to championing numerous federal bills and being a key player in getting the first legislation to deschedule cannabis passed in the House, he has spent more than five decades at the forefront of this movement.”
“His courage, compassion, and wisdom will be sorely missed on Capitol Hill, but his efforts to educate his peers through co-founding and chairing the Congressional Cannabis Caucus have ensured that a growing bloc of lawmakers are well prepared to keep up the fight to end the national tragedy that is cannabis prohibition,” Fox said. “We at NORML are honored to have been able to work with him since our inception, and are beyond grateful for his many years of service. We look forward to collaborating with him long into the future.”
The National Cannabis Roundtable also thanked Blumenauer for his work on marijuana reform and said his “congressional leadership cannot be replaced, but we will all continue to work to carry his critical work on the Hill forward.”
Kaliko Castille, president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA) and an Oregon resident, told Marijuana Moment that Blumenauer is “one of the rare examples of someone who went to Congress and never forgot why he was there.”
He fought to “deliver for the people of Oregon—but just as importantly—to fight for issues like ending cannabis prohibition that impacts more than just the people of Oregon’s 3rd Congressional district,” Castille said. “His leadership in Congress on cannabis issues is unmatched and he will not easily be replaced, but I’m grateful for every minute he stood in the fight with us. We are better positioned than we’ve ever been thanks to Earl’s work.”
The blueprint to federal marijuana legalization may not fully materialized by the time Blumenauer exits the House. But there’s large consensus among supporters that the infrastructure he helped laid will be invaluable as the movement persists into its next chapter and as new congressional leaders emerge.
Photo courtesy of the House of Representatives.
After a half century advocating for marijuana reform—including 27 years representing Oregon’s 3rd district in Congress—Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) announced on Monday that he will not be seeking reelection next year. The congressman, a founding co-chair of the Cannabis Caucus and architect of a federal marijuana legalization “blueprint,” has earned the respect of advocates, stakeholders Read More