WASHINGTON — Rep. Earl Blumenauer, the co-chair and co-founder of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, has been hard to get a hold of this relatively new year. It’s likely partly due to the pandemic, though it may be because there seems to be an open secret in Washington he doesn’t want to discuss: No one knows where President Joe Biden stands on marijuana.
After months of formal requests and text messages asking for an interview, the progressive congressman finally agreed to talk after I reported the above story on Biden’s elusiveness on the issue. The story riled cannabis advocates, in part, because during her last week as a member of the House, Biden’s Interior secretary, Deb Haaland, simply replies, “No” when I ask if she knows Biden’s stance on marijuana.
The story’s premise derailed the few niceties Blumenauer mustered in the first few seconds of our call.
“It’s been wild, and it keeps getting wilder. The reconciliation package…” Blumenauer said of this newish year, before cutting himself off and asking what was truly on his mind: “What do you mean nobody knows where Joe Biden stands on cannabis?”
“Not sure why people don’t know where he stands bc it’s clear he’s against legalization”Kevin Sabet of SAM
As I reply, the Oregon Democrat almost instantly unfurls a targeted, ‘check and mate’ sorta, laugh.
“Hey, I woke,” I interject through his laughter, “I woke up this morning to a DM from Mr. Kevin Sabet” — a name whose very mention causes Blumenauer to nervously laugh louder than I’ve heard him laugh in the 15 years I’ve interacted with him.
See, Sabet co-founded Smart Approaches to Marijuana — or SAM — with former Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island. Yup, one of those Kennedy’s. I’ll let Sabet sum his own organization up, as he did in an interview with The News Station earlier this month: “We’ve consistently been very clear that we don’t want to see legalization happening.”
Now you get Blumenauer’s nervous laughter?
The 14-term congressman doesn’t laugh much, like not much at all. He carries binders with him to formal addresses from foreign heads of states. And he relaxes in a private congressional reading room in the Library of Congress, donning his signature neon bicycle pin along with one of the rare bow ties still regularly worn at the Capitol.
Still, the mention of the arch nemesis of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus — and of the entire marijuana industry — turns this wonk giddy, if merely outwardly.
Back at our interview…
“I woke up this morning to a DM from Mr. Kevin Sabet (laughter) — but him telling me that it’s ludicrous,” I tell the veteran lawmaker, “He’s like, ‘how do you even raise the question of where Biden stands?’…‘everyone knows he’s anti marijuana.’”
I laugh a lot, especially when discussing the most serious of matters. So at this point, I can’t but laugh out the obvious point: I’m merely the messenger.
“That is what SAM is [saying],” I remind Blumenauer. “What do you make of that?”
“Well, I think that’s the narrative they want to drive,” a composed and contemplative Bluemaneur said.
He then unleashed Portland-fury on SAM in his usual, professorial way.
“Those people have been wrong on the policy. They’re wrong on the politics. They’re wrong on the science. So why shouldn’t they try and stir up unnecessary controversy?” Blumenauer said. “It doesn’t surprise me. We’ve successfully dealt with him in the past, and I think we will, I think he will continue to be sort of a non-factor.”
“Those in the upper ranks of your administration won’t face consequences for their cannabis use, and nor should they, but the same standard should be applied across the administration. Repercussions for cannabis use have always been unequal and those with the most power have always faced the fewest consequences. We ask that you don’t allow that pattern to continue within your administration”30 lawmakers wrote to Biden on Thursday
Sabet wasn’t on my mind when I set up the interview, but now he was. Because his anti-cannabis side has been racking up wins. Their effort to cap the amount of THC (aka, the high) is making waves in red, pink and purple-ish state legislative chambers. And there’s been no sign of marijuana moving at the federal level. Ever. Top Senate Democrats debating marijuana behind closed doors is nothing new, even if they have new titles — everyone’s watching their gavels.
Moreso, Sabet and SAM are riding high, on the trifecta of news recently breaking their way, including last week’s Daily Beast bombshell: Biden White House Sandbags Staffers, Sidelines Dozens for Pot Use.
Depending on the day or week, the Democratic Party is riding higher. The new dynamics in Washington — control of the White House and every gavel at the Capitol — have this co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus maintaining an air of optimism, in spite of what seems to be evidence to the contrary.
Still, when we spoke on Friday afternoon, Blumenauer deferred to the Biden White House, while tying the firings to the continued federal prohibition on marijuana.
“There are lots of conflicting rules and regulations — for security clearances, for employment by the federal government, things that are left over,” Blumenauer said.
She said five staffers were let go because they consumed marijuana which is “still illegal federally,” though she added “for a number of them, there were other security issues that were raised.” She refused to elaborate on the flaws in the federal government or Secret Service’s screening system, so all we know is the only ‘red flag’ raised on any of them was cannabis use.
That’s not good enough for Blumenauer and 30 other members of Congress who penned a letter to Biden today asking they rectify this immediately.
“Those in the upper ranks of your administration won’t face consequences for their cannabis use, and nor should they, but the same standard should be applied across the administration,” the lawmakers wrote. “Repercussions for cannabis use have always been unequal and those with the most power have always faced the fewest consequences. We ask that you don’t allow that pattern to continue within your administration.”
Change doesn’t happen overnight, according to the co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus who credits the Obama-Biden administration with “allowing this movement to take place.”
Still, Blumenauer’s praise is muted.
“They allowed things to go forward, but I don’t think it was, you know, cutting edge reform,” he said of the O’Biden administration.
To Blumenauer, President Biden’s not the problem, the fatally flawed system is — and even the person with the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave can’t upend decades of prejudice.
“I am not going to get spun up — I’ve been doing this forever, and what I have seen is nothing short of remarkable”Rep. Earl Blumenauer
“This is 50 years of the failed ‘war on drugs,’ and it got embedded in lots of different places,” Blumenauer said.
“I think that there is an effort by this administration to do what they said,” Blumenauer said. “And a draconian, inflexible policy would deny government service to lots of people, including the Vice President. I just don’t think that’s, you know, I don’t think that’s the intent. And I don’t think they’re going to do that, and I think they’ll be able to get it right.”
Blumenauer expects the “policies and practices to evolve.”
“President Biden has demonstrated a remarkable flexibility,” the progressive said. “He is not the person, policy wise and politics, that he was 20 or 30 years ago. And I think he’s been, you know, very welcoming in terms of racial justice. I think, in terms of sentencing reform, and I think we’re going to see the same thing, ultimately, as how cannabis fits in this larger picture.”
He’s the first and only person I’ve seen wear a marijuana leaf polka dotted bow tie. He’s on a mission, and frivolity isn’t anywhere near the top of the 72-year-old’s bucket list.
“I am not going to get spun up — I’ve been doing this forever, and what I have seen is nothing short of remarkable,” Blumenauer said. “And it just indicates that we’re getting closer than ever to a final resolution.”
Per those DM’s from Sabet, he was eager to share them with you. He’s feeling the wind at his back, partly because he views Biden as an ally in SAM’s war against marijuana and other substances people like.
“Hey Matt I hope you’re well – saw your latest piece,” Sabet DM-ed in response to my No One Knows Where President Biden is on Marijuana article. “Not sure why people don’t know where he stands bc it’s clear he’s against legalization.”
Earlier this month when the new Secretary of the Interior, along with others in and around the administration, were questioned while testifying under oath to United States senators about these very issues, they offered variations of a theme, from backpedaling to question marks.
To Sabet, there’s no question.
“And the ‘I don’t know’ is a way to just dodge the issue,” Sabet DM-ed, likely while laughing. “It also reflects the low priority of marijuana issues.”
Only one person can answer these questions, but, thus far, President Biden’s been mum.