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The Path Forward for Cannabis Legalization Nationwide | SXSW 2021

Earl Blumenauer
Member at U.S. House of Representatives from Oregon's 3rd district
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March 16, 2021, Online, Austin, USA
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About speakers

Earl Blumenauer
Member at U.S. House of Representatives from Oregon's 3rd district
Natalie Fertig
Federal Cannabis Policy Reporter at POLITICO

Earl Francis Blumenauer is an American politician serving as the U.S. Representative for Oregon's 3rd congressional district since 1996. A member of the Democratic Party, his district includes most of Portland east of the Willamette River. Blumenauer previously spent over 20 years as a public official in Portland, including serving on the Portland City Council from 1987 until 1996, when he succeeded Ron Wyden in the U.S. House of Representatives, who had been elected to the U.S. Senate following the resignation of Bob Packwood.

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Covering federal policy concerning the nascent cannabis industry, and the ways that policy affects Americans.

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About the talk

Rep. Earl Blumenauer, founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, will join by POLITICO Cannabis Reporter Natalie Fertig to discuss the path forward for legalizing cannabis. Blumenauer led the effort in the House to pass the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act to end the federal prohibition of cannabis and ensure restorative justice for those impacted by it. The historic 2020 vote marked the first time a full chamber of Congress voted to end this prohibition. Now, with a new presidential administration and Senate majority, along with cannabis momentum across the country, Blumenauer and Fertig will discuss the renewed outlook for federal legalization. They’ll also explore the changing cannabis policy landscape as more states incorporate regulatory frameworks and restorative justice policies for communities most impacted by the war on drugs. #WeedWatch

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Thanks everybody for joining us here today. My name is Natalie fertig and I'm the Cannabis policy reporter at. Let It Go and I'm joined today by Congressman Earl blumenauer. Who is the co-founder and co-chairman of the Congressional cannabis? I like to refer to him as The Unofficial cannabis star of Capitol Hill knows every single piece of canvas legislation happening on Capitol Hill like Congress and blumenauer to us. So if there's any it's definitely just so I'm excited for this conversation.

My pleasure now. A lot of times about cannabis but I think a lot of people don't know your history with cannabis policy and how it dates all the way back to Oregon State's where you're from. Could you kind of really quickly give us a history of how you got involved in cannabis legislation and you know how it has changed from that point till now Sure. Well I was a child legislator in the 70s in Oregon. And at that point Oregon, was deeply involved with an error and variety of areas of

decriminalization of chronic late-stage alcoholism. And it focus on cannibus as well. Oregon became the first state to decriminalize cannabis and in fact, I think we were the first state to actually vote on full legalization. We had a proposal that would have authorized to plants for personal use. I've been involved in this, since the seventies I have been deeply involved since I've been in Congress for 25 years working on, trying to end the failed War on Drugs. We've been involved with state issues around the

country from Bangor. Maine to Santa Barbara, it has been really exciting to watch a building on that or Experience shows that we have now moved to State legalization and making progress on the federal level, but it's all part of that 25-year history. Yeah, how has that really changed in the last year or two? I mean, just the events of 2020 seem to have really rocked the boat for how the country precedes cannabis. We have a couple of turning point in 1996. California

was the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Through an initiative in 2012, we had the state of Washington in the state of Colorado legalized adult and it's kind of built from there. You're right. Just last year. This last Congress was a watershed moment for federal legislation because we had the more act, which was the most comprehensive piece of cannabis legislation that passed the house with the 228, we had the safe Banking Act 321 votes, was the first major Ledger Patient passed out of a substance committee and passed on the floor of the house.

321 people voted to allow full banking services for the Cannabis industry and then we had and research legislation. So this was a watershed moment for Congressional activity and it's kind of exciting. We are in the strongest position we've ever been. And how is the focus on Criminal Justice Reform in 2020 also shaped the conversation around cannabis on Capitol Hill? That's a very important point in a year. When there were cries across the country for racial Justice,

one of the most obvious manifestation of the in quality, has been the failed War on Drugs. That was visited primarily on young men of color, particularly young black men destroying maybe a million lives. And in this last year people focused on that we were able to in the more act have a Criminal Justice Reform and have access to trying to expunged records. And this came in to full flower and it brought forward, the people who are dealing with equity and Justice to be part of that in Play a major role, it's really exciting watching

that come into full flower and add to the momentum for those that just care about medical or care about civil liberties, who care about personal freedom. But the racial Justice element is strong and adds extra momentum. Yeah, I really believe just in the last two to three years that I've been covering this. It seems like in 2020 that part was always one of the many reasons why people supported legalization. But in 2020 it is very much shot to the top reason. I and I feel like the more acts passage when I spoke with you. When the more Act was

coming to a floor vote, I spoke with other lawmakers even Senators as they were washing. The houseboat on this everyone that I talk to, you mentioned, George Floyd and the push for Criminal Justice Reform as being one of the main reasons why that bill came up last year. Absolutely. I'm in the evidence is overwhelming. The failed prohibition of cannabis has been directed primarily to people of color. Especially young black men. They are arrested or cited many times. 41 is a commonly used

metric, but if you dig deeper and look at various parts of the country, that disparity can be much, much higher, and then we've seen in the case of George Floyd breonna Taylor, we've seen drug busts starting with cannabis that have gone. Very, very bad. Henry had tragic results, and last but not least, we, we have thousands of young, black and brown people behind bars for something that the majority of the American public no longer think should be illegal. Yeah, not that

actually Segways into my next question, which is the majority of the American public does not believe that this should be illegal any longer and and support. Even for medical marijuana is almost uniform between Democrats and Republicans. Why is the federal government? Seemingly slower to pick this up then I mean, we saw Montana, traditionally Red State legalize. Cannabis this year, Arizona, a swing state, not to mention, New Jersey, you know, obviously why where is why is the federal government?

Well, Richard Nixon's, ill-fated War on Drugs and then Nancy Reagan, just say no and what we've seen the wars dealing with drug, use really are deeply embedded in federal policy and federal bureaucracy. It's it's a machine that keeps going. There's a simple research is prohibited because the federal government interferes, that's why the state have played such a critical role. They were not constrained by this Federal bureaucracy and the political intransigent we were seeing steps with the Obama Administration moving when

the state's first approved, adult-use, Oregon and Alaska followed Colorado and and Washington State, the Obama Administration made a decision and it was captured in the so-called Cole memo. A deputy attorney-general that basically allowed stage to go forward as long as they followed their own guidelines and there wasn't leakage into the general population. They were going to respect the state's decision but other parts of the federal government, didn't there, there 93 us attorneys that can do things around the country. There are these drug agencies that are

actively promoting a far different approach. So you had the the federal inertia you had the prohibition from, you know, even research you you can't conduct it. That the only operations are they legal cannabis for research, is one Plantation in Mississippi and its Really not good marijuana. The federal government has been captured and Donald Trump, despite having stated on camera, and this shouldn't surprise, this that he reneged on something that he said, but he told people in

Colorado that he would respect their decisions yet soon after he was nauseous, he installed a Jeff sessions of the singularly ill qualified person to manage this transition. In fact, he rescinded the coelom in and tried to make things more difficult. So we basically stopped for 4 years but you're right. The public is not their support for medical marijuana, is essentially Universal. Now, it's over 90% And it's taking time to break through those barriers. Yeah, I'm not support.

I think when when there was a lot of discussion about the more act last fall I heard from a lot of our readers and just a lot of people online and just this, absolute not understand why Congress vote on this because it's so supported, your 60% of the country's support legalization of marijuana. Can you explain for those people? I've tried to explain, but I think it was coming from you. It may also shed some light on on why it's still hard to move forward in Congress on

legalization, and it has some a blow back for some folks. This is controversial for some people in Congress, you know, and if you sent in Hadley we sweep past the area public support. When I started Yes. It was opposed by two-thirds of the general public and slowly we been educating. We've been building momentum. Now I've seen pools it suggested two-thirds of the American public now supports full legalization, including a majority of Republicans but that's been slow to take. Hold.

And you have the opposition from the Trump Administration. You have groups that are dedicated to trying to maintain the failed probation and you have all the federal bureaucracy that is arrayed against you. It is just Congress and the federal government that is out of steps. I've been working on this for years, I've never met any single person whether they support legalization or not. They think there's any rational purpose to deny state legal. Cannabis business has access to

banking Yet that has been a sticking point as well. And that was a pretty broadly supported still let you bring up the good point of of the state markets and one of the conversations that I've heard starting to Bubble to the surface. As you know, we've now reached 15 states that have voted to legalize adult-use marijuana and many many more that have medical marijuana. Marcus is protecting small businesses. There comes a point where Federal legalization could potentially open up the

door for big companies to enter the market Rino talking to cannabis businesses. In Oregon. For example, some of the small farmers, the small dispensary owners of small, manufacturers are saying, how do we approach Federal Federal legalization, in a way that still protects the small businesses that we've put so much investment. And, and I know that's something that a lot of people involved with cannabis legislation, really want to see happen. So as Congress is moving forward this year, even closer to cannabis legalization policy than it has ever been before. How are

you approaching this small business conversation, but one of the advantages that the approach that's been taken state-by-state, is it? There is no one template, there are a variety of different approaches that have been taken of theirs Keen interest to not have massive industry, consolidation making sure that there is a space for small. Particularly, if you want to have racial Equity, making sure that small businesses that are owned by people of color, have an opportunity to

have a foothold in the industry to get a license. And there's been work with the minority cannabis Association and work with the state activities to be able to You have programs that provide that diversity there is a keen interest with the more act that would provide funding for small business. 2.7 billion dollars would be available for small businesses to maintain and enhance their position in the market. We have our work cut out for us, but I think there is a consensus that we want to make sure that there is diversity. We want to make

sure that there are opportunities for women and minorities to participate. And in fact people who have a criminal record because of cannabis in ways that might not be considered illegal anymore, are we shouldn't check them out and that was part of what was done with the more act? And there is Keen interest with our partners in the Senate. Cory Booker more Majority Leader Schumer and my own Senator Ron Wyden to maintain that opportunity. Yeah. And what is the likelihood that the regulation structure of of a

cannabis legalization? Bill could some people have talked about a slow opening of the market jumping, Straits to interstate commerce immediately. Is that something that's on the table. Well, I think moving into interstate commerce actually would help strengthen the industry and the opportunities. Right now there's an imbalance in terms of the production of the legal production cannabis and the market if we had an opportunity to cross state lines with product, it would help balance out supply and demand

and hasten that evolution. In fact we have now legal National Market in Canada, in Mexico fully legalized, we have an opportunity for a North American Market to develop and be able to provide those opportunities that space and be able to have the ballot to help us. Add stop how to to the black market, the grey market, and that's another priority that we would like to achieve. Can a little bit, we talked a lot about sort of the main things about cannabis legalization. Are you

know, getting people out of jail records creating a market that is diverse, but there's a lot of sort of secondary Ripple effects of drug policy that I think a lot of Americans don't think about such as access to funding for education or access to public housing. What for you is is one of those issues that you think I can get talked about enough that you wish that, some of the Americans who have seen this panel were more aware of several of them that are very important. One aspect of the failed War on Drugs is what it did. We

talked about selective enforcement black Americans. Don't use cannabis any more frequently than white but they have the heavy hand of the law come down. And penalties that were established denying people convicted of a relatively minor cannabis offenses, which is they say, for most people, they don't even think that should be illegal. They can be dyed, public housing access. The student loans, it can pose problems for veterans benefits. These are all characteristics that are really heavy-handed inappropriate and they are

focused primarily on people of color. That's one of the most important parts of the reform effort. When were looking toward the next two years? The next Congress, you know for two years we we have a democratic majority in both houses of Congress and in the White House what do you what should people expect to see happen legislatively? I think it is important for The Advocates to focus on both the house and the Senate we've already passed the more act in the house but

only about only two hundred and three of the people that voted for it return. Now there's enough new people that would probably be a majority. You can't take this for granted and we have an opportunity to start encouraging more Republicans. We had a few Republican but if they listen to their constituents we can bring them on board in the Senate. It the calculation is a little more complicated as you know. It's it's a 50/50 balance and in several of these JCPenney still controversial, even in South Dakota which passed both medical

and adult. Use their people that are attacking it there in Mississippi, which pass medical marijuana. The state legislature seeking to interfere with it. So people need to focus on members of the House and Senate the power of the concept here. For legalization, for criminal justice and for help this is a powerful potential Improvement of American Health. Medical cannabis has been driven by Grassroots support and voters in 34 of the 36 States and has the

potential of reduce the opioid crisis states that have a robust medical marijuana. Have fewer overdosed from opioids and it's a lower cost, more effective alternative I think what we need to do is help people concentrate on the benefits. Take nothing for granted work to build the momentum. And having, as I mentioned three powerful, influential Senators, the majority leader Schumer, Cory Booker, and Senator Wyden in the Forefront, I can help set the table, but Advocates activists are going to have to make

the case because it's not quite there yet for the majority of senators for majority of senators. It's still a question and the evidence is powerful and the public is there, but the case needs to be made. Yeah, I did speak to Senator Senator rounds from South Dakota just after the state legalized and he did tell me that he has no interest in working on any kind of cannabis legalization or even the banking bill. So I think he's a prime example of a senator from a state that

legalized is that is still slow to adopt as opposed to maybe former Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado, who is also a Republican vote, was one of the biggest Advocates at one point in the Senate, we're raising important. For me, it's the constituent who can change the mind of the politicians. We mentioned to Safe banking. That is overwhelmingly supportive, but it's not just advocates for cannabis. That is we had the American banking Association, the credit union, there's interest across the board from

property. This is a 20 billion dollar industry employs a quarter of a million people. It has tremendous potential for health and economic development and there's over two billion dollars in taxes for state and local governments that are Star for Revenue. Moving in this space for Better Health better economy and racial Justice. This is a compelling case that can be made an ultimate. Ultimately the politicians I think are going to come around in the Senate. They're going to understand that the citizens demanding

you mention my friend, Cory Gardner. Cory was opposed to legalization in his home state of Colorado, but he fit, he noticed that cannabis got more votes than he did. Got more votes than any politician got in Colorado. It was powerful and he understood that opposition to that. Would have negative political consequences. We need to make this case on the merits and the politics, and I think we're getting there. We have a little over a minute left. So I'm going to ask some really quick rapid fire questions and I'd like you to answer them and in just one

sentence if possible, so, that might be a little tricky, but we'll see how this goes are. So first question, what year did you start working on cannabis policy 1973? What is the biggest thing that changed in 2020 in cannabis colicy? I think the wave broke in terms of the the the power of the issue that gained more momentum with those five states, four of them red. And it just, I think I made a huge difference in purple people's perceptions. Question, does Congress or the president have more power in legalizing cannabis?

Well, it has both the president and Congress has that power, but I think Congress is more likely to do it. And they should divide Administration can be helpful, but I think Congress to do its job, In the next session. We're not going to hold you to this. But how many years do you think until cannabis is federally legal? I think it can happen this Congress. If everybody does their job, because the public is there, the politicians are getting there and the case is compelling. I am last question. The Congressional cannabis caucus is

getting bigger and bigger on Capitol Hill. How many members approximately are part of that caucus? I only been a little slow to organize because of covid and the riot. I think you'll find probably 50 or 60 in the near future. Alright well thank you so much congressmen. This is a great conversation, it's always fantastic to talk to you and I really hope that everyone who tuned in learned a lot about cannabis policy and I hope that you keep track of what would you do? And then also with the car.

Thank you very much.

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Earl Blumenauer
Natalie Fertig