Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer Touts Marijuana Legalization at ASU

Approving Proposition 205 in Arizona would mean a new level of freedom for adults and help lead a national reform of marijuana laws, Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer said in a speech in Tempe on Wednesday.

The Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol brought Blumenauer to Arizona State University to speak on behalf of the marijuana-legalization measure. The Democrat and 20-year member of Congress is one of the nation's highest-profile pro-marijuana activists. He has introduced several bills that would reform federal marijuana laws, including one that would allow doctors at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to discuss possible cannabis treatments with their patients, and another that would exclude marijuana from the list of offenses that preclude students from obtaining financial aid.

Diego Rodriguez, Democratic candidate for Maricopa County Attorney, also spoke on a stage outside of ASU's Memorial Union, where a small crowd of activists and students gathered for the short rally.

Blumenauer called the recreational-marijuana programs in Colorado, Washington, and his own state a "tremendous success." Oregon voters approved Measure 91 by a large majority in 2014, making it legal in the state for adults 21 and older to possess up to eight ounces of marijuana and four plants, and authorizing regulated retail sales.

Despite the states that have legalized cannabis for medical or recreational use, more than 560,000 people were arrested or cited last year for using a substance more than half of Americans believe should be legal, Blumenauer pointed out. African-American men are four times as likely to be "caught up" in an enforcement action, he said.

"I would hope that you will be part of a movement that's taking place literally coast to coast, where we are no longer going to criminalize adult decisions to use marijuana," he said, adding later that "Arizona is in a position to turn this around."

Possession of marijuana remains a violation under federal law, but "the decision made by the people in Arizona is going to have profound effects on Congress to starting getting it right," Blumenauer said.

All Americans ought to have access to marijuana, Blumenauer argued, predicting that in the near future, they probably will. State-legal marijuana is already a $6-billion-a-year industry, he said, and its annual revenue is expected to surpass that of the National Football League.

In a conversation with New Times after his speech, Blumenauer added that although America has spent more than $1 trillion on the War on Drugs since the 1970s, estimates show that legalizing marijuana federally could result in a $100-billion-a-year industry in 10 years, with a corresponding decrease in money spent on enforcement.

Talk of a "disaster" in legalized states is nonsense, he said. Noting that Oregonians approved legal marijuana by a margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, he said polls show it has even higher approval rate now.

Prop 205 would legalize up to an ounce of marijuana, and up to six plants, for adults 21 and older. The retail system would be limited initially, consisting of converted medical-marijuana stores — there are 99 open in the state now — and a few dozen new stores.

Recent polls show the Arizona measure has a narrow chance of passing. The opposition group, Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, have played their strong hand, launching slick TV ads and putting up billboards across metro Phoenix and Tucson with millions of dollars from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, Insys Therapeutics, and billionaires including Discount Tires' Bruce Halle and casino mogul Sheldon Adelson.

If it fails, Blumenauer said, Arizonans who vote for it shouldn't be discouraged.

"People just won't give up," he said. "We're going to change federal law."

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has said publicly he believes in the right of states to enact their own marijuana laws, but "who knows" what Trump really believes, Blumenauer said. Hillary Clinton, he predicted, "would build on the record of the Obama administration" if elected.

In any case, Blumenauer doesn't think America will see another anti-marijuana presidential candidate, because it'll be too politically risky to take that position.

Diego Rodriguez, who's running an enthusiastic-but-underfunded campaign to unseat incumbent Bill Montgomery, also spoke at the rally, where he said marijuana legalization is part of movement to turn Arizona from a "backward-thinking state" to a "progressive state."

"Part of that is acknowledging that plenty of people who want to use marijuana as a normal recreational drug, and they should not have to face punishment in the prison system in Arizona because of that," Rodriguez said.

Except for medicinal users, possession of any amount of marijuana remains a felony in Arizona with a presumptive one-year prison sentence. A voter-approved drug-reform law in 1996 banned jail or prison sentences for first- or second-time offenders, however. About 13,000 adults 21 and older are arrested or cited for possession of marijuana each year, according to the Arizona Department of Public Safety.

Before leaving town, Blumenauer met the campaign team for U.S. Senate candidate and Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, as he  tweeted on Wednesday.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.

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