Legal Marijuana’s Big Moment

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A couple of weeks ago, John Boehner was dining at one of his favorite Washington haunts, Trattoria Alberto on Barracks Row, when in walked Earl Blumenauer, the Democrat from Oregon known as one of the most fervent advocates for legal marijuana in Congress. In years past, the two men would have had little in common, but earlier that day Boehner announced he was joining the advisory board for Acreage Holdings, one of the largest marijuana corporations in the country. It stunned many in the political world because the former speaker, whose tastes favor merlot and Camel Ultra Lights, had on several occasions spent political capital to defeat legalization measures: In 2014, he supported the congressional blockade of the District of Columbia’s recreational marijuana program and the next year he opposed efforts to legalize marijuana in his home state of Ohio.

Blumenauer was still so stunned by the turnabout, he couldn’t resist hailing his former adversary, who only a few hours earlier had advocated for marijuana’s full federal decriminalization, or its “descheduling,” in the parlance of Capitol Hill.

“John!” Blumenauer said, greeting the former speaker warmly, “What happened?”

“Well,” Boehner replied, “my thinking has evolved.”

He’s not the only one. In Washington, evolution on the marijuana issue is proceeding at warp speed in political terms. Boehner is just the latest in a string of noteworthy newcomers to the legalization movement that has been barreling through state houses for the past decade. Just in the past several weeks, Mitch McConnell fast-tracked a Senate bill to legalize low-THC hemp. Chuck Schumer announced that he would introduce a bill to deschedule marijuana entirely. Colorado Senator Cory Gardner struck a deal with President Donald Trump, who promised to not target Colorado’s legal marijuana industry in exchange for Gardner releasing his hold on Trump’s Department of Justice nominees. The Food and Drug Administration opened a comment period on the scheduling of marijuana ahead of a special session of the World Health Organization convened to re-evaluate marijuana laws, and both chambers of Congress passed “right to try” bills that might have accidentally legalized medical marijuana for terminally ill patients. Taken together they suggest that nearly 50 years of federal marijuana prohibition is about to disappear, and it’s happening in the face of an administration that has expressed its outright hostility to the notion.

“I don’t think we’ve seen a bigger transformation of the politics of marijuana in a single month since November 2012, when Colorado became the first state to legalize,” said Tom Angell, an advocate journalist who runs MarijuanaMoment.net. “It’s now very clear that both parties see this as a winning issue [and] they are worried about the other party taking ownership of it.”

Multiple currents are propelling this wave. In 2017, West Virginia became the 29th medical marijuana state, and earlier this year, Vermont became the ninth state to permit adult use. Tax revenue for fully legal marijuana in Colorado reached $247 million last year. Opinion polls continue to show approval ratings for marijuana higher than any politician’s, including in deep red states like Texas and Utah. The opioid addiction crisis has pushed medical marijuana further into the mainstream; the American Society for Addiction Medicine, which is not an advocate for legalization, acknowledges that opioid overdose death rates are 25 percent lower in states with legal medical marijuana. That list now includes Ohio, Boehner’s home state, where dispensaries will open later this year.

Boehner must have known he would soon face the smug satisfaction of his former colleagues who had goaded him on this issue for years, but the fact that it was Blumenauer he ran into was a kind of poetic political moment. Known for his bow tie and a lapel pin shaped like a bicycle, Blumenauer cuts a very different figure from Boehner, as different as their views on nearly every major political issue. With the exception now of marijuana. By chance, Blumenauer happened to be wearing a pair of marijuana-themed socks, and he offered to accessorize Boehner. According to Blumenauer, Boehner demurred.

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