Bringing the “Oregon Experiment” to the feds: 5 Questions for U.S. Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR)
Blumenauer discusses the role he and other legislators play in expanding access to psychedelics, and what the rest of the country might learn from Oregon.
Earl Blumenauer was born and raised in Portland, Oregon, and started his political career there in the late 1960s. In 1996, he ran for a seat in the U.S. House in Oregon’s 3rd congressional district and won — and he’s been in that position for nearly 30 years. In that time, drug policy reform has been one of Blumenauer’s major causes; he co-founded the Congressional Cannabis Caucus and has become a vocal proponent of medical psychedelics. In 2022, Blumenauer wrote a letter to the DEA urging the agency to provide access to psilocybin through Right to Try laws; six other representatives signed on to that letter. As a member of the House’s Ways and Means Committee, Blumenauer has spoken about the potential of psychedelics as a mental health treatment to the committee. The Microdose spoke with Blumenauer about what role he and other legislators might play in expanding access to psychedelics and what the rest of the country might learn from Oregon as the state rolls out psilocybin services.
Just within the U.S., there are people working on multiple levels to increase access to psychedelics: organizers are proposing ballot initiatives for decriminalization, doctors and patients are suing the DEA for access, researchers are collecting data that could lead to FDA approval of psychedelics. What role do you see legislators playing in expanding or contracting access to psychedelics?
We have an opportunity to promote a rational and balanced approach. Neither the federal government nor the Biden administration has actually embraced these therapies and concepts yet. They did sign my cannabis research bill and the President, in an encouraging sign, issued pardons for thousands of people, and has indicated a willingness to reexamine scheduling issues. I find that to be extraordinarily promising, because once we go down this line of inquiry, it builds momentum and it becomes really hard to unduly limit and restrict these drugs.
And that’s necessary because these therapies hold promise with populations that are in need of a more robust approach by the federal government. I am particularly interested in opportunities for psilocybin and medical cannabis for veterans. I have legislation that speaks to veterans’ access, and I've had conversations with the upper reaches of the Department of Veterans Affairs. We lose 22 veterans a day to suicide, and this is a therapy that could help with chronic and severe depression, and with addiction. But the V.A. has not been as enlightened, and I think they’re partly responsible; they're handing out opioids like Tic Tacs while resisting therapies like this. I have been keenly interested in making sure that the V.A. is aware of what we're doing in Oregon, and we want them to be involved with these broader conversations, things like the Right to Try laws. When we've got people with severe, or in some cases, terminal conditions, why are we not granting them authorization to move forward with these therapies?
As Oregon has rolled out its plan to implement Measure 109, there have been some hiccups along the way, including counties and cities voting to opt out of the measure, and now, a debate over whether service centers should be required to report client data to the Oregon Health Authority. You mentioned you’re talking with federal authorities about what’s happening in Oregon. If Oregon might serve as an example in these federal discussions, what do you think it’s important that the state get right as psilocybin services begin?
I want Oregon to be a model of doing it all correctly. Being clear about data collection, being rigorous in terms of how we apply it, being careful to make sure that the use of psilocybin is supervised by people who are trained to help people who are taking the therapy. There's a lot riding on the effectiveness of the Oregon experiment.
There are many counties that opted out, but it's certainly a minority of the state's population; the majority of the state's population is included in the process. I am perfectly happy to allow any part of the state that decides that they don't want to be a part of this initial rollout to opt out. I think that's entirely appropriate. In a sense, it's easier not having people participate who have reservations. Let them take their time, and let them be able to look at the results. I think that will be a very powerful signal that we're committed to doing it right: to allow people to find their own path, to make sure that the rigor that we establish with the ballot measure is maintained.
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What psychedelics-related initiatives do you have your eye on currently?
I organized the first cannabis caucus in Congress, and in the aftermath of the successful initiative in Oregon, we've been reaching out to people in Congress sharing insights and information. We’re trying to broaden the range of people who are involved with this issue in Congress. We have some people who want to set up a group in Congress as an informal caucus in this space, so we're trying to work with them on that. I encourage anybody who's got an interest to get involved, and to voice whatever their concerns are. I would rather take a little extra time to raise awareness, expand the range of people who are involved, and let them find their own comfort level and build on it, than rush into things.
What’s your general assessment of how comfortable your fellow Congress members are with the idea of psychedelic-assisted therapy?
Well, I think there are a great number of people who are psychedelic-curious. They're interested in what Oregon has done. There is a broader awareness of the potential for psilocybin and other psychotherapies, and acknowledgment of the experience of Indigenous people going back millennia. I think there are actually fewer preconceived notions when we're dealing with psychedelics than the conversations that surround cannabis; this is more of a blank slate.
With Oregon, and now Colorado, set to roll out psilocybin services, it’s unclear how the federal government might react. Do you have any thoughts on whether or how federal authorities might intervene? Do you think they’ll issue something like the Cole memo, the letter United States Deputy Attorney General James Cole wrote in 2013 indicating that the Justice Department would not enforce federal marijuana prohibition in states that had legalized marijuana?
I have been adamant that this administration needs to be involved in a constructive fashion. We've worked very hard to be able to wall off what's happened at the state level with cannabis and prevent undue federal intervention and interference. As I mentioned, I was encouraged that the Biden administration commuted a bunch of sentences for prisoners and that they’ve indicated they're open to looking at rescheduling. Symbolically, that is important.
I had to fight to stop the federal government from interfering with the Oregon experiment with end–of-life care and death with dignity. These are all things that raise concerns for folks, but it's the cutting edge of where we're going as a society. Psychedelics are no different. We're going to continue trying to encourage the federal government to behave responsibly and work with states that are trying to do this right.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Editor’s note: The Microdose is going on spring break. We’ll be back in your inbox with another 5 Questions in two weeks.
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