Federal cannabis legalization is stopped in its tracks

Public opinion, states, and even the GOP have come around to the idea of legal weed. So how hard is it to finally get done?

It has been nearly a decade since the first time a majority of Americans supported legalizing cannabis. Two years ago, that number reached a record high, according to Gallup, with 68 percent supporting marijuana legalization—aa number that has held steady since. In March 2020, the country was hit by a coronavirus pandemic. That same year, medical marijuana businesses were deemed “essential,” which meant they could stay open along with pharmacies and grocery stores. It was a triumph for legalization advocates. As the New York Times reported it was “official recognition that for some Americans, cannabis is as necessary as milk and bread.”

Cannabis is one of the fastest-growing industries in the US; sales of adult-use and medical marijuana products hit $25 billion in 2021 and, by one Wall Street estimate could reach $100 billion by 2030. Eighteen states have legalized cannabis for adult use, and another 19 currently have at least a comprehensive medical marijuana program. As of 2020, one in three Americans lived in a state with access to legal marijuana, according to Politico, and that number is quickly growing as the East Coast catches up with the West—llast year, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia all passed adult-use cannabis laws, joining Maine, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Rhode Island lawmakers are expected to approve a legalization bill this month.

However, under the federal Controlled Substances Act, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule 1 illegal drug with no medical uses, on par with heroin and LSD. The Drug Enforcement Agency strictly limits marijuana cultivation for research, frustrating scientists who are unable to investigate its medical benefits and risks under current regulations.

Rescheduling marijuana for research was an oft-repeated promise of President Joe Biden’s campaign, along with a pledge to decriminalize the use of cannabis and grant clemency to people with federal marijuana convictions.

But after more than one year in office, Biden’s promises remain unfulfilled, and a January YouGov poll of 1,500 people showed that more than half of Americans believe that the Biden administration has made little to no progress advancing marijuana reform. The administration even screened staffers for marijuana use last year, dismissing several incoming candidates because they revealed they’d used cannabis during background checks for positions in the Biden White House. Just this month, employee conduct guidelines were updated to potentially deny security clearance to people who have invested in cannabis companies. All in all, the Biden administration seems to be pretty anti-weed.

Critics of legal marijuana cite the potential for confusion among law enforcement agencies keeping up with evolving regulations, concern about minors gaining access to the drug, a potential drop in property values, and more for maintaining marijuana’s status as an illicit drug. (Though it looks like legal cannabis can actually increase property values.)

But legal cannabis also offers a huge chance to make money, and even though the federal government isn’t doing anything, the industry is growing quickly. A report from the cannabis website Leafly shows there are more than 428,000 full-time jobs in the cannabis industry, with a 33 percent increase in jobs just last year. Even so, the fallout from the lack of federal legalization is felt by many sectors of society: medical research is stalled, prisoners are languishing in jails, small businesses are going under without access to federal banking and big cannabis companies face stiff challenges in raising money to stay afloat as long as marijuana is illegal under federal law.

However, as more states move to decriminalize and legalize cannabis and as the economic benefits of a legal marijuana industry become apparent, it seems likely that we’ve passed the point of no return on the road to federal legalization. So why hasn’t the federal government been able to unify to enact cannabis legalization nationwide?

Historically, Democrats have championed legalization as a social justice issue; Gallup poll numbers indicate that half of Republican voters now also support legal marijuana. Support among younger Republicans is especially high, says Morgan Fox, political director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML): “It’s difficult to find any issue right now that enjoys as much public support as ending prohibition for cannabis.” It seems increasingly likely that a bipartisan effort to legalize cannabis at the federal level will pass in the next few years.

It’s still utterly unclear, however, what that policy will even look like. In fact, it’s more likely several pieces of legislation will be necessary to address the labyrinthine issues surrounding marijuana legalization.

To that end, several pieces of legislation are being pushed forward. This February, a bipartisan coalition of House lawmakers including Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL), demanded that the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act be “expeditiously considered by the House and Senate.” The MORE Act would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act and make changes to criminal and social justice, such as letting people with past marijuana convictions get their records cleared. It was approved by the House in a momentous vote in December 2020 that marked the first time in history that Congress has moved to end federal marijuana prohibition. However, the bill failed to advance in the Senate.

Another piece of legislation aims to change federal regulations for cannabis-related businesses: the Safe and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which has been passed by the House six times since it was first introduced in 2013. If the SAFE Banking Act were signed into law, federal regulators would be prohibited from handing down penalties to banks serving licensed marijuana businesses; those businesses would then be able to access financial services like checking accounts and accept payment with credit or debit cards.

Under current laws, fearing federal prosecution, most large financial institutions, including Visa and Mastercard, refuse to work with marijuana businesses. Cannabis stores are mostly cash-only businesses because they can’t use traditional banking services. This makes them more likely to be robbed, cheated, or attacked. During one wave of looting in 2020, 43 cannabis dispensaries on the West Coast were targeted and robbed. Federal reform would prevent regulators from penalizing banks that do business with the industry and allow marijuana businesses to operate with safer, more trustworthy financial practices rather than relying entirely on cash.

[Original Source]