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Will Cannabis be Federally Legal by 4/20 Next Year?

The reality of federal illegality can't and shouldn't be forgotten or lost in the smoke.
Lucas Wentworth comes from a strong background in professional writing, editing, social media marketing, and strategic communications. He considers himself to be an activist for the reform of cannabis laws in the United States.
Lucas Wentworth comes from a strong background in professional writing, editing, social media marketing, and strategic communications. He considers himself to be an activist for the reform of cannabis laws in the United States.

Even people who don’t know anything about cannabis know that April 20th – or 4/20 – is the unofficial counterculture holiday to celebrate, honor and consume the plant in all its various forms. As 4/20 swiftly approaches this year, thousands of consumers and industry professionals around the U.S. are preparing for what may very well be the biggest 4/20 in U.S history.

The legal cannabis industry is already a mammoth, and it is only growing. However, with April 20th in view and the legal industry at its current peak, the reality of federal illegality cannot, and should not, be forgotten or lost in the smoke.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, U.S. taxpayers still spend well over $47 billion a year on the “Drug War.” The number of people arrested in 2017 specifically for cannabis was approximately 659,700. The number of those who were arrested only for possession was 599,282 (a whopping 90.8%). On top of it all, the percentage of people arrested for drug law violations who are Black or Latino was 46.9% despite those demographics making up just 31.5% of the U.S. population. These numbers should shock.

In positive news, there are numerous efforts happening at a federal level to implement legalization. The Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States (STATES) Act, S.3032, was a bill proposed by Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and 2020 presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that would recognize legalization of cannabis and the U.S. state laws that have legalized it through their legislatures or citizen initiative.

Representative Earl Blumenauer’s (D-OR) bill in the House to regulate marijuana like alcohol, is appropriately numbered H.R. 420. Sen. Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) companion bill, S.420, would de-schedule marijuana by removing it from the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), establish a federal excise tax on legal sales and create a system of permits for businesses to engage in cannabis commerce.

Most recently, Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), yet another Democratic 2020 hopeful, has reintroduced a new version of the Marijuana Justice Act, which was proposed a couple of years ago but failed in the Senate. Besides removing cannabis from the CSA, legalizing it and regulating it, this law would retroactively expunge existing marijuana-related criminal records at the federal level and establish a fund to invest in communities affected by mass incarceration due to cannabis-related arrests. Other 2020 candidates in the Senate, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and the aforementioned Elizabeth Warren, have all signed on to the bill as sponsors.

Excited by the possibilities, I reached out to several executives in the cannabis industry to ask their thoughts on whether we might expect to see some progress by this time next year.

Steve Gormley, CEO of International Cannabrands – a company focused on acquiring successful mid-market cannabis brands – acknowledged that federal legalization will happen, but predicted another 5-7 years before rollout:

The repeal of marijuana prohibition is an eventuality. Marijuana reform is one of the few policy issues that enjoys support from both sides of the aisle. The libertarian wing of the Republican Party supports the business opportunities inherent in the cannabis industry while the Democratic Party supports the reform of racist marijuana laws. That being said, I don’t think we will see the repeal of marijuana prohibition at the federal level for 5-7 years. I think the federal government will continue to take a hands-off approach and let the states manage the process.

Charlie Finnie, Chief Strategy Officer at MariMed, Inc – a multi-state cannabis organization that develops, owns and manages cannabis facilities and manufactures, licenses and distributes top brands and innovative products – generally concurred with Mr. Gormley:

Support for cannabis is growing at an very rapid pace, but we will not see federal legalization by next 4/20 as it is too difficult to overcome partisan differences on such a complex issue in that short of a timespan. However, I do believe cannabis’ status could be changed to a Schedule II or III substance. There is a preponderance of evidence internationally of its medicinal value. Lawmakers are asking for more U.S. research to be done, but its currently hampered by cannabis’ Schedule I status. Elected officials on both sides of the issue win with voters simply by supporting rescheduling cannabis.

George Archos, CEO and Co-founder of Verano Holdings – a national, vertically integrated operator of licensed cannabis cultivation, manufacturing and retail facilities – also told me that he thinks the roadblocks are still too tall to expect full roll out within a year. However, he did mention that he thinks the STATES Act is our best shot:

I believe that there is too much opposition yet and far too many details to be ironed out — even among legalization supporters — for cannabis legalization to pass at the federal level by next April.

However, it is likely that the federal government will approve the States’ Rights bill on cannabis within the next year. There is widespread support for medical and adult use legalization within the states, and many political candidates will use it to gain voter support. I’d be happy with passage of the States’ Rights bill for now, because it could have the advantage of opening up traditional banking for the cannabis industry – a huge milestone for the industry and a catalyst for future growth.

Erik Knutson, CEO of of Keef Brands, the creator and manufacturer of cannabis-infused products such as Keef Cola, Keef Sparkling, OilStix and VitaCanna, was the most optimistic about forthcoming legalization and especially about the STATES Act:

There is a very good chance we could see some form of federal legalization by April 20, 2020. In order for that to occur there must be a piece of legislation that is palatable to both parties. It’s our belief that the STATES Act is that legislation. There is very little chance Republicans will back, let alone allow a full legalization bill to hit the Senate floor, unless there are certain concessions made on a Federalist level. STATES Act strengthens States rights, while providing the first real path towards Federal legalization. With strong republican support in both the house and senate, STATES Act looks like our best shot at ending prohibition over the coming cycles.

It appears that from an industry perspective, a year from now is a tight timeline for accomplishing federal legalization. It will happen though. The tides are turning. Even if we do not see full legalization, it is clear that a wave of progress is forming at sea.