With the inauguration fresh in our minds, it is important to consider the current outlook for cannabis regulation and the possibility of federal legalization. Despite the steady pace of states allowing medical and recreational cannabis, coupled with the expungement of convictions for cannabis related crimes, the federal government has failed to make significant progress in reforming its cannabis laws. The industry needs to evolve into a more powerful movement for cannabis reform, and we need to focus on what is achievable while not backing down from what might be difficult. We have the advantage of being right; cannabis should not be illegal for medical or recreational use and anything less than that is a moral failure.
The most difficult task ahead for the cannabis industry is unification. Most of the legacy operators are small businesses and family owned. We’ve been nimble and able to accept risk and uncertainty that traditional capital has eschewed, but we don’t have the scale and power that traditional corporations have in government regulations, or in using trade associations to coordinate and advance their agenda. In the states, government representatives and officials are finally starting to treat cannabis as a normal part of everyday lives and something that can be easily and safely integrated into regular commerce.
With a unified voice, the industry needs to demand legislators enact smarter policies instead of the regulatory overreach we often face. We aren’t manufacturing, transporting, and selling harmful chemicals or radioactive material. Our security compliance, taxes, and general regulatory burden should reflect that cannabis is not dangerous, and we should not fall into the trap of letting the laws surrounding the cannabis industry create a barrier to entry so high there are effective monopolies for existing operators. When we accept bad legislation or regulatory capture because our personal business can still succeed, we poison the larger message of normalizing cannabis, transparency, and reform we want to be presenting to our state and local representatives. The organizations we founded to achieve local licensing or push for important fundamentals to our state laws should be seen as what they were created to be: ad hoc. Our money and effort now need to coalesce, whether through merging the numerous local cannabis trade organizations or making sure the board members coordinate and closely streamline their advocacy.
The hurdles in federal law are much higher than the states, but the incentive to make more significant progress will give cannabis legalization a massive boost. Changes to the 280E IRS rules and banking support should be the top priority, attached to whatever is the soonest and most convenient bill. These are small asks that hold no risk and many benefits for representatives to support. De-scheduling cannabis will be a larger and more difficult process. It will take more nuance to ensure that those serving sentences are released, to open up interstate transportation, fund public research, and dismantle the massive DEA machine devoted to keeping the plant illegal. This endeavor may be difficult, but it doesn’t mean we need to move slowly or take baby steps. Legalization advocates and the cannabis industry should take advantage of the tone of change and progress Biden, Harris, and the Democratic leadership in Congress have made part of their platform.
As we celebrate this new dawn in cannabis, let us be loud in asking for everything we need, let us be coordinated in our advocacy, and let us not forget that we are all advocates because we believe in a plant that heals, that brings joy, and that deserves to be a normal part of everyday life. A fractured advocacy means we compete and allocate resources fighting each other; a unified advocacy means we correct injustice and achieve what is objectively right.