The Curious Case of US Cannabis Policy: Public Support Faced with Political Stagnation

Change is coming to the medical cannabis landscape in the US, but it’s not as rapid as many would hope. Bipartisan political blockades seem to be getting in the way of meaningful cannabis reforms in the country. With public opinion rapidly moving in a very positive direction, the political stagnation is curious. Although a Democratic majority in the House has passed both the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act and the Secure And Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, 2020 isn’t likely to see much forward momentum.

 

According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 68 percent of American respondents now support legalization. That’s roughly a 20 percent shift in favor of loosening legislation in less than a decade. Broken down along party lines, support for legalization is more likely among Democrats. Approximately 78 percent of Democrats are in favor of changing legislation, with only 55 percent of Republicans in favor. Still, despite the bipartisan divide, the majority of all Americans now support legalization of cannabis in some capacity, no matter their political leaning.

 

With 33 states supporting some variation of a medical cannabis program, a further 11 with recreational markets, plus a scattering of additional districts and territories with supportive legislation, it’s not surprising that more Americans see value in reforming cannabis legislation. Now that the vast majority of Americans have direct experience living in states with supportive law, it’s no longer as alarming. Many people have direct experience with the plant or knowledge of others who benefit from its therapeutic value. As more people see and experience the positive impacts of cannabis, its outdated image starts to fade. 

 

Yet, the movement’s forward momentum has run up against a wall. If there is so much support for legalization on the ground, why is federal legislation likely to stagnate in 2020?

 

2019: A Year of Forward Momentum in the US

 

The US went into 2019 by removing hemp from the list of federally scheduled substances. Hemp, a species of cannabis sativa that must legally have under 0.3 percent THC, was officially moved from a controlled substance to a rather ordinary agricultural crop thanks to the passage of the Farming Act of 2018.

 

According to Cannabiz, there are now more than 11,000 active hemp license holders across the country. In 2019, hemp cultivators quadrupled the amount of hemp in the country, increasing the number of acres licensed to grow by 455 percent from the year before. State by state, hemp farmers are getting the green light to begin production, much of which is expected to fuel the booming cannabidiol (CBD) industry.

 

In the spring of 2019, the SAFE Banking Act was making its way through the House of Representatives. In September, it passed with surprising bipartisan support, with a 321-103 vote in the House. The SAFE Banking Act does not legalize cannabis nor change its scheduling as a controlled substance. Instead, the SAFE Act, if it were to pass in the Senate, would legalize banking for the industry and prevent the prosecution of cannabis companies operating in legal states under federal anti-money laundering legislation. 

 

According to the New York Times, banks across the country support the passage of this bill. Published on December 3rd, the Times piece explained, “If it were to become law, it would let banks dive into a lucrative new industry that has been plagued by security concerns and is desperate for even the most basic services, like checking accounts and credit card processing.”

 

Following suit, on November 20th, the House Judiciary Committee overwhelmingly approved the passage of the MORE Act. This Act goes much farther than its SAFE Act counterpart, as it seeks to make significant changes to federal drug policy. 

 

First, the MORE Act would remove the plant from under the Controlled Substances Act through decriminalization. This step would also change the taxation of cannabis, removing it from under the strictly punitive tax code 280E and applying a five percent federal sales tax. Second, the Act would expunge the cannabis-related criminal records of Americans (past and present) convicted of nonviolent crimes. Finally, supports of the bill built in a five percent sales tax to fund the Opportunity Trust Fund, which would help those affected by the War on Drugs, among other applications.

 

The industry seems cautiously hopeful about the forward momentum built up throughout 2019. The changes to the hemp landscape, plus the historic passage of two cannabis-focused bills in the House of Representatives has made many hopeful about what’s to come. 

 

Challenges Ahead for Medical Cannabis in 2020

 

The evolution of cannabis legislation and political debate in 2019 helped to normalize the concept for many lawmakers and the average American. If the House was debating the SAFE Act in what has been called a very civilized manner, the idea of legalized cannabis could not be that controversial.

 

Both the SAFE Banking Act and the MORE Act are now awaiting the next steps, which means debate and vote in the Senate. Unfortunately, both seem dead on arrival. The MORE Act, the most forward-thinking and, for some, the more controversial of the two, is facing serious opposition from the key players in the Republican-led Senate. Most analysts now predict it will never reach the floor for a vote. Historically, the Republican party has been much more cautious about cannabis legislation than Democrats.

 

If the MORE Act is ‘too much too soon’ for Senate policymakers, what about the SAFE Act? Insiders seem most hopeful that it will at least reach the floor for debate in 2020. As the bill doesn’t touch scheduling of the substance, it may be easier to swallow for senators historically opposed to legalizing cannabis. 

 

As for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel, he is a wild card. Both those for and against the SAFE Act are finding it challenging to read his opinions on the matter. On the one hand, McConnel was the driving force behind the opening up of hemp cultivation in the country, and on the other, he has consistently opposed legislation for THC-rich strains of the same species. To further confuse matters, McConnel spent several days in October speaking with California cannabis industry members and toured at least one cannabis facility, according to reports

 

No Significant Changes Expected in 2020

 

In late December 2019, headlines surfaced, stating, “Crapo Delivers Crushing Blow to Pot Banking.” In a statement released by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, the industry received significant clarity on what may happen in 2020 in the Senate., Crapo confirmed, “I remain firmly opposed to efforts to legalize marijuana on the federal level, and I am opposed to legalization in the State of Idaho. I also do not support the SAFE Banking Act that passed in the House of Representatives.”

 

But all hope for the passage of the SAFE Act is not gone. Crapo made clear he had specific concerns about the lack of research into the plant, as well as the potential for the legislation to be misused by “bad-actors” in the industry. He has requested public feedback on the topic to advise on a solution.

 

While Crapo’s memo is a blow to immediate changes to legislation, it did leave room for more debate, more research, and perhaps the passage of the bill in a new form. Change is coming to the American landscape, but it’s going to be a very slow transition over the next few years.