The (U.S.) Politics of Cannabis

The (U.S.) Politics of Cannabis
The (U.S.) Politics of Cannabis

Here’s a riddle: how do you ruin an emerging industry that has almost unlimited consumer and commercial potential?

Answer: Republicans and Democrats.

It really does seem to be that simple. More and more, the U.S.’s highly-touted “system of checks and balances” does not produce the best laws. It produces the worst laws, or none at all.

Case in point: the cannabis industry.

U.S. courts forced individual state governments to grant legal access to cannabis for medicinal purposes. American voters then forced these state governments to provide legal cannabis markets, first for medicinal use and more recently, full legalization.

As these state governments have (reluctantly) given effect to the will of their own voters, the most frequent result has been terrible laws. In the case of legalized medicinal cannabis, state governments have generally overly restricted access.

Cannabis is safe. It is not contra-indicated with any pharmaceutical product. Empirical evidence has emerged of cannabis being successfully used therapeutically for hundreds of different medical conditions.

Yet many state governments have restricted the use of cannabis to a mere handful of “approved conditions”.  If the governor or state majority was not anti-cannabis, the state minority would mobilize strongly against any remotely progressive bill. Anti-cannabis zealots would only allow passage of the most restrictive language they could impose.

It’s actually gotten much worse as U.S. states have moved to full legalization.

Here there is a much easier way for anti-cannabis zealots (Republican or Democrat) to undermine cannabis legalization – and the will of their own voters.

In almost every state that has legalized recreational cannabis, local governments have been given the option to “opt in” or “opt out” of legalization.

The fantasy of the state politicians who insert such clauses (and the local governments who choose to opt out) is that they are “banning cannabis” in that county or city.

The reality is that nothing could be further from the truth.

In every county and city in the United States, the cannabis black market already supplies consumers with cannabis. Corner Republicans and Democrats, and they will acknowledge that eliminating this black market is one of the main reasons and highest priorities in legalizing cannabis.

This means that each city and county in cannabis-legal states has a much different choice than what they pretend.

Local governments can support the legal cannabis industry (by allowing legal cannabis operations). Or, they can support the cannabis black market by “opting out” of legalization.

The difference is that where the black market remains strong, it’s much easier for underage consumers to buy cannabis. Absurd.



It’s usually (but not always) Republicans playing the role of cannabis Obstructionists at the state level. And where opposition in the state assembly doesn’t water-down legalization, hysterical resistance from local governments causes the state to back down.

At the federal level, “playing politics” with cannabis has been taken to an entirely new level – by both Republicans and Democrats. The examples are so numerous, it’s only possible to summarize the most outrageous examples.

Cannabis as a “Schedule 1” narcotic

Incredibly, as 2019 draws to close in the United States, cannabis remains equated with heroin in federal law. This is perverse in two completely separate ways.

A Schedule 1 designation requires that the drug be dangerous. Cannabis is safe.

A Schedule 1 designation requires that cannabis have “no approved medical uses”. Cannabis has hundreds of established medicinal uses and GW Pharma’s epilepsy drug has (somehow) been federally approved as a medication for epilepsy.

Only the most hardcore anti-cannabis dinosaurs in Congress don’t see this as being completely insane. These dinosaurs now make up a distinct minority in the House and even the Senate.

Yet there is zero chance of cannabis even being “descheduled” before the next federal election.

Why? Because both Republicans and Democrats have been too busy playing politics to do what both parties agree is the right thing.

Legalizing hemp federally (but not cannabis)

The Republicans legalized hemp and patted themselves heartily on the back. It was a cynical compromise with the anti-cannabis dinosaurs in their Party. The ‘logic’ (not based on any sort of science) is that by legalizing hemp – and gaining access to CBD – that there would no longer be any need to legalize cannabis. Ever.

Put aside the utter failure of the War on Drugs.

Put aside the real-world science that (in many medical contexts) CBD works much better along with THC – the psychoactive cannabinoid in cannabis.

Of course, the Republicans never gave any thought to actually selling and commercializing these new hemp crops after they “legalized” it. That regulatory process only started with the first hemp seeds already in the ground.

The result is that the USDA has only just come out with preliminary rules for hemp cultivation even as farmers are harvesting their crops. Many are discovering that (because of “excessive THC content”) their crops are worthless as high-CBD hemp.

Those lucky enough to have their harvest escape USDA sanctions may have nowhere to sell their crop. The FDA has done nothing with respect to bringing in a regulatory framework for commercialization of CBD.

It’s been too busy producing pseudo-science that CBD (which is non-toxic and has no psychoactive properties) is “a drug”, and too busy slapping cannabis companies on the wrist for “health claims” associated with CBD.

Meanwhile, with hemp federally legal and cannabis illegal, this has thrown U.S. law enforcement into chaos.

However, Democrats have shown they can play politics just as well as the Republicans when it comes to cannabis.



SAFE

One of the only positive cannabis initiatives in Washington that might actually get passed before the 2020 election is the SAFE cannabis banking bill, to provide legal cannabis companies with normal/unrestricted access to financial services.

It’s taken three years for Congress just to get this before the Senate. But several senior Democrats have publicly threatened to torpedo SAFE if “social equity” provisions are not added.

It plays well to their voter base. But it’s a poison pill for Republican politicians because (sadly) it doesn’t play well to their own voter base.

House vote on “marijuana legalization”

Recently, the Democrats pulled out that poison pill again. This time, it was a strategic choice by the House Judiciary Committee (controlled by the Democrats).

They could support a bill to codify a ban on federal government anti-cannabis law enforcement in cannabis legal states.

Or, they could support a bill to “deschedule” cannabis as a Schedule 1 narcotic.

Neither bill comes close to representing “marijuana legalization”, despite Democrat rhetoric. They would be mere baby steps along that path.

The first bill, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act has broad bipartisan support. It would provide a modest amount of additional legal certainty for the legal cannabis industry.

The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (most federal Republicans and Democrats are incapable of saying or writing the word “cannabis”) would decriminalize cannabis.

It would make medical research simpler/easier. It also includes “expungement” and other “social equity” provisions. But arguably, mere decriminalization actually strengthens the cannabis black market more than the legal industry.

It’s a moot point. MORE is a completely partisan bill that has a snowball’s chance in Hell of ever seeing a Senate vote.

House Democrats (you guessed it) chose bill #2. Shoving their poison pill in the faces of Republicans – again.

Cannabis investors will undoubtedly hope that Democrats emerge completely victorious in 2020, or at least add control of the Senate to their House majority. But would that mean a fast track for the federal government to fully legalize cannabis in 2021?

Are Republicans going to forget the poison pill that Democrats just shoved in their faces? No, they will play politics every step of the way toward cannabis legalization.