Working in a state with a legal cannabis industry creates numerous opportunities to innovate and attract consumer revenue. Unfortunately, the industry still struggles under federal law. Plenty of legislators have tried to push for cannabis legalization at the federal level. Those attempts have been unsuccessful. Now, a bipartisan group is asking President Biden to support legalization and start making concrete steps toward building a legal industry across the country.
A Letter to the President
The Congressional Cannabis Caucus recently circulated a letter among congressional colleagues. The letter was presumably written by co-chairs Warren (D-MA), Dave Joyce (R-OH), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), and Brian Mast (R-FL).
The letter has been signed by 29 lawmakers, including Republicans and Democrats. In part, the letter states:
While we do not always agree on specific measures, we recognize across the aisle that continued federal prohibition and criminalization of marijuana does not reflect the will of the broader American electorate… It is time that your administration’s agenda fully reflects this reality as well.
The Congressional Cannabis Caucus’s letter likely refers to polls from organizations like the Pew Research Center. Pew’s latest survey results show 59% of Americans support legalizing cannabis for medical and recreational use. An additional 30% support legalization for medical use only. Only 10% of Americans believe cannabis should remain illegal.
The letter also points out that marijuana remains listed as a Schedule I substance. Schedule I substances have no medical use. Scientific research shows cannabis can treat health conditions like:
- HIV/AIDS symptoms
- Inflammatory bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Tourette syndrome
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Nausea related to cancer treatments
Additionally, legal cannabis could help curb opioid use.
Cannabis clearly has medical usages and doesn’t belong on the list of Schedule I drugs. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, the federal government treats cannabis as an extremely dangerous drug without medical uses.
At the very least, Biden needs to encourage federal agencies to deschedule — or reschedule — cannabis.
Why the Federal Government Needs to Loosen Cannabis Laws
Federal cannabis prohibition puts an enormous barrier between the industry and success.
For example, cannabis companies cannot use traditional banks because banking institutions must follow federal law. Banking reform could have been addressed in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) or December’s omnibus appropriations legislation, but Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) insisted on tabling the discussion for next year.
McConnell and his colleague Pat Toomey (R-PA) say they will revisit the topic in 2023. It’s unclear why McConnell and Toomey wanted to complicate matters and push cannabis legalization talks to 2023.
Does President Biden Support Cannabis Legalization?
President Biden has said that he doesn’t support cannabis legalization. However, he’s open to rescheduling, decriminalizing, and reforming cannabis laws.
Biden issued an executive order that pardoned federal prisoners convicted of breaking cannabis laws. The U.S. president doesn’t have the authority to pardon state prisoners, but Biden encouraged state governors to follow his lead. When Oregon took a similar approach to pardoning prisoners, Biden encouraged more states to follow Oregon’s example.
President Biden has also signed a cannabis research bill into law. The law makes it much easier for researchers to study cannabis and its effects.
While Biden hasn’t fully embraced cannabis legalization, he wants to learn more about the topic so the government can take a data-driven approach to crafting laws.
Unfounded Fears About Federal Cannabis Legalization
Some prohibition advocates worry that legalizing cannabis at the federal level would have negative effects on states. Most of their fears are unfounded. For example, some worry that federal legalization would force states to legalize cannabis.
Regardless of the changes made by the federal government, state, county, and city governments could still choose to ban cannabis. Updating federal laws would likely lead to a situation similar to today’s alcohol laws.
Most states allow localities to prohibit alcohol sales. Becoming a “dry county” or “dry community” usually involves an election in which residents vote in favor of banning or accepting alcohol sales.
Communities can also adopt “moist” rules that limit where and when to allow alcohol sales. Kentucky, a state famous for its bourbon industry, has 120 counties. Of those, only 53 are “wet.” Eleven counties are “dry,” so residents cannot buy alcohol within county lines. The rest (56) are mostly “moist” counties that might allow alcohol sales at restaurants while banning package sales.
It’s reasonable to expect cannabis legalization would lead to a similar situation. In fact, most states with legal markets let communities determine whether they want to allow dispensaries. Communities can also limit the number of licenses issued in their areas.
Can President Biden Legalize Cannabis?
It’s unlikely that the executive branch has the authority to fully legalize cannabis. However, it can encourage government agencies to spend more time and money researching chemical compounds found in the plant. The president also has influence over how the Department of Justice uses its resources. If the president doesn’t want the DOJ to enforce licensed cannabis companies, it almost certainly will not.
The president also has significant influence over Congress’s priorities. If a president signals openness to signing anti-prohibition bills into law, elected officials have more reasons to pursue legalization.