Financial pressures, public opinion, social inequity, and public safety could lead to federal cannabis legalization sooner than many people previously expected.

There are already numerous bills in Congress related to cannabis legalization, and the outcome of the November 2020 election could tip the balance in favor of legalization within the Senate if Democrats take control. However, recent events affecting the economy and drawing attention to social inequity are also helping cannabis advocates argue for legalization in ways that wider audiences can understand.

While there are still many obstacles in the way, here are four factors pushing lawmakers to consider federal legalization more seriously:

1. The Economy

Total sales of legal cannabis in states where it is currently legal are projected to reach nearly $30 billion by 2025 ($13.1 billion in medical cannabis sales and $16.6 billion in adult-use sales). With those kinds of numbers, it’s not surprising that more states are legalizing cannabis and federal legalization is inching closer to a reality.

Money and its impact on the economy plays a factor in when and if cannabis will be legalized at the federal level in a few ways – from where money is coming from to where it’s going.

First, consider the size of the marijuana market. New Frontier Data projects that legal cannabis sales only in states where cannabis is legal today for medical and/or recreational use will reach $13.1 billion in medical cannabis states and $16.6 billion in adult-use states by 2025. A separate study from New Frontier Data conducted in 2018 estimated that if marijuana is legalized at the federal level, the industry could generate annual tax revenue of at least $10 billion.

States that have already legalized medical and/or adult-use marijuana have enjoyed the tax income from the industry, so it’s not a big leap to understand why legalization and the money that comes from it could be enticing at the federal level. Add the economic crisis happening as a result of COVID-19, and the additional money that cannabis legalization can bring in is hard to ignore.

2. Public Opinion

According to a September 2019 survey by Pew Research, 67% of Americans believe cannabis should be legal. However, support for marijuana legalization is still quite different based on political party affiliation. In the Pew Research study, 78% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents support legalization compared to 55% of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents.

Similarly, an October 2019 Gallup Poll found that 66% of Americans support legalizing marijuana. Specifically, 51% of Republicans overall support marijuana legalization, while 76% of Democrats and 68% of Independents are in favor of it.

Legalization is particularly popular among younger voters. The October 2019 Gallup Poll found that younger Americans are more likely to support legalization than older Americans. Considering nearly 88% of millennials believe marijuana is safer than alcohol, this isn’t surprising. The Gallup Poll found the following breakdown by age in support of cannabis legalization:

  • 18-29 years old: 81% support legalization
  • 30-49 years old: 71% support legalization
  • 50-64 years old: 62% support legalization
  • 65+ years old: 49% support legalization

The reality is the population isn’t getting any younger and cannabis sentiment is likely to continue tipping toward legalization support in the future.

4. Social Equity

There is a lack of social equity in the United States as recent protests related to racial injustice have shown. While many states have built social equity programs into their cannabis business licensing programs and others have passed decriminalization laws, pardoned people, and expunged records for low-level cannabis convictions, there is still a lot of work to be done to ensure cannabis is no longer a source of social inequity.

Alicia Wallace of CNN explains, “Decades-old drug laws that criminalized cannabis use and possession disproportionately jailed black people for non-violet offenses.” In fact, 40% of drug arrests in the United States during 2018 were for marijuana.

As the call for social equity continues to grow across the country, the case for federal cannabis legalization gets stronger.

3. Public Safety

Black market sales are a threat to public safety. When the vaping crisis happened, many people began advocating for legalization to help fight against the black market where unsafe products are most likely to come from. Politicians, lawmakers, and federal government officials echoed that line of thinking in public appearances.

Since cannabis is still illegal at the federal level, scientific studies and testing are severely limited. During a November 2019 hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, the Principal Deputy Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Anne Schuchat, told committee members that since cannabis is a federally controlled substance, there have been “some challenges with shipment of specimens [for testing] because of the scheduling of drugs.”

Schchat went on to state that these challenges were delaying the CDC from providing a federal response to the vaping crisis at the time. In other words, since cannabis is illegal, public safety is at risk.

Bottom-line, due to the Schedule 1 status of cannabis at the federal level, there has been very little research conducted to learn about it, particularly in terms of safety and medical opportunities and risks. Until federal laws change, getting these types of research projects funded and approved will continue to be extremely difficult.

Conclusion

In 2018, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said in an interview on CNBC, “There is probably going to be a policy reckoning around [marijuana] at some point in the future.” In the same interview, he said, “Obviously, it’s happening at the state level, and I think there’s an inevitability that it’s going to happen at the federal level at some point soon.”

Of course, there is no way of knowing what that “policy reckoning” will be, but it’s clear that a policy reckoning is long overdue. The cannabis industry and 67% of Americans are hoping it’s a reckoning that brings about federal legalization to help solve some of the country’s problems related to the economy, social inequity, and public safety.

Originally published 11/21/18. Updated 6/26/20.