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 opinions are changing about federal legalization. However, there are factors affecting federal cannabis legalization that make it difficult to predict when it will actually happen.

For example, depending on the results of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, cannabis could be legalized within 100 days through executive action. That’s Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’ plan. Democratic candidate Elizabeth Warren has also said she’ll take executive action to legalize cannabis. Other Democratic candidates have announced their own plans to legalize cannabis if they win the election.

In addition to the 2020 election, there are numerous bills in Congress related to cannabis legalization. At the same time, public opinion continues to sway more and more toward legalization with 66% of Americans currently supporting full legalization.

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

1. Money

Money 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 $30 billion by 2025. A separate study from New Frontier Data last year 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, and it’s not a big leap to understand why legalization and the money that comes from it could be enticing at the federal level.

In addition, politicians and political action committees are starting to receive sizeable donations from the cannabis industry. While still much smaller than the donations from Big Pharma, the tobacco industry, and other big industry donors, the cannabis industry is likely to grow as powerful and influential in time.

In addition to affecting campaign financing, the cannabis industry’s lobbyists are becoming more influential in Washington. The money and the influence it buys can’t be ignored for long.

2. The People Want It

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.

US Marijuana Legalization 2018-2019

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.

3. Safety

With the recent vaping crisis in the news cycle, many people are 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 are echoing that line of thinking in public appearances.

During a recent 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.” She went on to state that these challenges are delaying the CDC from providing a federal response to the vaping crisis.

Furthermore, 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. Just this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a study by Yale School of Medicine and CT Pharma for human drug trials. The goal is to learn more about the efficacy of cannabis-based medicines. This is positive news, but keep in mind, this is the first study with FDA approval to test cannabis on people.

Until federal laws change, getting these types of research projects funded and approved will continue to be extremely difficult.


One year ago, 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 66% of Americans are hoping it’s a reckoning that brings about federal legalization.

Originally published 11/21/18. Updated 11/15/19.

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