What Is Legal Weed's Next Move?

Speculation on the immediate future of legal cannabis in America.

Marijuana reform in America has historically been a torpid process. Meaningful legislative action moves at a state-by-state pace, with the federal government happy to impede any sort of national momentum. And ever since the inauguration of President Donald Trump and the appointment of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the only element clearly visible on the horizon––in regard to legal weed at least––is ambiguous uncertainty.

The Department of Justice's potential dismantling of the cannabis industry, along with state medical marijuana programs, comes at a time when a majority of the country actually favors relaxed weed laws. According to the most recent polling, 60 percent of Americans support legal weed for recreational purposes, 94 percent of the country approve of the legal use of medical marijuana, and 76 percent believe that pot should be reclassified from its current DEA Schedule I designation––a tier that also includes heroin and meth.

Similarly, this week Congress will decide whether or not to pass a massive spending bill, which includes the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment––a provision that prevents the federal government from going after medical marijuana businesses, growers, producers, and patients in compliance with state medical weed laws. Should Congress fail to reach a decision (or remove the provision from the bill entirely), not only will the government “shut down,” but such an action would spell out capital-T trouble for the legal cannabis industry––not to mention those facing prosecution for marijuana cultivation and other weed crimes.

UPDATE: Congress passed the bill and kept the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment. Read about it here:

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Slate's David Feige provides thoughtful context for the situation, explaining what the country and cannabis industry stand to lose should the provision be removed:

“Consider that legal marijuana is a $7 billion-a-year business and is projected to grow to $50 billion by 2026. Estimates are that a mature marijuana industry could generate up to $28 billion in tax revenues for federal, state, and local governments. . . And while it’s likely that the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment will find its way into this current spending bill, it’s high time that Congress send a strong, clear, and bipartisan message to the Trump administration about the foolish prosecutorial priorities of the Sessions Justice Department. 

Indeed, nixing the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment would be an exercise in witlessness. At this point in American history, marijuana is about much more than getting high. Legal and regulated markets can potentially generate billions of dollars in tax revenue for state and local governments. 

"It's a freedom issue," Rep Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) said to VICE. Rohrabacher––who has been open about being a cannabis consumer in his youth––sponsored the amendment and earlier this year formed a bipartisan congressional caucus focused on protecting state marijuana laws. The Congressional Cannabis Caucus also includes Earl Blumenaur (D-OR), Jared Polis (D-CO), and Don Young (R-AK).

"If someone wants to live their own life, and they're not hurting somebody else, the federal government should butt out. It's as simple as that,” Rohrabacher told VICE.

Recently, caucus member Polis proposed the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act as part of a package of pot-related bills coming from the caucus, which are designed to end prohibition on the drug. Under Polis’ proposed act, the cannabis plant would see a Controlled Substances Act rescheduling and be regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. And adults over the age of 21 would be allowed to blaze down freely.

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“Colorado has proven that allowing responsible adults to legally purchase marijuana gives money to classrooms, not cartels; creates jobs, not addicts; and boosts our economy, not our prison population,” Polis said in a statement. “This budding industry can’t afford to be stifled by the Trump administration and its mixed messages about marijuana. The cannabis industry, states, and citizens deserve leadership when it comes to marijuana.”

Currently, cannabis is legal in some form in more than half the country, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Earlier this year, Governor Eddie Calvo proposed a bill to legalize marijuana in Guam. And it's not as if Polis is wrong in his assertion of legalized weed’s social value. The War on Drugs created a class of secondhand citizenship for weed smokers, marijuana farmers, and pot dealers alike. 

But his words, and the efforts of a larger normalization movement, will be for nothing if they continue to fall on the deaf ears of Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions

Massroots marijuana journalist Tom Angell speculates on the most pressing issue at hand in the larger legal weed narrative. He writes, 

“. . . while legalization advocates are optimistic that they have the votes to pass the state medical marijuana protections again and extend them through most of 2018, it’s an open question as to whether they will even get the opportunity. . . Even if the government shuts down and Sessions and the DEA technically regain the ability to enforce federal prohibition laws against state-legal medical cannabis patients and businesses [sic], it doesn’t necessarily mean they will do so.”

Essentially, though, speculating on legal weed's future is like predicting the outcome of the Super Bowl before football season even begins. Sure, existing game analytics, team statistics, and player insight can no doubt inform an educated guess in the same way Trump's previous statements, voting records, and Cabinet appointments give us some clue what we're up against. Still, there's always a chance for rain. 

Should Congress remove the Rohrabacher-Blumenaur amendment as part of Friday’s decision on the spending bill, the skies could indeed open up for federal acid rain to pour down on the legal pot industry. 

But that could just as likely not happen. Either way, we'll keep our eyes peeled.