Federal Bulletin: Economic Arguments for Cannabis Legalization

On September 29, I spoke on an opening panel at the 7th annual Cannabis Law Conference for the Cannabis Law Section of the State Bar of Michigan. My co-panelist was the renowned Brookings political scientist John Hudak. One of John’s specialty areas is state and federal marijuana policy. The title of our panel was “Update on the Federal Policy Landscape Including Congress and the Executive Branch.”

During the presentation, both John and I talked about how skeptical we are that the Biden Administration will do anything around marijuana legalization. And we both agree that this Congress will likely do nothing at all (just look at what’s happened with the SAFE Banking Act, for one sorry example).

John presented incredibly interesting points and data, including the fact that most congressional candidates running in these mid-term elections hardly even mentioned the word marijuana when stumping. let alone talked about legalizing it. What does that mean? To paraphrase John, it likely means that marijuana legalization isn’t really a serious topic for the federal government despite its overwhelming bipartisan support from voters.

Towards the end of the panel, the issue came up of what exactly it will take to get Congress to move on this issue. My take was that it needs to be more than just loudly touting that more than half the states now have marijuana legal reform. I opined that state governments need to show the significant number of jobs created as well as serious revenue generation. They also need to demonstrate that revenue is going into meaningful state and local infrastructures like roads, policing, community development, etc. Enter the KC Fed Marijuana Bulletin.

Marijuana whiplash

Fast forward to October 6. Not only has President Biden declared that he will pardon everyone in the U.S. with a federal charge or conviction of simple marijuana possession, but he also announced that he will direct his administration to examine the re-scheduling or de-scheduling of marijuana, too.

On the same day, to less fanfare, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City issued an economic bulletin titled “Marijuana Industry Has Boosted Economic Activity in the Tenth Federal Reserve District” No one can know if President Biden is serious about a reschedule or a deschedule here (maybe he’s just scoring political points ahead of tight mid-term contests). Only time will tell. But this economic bulletin (which is not the first produced by this Fed Reserve Bank on marijuana) is important because it reflects on the steady growth of the cannabis industry in the heartland since Colorado legalized in 2012. That economic reality is something that even Congress cannot ignore.

What is the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank?

The KC Fed is one of 12 banks in the Federal Reserve System. It is responsible for the Tenth District, which includes Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wyoming, and a variety of counties in Missouri and New Mexico.

The KC Fed executes the general functions of the Federal Reserve System within the Tenth District, including overseeing and regulating banks in the District, of which the overwhelming majority are community banks. However, it also researches economic developments in the District, influencing and giving input on national policy.

Translation: the KC Fed is a pretty big deal in the U.S. banking system,  including through its role in informing the federal government on financial policies.

The contents of the economic bulletin, and economic arguments for cannabis legalization

The KC Fed marijuana bulletin’s introduction states that:

Since Colorado became the first state to open recreational marijuana stores in January 2014, the marijuana industry has expanded across the nation and to other states in the Tenth Federal Reserve District, including Missouri, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. Within the Tenth District, this expansion has increased commercial real estate demand and tax revenues and created jobs, but has also presented challenges for the industry and local communities.

The bulletin makes note that if certain states in the District elect to legalize marijuana for adult use (like Missouri this coming fall) and therefore expand the adult-use marijuana market:

. . . they may have important implications for the Tenth District economy. Although the size of the District’s marijuana industry has thus far remained moderate, the industry has already influenced employment, real estate, and tax revenue in legalized states.

Marijuana job creation and real estate booms

The KC Fed marijuana bulletin goes on to give significant detail about both job creation and real estate booms caused by state legalization. Specifically regarding job creation, the bulletin points out that even though the number of marijuana-created jobs is relatively small:

new jobs in the marijuana industry can nevertheless contribute substantially to total employment growth, particularly in the years immediately following legalization. For example, Colorado issued around 38,000 occupational licenses in the first four years after legalization, 2014–17 (Felix 2019). During the same period, Colorado added a total of 280,000 new jobs across all industries, suggesting that employment in the marijuana sector may have contributed up to 13.6 percent of the state’s employment growth.

The KC Fed nonetheless expects this growth to become more moderate as start markets mature.

Marijuana tax revenue

The crescendo of the bulletin for me is the tax talk. Colorado had $2.2 billion worth of marijuana sales in 2021. That sounds robust but the total marijuana sales in Colorado “still make up less than 1 percent of total consumer spending in the state.”

Among the Tenth District states, Colorado brought in the most from marijuana sales taxes, excise taxes, and licensing fees in 2021, with revenue totaling more than $423 million.

  • Oklahoma saw $150 million in revenue in 2021
  • New Mexico projects $50 million in revenue for its first year of recreational sales (medical marijuana sales are exempt from the excise tax)
  • Missouri has collected less than $10 million since sales began

The bulletin concludes that “. . . tax revenues from marijuana remain a small share of overall state and local government revenues. Even in Colorado, which has the highest revenues, marijuana revenue made up just 2.3 percent of state tax revenue in 2021.” Tiny but mighty for an emerging industry that remains federally illegal.

All in all, the bulletin takes the position that marijuana legalization has led to an increase in jobs, real estate opportunities, and tax revenue in the Tenth District. These are things that, in my opinion, may finally begin to move Congressional representatives to take marijuana more seriously (in addition to progress on social justice).

Congress cannot sidestep the fact that these democratic experiments have had a positive effect on the state economies of the Tenth District. Of course, the jury is still a bit out on challenges around health and safety policies (and rightly so–these democratic experiments are not all that old). This will always give regulators and law makers some pause.

Still, I highly doubt that the other regional Federal Reserve Banks are not seeing the same economic data. With more of these bulletins, my hope is that we finally see a changing of the tides on the federal level.