I’ve been representing clients in California’s cannabis industry since 2018. Our firm has been representing businesses in the space for many years before that, in states with more mature licensing programs. One of the most common mistakes we see in new cannabis markets is businesses that rely too much on federal legalization happening.
For example, lots of businesses back in 2018 in California took the view that they could expand at all costs and grab market share, because federal legalization (and investor capital) was inevitable. Federal legalization still hasn’t happened, and investor capital dried up in most cases a few years ago (more on that below). Indeed, just like when these states started licensing, cannabis is still on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), 280E is still a nuisance, big banks still won’t bank cannabis money, and so on.
As I’m sure all of our readers are aware, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) apparently made a recommendation to DEA to move cannabis to Schedule III of the CSA recently. I say “apparently” because HHS’s letter to DEA is redacted to the point of uselessness. But in any case, a change within the federal government appears to be on the horizon.
Based on the announcement of the potential rescheduling alone, we’ve already seen an uptick in investments. In general, the industry seems to be doing better than it was, say, a year ago. Here’s just one example of California cultivators selling out of harvested inventory. It is hard to say whether that’s a result of the rescheduling potential, or something else. I tend to think it’s something else, but who knows.
Either way, it’s worth pointing out that federal legalization is not here yet, and that a rescheduling to Schedule III of the CSA would not be federal legalization. As to the first point, all that has happened (at least all that has been made public) is the apparent rescheduling recommendation. DEA has not formally acted on the recommendation, and cannabis remains on Schedule I for now. That means it is as federally illegal now as it was in 1972, 1998, or 2017, even if the federal government looks the other way.
It’s also worth pointing out that this is all administrative. There are a few different ways that the federal government can deal with federal legalization, and Congress has shown itself completely incapable of doing anything. Don’t expect federal regulators like DEA to entertain anything like complete legality. Even if HHS makes a recommendation, DEA is not required to listen.
Let’s assume that that cannabis is rescheduled. Would that mean that federal legalization has happened? No. No state-level cannabis licensee is compliant with CSA. I highly doubt you’ll see any state-level pushes to try to rewrite rules to comply with the CSA, which wouldn’t even be possible for recreational markets. [As an aside, I also don’t really foresee the federal government relaxing cannabis’s scheduling and then suddenly enforcing Schedule III requirements, when it hasn’t enforced Schedule I requirements on state-compliant cannabis businesses in a decade.]
If cannabis is moved to Schedule III, the big benefit is that 280E will go away. Otherwise, not a lot will change. The industry won’t be legal overnight. Banks won’t be forced to work with cannabis companies. Things will likely be relatively similar. It could go slightly better if the courts step in and shield intrastate cannabis traffickers, but the CSA would still remain in place.
All of this is to say that federal cannabis legalization has not happened, and won’t happen any time soon. As we have seen historically, businesses that banked on this happening often got way over their skis and ended up in bad places. Businesses that want to survive the coming few years would be best served by operating under the assumption that nothing will change – until something does.