What if Federal Marijuana Reform Doesn’t Happen Anytime Soon?

The Oregon marijuana industry is hurting, much like industry in California and other states. Among the many reasons (overproduction, market saturation) is that federal marijuana laws have not been reformed at all.

For years marijuana entrepreneurs and their cheerleaders have repeated the refrain that federal reform of marijuana laws is just around the corner. These reforms are supposed to eliminate tax burdens, open up interstate commerce, and usher in a golden era for selling weed.

But what if reform isn’t just around the corner? What if the marijuana scheduling review directed last week by President Biden results in something less than a full descheduling of marijuana under the federal Controlled Substance Act? (A very real possibility.)

In this first of a two-part series, I’ll discuss why federal marijuana laws may not change any time soon. In the second part, I’ll discuss what this may mean for the industry.

Reason 1:  Money

Ask any marijuana business to identify why it isn’t making money and the answer is often IRC 280e. This aspect of the tax code is a disaster for licensed marijuana businesses. It is a windfall, however, for the tax collector.

The federal government collects vastly more money from the marijuana industry with IRC 280e in place than if 280e were excised from the tax code tomorrow. So do many states. In fact, numerous federal and state interests benefit from the existence of 280e and that excising it from the tax code means the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars per year in tax revenue. Revenue that legislators can allocate to sway voter, fund pet projects, and so forth. So as bad as IRC 280e is for the bottom line of marijuana businesses, the tax money flowing to governments is a reason why federal reform may not happen any time soon.

Reason 2: Politics

Poll after poll reveals that support for the legalization and/or decriminalization of marijuana keeps increasing. One might expect Congress to take note and advance legislative initiatives favored by the majority of Americans. The political reality, however, is that it remains a risky election proposition for legislators in many districts to come out in favor of legalization. Thus, we are left with a situation where the executive branch has asked the relevant federal agencies to commence review.

This past April, Senate Majority Leader (for now) Chuck Schumer could not even garner enough support in his own party to advance a decriminalization bill. And while bills like the SAFE Act garner new press-releases of bipartisan support every session, the bill has languished for five years now. Although marijuana reform may have support at a broad public level, persons running for office in particular Congressional districts or States just don’t want to risk alienating (even a minority) of their voters.

The political situation does not necessarily favor federal reform even though a majority of Americans approve of it. A politician up for re-election likely does not want her opponent accusing her of focusing her efforts on helping marijuana businesses instead of things like social security, healthcare, prescription drug prices, inflation, schools, guns, the national debt, immigration, or any other hot button issue. The political reality is that marijuana reform probably just is not that high up on the priority list.

See also:

Reason 3: Institutional Inertia

How long as the cannabis industry been waiting for guidance from the FDA on CBD? (Answer: far too long). Commentators on the left and the right accuse the FDA as serving and promoting the interests of pharmaceutical companies instead of regulating for the betterment of Americans’ health. (The catchphrase is “regulatory capture”).

Marijuana’s path to legalization began down the medical road. And the list of ailments for which marijuana reportedly aids seems to increase by the month. Assuming federal reform would make marijuana more available both medically and recreationally, wouldn’t it cut into the bottom line of pharma companies and wouldn’t those companies’ rational self-interest be against federal reform?

Then of course there is the DEA, which continues to maintain that marijuana is among the most dangerous substances known to humankind. (It is almost as if the DEA has a vested interest in keeping marijuana illegal.) This kind of institutional inertia cuts against federal marijuana reform happening any time soon.

Reason 4: Federalism

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis is credited with popularizing the phrase that states are “laboratories of democracy” within the larger system of American federalism. What he meant is that our system of government is laudatory because it allows different states to have different laws and “experiment” in different ways.

This is exactly how America ended up with a patchwork of marijuana laws across the different states. The federal government has in essence given permission to states to reform their marijuana laws (within certain parameters: no interstate commerce) and let reform happen state-by-state. So the people in Idaho simply do not appear to want to legalize marijuana in their state. They don’t have to. (They do buy loads and loads of it from Oregon border dispensaries.) I suspect that some legislators and judges are fine with letting Idaho do what Idaho wants and letting Oregon do what Oregon wants. This laboratory perspective does not favor comprehensive federal reform.

(Look, federal legalization does not have to mean that pot would necessarily become legal in Idaho.)

Reason 5: War on Drugs

Another reason federal marijuana reform may not occur is that the War on Drugs has not been a war on the investor class. While people are spending their life in prison because of a few ounces of marijuana, banking reform appears to have more support than decriminalization or legalization.

The War on Drugs has been boon for law enforcement, private prisons, and the prison-industrial-complex. The wave of state legalization has not, unfortunately, resulted in a corresponding reduction in the racist War on Drugs. And if guys like former House Speaker John Boehner, who once opposed legalization “unalterably”, can keep making money on weed, why should he and his ilk care about criminal consequences that won’t affect him at all.

This was not meant to be a doom and gloom post, just a conversation starter for marijuana businesses, investors, and entrepreneurs to take a hard look at the profit model while waiting on federal reform. If the last several years has taught us anything it’s that federal marijuana reform may not happen anytime soon; or if it does, it may not happen in the way many wish to see.

In part 2, I’ll lay out some thoughts on what this may mean for the industry.