By David Hodes
Are we getting there? Let’s review.
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) reports twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for qualified patients, while eight states now regulate the production and sale of marijuana to all adults.
An estimated 63 million Americans reside in jurisdictions where anyone over the age of 21 may possess cannabis legally.
According to a 2017 Quinnipiac University poll, 59 percent of Americans support full marijuana legalization and 71 percent believe that states, not the federal government, should set marijuana policy.
Even better, Senator Ron Wyden and Representatives Earl Blumenauer and Jared Polis recently introduced The Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act in the House and Senate to permit states to establish their own marijuana regulatory policies free from federal interference.
Other bills have been set in motion in Congress. All of this amidst a disruptive administration with a bulldog of an attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who is a marijuana legalization hater and recently said on March 15 that we should be getting back to the days of just say no. He is basically looking to re-start the failed war on drugs.
You may say “So what?” Clearly the momentum is on our side. California is in. Massachusetts is in. The people’s will is on our side.
But John Hudak has another message to hold on and buckle-up; there’s much more going on. Legalization could be a distant, and even unreachable, destination because, well, it’s our fault.
Hudak, deputy director of the Center for Effective Public Management and a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, was the invited speaker at a recent meeting held at the Baltimore offices of Offit Kurman—a business law firm in Baltimore that created a cannabis practice a year ago. Listening to Hudak were a group of about 50 cannabis business owners, advocate group representatives and attorneys.
What they got was a much more sobering note: Legalization efforts are going nowhere.
“There are a lot of members of Congress and there are numerous senators who are out there saying we are going to do this. We are going to reform cannabis this year,” Hudak says. “It’s not going to happen when you have a speaker of the House who has institutional control over the House of Representatives unlike any other figure in the federal government, a person who is opposed to large-scale cannabis reform, and when you have a Senate majority leader who also is opposed to marijuana reform, with a few exceptions around hemp,” he says. “That means that that legislation is dead. Period.
“This congress will not legalize recreational marijuana. It will not legalize medical marijuana,” Hudak says.
Hudak says that the industry is to blame for the inaction in Congress on this issue. “It’s your fault. In a lot of ways, the industry is not putting its best face forward. It’s not committing to that communication activity with undecided voters or the public at large. And when the public is not receiving a steady flow of good information, they either are going to rely on bad information, or they are just going to invent something.”
All is not doom and gloom, though. Hudak agreed that the state of legal cannabis in 2017 has never been stronger. “But the policy environment has never been so uncertain,” he says, pointing to the new administration and the mixed signals they are sending about legalization. “I have been to a lot of talks, read a lot in newspapers and other outlets about what to think about Trump moving forward in this space,” Hudak says. “And a lot of people have these very certain ideas about what Trump and his team will do. That is all nonsense. Honestly no one knows what this administration’s goal is.”
What we do know is that the medical marijuana side of the industry is likely a safer bet, with both Trump and other officials making the distinction between medical and recreational marijuana, including Sessions in his confirmation hearing.
“That is not to say that it’s a sure thing,” Hudak says. “But I think in this policy space that is as close to a sure thing that you are going to get from this White House and from these officials.”
Hudak cautioned that, even with the advances in the last few years, and even though the marijuana business is now a $7 billion industry nationwide, this industry is not untouchable. “There is this idea that the government is not going to shut down 100,000 jobs nationwide in the legal marijuana industry,” he says. “But the counter argument to that is that a few weeks ago, the president and his team and the Republican Congress wanted to entirely disrupt the health care industry.”
The health care industry employs 17 million, with estimated $1.7 trillion in annual revenue, according to The Statistic Brain Research Institute. “So if health care is not too big to screw with, the $7 billion marijuana industry is certainly not too big,” Hudak says.
The way to work with this administration is to talk the Republican talk: business, freedom, entrepreneurial innovation. “These are all ideas that should light up a room of Republicans,” he says. They should be told about the business aspect – the cash-only issue and the 280E issue – to get them to understand that maybe they should help level the playing field. “Talking to them in terms of dollars and sense, in language they commonly speak, about what you as a business owner would want if you were in this industry, is critical,” Hudak says.
What is needed is an information campaign with the administration. Right now, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, seems to be listening to what the industry needs because, as a finance guy, he gets what happens in a cash-only business where there are security and safety risks, and openings for fraud. “So maybe it’s that communication with his staff that will continue to push the conversation along hopefully not to just the office of the secretary of the treasury but into the White House as well,” Hudak says.
Bottom line is that the industry is dealing with too many uncomfortable uncertainties. What is needed is a new momentum for a better targeted delivery of fact-based messaging from all sectors of the industry. “You don’t need allies in the administration to get it,” he says. “You just need people who understand it, and the more you can find back-channels to them, the more convincing the conversations about the needs of the industry will be.”