Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a co-sponsor for the bill and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, donned a cannabis leaf mask as he presided over the floor debate in the House of Representatives on the morning of December 4. After the debate on the floor, the House of Representatives voted 228 to 164 to pass the MORE Act.
While this vote is historic and should certainly be celebrated, it is unfortunately a mostly symbolic win. During the Post-Election Analysis episode of the Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference, Andrew Kline, director of public policy at the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), told attendees that this bill always had strong support in the House, but not enough support in the Senate. “You know I think there is pretty much a 100% chance of it passing the House,” Kline said back in early November. “I don’t think they would’ve scheduled the vote if they didn’t have the votes.”
Kline told attendees that Republican priorities are most likely to blame when the MORE Act fails to get enough support in the Senate. “The bigger question is what happens when it reaches the Senate and I think it is all but dead when it gets there,” says Kline. “Mitch McConnell has been reluctant to move any legislation over the past four years. He’s really ignored most legislation and particularly any legislation he doesn’t like. He doesn’t like cannabis and it appears to me he barely even likes hemp. He’s really not even fighting for the hemp industry.”
While the MORE Act likely doesn’t have a chance in the Senate, it passing the House is still a monumental moment in cannabis legalization history. This marks the first time in 50 years that Congress has revisited cannabis prohibition, according to Justin Strekal, political director of NORML. “This is a historic day for marijuana policy in the United States,” says Strekal. “By establishing this new trajectory for federal policy, we expect that more states will revisit and amend the archaic criminalization of cannabis, establish regulated consumer marketplaces, and direct law enforcement to cease the practice of arresting over half a million Americans annually for marijuana-related violations – arrests which disproportionately fall upon those on people of color and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.”
Along with all of the success that cannabis had on Election Day, including five states legalizing it, the House passing this legislation is a symbol of shifting attitudes toward cannabis and serious progress on the federal legalization front.
The real question that should be asked is what will the 117th Congress do? If Democrats gain control in the Senate following the runoff elections in Georgia, it could reinvigorate the momentum behind this bill and offer a renewed breath of life.
At the outset of 2020, the cannabis industry appeared poised for a series of incremental changes: a number of states were considering decriminalization and legalization measures, and support was growing for federal legislation allowing cannabis businesses access to banks and financial services. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which disrupted state legislative sessions (and legislative priorities), obstructed signature gathering for ballot initiatives, and reshuffled federal priorities. However, despite all of these changes, the cannabis industry has seen significant developments across the country. Beyond of course the many challenges and losses brought by the pandemic and its aftermath, in some ways, it may prove a boon for the industry.
Legalization and Decriminalization
Currently around a dozen states have legalized cannabis for recreational use, while just under two dozen states allow use of medicinal cannabis. With support for legalization measures steadily growing in most states, a number of major states seemed poised to pass legislation legalizing recreational cannabis, including large potential markets in the Northeast such as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. And in many other states, advocacy groups were well underway gathering signatures to qualify legalization measures for the November 2020 ballot. When the pandemic hit, however, state legislatures largely suspended their normal operations, and signature gatherers were stymied by stay-at-home orders and social distancing requirements.
Despite these major obstacles, legalization and decriminalization legislation has continued to move forward in a number of states, and still others will have legalization referenda on the ballot for November’s election. Perhaps more important than these initiatives themselves are the diverse states that are moving toward loosening of restrictions around cannabis: rather than being limited to a handful of especially liberal states, cannabis advocates are seeing tangible progress is every geographic area, among states whose political leanings span the spectrum.
While the Northeast corridor had planned to undertake legalization efforts in a coordinated fashion this year, those results were put on hold given the seriousness of initial COVID-19 outbreaks in the greater New York area. However, the New Jersey General Assembly nevertheless passed decriminalization legislation, though the matter has not yet cleared the New Jersey Senate, and the appetite for full-scale legalization remains strong there, with a ballot initiative going directly to voters in advance of the New Jersey Legislature considering the issue. The Commonwealth of Virginia enacted decriminalization legislation also, and a legislative caucus in Virginia has pledged to introduce recreational legalization legislation this summer when Virginia convenes a special legislative session. Voters in Mississippi and South Dakota will be able to vote on ballot initiatives to legalize recreational cannabis, and similar ballot initiatives are underway or likely in Arizona and Nebraska. Advocates in Arkansas and Oklahoma had also hoped to bring initiatives to the ballot, but have encountered practical and legal obstacles to gathering the required signatures in time for this year’s election.
These myriad initiatives reflect a strong shift toward legalization of recreational cannabis across the country, and the ability to continue gathering signatures and momentum despite stay-at-home orders and social distancing underscores the growing popularity of the movement. Whether through the legislature or directly by the ballot, it seems all but certain that the number of states permitting recreational cannabis will grow significantly this year.
COVID-19 Business Closures
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the early months of 2020, most states instituted various forms of stay-at-home orders that required the closure of nonessential businesses. While these policies had—and continue to have—serious impacts on businesses of every type, cannabis companies have largely seen strong economic growth notwithstanding.
One of the most important developments in this space came in the context of state and local governments designating certain businesses as “essential” for purposes of business closure orders. In nearly every state to consider the issue—Massachusetts being the main outlier—state and local governments recognized cannabis companies as essential, which allowed them to operate during the shutdown.
The “essential” designation largely carried between both recreational and medicinal cannabis jurisdictions. And this matters because of what it means for the industry. State and local governments clearly realize the important medicinal role that cannabis plays for patients dependent on it for treatment, and the overlapping customer bases of mixed dispensaries further contributed to keeping cannabis companies open during the pandemic. Even in states where certain dispensaries operate solely in a recreational capacity, those jurisdictions recognized the importance of allowing access to a safe recreational substance, like alcohol, during prolonged stay-at-home orders.
Similarly, likely as a result of those same stay-at-home orders, cannabis companies largely saw significant increases in sales revenue. More customers visited retail establishments, and those customers often purchased more product per visit. This resulted in better-than-expected sales revenue for cannabis companies, and also produced increased tax revenues for state and local governments.
The cannabis industry saw more than just increased sales, however. In the process of issuing emergency rules for the cannabis industry during quarantine, a number of state and local jurisdictions either began to allow cannabis deliveries or expanded its availability, a shift in policy that may stick around well after the pandemic subsides.
One final impact of the pandemic may also help push legalization initiatives forward in the coming years: decreased tax revenue and major budget gaps. Due both to a decrease in economic activity like shopping and dining, as well as the unexpected health care costs associated with responding to the COVID-19 crisis, state and local budgets are expected to see significant shortcomings for years to come. In response, state and local governments are starting to see cannabis as a significant and viable source of tax revenue. For example, various cities in California that had previously been reluctant to permit recreational cannabis are beginning to welcome cannabis companies in hopes of making up for lost tax revenue. Similarly, in New Mexico, where legalization has remained a heated topic of discussion, Gov. Lujan Grisham has explicitly expressed her regret that the state failed to legalize cannabis, recognizing that tax revenues from the industry could have reached upwards of $100 million. Other state and local governments are coming to similar realizations, which should help propel expanded access to legal cannabis in coming years.
Major changes in the cannabis industry in 2020 have not been limited to the states. In the midst of changes and crises across the country, the federal government has been making meaningful progress in two major respects, COVID-19 notwithstanding.
First, cannabis companies are edging closer to having full access to banks, bank accounts and related financial services. The SAFE Banking Act, championed by Rep. Perlmutter, has made it through the House of Representatives and is currently in the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs. However, as Congress continues to toil away at future COVID-19 relief legislation, political signals from Washington, D.C., suggest there is a reasonable likelihood that the protections of the SAFE Banking Act will be included, in some form, in the next round of major COVID-19 legislation out of Congress. The enactment of these banking provisions will provide substantial relief to cannabis companies who have largely been excluded from opening bank accounts and utilizing the services major banks provide. Additionally, allowing access to banks and their services should further facilitate the rapid growth in the cannabis economy we are witnessing elsewhere, and this movement could further legitimize the industry as part of a broader push for federal legalization.
Second, after a four-year delay, the DEA has finally proposed draft rules to expand the DEA’s limited cannabis research program. For decades, all cannabis research to date has relied on limited supplies of cannabis grown at the University of Mississippi. Now the DEA is finally following through on its promise to further develop, refine and expand its research program by allowing additional suppliers and market participants to play a role in cannabis research. While the rules proposed are not without detractors and critiques—and the rules themselves have not been finalized—this marks an important step forward to a better understanding of the effects of THC on consumers, not only because more research is needed to understand a substance consumed by millions annually, but also because the limited supply of cannabis on which researchers currently rely has been shown to differ substantially in appearance, consistency and chemical composition from cannabis that is commercially available in states across the country. With an expanded research regime comes the hope that scientists will be able to develop new and innovative cannabis-derived medications, while also furthering our understanding of how THC affects health and the body.
At every level of government, the year in cannabis so far has proven to be far more eventful than many predicted. And the COVID-19 crisis has not slowed progress. There appears to be continued momentum to further mature how cannabis is treated at every level of government, which signals that significant changes are on the horizon. Industry observers will be closely focused on how the rest of the year proceeds, especially with a presidential election on the horizon.
Editor’s Note: This article was revised to clarify that New Jersey has not yet decriminalized marijuana. A decriminalization bill passed the New Jersey General Assembly, but the New Jersey Senate has not acted as of this writing.
Facing the same conundrum as police everywhere after the start of a medical market only this time with federal authorization, the head of the German police union has called for recreational use of cannabis to also be decriminalized.
On the first Monday of February, the head of the BDK – the Association of German Criminal Officers told The Bild (sort of like the New York Post but a national “tabloid” here) that his group, the largest organized union of German police officers, favoured a change in German cannabis laws. Andre Schulz argued that the current laws stigmatized those charged with minor amounts and created opportunities for “criminal careers to start.”
“The prohibition of cannabis has historically been seen as arbitrary and has not yet been implemented in an intelligent and effective manner,” says Schulz. “My prediction is that cannabis will not be banned for long in Germany.”
Why this sudden pronouncement? It is actually not all that sudden and has been long in the offing. One of the largest contingents at both the ICBC and the IACM last year (the biggest cannabis-focussed business and medical conferences in Germany) were police officers from California and Deutschland. And all were singing the same tune.
However beyond a realistic assessment of changing political reality, there are actually several other concrete reasons for not only the statement but the timing of it. In a country where patients can now pick up bud cannabis from the local apotheke (which is that easy for some, although it is still hard for most), the police have the unappetizing prospect of potentially arresting patients. On top of that, the idea of someone being arrested for CBD flower (rather than THC) gives the German polizei plenty of pause. Not to mention that they face this possibility at a time when many of them potentially could be patients themselves (or their families). The idea of arresting an activist in this situation is also one the police do not relish. Legalization rallies here get formal police protection when they march. Ask the average beat cop what they think about cannabis legalization and they tend to roll their eyes.
Then there is this: In stark contrast to the wars over prescribing medical cannabis at a state level in California in the late 90’s, here in Germany, there is a cultural commitment to the concept of sick people having a moral and civil right to obtain the medication they require. The idea of the police arresting them in the process of obtaining the same or because they might be recreational users, is as antithetic to core German sensibilities as the concept of Donald Trump as U.S. President. So is the idea of branding someone a “criminal” if not “drug user” for possession of a drug that is now used as medicine in Germany.
As has been rumoured for some time now, one of the few things that all political parties in Berlin can agree on is a change on the current cannabis laws.As a result, the very idea of both arresting the sick or labelling someone for the rest of their life with a police record for a drug “crime” that nobody considers as such anymore, causes a shock to the system. In many ways, German culture is far more conservative than the U.S. On another, there is a deeply humanistic, liberal strain to German life that also allows nudity, alternative healthcare and lifestyles to flourish (and not just all in Berlin). The current situation over cannabis, in other words, is becoming a political and legal embarrassment even to the beat officers who have to implement such laws.
And then of course there is this: One of the country’s top judges, Andreas Müller, a man well-known to the senior level of BDK, has recently written a book about the horrible situation that faces his own brother because of drug laws in Germany called “Kiffen und Kriminalität.”
Cannabis also falls into this crevice of cultural questioning if not the national zeitgeist of the moment, in multiple ways. It is, beyond the stigma, a natural medicine that is now federally recognized as such and one that the statutory health insurers (public healthcare) is required to cover. No matter that only 64% of submitted rezepts have been formally approved 11 months into Germany’s foray into this world. There are doctors writing them. And there are insurers picking up the tab.
It also means that there are at least 10,000 legal medical cannabis patients that der polizei have no wish to bother. And 10,000 German patients, who look the same as anyone else, are already too many legal users for current laws to stay in place.
Decriminalization, Cultivation & Changing Culture
There are some who say that Europe is “backwards” if not slower than the United States. Certainly those who experience German culture as Auslanders are struck by the procedural requirements of everyday life. Things do move slower here.
However when things do move, they are determinative shifts. Right now, it is impossible to live in the country and not be aware that Kiffen – a slang term for pot auf Deutsch – is legalizing in the U.S., Canada, the rest of Europe and of course other places. Further, Germans with their distrust of bureaucracy and authority and certainly currently rebellious mood, are looking to a way forward for the country in a sea of uncertainty both locally and regionally not to mention globally on any issue, no matter how “symbolic.”
As has been rumoured for some time now, one of the few things that all political parties in Berlin can agree on is a change on the current cannabis laws. The idea of decriminalization, now suggested by one of the country’s top cops, is a natural solution to political deadlock, if not a changing society.
The idea that other countries are also moving on this topic, from the now Brexiting UK to France next door, not to mention all the cultivation focused reform in many European countries, seems to indicate that decriminalization and even recreational reform are coming and now officially on the schedule, and not just to Germany but the entire continent.
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