Opinion

Reforming Federal Cannabis Laws Will Protect Hundreds of Thousands of Workers

There is a steady drumbeat in support of cannabis policy reform on Capitol Hill, and it is growing louder by the day.

In just the past month, the Senate Banking Committee conducted a hearing on banking challenges facing state-legal cannabis businesses, and a House Judiciary subcommittee held the first-ever congressional hearing focused on ending cannabis prohibition. A few weeks earlier, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan measure to protect state cannabis programs against federal interference. The rhythm also seems to be catching on in the White House, with top administration officials —  including the president himself — expressing support for addressing the untenable conflict between state and federal cannabis laws.

The intensifying dialogue around banking and the state-federal conflict — two of the most pressing issues facing cannabis businesses — suggests a growing number of lawmakers have come to appreciate (or at least recognize) the significant economic impact the cannabis industry is having locally, in the states, and on a national scale. For many of them, that impact is occurring right in their backyard.

Medical cannabis is legal in 33 states, D.C., and four U.S. territories, and it is legal for adult use in 11 of those states, D.C., and two of those territories. At least 10 additional states are expected to consider legislation or ballot initiatives in 2020 that would establish or expand legal access to cannabis.

Beyond economic considerations, public support for cannabis policy reform has been driven by the realization that people’s lives should not be destroyed or harmed by outdated cannabis laws. Most notably, the vast majority of Americans no longer believe that individuals should be arrested for cannabis use. This is especially true when the arrests are concentrated in minority communities. They also have sympathy for the more than 9,000,000 military veterans who would like to access cannabis as a treatment option, as well as the countless individuals suffering from cancer, epilepsy, chronic pain and other debilitating medical conditions. 

There is another group, however, that is often overlooked in the discussion: the more than 200,000 Americans employed full-time in the state-legal cannabis industry. In an era when good-paying jobs are often hard to find, the cannabis industry consistently offers living-wage, entry-level positions that require little-to-no formal education. Employees’ hard work and commitment have allowed the cannabis industry to flourish and serve not only individual consumers but entire communities. 

In fact, cannabis businesses have become a driver of economic growth and tax revenue across the country. In Colorado, for example, state-regulated cannabis sales have exceeded $6.5 billion since the first adult-use sale in 2014, generating more than $1 billion in tax revenue and fees. Nationally, Marijuana Business Daily’s Annual Fact Book estimates state-legal cannabis sales will exceed $12 billion in 2019. This number will only increase as the list of states that have legalized medical or adult-use cannabis continues to expand, and the cannabis industry further develops in states where cannabis is already legal. 

The employees who are the engine of this economic growth must show up to work every day knowing that cannabis’ federal status puts them at physical risk. Due to federal prohibition, cannabis businesses struggle to obtain and maintain accounts with financial institutions. This results in cannabis businesses functioning largely as cash-only enterprises, making them targets for robbery and posing a safety hazard to both workers and the communities in which these state-legal businesses operate. 

Beyond physical hazards, cannabis industry employees suffer additional collateral consequences. They are often paid in cash, unable to obtain mortgages or car loans, and have their personal bank accounts shut down. Most significantly, they live every day under the threat of arrest by federal authorities for participating in a state-legal and publicly supported industry. These hard-working Americans cannot wait for Congress to deliberate and find a solution several years down the line. 

As evidence of the industry’s economic significance mounts, the question before lawmakers is whether to keep these businesses and workers in limbo or advance a bill to the president’s desk that addresses these issues now. 

With strong bipartisan support, the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States Act (STATES) Act presents such an opportunity. It would take major steps toward respecting state cannabis laws, protecting workers and advancing a more secure, vibrant and equitable cannabis industry — and it is possible during the current session of Congress. I hope lawmakers will take advantage of the opportunity and further strengthen the drumbeat in support of broader reform.

Neal Levine is the CEO of the Cannabis Trade Federation, a national coalition of cannabis-related businesses dedicated to professionalizing, diversifying, and unifying the cannabis business community. He has been an advocate for the reform of cannabis laws for more than 16 years. 

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