Why markets should be skeptical of federal marijuana reform

Why markets should be skeptical of federal marijuana reform

Federal marijuana reform and legalization is a matter of “when”, not “if”. But based on the structural dynamics of Congress and the complexities of administrative action, the “when” could be a very long time from now.

It’s a slow burn of federal marijuana reform

American views on marijuana have come a long way since the days of “Reefer Madness” and “Just Say No.” Today, 68% of Americans think marijuana should be legalized. It’s widespread support: Democrats, Republicans, young, old, non-religious, religious, northerners and southerners all have majority or near-majority support for legalization, according to Gallup.

Yet the dominant federal treatment of marijuana continues to date back more than 50 years, when less than 15% of Americans supported legalization. In 1970, Congress passed the Substance Control Act which places marijuana as a Schedule I drug. It’s in the same category as heroin or LSD, defined as having no use currently accepted medicine and a high potential for abuse. To this day, it is still a federal crime for anyone to grow, process, distribute or even use marijuana.

This view is at odds with most Americans and the growing number of states that have legalized the use of marijuana in one way or another. Recreational use of marijuana has been approved in 21 states, often through state ballot referendums, with 39 states allowing some form of medical use.

In a federalist system with federal and state governments, this has led to the confusing circumstance of marijuana being both legal and illegal in some jurisdictions. Risk-averse institutions that face federal regulation remain largely on the fringes of the marijuana market.

But the grassroots movement isn’t going unnoticed in Washington, D.C. Federal lobbying by the marijuana industry has increased 100-fold over the past decade. Institutionalists like former House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who once opposed marijuana, are now lobbying on its behalf.

Hundreds of marijuana bills have been introduced in Congress, the House has passed legislation decriminalizing marijuana, and there’s bipartisan pressure to pass legislation this month to give marijuana businesses better access to services. financial institutions in states where it is legal.

The momentum is clearly on the side of marijuana reform.

A majority is not enough for marijuana in the Senate

Majority support may be enough to pass a state ballot referendum or even legislation in the House, but the Senate is a different institution. Majority support for marijuana in the country is not how bills get passed.

There are 100 senators, two from each state. California, the most populous state and the first to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, has the same power as Wyoming, the least populous state without state-level marijuana reform.

Senators from the 26 smaller states make up the majority in the Senate. According to the latest US census data, a majority in the Senate of a small state would represent only 18% of the US population. Additionally, the Senate filibuster prevents marijuana legislation from passing without a 60-vote supermajority. This means that senators from the 21 smallest states, which represent only 11% of the American population, can prevent the passage of most laws.

Republicans don’t represent all of these small states, but they do represent most of them. Only six Republicans, or 12% of the GOP caucus, represent a state that has approved the recreational use of marijuana. Meanwhile, 21 Republicans, or 43% of the GOP caucus, represent the 11 states without a recreational or medical marijuana market.

That includes Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). The soon-to-be-senior Senate leader is relishing his power to defeat marijuana legislation. Democrats often try to join legislation, like the SAFE Banking Act to provide a federal haven for state marijuana banks, with “mandatory” legislation like government funding and defense authorization. McConnell consistently ridicules Democrats for this approach, using his power to block attaching any marijuana provision to a larger bill.

The problem for marijuana supporters is that Democrats don’t have the votes in their caucus to hold a simple floor vote. SAFE Banking may have 60 votes, but progressive Democrats have made it clear they don’t support a piecemeal deal over broader marijuana reforms. Still, a more comprehensive bill would likely lose support from Republicans and some Democrats, who are only comfortable with smaller efforts.

With Republicans in the House next year, marijuana reform doesn’t seem like a top priority for Republican leaders. That could leave marijuana legislation languishing for years, especially if Republicans regain control of the Senate in 2024.

The Administrative Hoops of Marijuana Reform

Instead of legislative action, the Biden administration has the power to unilaterally change the legality of marijuana. It’s thanks to the relisting or delisting of marijuana as a schedule I drug. But it’s not that simple. The last administrative review lasted five years and resulted in a refusal to reschedule marijuana.

The process begins with a petition to the Attorney General or a request to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to review a drug such as marijuana. Then the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluates the drug from a medical and scientific perspective, including a review of the drug’s abuse potential. The Attorney General also conducts his own review. Based on the FDA’s analysis, the Secretary of HHS develops a recommendation for drug planning and forwards it to the Attorney General, who can then decide whether to proceed with regulation to reschedule or de-schedule.

In October, President Joe Biden asked his HHS secretary and attorney to “quickly” review the way marijuana is programmed. But the timing of Biden’s announcement, a month before the midterm elections, seemed more about boosting turnout among young voters than a heartfelt vision for marijuana reform. The teetotal biden has historically opposed major marijuana reforms. He can’t pressure his administration to review marijuana programming before the end of his first term.

Economist John Maynard Keynes said, “markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent”. The marijuana market is only growing. As more Republican-leaning states take action and a younger generation of lawmakers take over, there is an unmistakable destination for marijuana decriminalization. But the federal government is no stranger to taking its time to meet the market and the country in general where it is located. That’s reason enough to be skeptical of major marijuana reform in the near term.

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