After nearly half a century of concerted effort, suddenly it seems that cannabis advocates may be on the verge of one hell of a celebration—perhaps even a ticker tape parade. But don’t pop your champagne—or light your bong, as the case may be—just yet.
Although the cannabis industry is growing at an almost frightening pace, it’s been a long, slow, uphill slog for cannabis reform at the federal level. Over the years numerous rebellions have been launched and handily quashed.
Even just in the first quarter of 2018, it seemed like hopes for federal reform happening any time soon were being dashed on the rocks of the Trump administration—in particular at the hands of U.S. Attorney General and “Reefer Madness” devotee, Jeff Sessions, who has been on a rampage against the marijuana industry.
Sessions’ inquisition began in early January of this year with the killing of the Cole Memo. That tactic was followed by the penning of a bold letter to federal lawmakers asking them to discontinue their support of the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment so that he and his goons could begin the hard work of dismantling state marijuana programs.
Sessions’ actions also had a repeated effect on cannabis stocks and investments, acting as a cooler to years of fairly steady growth.
There have been other potentially devastating—if not downright buzz-killing—developments this year, as well. These included two federal cases being dismissed—one asking to remove cannabis from the DEA’s list of Schedule I substances, and another, just recently, which challenged the FDA’s “clarifying” statements which lumped cannabis extracts—including CBD from hemp, a non-psychotropic agricultural plant—in with marijuana as a Schedule I drug.
The Beginning Of the End Of the Federal War On Marijuana
It’s been the general consensus among the industry and advocates over the past year that it would still take at least another few years of hard work before the federal government’s prohibition of cannabis would be dismantled—at least to the point where states can carry on with their regulate-and-tax cannabis programs without fear of federal intervention.
Even as the number of states adopting cannabis legalization is quickly rising, it has seemed for the past few months, even, that the war between states with cannabis programs and the federal Department of Justice was escalating.
And, sure, more and more states are legalizing marijuana, but that hasn’t made a dent in some of the overarching problems that have resulted from federal policy such as the banking problem.
For example, currently, cannabis sellers across the country are doing business in cold, hard cash because banks won’t accept their money. And to add insult to injury, IRS tax rules will not allow cannabis-related businesses to deduct their operating expenses.
But there is one thing that Sessions has been saying all along that does make sense. It was a twinkle of sanity that has turned into the light at the end of the tunnel. Sessions admonished advocates that if they want the federal government to stop enforcing federal marijuana laws, then they need to get the laws changed. That was one of the few things Session has ever said on the subject that has made perfect sense.
It’s looking more and more like Sessions’ moves may prove to be fatal for the nation’s long-standing army of prohibitionists. It may even spell the beginning of the end for federal cannabis prohibition.
The Light Appears At the End of the Tunnel
As it turns out, the escalation of hostilities which started off the year ended up being not such a bad thing after all. Many predicted Sessions’ killing of the Cole memo would be the beginning of the end of the Federal stranglehold on cannabis freedom as it mobilized lawmakers to take serious action. It looks like the optimists may be right.
Where, just recently, there seemed to be only despair, suddenly a light has appeared at the end of the proverbial tunnel. That light has taken the form of actual legislation from high ranking lawmakers which—can you believe it—may actually have a chance of passing. This year.
Within days of the death of the Cole Memo, there was a beacon of hope—though not really a result of Sessions’ decision—Vermont announced that it had legalized marijuana. This added more fuel to the pro-cannabis machine. It was the first time a state had gone ahead and legalized cannabis via an act of the legislature, skipping altogether the need for the voter initiatives which had snowballed into legal cannabis programs in other states.
The next piece of good news from the front line was that Congress was once again able to include the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer language in its recent appropriations bill, giving state cannabis programs yet another stay of execution.
But these events were all just skirmishes. The mother of all battles seems about to begin.
McConnell’s Hemp Bill
The first major volley happened on April 4—a holy day of sorts for cannabis lovers. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced that he had plans to introduce legislation to remove hemp from the DEA’s Schedule I list effectively legalizing the cultivation of hemp.
McConnell's hemp bill already has 10 other senators signed on as sponsors. Should it pass, the bill will remove restrictions on banking access and water rights, among other benefits such as the ability to purchase crop insurance.
Also, If it passes it would make a recent federal court decision to toss a challenge to the FDA’s extracts-are-Schedule-I stance a moot point.
McConnell has already successfully inserted some of the bill’s language into the latest Farm Bill which comes up for a vote this month. (How’s that for expediency?)
Gardner’s Deal With Trump
The hemp bill, as exciting as it was to the industry, did not address the big issues between the marijuana industry and the feds. But the hemp bill, as it turned out, was just an appetizer.
Another “head spinning” moment came when Senator Gardner announced that he and Trump had met to discuss the issue and had come to an agreement. Gardner claimed that Trump had promised to support legislation which would protect states rights as they pertain to both medical and recreational cannabis.
It was only a matter of days before proponents in Washington jumped on the opportunity to take advantage of that promise.
Schumer’s Marijuana Bill
The biggest news came within days of the announcement of Gardner’s agreement with Trump, Senator Chuck Schumer announced he would soon introduce a bill to end federal prohibition. The move took many advocates by surprise because the top senate democrat has long been an opponent in the war on drugs.
Schumer's bill hasn't yet been formally introduced, but there is a robust bipartisan effort underway to get this done once and for all.
On a side note, Friday, Schumer also announced that he's signing on as a cosponsor of McConnell’s hemp bill.
The Marijuana Justice Act
This story can’t leave out the fact that Senators Cory Gardner and Elizabeth Warren, are also expected to introduce cannabis legislation this month. The Marijuana Justice Act would not only free states from federal oppression but financially penalize states which are incarcerating minorities at a disproportionate rate.
A growing chorus of lawmakers has signed on as sponsors of the Marijuana Justice Act. Although probably one of the least likely pieces of legislation to pass this year, the bipartisan support it is receiving is a sure sign that a victory may be imminent.
Is Victory Now Within Our Grasp?
Even with all the positive advancements, the war is not yet won, and advocates have no time to gloat. For example, Trump could still renege on his commitment to Gardner and veto any cannabis legislation for who-knows-what reason. Or the Republican-controlled Senate could play any number of wildcards and once again defeat the rebellion. Time seems of the essence at this point.
With more than 60 percent of the U.S. public in favor of reforming federal cannabis laws, including liberals and conservatives alike, it really does look like it’s just a matter of time before the Reefer Madness camp is finally and forever defeated.
Justin Strekal, political director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), has expressed optimism, saying, "In a world where Senators McConnell and Schumer agree on almost nothing, having both Senate party leaders sponsoring legislation to end the federal prohibition of hemp only further reinforces the need for bipartisan legislation to remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act entirely."