As Bob Dylan sang five decades ago, “The times, they are a-changin.” And in terms of the future of legal cannabis, the signs of today’s times point to significant changes in the legal status of cannabis.
According to a 2018 poll conducted by the Center for American Progress, seven out of 10 Americans support the legalization of marijuana. The numbers of people supporting legal cannabis continue to grow, along with the number of states that have legalized or decriminalized cannabis for medical and recreational purposes.
Yet, as every cannabis consumer knows, as long as marijuana remains classified as a Schedule 1 substance, efforts to regulate the production, manufacturing and use of cannabis will be hampered.
This is where the Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States, or STATES, Act comes in. This bipartisan bill aims to let states that have some form of legal marijuana laws on the books make decisions regarding the plant—without interference from the federal government.
Let’s take a closer look at the bill itself, and what it would mean for cannabis laws across the nation.
Recently, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) reintroduced the STATES Act of 2019. The bill was originally put forward by the duo last year.
The bill has garnered broad bipartisan support, with 13 Democratic and 13 Republican co-sponsors signed on to date.
One of the primary purposes of the bill is to allow the 47 states that have adopted some form of legalized or decriminalized cannabis legislation to operate without fear of reprisal from the federal government.
Along with the congressional directive to respond to the will of the people, politics plays no small part in the support of the STATES Act. You probably know that one of the senators who introduced the bill, Elizabeth Warren, is also a candidate for president in the 2020 election.
Cory Gardner, the bill’s lead sponsor on the Republican side of the aisle, is considered to be in a politically vulnerable position. He hopes to increase his chances of re-election by supporting the bill, along with publicizing an announcement that President Trump appears to be open to signing the bill into law.
Colorado Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse, who’s supporting the bill, tweeted that the STATES Act “will ensure the cannabis industry in Colorado is not held back by the federal government’s delay in legalization.” He added that if passed, it will give cannabis businesses the ability to “access banks and loans, and that the threat of federal prosecution is removed.”
Even Attorney General Bill Barr is weighing in on the STATES Act, taking a different stance on cannabis from his predecessor, Jeff Sessions. Barr states, "Personally, I would still favor one uniform federal rule against marijuana, but if there is not sufficient consensus to obtain that, then I think the way to go is to permit a more federal approach so states can make their own decisions within the framework of the federal law, so we're not just ignoring the enforcement of federal law."
Unlike many previous efforts to address federal cannabis legislation, the STATES Act has received support from a diverse group of organizations, including:
The primary reason the STATES Act is receiving support from a broad base of congressional leaders is because of its simplicity. Specifically, it would protect individuals operating within state guidelines from federal punishment "relating to the manufacture, production, possession, distribution, dispensation, administration or delivery" of marijuana.
If passed, the STATES Act would alter the Controlled Substances Act making it not applicable to anyone following their state’s or tribal land’s marijuana rules. Instead, the STATES Act would shield people who are acting within the framework of tribal or state marijuana laws. Effectively, it would make marijuana legalization and cannabis law enforcement a state issue, not a federal one.
With this in mind, it’s no wonder that the bill enjoys bipartisan support as Republicans who are typically opposed to legal marijuana are in favor of the bill’s strong states’ rights stance.
To be clear, if passed, the STATES Act won’t legalize cannabis at the federal level. What it will do, though, is help protect medical marijuana patients, consumers and industry members from needless fear and prosecution—as long as they’re operating within the guidelines dictated by their state.
With the cannabis industry experiencing supersonic growth, the halls of Congress are beginning to fill with cannabis lobbyists. The Cannabis Trade Federation hired 15 lobbyists to help bring the STATES Act across the finish line.
And with investment groups like Acreage Holdings—where former Speaker of the House John Boehner is a board member—touting the likelihood of the bill’s passage, it seems clear that lawmakers are noting the exodus of cannabis investment dollars to Canada. Since legal cannabis has created extraordinary financial opportunities in the Great North, it’s obvious that the business community in the U.S. is looking to try to keep some of the future profits stateside.
The STATES Act is only one of many cannabis-related bills and resolutions Congress is considering. Other politicians have put forward their own bills to address other aspects of cannabis legalization:
Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA) introduced the Respect Resolution last year. It’s a nonbinding resolution urging states that have cannabis laws to address how racial inequalities continue to affect members of the cannabis industry.
Presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) recently reintroduced the Marijuana Justice Act, which if passed would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act. It would also penalize states that enforce marijuana-related crimes affecting low-income citizens and people of color.
Earlier this year, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced his aptly numbered Bill S. 420, which would deschedule marijuana, making it federally legal. The bill would also address other taxation and regulation issues.
Congress hasn’t set a date regarding the progression of the STATES Act, but it’s easy to follow the bill’s progress and stay informed.
Citizen engagement and communication with elected officials are what gets laws passed. If you want to see the STATES Act or any other pending cannabis legislation passed, contact your legislators and let them know your views.
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