It appeared last October that the pendulum was finally swinging in the direction that cannabis legalization advocates had been wanting for decades when President Biden announced he would take steps to overhaul America’s marijuana laws and pardon those convicted of simple marijuana possession at the federal level.
However, it didn’t take long for opponents of legalization to point out the major flaw in Biden’s request to reevaluate cannabis’ categorization as a Schedule 1 prohibited narcotic with no medical applications, on par with heroin and LSD. An advocate for legal cannabis believes that doing so is impossible without first fully decriminalizing the drug.
Can we reschedule or downgrade Marijuana to Schedules 2–4? That would put marijuana on par with hard narcotics like oxycodone or ketamine or Valium, and it would destroy any chance of legalizing cannabis for recreational use. This year has been a turbulent one for cannabis policy change in the US, as competing interests have fought for what is quickly becoming one of the country’s most lucrative markets.
Even while cannabis remains illegal under federal law and thousands of people are still in prison for marijuana-related charges, it was predicted that legal sales of Marijuana will reach $33 billion by the end of 2022, driven mostly by new, adult-use marketplaces in many states.
Against this background, an unexpected trend is developing: the tension between pro-cannabis supporters who argue that legalization might not be the best course of action after all. What exactly is their problem? who will gain from federal oversight of this sector? Marijuana reform supporters are concerned that Big Pharma will gain market domination if cannabis is rescheduled under the Controlled Substances Act and treated as a pharmaceutical.
It is also feared that large corporations like Amazon would swiftly come to dominate a national adult-use Marijuana sector if marijuana were to be legalized on a federal basis. As recently as the November midterm elections, some activists had begun trying to halt or stop legalization legislation.
Advocates for reform in the cannabis industry were vocal in their opposition to Issue 4 in Arkansas, a legalization initiative funded primarily by the medical cannabis industry, on the grounds that it would have given an unfair advantage to the existing medical marijuana businesses by allowing them to dominate the adult-use market and rewarding industry backers by limiting new competitors.
The lack of social justice provisions to ensure that persons of color and individuals with convictions for marijuana offenses would be granted an opportunity to engage in the legal business was also cited as an issue by those opposed to the measure’s passage. Issue 4 would have diverted a portion of the cannabis tax revenue to law enforcement but would not have cleared criminal records.
Most Arkansans supported legalization in a September poll, but on election day, 56% of voters cast ballots against it. Having previously worked as a political association with the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, Tyler McFadden is now a board member of the cannabis reform group BOWL PAC and is adamantly in favor of more regulation, as he told Vox.
A question of safety has arisen. The issue arises, however, when such rules restrict the success of some businesses. McFadden claims that rescheduling marijuana under federal law will enrich the profits of the pharmaceutical industry while doing nothing to repair the damage done by decades of prohibition, which has fallen disproportionately on people of color and communities of color.
She argues that rescheduling benefits primarily the wealthy, who have never been subjected to enforcement tactics such as jail. A strong constituency for Scheduling exists, and the advocates need to be heard. Artist and activist Brian Box Brown drew up the comic strip Legalization Nation to inform readers about the nuanced new field of legal cannabis.
The legalization of cannabis provides us with a front-row seat […] to watch a market be monopolized,” reads the opening panel of one comic. Limits on the number of cannabis businesses allowed to operate, like the one proposed by Arkansas lawmakers, are gaining popularity and, according to Brown and others, would give large corporations and multi-state operators a stranglehold on the industry by making entry difficult for small businesses and entrepreneurs.
He thinks the opposition to cannabis legalization by some pro-cannabis groups is understandable. For such a bill to open the market to small enterprises, it would take years of reform. That’s the criticism, I believe; the outcome is already known. No, not this kind of legalization. Brown claims that reformers are frustrated by the view of certain multi-state medical marijuana businesses that marijuana is a harmful drug that requires strict regulation.
Even though MSOs support legalizing cannabis, the industry has remained monopolized due to the drug’s negative reputation. Lawmakers would argue, “We need to regulate this strongly and limit it to these six people who know what they’re doing.” Businesses in the cannabis industry capitalize on this fact. A majority of Americans have favored legalizing cannabis for the first time in a decade.
The tide has since turned in favor of legalizing, with 88% of US citizens in support, according to a Pew Research Center survey from April 2021. With Biden’s announcement, it appears that federal Marijuana prohibition will soon be repealed, joining the 21 states that have already legalized recreational use (though there are myriad matters to be hammered out, from banking regulations to which agencies should regulate cannabis to whether automatic expungements ought to be included).
Pro-pot reformers have found that cannabis legalization in practice is patchy at best. As an example of the pitfalls of legalizing, McFadden cites Virginia’s preliminary efforts. Only four marijuana businesses have been granted licenses to operate in the state; all of them are owned by corporations based elsewhere. The industry is largely closed off to small enterprises and local entrepreneurs.
McFadden argues, “Virginia really messed up” because the law favors corporations over individuals. Several pieces of legislation are being pushed forward in the hopes that a bipartisan effort will legalize cannabis at the federal level in the next few years, including the Safe and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act, which was left out of the most recent congressional spending bill, much to the dismay of cannabis advocates.
Currently pending legislation, the Preparing Regulators Effectively for a Post-Prohibition Adult Use Regulated Environment (PREPARE) Act, would require the Attorney General to create such a regulatory framework prior to the federal legalization of marijuana. Amazon stopped drug testing its workers for cannabis and publicly backed federal legalization of the drug in 2021.
While supporters of legalization cheered the strategy, it also prompted concerns that the firm may seek to control the market once cannabis receives federal approval. In January of this year, a corporate spokesperson told the Washington Post that the company does not intend to make a profit from the sale of cannabis and that the company’s only interest in the legalization of marijuana is to increase the size of its potential labor pool.
According to Shaleen Title, CEO of the cannabis policy research tank Parabola Center, politicians should be wary of monopolization by national firms if cannabis is legalized at the federal level. Author Title has written an article warning against the dangers of monopolies in the marijuana sector. She predicts that only a small number of corporations would control the future national market because of “the current wave of market consolidation and substantial hurdles to entry for smaller operators.”
The title warns that cigarette and liquor firms are secretly making plans to corner the legal cannabis industry. As an illustration, consider the non-profit organization CPEAR, the whose stated mission is to “promote a comprehensive federal regulatory framework for cannabis.” The National Association of Convenience Stores, Philip Morris USA’s parent firm Altria, the Molson Coors Beverage Company,
the Constellation Brands conglomerate (known for their Corona and Modelo products), and other tobacco and alcohol companies sponsor this organization. Andrew Freedman, formerly of Colorado’s cannabis czar, serves as the coalition’s executive director, and Shanita Penny, formerly of the Minority Cannabis Business Association, serves as a senior adviser.
Some in the sector are worried that the coalition’s influence could tip the scales in favor of big business due to the coalition’s funding from tobacco and alcohol corporations and the list of key policy experts from the cannabis field on its roster. It has been shown through research that the tobacco business has a history of specifically targeting young people and underrepresented minorities (particularly the Black community).
Marijuana reform proponents worried about matters like harm reduction face an apocalyptic future if Big Tobacco has any input in federal cannabis policy, according to Title. When it comes to the dangers of their goods, tobacco firms “lie to the public, alter research, and hide them.” Putting them in charge of health policy is not something we support.
Brown says he thinks reformers should feel emboldened to continue full speed ahead while learning from failures to address social equality and criminal justice reforms at the state level, in spite of concerns that federal legalization could wind up going horribly if corporate interests prevail. To create a fair market, “it should be less difficult as long as [we] have the appropriate vision for what legalization should be,” he argues.
He suggests looking to Canada for guidance on how to structure federal regulation in the United States. According to Brown, “they’ve run into every problem that we’re talking about.” The lack of communication between states and Canadian lawmakers is also concerning. McFadden claims that reform supporters will keep moving forward no matter what happens.
She believes that none of the bills currently being discussed in Congress would be a negative development. To those who are wary about federal expansion: “We don’t begrudge you. Checking our progress along this route is essential. Thousands of people are currently incarcerated for minor drug offenses such as possession, distribution, or paraphernalia.
The collateral repercussions of a criminal record force people to lead lives they may not have wanted and do not deserve when they could be at home with their families, contributing to our economy, and living their lives. We’re putting forth the extra effort to push through these expungements, so we can finally put the past behind us.
McFadden continues, “We’re taking steps every day to a better future.” To paraphrase Winston Churchill, “It might not be tomorrow, it might not be next year, but as long as we’re doing something about it now, we’ll reach it faster than we would if we stand here twiddling our thumbs, waiting for something to happen without doing anything about it.”
According to Brown, lawmakers can create good cannabis regulations if they listen to activists instead of lobbyists and special interests. As a society, we need to stop bending to the whims of corporations and instead focus on what’s working. This market is completely novel. It will eventually become corrupted, but that doesn’t mean we have to begin there.