WASHINGTON – Washington, D.C., became a little more “420 friendly” last month as Colorado Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet introduced two bills to ease federal regulation of the marijuana industry.
Gardner, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., reintroduced the STATES Act, which would protect states’ rights to determine their own approach to marijuana legalization, without fear of federal intervention. All but three states have legalized some form of marijuana, creating an often confusing and conflicting mix of state and federal regulations.
“The STATES Act is not about legalization. It’s about allowing a state to make the determination of whether it wants to be subject to the federal prohibition or not,” Gardner said in an interview with The Durango Herald.
The STATES Act, cosponsored by a wide mix of Republicans and Democrats, seems to be gaining traction in Congress. During an Appropriations Hearing on April 10, Attorney General William Barr expressed support for “one uniform federal rule against marijuana.” While he hasn’t specifically studied the STATES Act, Barr did say he preferred the approach taken by the bill “than where we currently are.”
The bill, which was first introduced last year, has gained more support and momentum, in large part because the atmosphere around legalizing marijuana has changed.
About 90 percent of the U.S. population lives in a state that has legalized some form of marijuana use, Gardner said. More states now struggle to navigate what it means to legalize a substance that remains federally prohibited.
“As more people are being forced to deal with it, the more people will be looking for a solution,” Gardner said. The STATES Act “is simply about allowing a state to do what its people have decided to do.”
Many feel the legislation would create opportunities for increased economic growth in the industry. Morgan Fox, media relations for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said the bill moves the process down the road that ends prohibition.
“Business owners would not have to worry about a federal crackdown,” Fox said. “They would allow small business owners to access investors or capital that they might not have otherwise.”
Green bankingA week after Gardner introduced his legislation, Bennet reintroduced the SAFE Banking Act. Many of the states, Colorado included, have been denied access to the banking system since banks that work with cannabis industries can be prosecuted under federal law.
“The lack of access to banking services for marijuana businesses is a public safety issue in Colorado,” Bennet said in a written statement. “Operating on a cash-only basis results in unnecessary safety risks for both employees and customers and creates compliance and oversight challenges.”
The bill would create a banking system safe from criminal prosecution and liability, allowing marijuana companies equal access to the banking system, the same as any other legal business, Bennet said.
Some feel the regulations imposed on cannabis businesses have slowed the growth of a large, and potentially thriving, economic sector.
“I think the federal government has been a roadblock to what could be a tremendous industry,” said Jaime McMillan, founder of McMillan Capital Management Group and a recent candidate for Durango City Council. “The banking act would finally give these businesses equal playing field.”
But not everyone is ready to light up in favor of decreased federal cannabis regulation. Some fear it’s a green light to the widespread commercialization of cannabis.
“I’m really worried that we’re creating the big tobacco of our time, and we’re allowing big companies and corporations to come in,” said Kevin Sabet, president and CEO of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a nonprofit opposed to marijuana legalization and commercialization.
Sabet, who previously served as drug policy adviser in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, said marijuana laws made in one state often affect other states. Therefore, legalizing it in one state can have consequences throughout the country, Sabet said.
“Almost every state in the country is feeling the brunt of Colorado’s lax policies,” Sabet said.
Regardless of whether the bills pass, Fox said it is a “chance to put a spotlight on cannabis reform in Congress.”
Fox said the bipartisan support of cannabis legislation is a huge departure from what has been seen in the past. The majority of the Democratic presidential candidates are either introducing their own marijuana reform bills or signing on to support others.
CommercializationShortly after the STATES Act was reintroduced, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey announced he was pulling his support of the bill because it did not do enough to decriminalize marijuana use or help those convicted of possessing the drug.
Sabet said that epitomizes what people assumed would happen when they first voted for legalization.
“People thought it was about decriminalization. They didn’t want people to go to prison, which I agree with,” Sabet said. “They didn’t vote for it because they wanted pot gummies sold on the corner store.”
Fox said it is unfortunate more legislation hasn’t repaired harm done by the war on drugs, but he said the National Cannabis Industry Association is making sure those issues will be discussed alongside current legislation. Fox said the biggest benefit of legislation like STATES and SAFE Banking acts is the certainty that comes with them.
“We’ve steadily moved, with some exceptions, away from ‘Should cannabis be legal?’ to moving toward ‘What is the best way to do that?’” Fox said.
Liz Weber is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.