The marijuana industry is growing like wildfire, at least according to data from cannabis research firm ArcView. Sales of legal weed in the North American market grew by 34% to $6.9 billion last year, and they're slated to grow by 26% annually through 2021. By that time we could be talking about a legal cannabis market that's worth $22 billion.
Leading this sales charge has been a major shift in the way the public views cannabis. In 1979, according to a CBS News poll, just 27% of respondents were in favor of legalizing pot nationally. This percentage stayed fairly consistent throughout the 1980s and 1990s during the War on Drugs campaign. However, the April 2017 survey showed support at an all-time high of 61%. Presumably, the more people who want to see weed legalized, the more pressure that'll be put on elected officials in Washington to make changes to its scheduling.
47% of Americans fear this if weed is legalized
However, despite this call for legalization among a majority of Americans, a fairly recent survey from national pollster Gallup shows that nearly of half of all people share one common fear if cannabis is legalized. Namely, 47% worry about what'll happen to drivers behind the wheel if access to marijuana becomes as easy as heading to your local convenience store.
The June 2017 survey asked a random sample of 1,007 adults across the U.S. whether they believed legalizing pot would make the roads: "a lot less safe," "a little less safe," or "not make much difference. Though exactly half of all respondents believed it wouldn't make much difference, 47% believed that legalizing marijuana would have negative consequences on driver safety, including 30% who believe it'll make things "a lot less safe."
One of the biggest issues with legalizing marijuana is that there are no established parameters to determine what comprises a legal amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) in the blood versus what doesn't. THC is the psychoactive component of cannabis.
For example, there's a well-defined line in the sand when we're talking about alcohol consumption. If your blood alcohol content (BAC) is above 0.08%, and you're stopped by a peace officer, you're likely going for a ride downtown. Even if your BAC is under 0.08%, you can still be arrested and charged if you appear impaired.
By comparison, there are no guidelines for what level of THC is or isn't acceptable. Making matters more complicated, THC can stick around in the bloodstream for days or weeks, which isn't something that alcohol will do. Thus, blood tests could turn up THC for a driver days, or even weeks, after use, making it difficult for peace officers to determine when the marijuana use actually occurred. This isn't to say that dual breathalyzers that can detect alcohol and marijuana aren't in development, but they still have a ways to go before they have a shot of becoming mainstream.
There are other worries, too
Of course, driving under the influence of cannabis is far from the only concern. There are also worries about what might happen if a home-grow option is available, which would be an expectation of a full legalization bill. Growing cannabis plants at home can certainly help bring down marijuana costs, but it also, presumably, gives adolescents easier access to marijuana. A few studies have shown that adolescent use of cannabis can adversely impact long-term memory. To be clear, there's still a lot to be learned about how marijuana can affect the developing brains of teens, but initial evidence suggests it's clearly not all good news.
There are environment and electrical grid concerns, too. A 2012 study from scientist Evan Mills, Ph.D., at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found at the time that 1% of all electricity demand in the U.S. came from existing cannabis farms. Remember, this is before eight states had legalized recreational marijuana. If the entire country legalized pot, the strain on electrical grids as a result of the high-pressure sodium lights often used to grow cannabis plants would be enormous.
The chances marijuana will be rescheduled are slim to none
For those folks who share these concerns, you'll be happy to know that the chances the U.S. will legalize marijuana anytime soon are very, very small. For the majority of you who favor legalization in polls, this may not be such great news.
The heart of the resistance lies with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who in May requested that congressional leaders repeal the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment. This is the amendment that protects cannabis businesses in legal states from federal prosecution. This request from Sessions signals that he'll pretty much stop at nothing to slow or halt the expansion of marijuana.
Capitol Hill also has very little incentive to take up cannabis legislation, even with the public in support of such a move. Lawmakers are spending most of their time in Washington discussing tax or healthcare reform measures, and there's very little room on the docket for marijuana at the moment. It's also unclear whether President Trump would support marijuana's expansion. Back in February, now-former White House press secretary Sean Spicer intimated that a toughening stance from the Trump administration on marijuana should be expected in the future.
What could change politicians' minds? My guess is we'd need to see a plethora of Food and Drug Administration-approved clinical data that outlines the benefits and risks of cannabis. It's possible that if support of cannabis increases enough, and politicians run the risk of being voted out of office if they don't conform to the will of the people, we could see change. But I don't believe we're anywhere near that point yet.
For the time being, the outlook for the legal-weed industry in the U.S. remains very much constrained by Washington, and that's not necessarily a good thing for investors in this space.
The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.