Don't blink, otherwise you might miss huge changes in the North American cannabis industry. Since June of last year, Mexico has legalized medical cannabis, Vermont gave the OK for adult-use weed consumption in the U.S., and Canada passed bill C-45, in the process becoming the first industrialized country in the world to legalize recreational pot. By Oct. 17, adults in Canada can legally purchase marijuana in licensed dispensaries.
How marijuana's Schedule I classification is making life difficult for U.S. weed businesses
Yet, for as much as the industry has changed, it's moved like molasses on Capitol Hill in the United States. Though there are now 30 states to have legalized medical marijuana, and nine states to have given the green light to recreational weed, the federal government has stood firm on its view that cannabis is a Schedule I drug. As a Schedule I drug, marijuana is placed side by side with heroin and LSD, considered to be highly prone to abuse, have no recognized benefits, and remain wholly illegal.
Even though the federal government has taken a hands-off approach to cannabis regulation, thusly allowing states the right to regulate their own industries (assuming marijuana is, in some capacity, legal), this Schedule I classification nonetheless creates a number of inherent disadvantages that hurt cannabis businesses and potentially even medical patients who might benefit from the drug or its cannabinoids.
For example, being a Schedule I drug means most pot-based companies have little or no access to basic banking services. This means no lines of credit or loans, as well as no checking accounts. Not having access to credit accounts makes it difficult for U.S. marijuana companies to expand their businesses, replenish their supplies of product, and hire new workers.
Additionally, a more than three-decade-old tax section known as 280E disallows businesses that sell a federally illegal substance, as defined by the Controlled Substances Act, from taking normal corporate income tax deductions. Without the ability to take deductions, profitable cannabis companies could be on the hook for an effective tax rate of up to 70% to 90%.
Medical patients can suffer, too. The red tape involved with running medical cannabis trials can be overwhelming at times. Plus, with only a single approved grow facility in the U.S. (the University of Mississippi), researchers may struggle to get their hands on cannabis for clinical testing purposes.
This key Democrat just introduced a bill to deschedule cannabis
This bifurcation between states and the federal government has created quite the dilemma for the burgeoning cannabis industry. However, a few Democrats believe they have the solution.
On Wednesday, June 27, Senator Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), along with Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), introduced the Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act in the Senate that would, among other things, completely remove cannabis from the controlled substances list. With numerous polls demonstrating that the American public is in favor of legalization, Schumer and his colleagues believe it's time to end the prohibitive restrictions placed on cannabis.
Said Schumer while introducing the bill, courtesy of NORML:
The time to decriminalize marijuana is now. The new Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act is about giving states the freedom to be the laboratories that they should be and giving Americans -- especially women and minority business owners as well as those convicted of simple possession of marijuana intended for personal use -- the opportunity to succeed in today's economy.
As you'll note, this bill is about a lot more than just descheduling marijuana. It would also:
- Provide funding to small businesses controlled by women in the weed industry, as well as those owned by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals in the marijuana industry.
- Commission the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to conduct studies on the impact of driving while under the influence of cannabis, as well as develop strategies to help reduce driver impairment.
- Commission the Secretary of Health and Human Services to examine the effects of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) -- the psychoactive component of cannabis -- on the brain, as well as examine the various ways medicinal marijuana might be used to treat specific diseases and conditions.
- Allow the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau of the Department of the Treasury to develop regulations that would restrict advertising to minors, as well as ensure that the advertising and promotion of cannabis products was "appropriate for the protection of the public health."
- Supply $20 million in annual funding between 2019 and 2023 to be used for the purpose of aiding those folks who were previously convicted of marijuana possession for personal use. These funds would help expunge the criminal records of these people.
As you can see, there's simply no legislation that's ever been as broad-sweeping as what Sen. Schumer and his colleagues have introduced.
Now, a reality check
While this might seem like a dream come true for cannabis proponents, I'd suggest its chances of becoming law lie somewhere between slim and none -- and I'm probably being generous in my estimation.
You see, the reality is this: Republicans currently control the legislative branch of the government, and they tend to have mixed feelings about marijuana. Gallup's October 2017 poll found that 51% of self-identified Republicans favored legalization. Meanwhile, a survey from the independent Quinnipiac University in April 2018 showed that only 41% of respondents who identified with the GOP supported legalization, compared to 55% opposed. There's little room on the legislative docket for Republicans to consider legalizing marijuana at the moment.
However, I will say that the approval of GW Pharmaceuticals' (NASDAQ:GWPH) Epidiolex on Monday, June 25, might be enough to make the current administration think twice about rescheduling marijuana for medicinal purposes. Epidiolex, a cannabidiol (CBD)-based, oral medication designed to treat two rare types of childhood-onset epilepsy, is the first cannabis-derived drug ever approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Even more than the sales GW Pharmaceuticals is bound to generate from Epidiolex's approval, it could be responsible for sparking change at the federal level. This demonstrates a medical benefit for a cannabis-related product, which is in direct conflict with the definition of a Schedule I substance.
Interestingly enough, granting access to medical cannabis is one of the few things Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on. Quinnipiac's April poll found an overwhelming 93% support for allowing physicians to prescribe medical marijuana, with 86% of self-identified Republicans also approving. Thus, while reform at the federal level is far from a guarantee, it at least has a shot from the medical side of the equation.