Is federal marijuana legalization around the corner? The jury's still out, but things are looking more favorable than ever. Earlier this month, the Biden Administration issued a statement instructing the Attorney General to review the scheduling of cannabis, igniting a flurry of speculation about the future of the industry in the U.S.

But, beyond that statement, nothing has actually changed for cannabis companies, and it's uncertain what the Attorney General will opt to do after the review. It's obvious that a ruling in favor of full legalization would cause cannabis stocks to soar, but what's less obvious is that even partial steps toward legalization would still be a golden ticket for the industry -- and it wouldn't affect all of the players equally. Let's explore a couple of scenarios to see which businesses might benefit the most.

Full legalization isn't the only favorable outcome

Marijuana is currently classified as a Schedule 1 drug, much like heroin, which means that enterprises growing or selling it aren't eligible for tax deductions. Schedule 1 restrictions also make it very difficult to do scientific or industrial research, as any projects are required to undergo a lengthy justification process and face significant institutional scrutiny. It seems pretty unlikely that the administration would be satisfied with the Attorney General if he ruled to maintain the status quo, but it's a possibility nonetheless, and it'd probably tank marijuana stocks when announced. 

On the other hand, if marijuana is rescheduled such that it's in Schedule 3 or 4, which are less restrictive and intended for drugs with reasonable medical uses like ketamine, that'd effectively give large medicinal marijuana operators like Trulieve Cannabis (TCNNF -2.03%) and Cresco Labs (CRLBF -2.09%) a big gift because their tax burden would drop like a stone. But, it's unclear whether the privilege would extend to the recreational cannabis segments of those companies, which are of significant size, as technically they'd be selling outside of the newly established federal framework for legal sales.

Rescheduling cannabis into Schedule 5 might be a huge boon for Green Thumb Industries (GTBIF 1.52%) specifically, as the schedule enables over-the-counter sales of drugs in retail locations like gas stations and convenience stores. Right now, Green Thumb is partnering with the gas station and convenience store chain Circle K in Florida to open up mini-dispensaries that are co-located with Circle K's locations. With a rescheduling, people would still need to use their medicinal marijuana credentials to buy cannabis, but Green Thumb's early pivot into the gas station and convenience retail segment would leave it well-positioned to scale up in comparison to its competitors. In contrast, companies with highly centralized medicinal marijuana dispensary operations are likely to suffer, as customers will likely have closer and more convenient places to buy from.

Don't invest based on the regulatory possibilities alone

Per the above, it's reasonable to say that the Biden Administration hasn't actually doled out any golden tickets to any cannabis business yet, though it has opened the door to doing so in the future. 

The trouble is that there's no way to know exactly what the Attorney General is going to do, which makes it a bit foolhardy to buy any specific cannabis stock in hopes of the plant getting rescheduled into a new classification. But, it's still possible to recognize which operators probably won't be impacted much either way if a rescheduling happens, given the potential outcomes that fall short of marijuana legalization

For instance, Tilray Brands (TLRY) and SNDL (SNDL -2.62%) are Canadian players that don't currently have a footprint selling recreational or medicinal marijuana in the U.S., though Tilray does have a plan for entering the market if legalization occurs, and SNDL does lend to a slew of U.S.-based companies. The pair might opt to enter the U.S. market differently or sooner than expected if there's a rescheduling, but it's hard to see how that'd translate into new revenue (and thus likely also share price appreciation) faster for them than it would for Trulieve, Cresco, and Green Thumb.

So if you still want to roll the dice and invest in a few cannabis stocks now that regulations are likely to change, at least make sure you're buying shares of businesses in the country where the regulations could shift.