We may still be more than a year away from the 2016 elections, but it's plainly evident that marijuana is among the many hot-button issues set to play a critical role in helping Americans decide who should become our next president.
Marijuana takes center stage
Presidential candidates discussing marijuana policy is still taboo for many (including the politicians themselves) because opinions surrounding the still illegal drug have rapidly changed over the past two decades. In 1995 there wasn't a single state that allowed marijuana to be sold legally in medical shops, only around a quarter of respondents in polls shared a favorable view of the drug, and the idea of recreational marijuana being legal was laughable. Today, 23 states have legalized medical marijuana, four states have given the green light for shops to sell recreational marijuana following the OK from residents, and a slim majority of Americans (usually just above 50%) in national polls have a favorable view of the drug.
Marijuana has turned into an important issue for both the American public and states. Aside from the fact that some people simply want to purchase recreational marijuana without the fear of state or federal prosecution, marijuana could hold medical benefits that may be able to alleviate symptoms associated with certain diseases, or perhaps even provide a cure for others. Marijuana has thus far shown positive benefits in treating aggressive brain cancers, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, and two rare types of childhood-onset epilepsy in clinical studies.
States have a far different agenda on their mind. Whereas politicians would love to keep their constituency happy, marijuana has them seeing green for a completely different reason: tax revenue. The money generated from recreational and/or medical marijuana sales could be instrumental in closing state budget gaps and providing critical funds for education, jobs, and state infrastructure.
Bernie Sanders comes out in support of marijuana reforms
With marijuana holding such high importance, it's no wonder that it was one of the focal topics of the recent Democratic debate, hosted by CNN on Tuesday, Oct. 13, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The two most prominent Democratic candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, were grilled by CNN during the debate with regard to whether or not they would vote in favor of Nevada's measure to legalize the use of recreational marijuana.
Bernie Sanders, who's had a more favorable view of marijuana since his campaign began relative to Clinton, but has not stated that he would legalize the drug on a national level, firmly sided with marijuana advocates when issuing his response.
I would vote yes because I am seeing in this country too many lives being destroyed for non-violent offenses. We have a criminal justice system that lets CEOs on Wall Street walk away, and yet we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana.
Clinton, on the other hand, maintained her "wait-and-see" approach to managing marijuana. Clinton retorted that "No," she wouldn't vote in favor of recreational marijuana in Nevada, and had the following commentary to back up her response:
I think that we have the opportunity through the states that are pursuing recreational marijuana to find out a lot more than we know today. I do support the use of medical marijuana, and I think even there we need to do a lot more research so that we know exactly how we're going to help people for whom medical marijuana provides relief.
Clinton did, however, suggest that reforms to the criminal justice system are needed to deal with nonviolent marijuana-related offenses.
Given the line-in-the-sand difference between Sanders and Clinton on marijuana reforms, and the American public's growing favorability of the drug, it's possible Sanders' support could noticeably improve.
It may not matter
But regardless of whether or not Bernie Sanders becomes the Democratic Party's nominee, pushing marijuana into the presidential debate limelight may still not matter when all is said and done.
In addition to the presidential election, the makeup of Congress could shift as well. As it stands now, Congress has shown a willingness to allow states to experiment with the idea of medical marijuana and even recreational marijuana legalization, but they've demonstrated next to no desire to change the existing federal laws surrounding marijuana.
One of the biggest obstacles for marijuana was highlighted in Clinton's remarks: its long-term safety profile. Concerns over marijuana's safety is common among lawmakers, and formulating a long-term safety profile of the currently-illegal drug isn't something that's going to happen overnight. Making matters tougher for marijuana is that prior to this decade more than 90% of all studies on marijuana focused on its risks rather than its benefits. This means there's a mountain of negative data that'll need to be overcome by the benefit studies that are ongoing. Putting these puzzle pieces together could take years, and it could push any chance of federal reform out many, many years.
Congress' choice not to act on marijuana at a federal level will also continue to have adverse effects on marijuana businesses' bottom lines. Since federal tax laws supersede state tax laws, and federal tax laws clearly dictate that businesses selling federally-illegal drugs are not allowed to deduct expenses tied to that business, legal marijuana businesses are paying more than their fair share in taxes. Also, with the marijuana plant still considered illegal, very few banks have been willing to work with marijuana business, too, making it increasingly difficult for legal shops to buy new product, pay their employees, or even provide security for all of the cash they're dealing with.
Considering the numerous obstacles left for the marijuana industry to overcome, it's unlikely that marijuana will sprout into a suitable investment for your money anytime soon. Until we see substantive change at the federal level, there's no reason to believe that publicly-traded marijuana stocks have a clear long-term growth outlook, or for that matter that they'll even survive.
There's nothing wrong with closely monitoring the evolution of marijuana policy on a federal and state level because, as supporters of marijuana have demonstrated, this has the potential to be a gigantic industry in terms of sales. But remaining on the sidelines as an investor appears to be your smartest move right now.