As the November election approaches, a record voter turnout is predicted. If you’re among the millions of Americans voting this year, one of the things that your vote will affect is cannabis regulation. Keep reading to learn more about what the cannabis laws are and how they could change, depending on the results of the 2020 election.
Federal Cannabis Laws
In the United States, federal and state cannabis laws differ. Let’s look at federal law first. Early in U.S. history, cannabis was not subject to all the restrictions that we have today, and hemp was actually a major farm crop. However, in 1970 the federal government passed the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), and under it all cannabis—regardless of THC content—became classified as a Schedule I drug. A Schedule I drug is defined as a substance that it has a high potential for abuse and no currently accepted medical use. That changed a bit in 2018, when President Trump signed the Farm Bill. This bill removed hemp (cannabis with less than 0.3 percent THC) from the CSA. States can now license and regulate hemp as an agricultural commodity (subject to federal approval of their regulatory program). The legal status of CBD remains a bit confusing. It is widely believed that CBD with less than 0.3 percent THC is legal under the Farm Bill, however the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates food and drugs in the United States, says that it has not approved the use of CBD in food or dietary supplements. At present, CBD is widely available in the United States, in both foods and as a supplement, and numerous organizations are urging the FDA to establish a legal framework that recognizes and regulates this thriving market.
Cannabis with more than 0.3 percent THC—otherwise known as marijuana—is still illegal at the federal level. In a May 2020 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report, the penalties for possession or distribution of marijuana are explained: “Unauthorized simple possession may prompt a minimum fine of $1,000 and a term of up to a year in prison. Illicit distribution of large quantities of marijuana carries a prison sentence of 10 years to life and a fine of up to $10 million for an individual or a fine of up to $50 million for an organization. Penalties increase for subsequent offenses or if use of the substance causes death or serious bodily injury.”
When it comes to what you can and can’t do in relation to cannabis, however, state laws are often more important. For many years, state cannabis laws closely resembled federal law, but in recent years many states have voted for change, and across the country there is now a wide array of different state laws governing the legality of both hemp and marijuana. In some states, it’s legal for adults to buy and use marijuana recreationally. Others allow medical use only. At present, 11 states and Washington, D.C. have a legal program for the recreational use of cannabis by adults, and 35 states have legalized the use of medical marijuana. Many states also have various types of decriminalization laws, which means that penalties for the possession of marijuana are eliminated or minimized. According to NORML, 26 states have laws that decriminalize marijuana possession either fully or partly, and more than 50 state localities do. Finally, CBD laws vary widely across the United States, and a number of states have restrictions attached to the use of this substance. For instance, in some states CBD is only legal for medical use. Many states do not allow it to be added to foods or beverages.
State vs. Federal
So if state and federal cannabis laws are different and often conflicting, which laws do you need to follow? The CRS report explains that while federal law does legally take precedence over state law, in reality, the federal government is not prosecuting large numbers of people for violating federal marijuana laws. For one thing, it says, the Department of Justice and the Drug Enforcement Administration simply don’t have the resources to prosecute everyone who violates the CSA. Additionally, in the case of medical marijuana, every year since 2014 Congress has passed an appropriations rider in the budget that prohibits the Department of Justice from using taxpayer funds to stop states from implementing their own medical marijuana laws. Overall, according to the report, marijuana-related prosecutions do not appear to be a major priority for the federal government. The author states, “Federal marijuana prosecutions dropped in both 2018 and 2019, even as the total number of defendants charged with drug crimes increased.”
States Voting on Cannabis
This brings us to the 2020 election. Once again, Americans will vote on their representatives in government, and on a number of different changes to cannabis laws, and the complicated patchwork of U.S. cannabis laws is likely to change yet again. Many polls show that the majority of Americans favor legalization—for instance, in 2019 the Pew Research Center found that 67 percent of Americans believe that the use of marijuana should be made legal—and the general trend has been for increasingly permissive state laws. This November, Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota will vote on legalizing the recreational use of cannabis for adults. Mississippi and South Dakota will vote on whether or not to legalize medical marijuana.
It’s more difficult to predict how the results of the presidential vote will affect cannabis laws. Numerous commentators point out that President Donald Trump has been inconsistent in his statements and actions regarding U.S. cannabis laws and insist that it is thus difficult to predict how cannabis laws might be affected if he is reelected. Hemp was legalized under his presidency, however there have been no other major changes to federal cannabis laws. As a result, many people argue that under Trump, significant changes to cannabis law are unlikely. For example, in this article on Marijuana Movement, the author concludes, “The past four years have given good reason to assume that a federal crackdown is unlikely, but at the same time, the President hasn’t signaled at any point that he’d be proactive at pursuing reform. From an administrative standpoint, it seems possible that the status quo would be maintained.” However, while he hasn’t indicated any major federal changes, Trump has stated that he is in favor of letting states make their own decisions about cannabis. When asked about federal legalization in 2019 he said, “A lot of states are making that decision, but we’re allowing states to make that decision.”
Democratic candidate Joe Biden has been clearer about his plans. He believes that cannabis should be decriminalized, and that prior cannabis convictions should be expunged. His campaign website states, “Biden believes no one should be in jail because of cannabis use. As president, he will decriminalize cannabis use and automatically expunge prior convictions. And, he will support the legalization of cannabis for medical purposes, leave decisions regarding legalization for recreational use up to the states, and reschedule cannabis as a schedule II drug so researchers can study its positive and negative impacts.”
The implications of the election go beyond your personal right to use cannabis products. The legality of cannabis has significant financial implications too. Many of those states that have legalized it for medical use, personal use, or both, have seen significant economic benefits. Leafly publishes an annual report on cannabis jobs in the United States. It reports that in January 2020, the cannabis industry supported 243,700 full-time jobs, which is a 15 percent increase compared to the previous year. It states, “The $10.73 billion legal cannabis industry continues to be America’s single greatest job creation engine, growing at a rate faster than any other industry over the past four years.” At a time when many U.S. businesses are struggling, the cannabis market stands out for its strong growth. For example, according to a 2020 report by New Frontier Data, in states that allow adult-use marijuana, revenue is substantial; Oregon set a record of $100 million in revenue for May, and Colorado came close to $200 million that same month.
Make Your Opinion Count
Overall, cannabis remains a controversial topic in the United States, and the laws that govern it are complicated. Just remember that no matter what you believe when it comes to the future of this plant, your opinion will have a lot more power if you vote this November!