With marijuana deemed essential in twenty-four states and Washington, D.C., dozens of cannabis-friendly politicians asking congress to help the industry during COVID-19, and industry boosters like Curaleaf billionaire Boris Jordan drawing parallels to the end of prohibition in 1933, cannabis consumers and activists can’t help wondering: will coronavirus help or hurt this year’s progress towards policy reform?
“I’m not a pundit, I’m not in a position where I can give you odds on it,” NORML Political Director Justin Strekel told Wikileaf on Monday. “When we talk about the states, most states are not in session, so we can’t land reforms that way. At the federal level, currently they’re in a pro forma session right now. Much of the focus is solely on direct coronavirus efforts,” he said.
Strekel highlighted some of the immediate work ahead, like making Small Business Administration loans available to the cannabis industry. A bill introduced last week by Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), the Emergency Cannabis Small Business Health and Safety Act, would force the government to extend relief programs to “legitimate” cannabis-related businesses and service providers.
As for the longer-term prospects of federal reform, Strekel said, “I’ve had a lot of conversations with a lot of lawmakers’ offices, things are very much in flux. The case for legalization, broadly, is still the same,” he said, except that “lawmakers are much more receptive to the economic impact than they were prior.”
A comprehensive marijuana reform bill, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, passed in the House Judiciary Committee in November — making it the furthest that any piece of cannabis legislation has progressed to date. In addition to taking marijuana off the schedule of controlled substances, the bill would provide access to SBA programs, addressing the problem that has drawn the most attention during the pandemic.
“So there already is precedent in the House for advancing this issue,” Strekel said, “and the real question is, will Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell allow any kind of relief to these regulated, licensed small business owners in the majority of states?”
Bullish predictions from the money side of the cannabis industry came this week, when several prominent cannabis CEOs and investors told CNBC they expect the “essential” designation of marijuana will mark the final turning point toward legalization. Jordan, the Executive Chairman of Curaleaf, told Bloomberg on Monday that “we expect over the next 12 to 18 months that significant changes in regulation will bring cannabis into the mainstream in the U.S. as an industry.”
These boosters will have to reckon with Sen. McConnell’s intransigence, however, which many see as a big obstacle to any pot cannabis bill’s chances in the Senate.
State initiatives flounder during the lockdown
As for statewide initiatives, prospects for a November green rush took a dive as COVID-19 prevented ballot measures across the country from gathering required signatures. Fledgling campaigns in at least eight states are currently suspended, according to NORML State Policies Coordinator Carly Wolf, as advocates appeal to state governments to allow for electronic signatures. A few lawsuits, like the one filed by activists in Montana, might resolve in time for a chance at the ballot, but it will be an uphill battle.
“It’s a blow to every single advocacy effort, not just marijuana,” said Strekel.
In better news for cannabis advocates, four states have ballot measures already qualified for the polls in November — New Jersey, Mississippi, South Dakota and Arizona. Except for Mississippi, which is only considering medical use, these measures would legalize marijuana for adult use if voters approve.
Several other states had marijuana legislation in the works before the pandemic, including Virginia, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, Alabama and Kentucky, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, but many of those efforts have been derailed as state legislatures paused or adjourned their legislative sessions. At least a few, like New York’s, are effectively tabled until next year.