The silliness of Sha’Carri Richardson’s disqualification from the U.S. Olympic track team for legally smoking marijuana shines a bright light on the civil liberties spot where we find ourselves in 2021 in the United States of America. Our country wants legal cannabis, and we are currently engaged in a nationwide legal-status transition of a very old plant. One day, the marijuana demons will rest, and we can all get back to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Although Americans have long desired legal cannabis, our citizen legislators are only now mustering the strength of conviction to take on the task of transitioning a $60 billion annual industry that employs hundreds of thousands of people and dominates agricultural economies like California’s — where the legal adult-use marketplace is already $4 billion, from a cold start in 2018.
We sit at the dawn of the final frontier of cannabis legalization. The U.S. Senate is preparing to introduce comprehensive reform legislation, and there’s a good chance of eventual passage. It’s simply becoming too hard to make the counterargument against cannabis reform.
According to the latest Pew Research Center study, 91% of Americans favor the legalization of medical or recreational cannabis. Since Californians passed Prop 215 in 1996, citizens of states across the country have taken to the ballot box to produce change where their elected officials would not.
As of November 2020, 38 states have approved medical cannabis, and all of them did so by citizens’ referendum. Evidence suggests that every one of these states will progress from medical cannabis into adult-use cannabis over time. According to Pew, only Americans in the Silent Generation (born before 1946) disfavor full federal cannabis legalization. Republicans are only 47% in favor of legalization, but support rises dramatically among younger party members, with nearly 60% of under-40 Republicans wanting full legalization.
In 2017, when CVS executed its exit from selling tobacco products in its nearly 10,000 stores, my friend Hank Casillas was the executive in charge of the company’s secret internal process of looking at this issue. CVS had recently expanded by acquiring Caremark, and it decided to signal the market that CVS was much more than a drugstore chain: It had, in essence, also become a health care company. The consensus that emerged from these deliberations was that a company with a mission to help people heal should not be selling cancer sticks.
But if a health care company shouldn’t sell tobacco products, what about the other questionable products, including salty snacks, sugary treats, alcohol, and caffeine? Debate arose in the boardroom, particularly given the $800 million annual profit that would go up in smoke if CVS banned tobacco from its shelves.
After studying the question, the committee consulted with the CVS health care officer, who weighed in with his wisdom. All of the categories, with the exception of tobacco, had some redeeming value when ingested in moderation. Only cigarettes were designed to be addictive — and were destined to kill you.
Today, Hank is devoting the next phase of his career to the nascent cannabis industry. He points out that the similarities between cannabis and the other “bad for you” categories are numerous, but the difference is crucial. Of all of these categories, only cannabis has any medicinal properties. A recent survey shows that 60% of regular cannabis users list sleep as their primary use case.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, excessive alcohol use is responsible for more than 95,000 deaths in the United States each year, or 261 deaths per day. Alcoholism is typically a lifelong disease that afflicts a significant portion of our society. It has devastating effects on families and communities.
Although cannabis abuse does cause laziness and has been shown to stunt brain growth in teen users, death by marijuana overdoses are virtually unheard-of. The societal impacts of those two substances hardly compare.
Five years ago, I discussed this discrepancy with a renowned Republican business executive- turned-philanthropist in Orange County, Calif., where I live. Knowing I had joined the cannabis industry, he told me that he did not like marijuana, nor should I quote him as being in favor of its adoption. Yet he followed his comment by musing: “What if one effect of cannabis legalization would be to provide a safe substitute for just 10% of Americans suffering from alcoholism? We’d be in a better place as a society.”
His prescience was remarkable. In 2021, we are now poised to be the largest country in the world to take on comprehensive federal cannabis reform. We are going to put the legislative and regulatory infrastructure around a $60 billion industry using modern tools and techniques.
On Wednesday, Sens. Chuck Schumer, Ron Wyden, and Cory Booker will release a draft of their proposed legislation. Then, the federal government, just like the Founders designed, will develop policy based on the learnings from the individual states. Given the trio of leaders, it’s easy to imagine this will develop quickly and effectively. We know so much more about cannabis and how people use it than any industry has ever known at the dawn if its development.
States’ rights activists should be strongly in favor of cannabis reform. So too should anyone who prefers a rules-based system of commerce over one governed by guns and organized crime. Crimefighters should appreciate the potential mitigation of the long-term effects of alcohol abuse. Elected officials will rejoice over the millions of “pay-for” dollars they can use on their pet projects. (Infrastructure, anyone?)