Public support for marijuana legalization in the U.S. has never been higher — and it looks like it will only keep growing. Will that translate into more political change?
A recent Gallup poll showed that 64 percent of Americans now favor marijuana legalization, as do a similar percentage of Americans surveyed in three other recent polls by CBS News, Quinnipiac University, and the Pew Research Center. Even a majority of Republicans support legalization for the first time in history.
But public support for marijuana doesn’t always mean political action. While the legal marijuana industry has never been bigger, recreational pot remains illegal in 41 states, medical marijuana is still illegal in 21 states, and both forms of marijuana are still technically banned at the federal level.
And it is that federal ban — held up by a Republican complacency regarding the ban—which is ultimately doing the most to keep cannabis out of the hands of voters who want it and need it.
As the Motley Fool outlines, cannabis is a Schedule I drug at the federal level. This classification makes marijuana illegal, like heroin and LSD, and also keeps it from being legally recognized as having any medical benefit. It also labels the drug as having a high potential for abuse.
Marijuana’s Schedule I classification hinders medical cannabis researchers from conducting research, as there is only one federally approved grow facility in the entire nation. The classification also blocks cannabusinesses from traditional banking services. The federally created Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) oversees financial institutions, and any banks that do businesses with marijuana companies could be at risk of fines and criminal charges. On top of that, U.S. tax code disallows businesses that sell federally illegal substances from taking standard corporate income-tax deductions. As a result, marijuana companies can see their profits taxed anywhere from 70 percent to 90 percent.
Despite pot’s Schedule I designation, the Obama-era Cole Memo established a federal policy of non-interference toward pot-friendly state laws. The policy, designed by former Attorney General Eric Holder, allowed the nation’s legal marijuana industry to pick up steam. Yet, current prohibitionist Attorney General Jeff Sessions has since rescinded the policy, and while he hasn’t directed federal prosecutors to go after the pot industry, he has given them carte blanche to do so at their own discretion.
Not only has this legislative limbo soured some investors on the domestic marijuana market, it has also given obstructionist Republican lawmakers an excuse not to reconsider their stances on legalization. The fact that the majority of Republican voters supporting legal marijuana is the mathematically smallest majority possible — just 51 percent according to Gallup — doesn’t do much to move the needle, either.
With that said, there are encouraging signs that an increasing number of those on the political right are also on the right side of the legalization issue:
- South Carolina Rep. Eric Bedingfield has co-sponsored legislation that would pave the way for medical marijuana to replace opioid painkillers, helping curb an epidemic he's seen destroy families of all economic levels — including his own.
- Bedingfield’s fellow South Carolinian, Senator Lindsey Graham, has been a major backer of the CARERS Act — aka, the Compassionate Access, Research Expansion and Respect States Act of 2015 — which, if passed, would do a number of things, including reclassifying marijuana to maximize its medical value, allow banks to handle money from legal marijuana businesses, and prevent the government from interfering with state-legal medical marijuana programs.
- In Georgia, Conservative Christian lawmaker, State Rep. Allen Peake, R-Macon, presented a bill in 2015 (later signed by Gov. Nathan Deal) that established the state’s medical cannabis program, which now allows more than 1,000 people with qualifying diagnoses to possess cannabis oil. He also drafted a bill (awaiting Gov. Deal’s signature) that would expand previous bill’s list of qualifying conditions. Peake, who is the CEO of one of the nation’s largest franchise restaurant businesses, also helps to shepherd cannabis oil to hundreds of sick people in the state who, according to state law, are allowed to possess it, but who have no legal way of obtaining it.
- Two Kentucky Republicans, Senator Rand Paul and Representative Thomas Massie, have been outspoken in their support of pro-marijuana legislation, and noted marijuana advocate and State Senator Perry Clark has been aggressively pushing for the legalization of medical marijuana. While Clark’s Cannabis Freedom Act bill failed to pass in 2016, he has filed two new legalization bills, SB76 and SB57, which, if approved by lawmakers, could eventually be voted on by the people of Kentucky.
- Sen. Paul, along with Republican Senators Mike Lee of Utah and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, are part of a bipartisan group of U.S. senators and representatives who introduced comprehensive medical marijuana legislation that would block the federal government from interfering with medical marijuana activity legal at the state level, permit Department of Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical cannabis, remove cannabidiol from the Controlled Substances Act, and expand research on marijuana.
- Vermont’s Republican Governor Phil Scott recently signed House Bill 511 into law, making Vermont the first state in the nation to authorize recreational marijuana use via the act of a state legislature rather than by use of a ballot measure.
- New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Joel Giambra unveiled a proposal to legalize cannabis and use the resulting tax revenue to pay for subway repairs and other transportation projects.
- Tennessee State Senator Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville) and Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) have introduced the Medical Cannabis Only Act of 2018, which would allow Tennessee patients with specific health conditions access to safe, regulated medical cannabis oil-based manufactured products.
Seventy-two percent of Democrats now support marijuana legalization. And while the 51 percent of Republicans supporting legalization might seem a bit underwhelming, that number was 17 points lower just two years ago. As legal marijuana continues to create jobs, generate tax revenue, help people cope with numerous diseases, and combat the nation’s opioid epidemic, the percentage of voters — Republicans and Democrats, alike — who support legalization will only continue to increase.
The number of Republican legislators who are responding positively to voters on this issue is encouraging. So, encourage your local elected officials to join them. It's about time political action matches public support for marijuana legalization.