As 2017 draws to a close, it's time to cast an eye forward to 2018 and predict which marijuana issues we'll be hearing about frequently.
There isn't much new under the sun in the cannabis reform movement. Namely:
- It should be legal, but it isn't.
- Should be easy to agree on what to do, but it's not.
And as you'll read in our preview of 2018, you should be prepared for discourse that devolves into dispute merely on the size and shape of the negotiating table.
Here are 5 major marijuana issues to watch next year.
Medical Marijuana Legalization That Isn’t Merely Symbolic
Statistics are great for fooling yourself. You could look at how many states allow medical cannabis and believe that sick people all over the country are easily and safely able to access their preferred medicine. You would be wrong. Medical cannabis programs are not created equal. Both California and Texas “have medical cannabis laws” on the books, in the strictly literal sense — but in Texas, what cannabis there is can be prescribed by one of only eight doctors statewide, and only to someone with intractable epilepsy who has tried at least two other treatments with no success.
Marijuana is already illegal. Passing symbolic medical-cannabis access laws that leave the black market as the most reliable and reasonable source of medicine defeats the purpose. If cannabis is going to be legal — and the honest argument to keep it classified as a more deadly and less medically useful alternative to Oxycodone has yet to be made — then it needs to be LEGAL, and not accessible only after navigating an epic Crusades-level quest for healing. If a legalization law arises that’s overly restrictive, or if a medical cannabis bill is introduced that won’t result in anyone obtaining cannabis, then it may be time to take a pause, or a pass, and wait for a better option.
Advances in (or at Least Fewer Barriers Towards) Research
As a general rule, when something is unlawful, a series of barriers, literal and metaphorical, arise around that thing. That thing becomes harder to obtain. You can’t find that thing in stores. The less corporeal and more mythical that thing becomes, the harder it is to discuss and to know much about it.
"What do you know about that thing?"
"Well, I’ve never seen it myself, but I hear tell…"
You see? This is how rumors start.
Now, cannabis isn’t exactly the Sasquatch, but it would seem clear that marijuana’s classification as a Schedule I controlled substance creates serious difficulties for anyone — a researcher, say — desiring to discover more about it. In case it was unclear, or up to debate, researching cannabis can indeed be “extremely onerous,” as Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told Congress. NIH would love to research the connection between legal cannabis and a drop in opiate use, Collins informed a Senate committee, but… well, this whole Controlled Substances Act thing.
Even when scientists do, at last, win a hard-fought struggle for research, they can’t always do much with it. The federal government’s official supply of research-grade cannabis is weak and moldy stuff bearing little resemblance to dispensary-grade cannabis.
How much longer can this broken status quo continue, especially in the light of recent findings like the World Health Organization’s, that cannabidiol, or CBD, does in fact have health benefits; and mounting pressure from the medical community to allow for more research on marijuana, on people and on pets? Fixing this gaping hole in logic and our knowledge will take a long time — it will require reforming medical school curricula as well as federal law — but there will be more calls for progress, and quickly, in 2018.
If you’re in the marijuana industry, you know full well how difficult it is to make payroll, pay the taxman, and set aside enough liquid assets in your operating fund to keep the lights on — because all of that routine business must be conducted without the ease and security of that modern-day innovation, a “bank account.”
Cannabis is a cash-only affair, but it’s not that marijuana businesses can’t bank. It’s that banks won’t have them. In 2014, the Obama Administration released guidelines that offered cannabis operations a path to the bank teller line, as long as they were following state law. But since marijuana is still federally illegal, most banks — like, all banks — have elected to stay away rather than absorb a modicum of risk. If you listen to banks, which have for years taken deposits from drug-trafficking organizations and war criminals, doing business with a cannabis dispensary could expose them to a money-laundering or racketeering charge.
Lawmakers in Washington have recognized this absurd state of affairs. But a few weeks before Congress set about the greatest transfer of wealth (aka tax “reform”) in modern American history, Republican leadership blocked debate on legislation that would have allowed marijuana businesses to use banks.
Note that, and note it well: They didn’t vote against allowing cannabis retailers, cultivators, and other participants in the billion-dollar legal marijuana trade to use banks — they voted against talking about it. As recreational retail sales begin in California and continue to steadily increase in Colorado and everywhere else marijuana is sold, calls to fix this risky and inefficient method of conducting business will only increase. 2018 might be the year of the checking account.
Marijuana Tax Reform
Separate but related are the additional hoops marijuana outfits must leap and squeeze through during their annual exercise with the taxman — and the price the marijuana industry must also pay in order to fund the Trump tax cuts.
There was brief hope that Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) would throw a bone to cannabis entrepreneurs with the Republican tax-cut bill, and include a provision reforming Section 280E of the Internal Revenue Code. A cocaine cowboys-era effort to make life harder for the real-life antagonists of Miami Vice, 280E prevents drug sellers from claiming luxury items like yachts and platinum-plated guns on their taxes. It also prevents dispensaries and cultivation operations from claiming common cost-of-doing-business expenses, forcing them to pay an effective tax rate of as much as 70 percent, according to Forbes.
However, at the last moment, Gardner experienced a change of heart and did not offer the 280E reform to his colleagues for a vote — possibly because fixing dispensaries’ tax bills, and drawing a distinction between them and El Chapo’s empire would cost $5 billion. So that’s where the year will end: A tax bill, meant to create jobs and stimulate the economy, will not do anything to relieve pressure on a rapidly expanding segment of the economy, which is creating jobs. This will absolutely be an issue in 2018.
The Battle for Facts
Here’s our early frontrunner for person (or thing) of the year, in the year 2018: Truth, as in, “What’s real — and what’s not?” Real, accurate data is reportedly a popular thing — everybody wants data! — and yet when we have it, the squabbling begins. Better to seek counsel from trusted sources who won’t challenge your narrative.
Just look at the trend in teen marijuana use in Colorado following legalization:
Exhibit A, click here.
Exhibit B, click here.
Here we have two sources, debating a similar release of data, drawing widely divergent conclusions. Seems like youth use of marijuana has declined since legalization, if you believe the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham. But that federal data cited by Smart Approaches to Marijuana’s Kevin Sabet shows that youth weed use has remained constant since the 1990s, which means, as he said, that it’s going up… wait, what?
As the country’s ongoing struggles with recognizing reliable information reveal, confirmation bias is a potent cocktail. All the data in the world won’t matter if otherwise sensible human beings act on their motive to deny and obfuscate. Convincing the unwilling of the truth of what’s right in front of them may be the most formidable challenge yet.
And there you have them. Five marijuana issues we'll all be hearing plenty about in 2018.