While national election results came as a surprise to political pundits and watchers, what shouldn’t have surprised anyone was the overwhelming support for cannabis policy reform initiatives.
Seventeen million voters supported legal, regulated programs in their states, sending Washington a powerful message that should guide the marijuana policy approach of our new administration and Congress.
At no point in our nation’s history has there been more support from mainstream America for taking marijuana out of the criminal market and putting it behind a legal, regulated counter.
According to an October 2016 Gallup poll, American support for legalizing cannabis is at 60 percent, the highest it’s been in 47 years. A 2015 Harris poll found a staggering 81 percent of Americans support legalization of marijuana for medical use.
There are now 28 states that have chosen to create regulated marijuana programs, including four of the five most populated states in the nation. More than 20% of the U.S. population lives in states that allow adults 21 and older to legally consume cannabis, and more than 60% of the population lives in a state where medical marijuana access is legal.
That support has grown as existing legal programs have provided access to life-changing treatments for critically ill patients, empowered responsible small business owners over criminal dealers and cartels, and generated valuable economic development, jobs, and revenues for strapped state budgets.
The shift to regulated programs is also having dramatic results on an underground market that steers billions in unregulated, untracked, and untaxed sales to criminal actors. In 2013, U.S. Border Patrol agents seized nearly 2.5 million pounds of marijuana at the border. Just two years later, seizures were down by approximately one million pounds.
These successes have been gained under a federal policy that has respected the will of voters in the states and refrained from interfering with patients, customers, and businesses acting legally under state law.
That policy of respect for state sovereignty could be challenged under the new presidential administration. President-elect Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE’s nominee to lead the Justice Department, Sen. Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPress: For Trump endorsement: The more sordid, the better Those predicting Facebook's demise are blowing smoke If bitcoin is 'digital gold,' it should be taxed like gold MORE, has frequently expressed his personal opposition to many of the cannabis reform policies that American voters have chosen.
However, Sen. Sessions has also long advocated for federalism and states’ rights and criticized federal over-reach in law enforcement.
As a candidate, President-elect Trump said more than once that he believes state marijuana programs should be allowed to continue without federal interference. “In terms of marijuana and legalization,” he told the ”Washington Post,” “I think that should be a state issue.”
Federal action against voter-approved cannabis programs would almost certainly provoke substantial backlash. Many of those programs were approved by significant voter margins. All of them feature regulatory programs designed and administered by state and local government authorities, including licensing and tax collections.
A Department of Justice crackdown on state-compliant cannabis businesses would put federal law enforcement in conflict not only with the majority of American voters but also with governors, state legislatures, and state and local law enforcement and regulatory agencies. It would also send billions of dollars back to criminals and cartels.
Continuing a policy of federal non-interference with state cannabis programs would be consistent with Republican Party and Trump administration support for small businesses, job creation, and economic growth.
The legal cannabis industry in the U.S. was worth approximately $5.5 billion in 2015 and is expected to reach $21.8 billion by 2020. In Colorado alone, the cannabis industry has already created more than 18,000 jobs. A recent study determined that every dollar spent on retail marijuana in Colorado generated $2.40 in economic impact.
The vast majority of this value is being created by small businesses — entrepreneurial efforts built from the ground up, including not just cannabis cultivators and retailers, but also innovators in areas like energy-efficient equipment, software, and packaging.
It’s even more remarkable that cannabis businesses are still managing to help patients and customers, while creating jobs and tax revenue, despite facing a multitude of challenges due to conflicts between state and federal laws.
Restrictions on banking access for cannabis businesses create threats to the safety of employees and communities and make accounting transparency more difficult.
Extreme federal taxation that treats law-abiding, tax-paying cannabis businesses like criminals stymies economic growth and limits businesses’ ability to serve patients and re-invest in their communities.
We urge Congress and the incoming administration to continue the policy of federal non-interference and work together to address the challenges that legitimate, state-sanctioned cannabis businesses face in accessing financial services and navigating the federal tax regime.
Doing so would help sick patients, empower responsible small business owners, improve public safety, and secure economic growth. It would also respect the will of the voters and the laboratories of democracy on which our nation is built.
Aaron Smith is co-founder and executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, the largest trade association representing legal cannabis businesses in the U.S and the only one dedicated to promoting fair treatment of responsible cannabis businesses at the federal level.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.