America is changing. Cannabis tells the story

General Manager of Weed World uses a magnifying glass to show organic marijuana on March 31, 2021, New York. (Getty)

If you want a metaphor for our changing nation, cannabis provides a good one — in real-time. No issue or idea, industry, or individual better exemplifies it. 

It’s been 50 years since the U.S. implemented the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) — the law that began and never really ended the so-called “war on drugs.” Cannabis is listed in the CSA with heroin, LSD and Ecstasy as a “Schedule 1” drug. That means that according to the federal government, it has no accepted medical use and high potential for abuse. 

And it’s been 25 years since California voters legalized medical cannabis. Passage of Proposition 215 in 1996 laid the retail foundation for what is now a $61 billion industry. Long before there were cannabis chain stores and multi-state operators, there was the San Francisco Buyers Club. Opened at the height of the AIDS pandemic, it was the first dispensary in the country, providing comfort to countless AIDS and cancer patients suffering excruciating pain and debilitating nausea — the side effects of early medications. Since then, 36 states and the District of Columbia have some form of legal cannabis. Nineteen of these states have legalized adult use. 

If the AIDS pandemic gave us a glimpse of cannabis’s irrefutable medical benefits, the coronavirus pandemic provided its legitimacy.

In March of last year, state governments across the U.S. began to shutter businesses in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19. Governors — Democrats and Republicans — in states with medical cannabis programs deemed dispensaries essential and kept them open, just like pharmacies.                          

A few conservative pundits have balked, but the majority of Americans are on board. According to the Pew Research Center, an overwhelming share of U.S. adults say that cannabis should be legal for medical and adult use. From 2000 to 2019, the share of Americans saying cannabis should be legal more than doubled.

Let’s put a human face on this: former House Speaker John Boehner. During his quarter-century in Congress, Boehner was “unalterably opposed” to any form of cannabis legalization. But in 2018, three years after leaving Congress, he joined the board of a cannabis company. Other tie-dye and Birkenstock aficionados followed: former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; former Massachusetts Governor William Weld; retired NATO General Wesley Clark; and former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa are all affiliated with a cannabis enterprise. 

Colleges and universities that a few years ago expelled students for cannabis use now literally teach it. Northern Michigan University and Minot State University (ND) offer a degree in Medicinal Plant Chemistry (aka “Cannabis Science.)” Three other schools offer a minor in Cannabis Studies, while the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy has a Master’s program. Schools ranging from Medgar Evers College to Vanderbilt Law School are (excuse the pun) giving new meaning to “higher learning.”

But nowhere is cannabis’s promise greater — or the change it could forge as impactful — than in social equity, criminal justice, job creation and economic development.

Once considered a direct road to incarceration, especially for people of color, cannabis should be considered a viable path to the middle class. Where it once decimated communities and destroyed families, cannabis can be a reliable generator of tax revenue to fund social and public health programs. Cannabis used to put people in jail. Now it puts people to work.

Legal cannabis has already added about 340,000 new jobs to the nation’s economy, according to New Frontier Data. If cannabis was legal in all 50 states and at the federal level, New Frontier estimates 1.46 million jobs would be created and as much as $175.8 billion in tax revenue could be generated.

As every other indicator moves forward at warp speed, state and local social equity programs, decriminalization efforts and criminal record expungement, and the creation of free and open local markets drag at a snail’s pace. The people who laid the foundation for the legal industry (and went to jail for it) and the communities that were disproportionately (and negatively) impacted by the “war on drugs” will just suffer again. People (predominantly men of color) are confined in overcrowded prisons for doing in the past what corporate cannabis is praised for doing today. Local and state coffers, wiped out by COVID, miss out on tax revenue, job creation and economic development opportunities due to racist local control ordinances, arbitrary license caps and ridiculous “Not-in-my-backyard”-ism. 

Cannabis may be a metaphor for how fast America is changing, but it’s also a warning of how far we have to go and the roadblocks we’ll face along the way.

Bridget Hennessey is a Vice President at Weedmaps, the leading technology provider to the cannabis industry. She heads the company’s Government Relations Department.