I evolved on cannabis — Congress should, too
When I entered the halls of Congress for the first time in 1979, the idea of legislating cannabis was not only off the table; it was nowhere near it. Like most Americans at the time, my understanding of cannabis was informed by the perspective that fighting drug use was best done through stringent legal penalties and educational programs designed to advance sobriety and abstinence. Additionally, little information was known in those days regarding the long-term impacts or uses of the substance. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the movement to legalize cannabis at the state level gained any traction — and, even still, virtually no one was embracing cannabis at the federal level. But that was then.
Today, more than 100 million Americans live in a state with legal or medical access to cannabis and cannabis products. As of 2020, the cannabis industry was worth $61 billion, which is expected to grow. The cannabis industry is creating an average of 280 new jobs per day, and states like Arizona and Illinois are seeing their annual tax revenues from cannabis top $1 billion. Recent polling by the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR) shows overwhelming bipartisan support for ending the federal prohibition on cannabis, with 70 percent of voters in favor of ending federal prohibition.
I’m not going to deny that it took time for me to understand the rapidly changing views surrounding cannabis and the growing support for its legalization. I’ve had to ask serious questions of industry experts: What are the long-term effects on the brain? How do we prevent youth access? What about driving while high? The more I reviewed the data and talked to scientists, policy experts, activists, and business owners; it became clear to me that the cannabis movement is here, and policymakers must get cannabis regulation right.
This does not mean legalizing cannabis in all 50 states through federal legislation. Cannabis legalization is happening at the state level, as it should. The same CPEAR poll I referenced above found that 67 percent of voters nationwide support allowing individual states to decide whether cannabis will be legal in their state. However, as more and more states decide to give their citizens access to medical and adult-use cannabis, a research-based, equitable, and comprehensive national framework for cannabis reform is needed to standardize approaches to key issues.
From a public health perspective — a regulatory framework is crucial. First and foremost, a federal regulatory system must protect our children. Local communities should be at the core of any effort to reduce youth use of cannabis. These efforts include strict federal, state, and local oversight to ensure that licensed cannabis companies only sell to those 21 and older. The federal government should also use cannabis tax resources to deliver after-school programs comprised of measurable targets on a timely basis. If we do this right, and I believe we can, federal regulation should decrease youth use.
We also owe it to America’s greatest generation. Veterans have long advocated for cannabis to alleviate pain and address PTSD. To date, the federal government has either ignored these pleas, or pointed to a lack of research as a reason to deny access for veterans. The latter of these arguments is even more frustrating since the federal government has made the research so difficult. The federal government owes the veteran community both access to cannabis and rigorous research into its potential benefits and harms for medicinal use.
I am not alone in recognizing the benefits of a federal regulatory framework for cannabis. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), along with Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), have introduced a cannabis reform bill, the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act (CAOA), which is a solution to many of our existing cannabis problems. Additionally, Congress is currently debating the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement Act (MORE), which addresses the federal government’s appropriate role to ensure the cannabis marketplace is governed and led by an evidence-based regulatory framework that safeguards public health, consumer safety and youth access prevention. There are many competing priorities to juggle this year, but we need to establish a safe and equitable American cannabis industry. Comprehensive solutions are required.
As a Democrat from a rural and conservative state like South Dakota, I understand the hesitation of some elected officials to engage on this issue, and I’ve walked in their shoes. However, the evidence exists — and more data reveals itself to us daily. We are at a crossroads, and it’s up to Congress to get cannabis reform right.
Former U.S. Senator Thomas Daschle served as the Senate Majority Leader from 2001 to 2003, while representing the state of South Dakota. Today, he serves as co-chair for the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation.