Things change so fast in the cannabis industry that a year can easily feel like a decade—and 2021 surely did. Laws have been evolving, businesses are growing, and people’s perception of cannabis is shifting at a frantic pace. People are watching dollar signs stacking up in legal marijuana markets, and regardless of whether or not they use it, that speaks volumes to corporate investors—who then speak to our politicians.
And yet still, federal legalization, decriminalization, or any other form of legislation concerning cannabis still seems a long way off. Even though over 60 percent of Americans believe that it should be recreationally and medically legal, and even though President Joe Biden promised on the campaign trail that he would be removing cannabis from the list of federally controlled Schedule I substances, the prohibition persists.
Despite a lack of federal progress on that front, advances are being made at state and local levels on cannabis legalization. A lot of states took steps towards legalization in 2021, businesses changed their policies surrounding cannabis, and (while they may not have gone anywhere) there are currently a handful of federal bills on Capitol Hill aimed at ending some aspect of prohibition or another, like the SAFE Banking Act, the MORE Act, and several others.
“I think the industry is accelerating,” Nick Richards, a partner at Greenspoon Marder and board member of Colorado’s Cannabis Certification Council, says. One way or another, “legalization is going to happen,” he says.
In February, New Jersey decriminalized cannabis and legalized adult use. New York state followed suit in March, then Connecticut in June, and finally, in July, Virginia became the first southern state to legalize adult-use cannabis. However, those states won’t actually start selling legal cannabis until at least next year—potentially as far out as 2024 for Virginia.
Still, that represents important progress for the industry at large, according to Richards.
“The industry is becoming much better represented across the country,” he says. “That was a big piece of what happened this year.”
The trend will likely continue into next year, he thinks. New Jersey’s legalization is expected to pressure Pennsylvania to let its voters decide for themselves, and Virginia could help do something similar for Maryland. Then Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and Ohio all have some cannabis initiative on their ballots for 2022.
There was also a shift in the corporate world this year, as Richards points out. In June, when Amazon changed its employee policy, ending drug testing and throwing its support behind the Marijuana Opportunity and Reinvestment (MORE) Act, the levee shook. Some of the biggest stocks in the cannabis industry—like Tilray (NASDAQ:TLRY), Aurora Cannabis (NASDAQ:ACB) and Cronos Group Inc. (NASDAQ:CRON)—surged in response. The very next month, in July, Apple ended its ban on marijuana-related apps on its app store.
Political support from both the House and the Senate grew in 2021 too. The Veterans Medical Marijuana Safe Harbor Act made history as the first Republican-introduced cannabis legislation. And in July, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced their own sweeping, wish-list cannabis equity bill to “remove federal penalties on cannabis, expunge nonviolent federal cannabis-related criminal records and let states decide if or how to legalize cannabis.”
While that legislation could be significant if implemented, it’s still just a discussion draft at this point, and has yet to actually be formally introduced.
“The discussion of social equity [including] the social equity program that was rolled out here in Colorado, I think is a big, positive thing for the industry,” Richards says, referencing a bill passed in Colorado in 2020, known as the Social Equity Licensees In Regulated Marijuana Act (HB20-1424).
“Social equity is going to continue to be an important part in the conversation for the cannabis industry,” Richards says.
The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act made its fifth unsuccessful pass through the House and onto the Senate this year, which isn’t such a bad thing, according to Richards.
“I think a lot of people in the industry would say that there’s a lot of other things that are more important than banking,” he says. “It would seem that if we solve banking there would be a lot less incentive to legalize [cannabis] completely.”
On a more local level, in Colorado a controversial bill limiting cannabis potency, sponsored by Representatives Yadira Caravero and Alec Garnett, passed in June. HB21-1317, caps the potency for commercial cannabis concentrates at 15 percent THC, and limits the quantity of concentrates Colorado adults are allowed to purchase at once, for either medical or recreational purposes.
While the passage of HB21-1317 was largely seen as a step backwards for Colorado’s cannabis industry, it wasn’t all bad news this year for state cannabis legislation. In September, Colorado shot down Proposition 119, which would have added a 5 percent sales tax to cannabis and pulled tens of millions of dollars from the state’s public land trust for private for-profit education providers (“Vote Guide,” 10/7/21). Colorado’s cannabis industry opposed the bill, as did 54.49 percent of Colorado’s voters.
There’s a lot on the table concerning cannabis going into 2022—on state, local, national, and even global levels, as Germany prepares to legalize recreational cannabis use. But the question in the U.S. remains: Will America’s prohibition of cannabis finally come to an end in 2022? Or at the very least, before Joe Biden’s term is over?
“I have my doubts,” Richards says. While he’s optimistic that legalization is an inevitability, he says he isn’t convinced that it’s a priority for this administration. “The party in charge can’t even get their budget passed,” he points out. “So it feels like it’s pretty far down on their list of to-dos.”