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Why federal regulation is the solution to the U.S. cannabis puzzle

Cannabis legalization is already happening, but federal action has been absent

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National prohibition policies have led to detrimental consequences, such as increased crime rates and heightened violence.

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By Andrew Freedman

With a growing number of states legalizing both medical and recreational cannabis, the industry has experienced explosive growth. Currently, more than two-thirds of U.S. states have legalized medical cannabis and 23 states have fully embraced adult-use recreational legalization despite federal prohibition laws.

National prohibition policies, however, have led to detrimental consequences, such as increased crime rates, heightened violence, the emergence of underground markets, unregulated products and sustained demand for the prohibited substance. This viewpoint is widely shared among experts in criminology, criminal justice and drug policy, who overwhelmingly describe the war on drugs, especially regarding cannabis, as a “resounding failure.”

When we weigh the drawbacks of cannabis prohibition against any potential benefits, the former significantly outweighs the latter across various metrics. Instead of perpetuating policies that have contributed to strained police-community relations, a more intelligent approach would involve enacting federal legislation to legalize and effectively regulate cannabis. This shift in strategy could disrupt illegal drug markets significantly, given that cannabis is the most extensively grown, trafficked and consumed illicit substance globally.

Moreover, federal reform is essential to curbing violence and enhancing public safety, not to mention reducing negative interactions between law enforcement and citizens. It could lead to greater police legitimacy, the restoration of positive police-community partnerships and the reallocation of resources to address the recent surge in homicides. Regardless of one’s personal or moral stance on the matter, the federal prohibition of cannabis is fundamentally flawed as a public policy.

Combating the illicit cannabis market through federal reform

It is imperative to gain a comprehensive understanding of the intricate factors contributing to the persistent existence of the illicit cannabis market. This issue is primarily driven by two key determinants:

  1. Economic factors, including consumer behavior, demand dynamics and market conditions.
  2. The influence of public policy, or in some cases, the lack thereof.

The federal government’s inaction on cannabis-related matters has resulted in a fragmented and inconsistent patchwork of cannabis laws throughout the nation, significantly contributing to the persistence of the illicit cannabis market.

Given the ongoing trend toward cannabis legalization across the country, evolving political dynamics and recent guidance from the Biden administration, it is clear that a paradigm shift in federal cannabis reform is on the horizon. Federal policy changes will not only usher in a new era of cannabis legality but also establish a foundation for more coherent regulatory standards, including the development of a national DUI standard and preventing youth access/use. Moreover, federal reform holds the potential to introduce novel strategies and tools for combating the illicit market.

As we embrace a forthcoming era of federal cannabis reform, lawmakers must confront the enduring illegal cannabis market with a comprehensive strategy. Through the judicious adoption of specific policy recommendations, we can establish a cohesive approach that integrates regulation, enforcement, and financial support to systematically dismantle the illegal cannabis trade. The time has come to transition away from the era of prohibition and welcome a fresh era characterized by responsible and lawful cannabis use in the United States.

Who is CPEAR?

The primary goal of the Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education and Regulation (CPEAR) is to promote a comprehensive federal regulatory framework for cannabis. This coalition comprises members from regulated industries, academics, think tanks, public safety officials, medical and mental health professionals, financial services firms and social equity organizations. Collectively, the group is dedicated to formulating policies and fostering a national dialogue on the federal oversight of cannabis. Together, CPEAR endeavors to serve as a reliable, evidence-based resource for lawmakers and the broader stakeholder community, aiming to collaboratively craft responsible policies that grant access to cannabis while safeguarding consumers and patients, preventing underage use, and upholding public health and safety.

About the author
CPEAR Executive Director Andrew Freedman made history in 2014 when then-Governor John Hickenlooper tapped him to become Colorado’s cannabis czar, in charge of implementing the world’s first adult-use cannabis market. Since then, he has advised 17 different governments in establishing their cannabis regulatory frameworks.