States are leading the way in cannabis policy innovation

Wednesday, September 21, 2022
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Jason Ellsworth Senator District 5

Innovation in public policy has always started at the state level. For example, voting rights for women and minorities were state reforms before being adopted nationally. That’s how the United States was set up to function, with states serving as the “laboratories of democracy” to experiment with public policy and let the best ideas emerge from the bottom up.

That system has served the United States very well over our history, but it can create challenges when policies between states start to vary widely or when some states move faster than the federal government.

This is happening today with cannabis policy. More than two-thirds of the states have liberalized their cannabis laws in response to changing public attitudes, but a cloud of uncertainty exists over the entire industry because federal policy has been slow to change.

Fortunately, state policy innovation on cannabis has taught us a lot about what works and what doesn’t. Laws have been developed to prevent impaired driving and youth access to cannabis and states have learned how to regulate and tax the industry effectively.

Perhaps most importantly, we’ve learned a lot about the economics of the industry. It’s created jobs, investment, and growth. In Montana, thousands of jobs were created after adult use was legalized in 2020. This year cannabis tax collections are more than double what was estimated in our state budget in 2021, contributing to a revenue surplus.

Even with the successful growth we’ve seen in the industry, Montana policymakers are taking an appropriately measured approach to make sure we get it right. That’s why we recently put forward legislation to extend a moratorium on new cannabis sellers for two more years as a way to make sure we get our regulatory structure set up correctly.

The innovation in cannabis policy we’ve seen in states is a direct result of a 180-degree shift in public opinion in the last decade. In 2010, a majority of Americans opposed legalization. Today, 70% of voters support federal cannabis reform to end the federal prohibition on cannabis for adult-use. No longer does this issue fall along partisan political lines, with now nearly 60% of Republicans and 70% of Independents supporting legalization. That shift in public opinion has led to a wave of legalization, with 37 states now having some form of legal cannabis market.

It’s clearly time for federal policy to catch up with the states. Currently, cannabis possession is a federal crime, even in a state where cannabis is legal. This makes it difficult for cannabis-related businesses to access banking and financing, which restricts growth opportunities.

But recently we’re starting to see movement in Congress to begin aligning federal policy with what has already happened at the state level. The House and Senate have each passed cannabis research legislation, that will hopefully be sent to the President soon. Additionally, the House National Defense Authorization Act for next year includes cannabis-related amendments to help veterans receive access in states where cannabis is legal.

Further reforms feel inevitable. We have a long history of federal regulation of substances like alcohol, tobacco, and prescription drugs. It seems reasonable that medical and adult-use cannabis should have similar standards to protect public health and safety.

While I am not an advocate for adult use, I do respect the will of the voters. It should always be up to the voters in a state to decide basic questions about cannabis legalization within their borders. Despite the federal prohibition on cannabis, voters in most states have already made their wishes clear. It’s time for federal policy to reflect the lessons learned in our “laboratories of democracy.”

(Senator Jason Ellsworth represents Senate District 5 in the Bitterroot. He serves as chairman of the legislature’s Select Committee on Marijuana Law, and is a member of the Senate Business, Labor and Economic Affairs Committee.)

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