The End is Nigh for Federal Prohibition

MG End is Nigh
MG End is Nigh

According to capital insiders, the beginning of the end of prohibition has already begun.

Colorado recently reported nearly $1 billion in marijuana sales during 2015. Cultivation and retail sectors grew by more than 160 percent year over year, according to analysts at Viridian Capital Advisors LLC. The 38 companies Viridian tracks completed 141 funding initiatives totaling nearly $400 million.

Clearly, the surge of growth and investment in the cannabis industry during 2015 matched or exceeded the green-rush hype started in 2014. Viridian advisors predict more changes will come in 2016.

When will federal cannabis prohibition end?
Predictions are complicated by social, legislative, and economic variables.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) gave his take on the answer during the opening session at the International Drug Policy Reform conference in November.

Since 2013, Blumenauer has introduced or cosponsored eleven marijuana bills, including the Medical Marijuana Patient Protection Act he cosponsored with California Republican Dana Rohrabacher.

During Blumenauer’s remarks at the conference, he outlined the progress of marijuana legalization so far and where the process may go from here. “There were thirteen amendments approved in Congress or in committee in the last two years, moving forward marijuana reform,” he said. “There is a working group of Republicans and Democrats that have introduced sixteen pieces of legislation.”

The time is now, he added, to reform marijuana laws. “In five years we will turn this issue back to states to deal with as they see fit, like alcohol,” he said.

During a separate phone interview, Rohrabacher said pro-marijuana legislators in Congress have made dramatic progress in the past few years because they combined the fight for marijuana freedom with the concept of states’ rights and the Founding Fathers’ apparent desire to have criminal justice handled at the state and local levels. “By coupling that, we have made huge progress that we never made before, because we finally got enough Republicans who were willing to permit the state to decide their own criminal justice laws concerning the consumption of marijuana,” he said. “And we even started out with a lower threshold than that: Let the states decide for medical purposes.”

Rohrabacher said marijuana legislation moved forward between 2013 and 2015 because Speaker of the House John Boehner did not oppose pro-marijuana legislators’ efforts. “I am not saying Boehner supported [marijuana legalization],” Rohrabacher said. “But Boehner stepped aside, at the very least, which worked to actually support it in a way.”

Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), who replaced Boehner in October, has not indicated whether he believes Rohrabacher’s support for marijuana-legalization efforts is off-base. “That is a good sign,” he Rohrabacher said. “If [Ryan] wanted to exercise restraint on our ability to achieve the goal, he would let us know. He would let me know. But I have not been notified that he is

going to put any roadblocks in the way of at least keeping what we have already obtained, which is medical marijuana at the state level.”

Recently, the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment, which prohibits federal funding for prosecution of medical marijuana cases in states where cannabis is legal, remained in the omnibus spending bill. Omission of the provision would have been an ominous sign for the future of marijuana legalization, according to Rohrabacher.

The Department of Justice is ignoring the amendment, according to Bill Piper, senior director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “There are a couple of court cases pending over it,” he said. “But the DOJ claims that doesn’t stop them from prosecuting people.”

This is the second consecutive year during which a Republican congress has included the amendment in a spending bill, and that is a good sign, Piper said. “Once things like this are included in bills, they become really routine,” he explained. “So, it would be hard for opponents to take it out.”

He also said a couple of amendments that passed the House or the Senate Appropriations Committee—or both—didn’t make it into the final spending bill. “Banking was one of them, which came close,” Piper said. “So, I think there is a really good chance that the banking issue is going to be resolved in 2016.” Even if the banking industry won an amendment that would soften federal restrictions, banks probably wouldn’t feel comfortable about working with the cannabis business, he added.

Rohrabacher said he will introduce a bill this year that would legalize marijuana for recreational use but let states determine whether to embrace the legislation. “If we can get that passed, that would be a real landmark,” he said. “But I am not resting assured that that is going to happen. I would not be surprised if we totally failed. [Approval is] going to be dependent on people calling their congressmen and their senators and getting Congress working on it.”

Rohrabacher was not optimistic when asked to predict how soon recreational marijuana use might be legalized nationwide. “For the whole country? Never,” he said. “I would say that in four years to six years from now, if we keep up the momentum, we could expect a majority of states legalizing. But it will never be passed in Congress and signed into law that marijuana is now legal across the country.”

Piper said he thinks the movement to legalize marijuana will gain even more momentum, especially in light of recent support from two notoriously conservative southern states: Texas and Louisiana. “I think we will see legalization in most places within a decade, and it’s all going to come down pretty quickly,” he said. “But the first step is letting states set their own policy without federal interference, and we are almost there. Then, at some point Congress will want to license what is going on at the state level and get their hands on it for the tax revenue.”