The USA is a trailblazer for cannabis reform. Cannabis is recreationally legal in 24 states, and medicinally available in 38 states. With a regularly increasing number of states going legal, what can we expect from the US landscape of cannabis reform to look like in 2024?
The most significant change set to affect US cannabis reform over the next year is the potential for reclassification by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), expected to occur at some point in the next six months.
Despite progressive reforms having occurred across the country, cannabis remains as a Schedule 1 drug in the US. This means it is officially classified as a drug with a high risk of abuse, and no medicinal value. As a result, cannabis research has faced many setbacks, and taxes on the sector have been unsustainable.
However, a recommendation has been placed for cannabis to be moved to Schedule 3. The Biden Administration believes this will have a fundamental impact on the functionality of cannabis on a governmental, social, and economic level. What would a move to schedule 3 look like practically?
Rescheduling cannabis would be vital for supporting small cannabis producers and vendors. Business taxes would be significantly lower if cannabis is placed as a Schedule 3 substance, as distributors of drugs in Schedule 3 are permitted to deduct business expenses such as salaries and benefits. Research in this area would also vastly improve with fewer roadblocks and greater transparency. A move to Schedule 3 would also mean a significant reduction or even removal of possession sentences for cannabis across the US.
Despite this, some are concerned that this change (if approved) will only count as piecemeal towards addressing the systemic state and federal challenges which currently exist.
Some cannabis advocates such as Justin Strekal told Politico that this change would not fundamentally affect the criminalisation of cannabis on a federal level, and could still result in possession charges remaining the same.
Furthermore, there are concerns that this rescheduling process could disproportionately benefit pharmaceutical companies who have the capital to be able to fund this type of research, acting to stifle competition in the cannabis sector.
When speaking to Politico, Howard Sklamberg, a former top official at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), argued that these fears are overblown. On the topic of reclassification, Sklamberg explained that a move from Schedule 1 to 3 would not shift the current FDA and DEA guidelines, and that even if cannabis was declassified altogether, the FDA could not permit a medical cannabis program without the appropriate clinical trials being completed first. Rather, Sklamberg stated that the FDA and DEA consciously choose not to enforce their guidelines currently as a Schedule 1 substance, and finds it illogical that more enforcement would occur under a more lenient classification.
Overall, if this reclassification is approved by the DEA and processed in the right way, it could offer substantial benefits to the cannabis sector. Economic growth in the cannabis industry could boom, research and development on the topic could be clearer, and the governmental terminology around cannabis could finally align with public sentiment. However, we will have to wait and see if this fundamental change for cannabis can be as significant as it has been sold to be.
States to Watch
There are a number of states who are in the process of drafting bills for the legalisation of cannabis to watch out for in 2024.
Florida is set to vote on whether to legalise recreational cannabis in a 2024 ballot on 5 November. Currently permitting medical cannabis, this initiative would allow Floridians to carry up to three ounces of cannabis with up to five grams in concentrate form. If this initiative passes the 60% mark, this could add another significant cannabis market in the US. Polls on this initiative from December last year currently demonstrate around 67% support.
If this initiative passes, the same restrictions on cannabis consumption in places of education, employment and correctional facilities would remain in place due to the Florida Statutes 112.0455 2020, known as the Drug-Free Workplace Act.
As the third largest state by population, legalisation in Florida would likely provide an exponential boost in income to the cannabis sector, which could build further support for legalisation among other states.
Another state which is in the process of drafting cannabis legislation is Hawaii. Despite personally opposing cannabis legalisation for recreational use, attorney general Anne Lopez sent a revised bill to Hawaii lawmakers pertaining to the legalisation of cannabis in Hawaii on 5th January.
As it stands, the bill would allow medical dispensaries in Hawaii to become recreational stores with a 10% sales tax and 10% excise tax, as well as legalising possession of up to one ounce along with permitting home grows.
This bill focuses on how to implement a legal cannabis market to Hawaii with a framework centralised around maintaining public safety. Despite opposing the proposal, Lopez stated she would remain neutral on the issue providing the caveats outlined in this bill were implemented.
When speaking of her opinion on the matter, Lopez stated “I’ve changed our position from opposition to ‘that train has left the station’”, arguing that public sentiment has changed in recent years and that legislation needs to reflect these shifts.
Law enforcement officials worked with Lopez’ team on this bill collaboratively to mitigate as many of their concerns as possible in a pragmatic and balanced way.
While many approve of this bill, some advocates want to see more reforms aiming to provide relief to those who have faced criminalisation over cannabis related activity.
Legalisation advocates in South Dakota have faced a number of challenges over the years. In 2020, South Dakota voted 52-48 in favour of permitting medical and recreational use of cannabis, however the adult-use aspect of this bill was overthrown by Republican governor Kristi Noem. In 2022, a similar initiative failed. Activists are currently working to gather signatures for another legalisation initiative to be placed on the 2024 ballot.
Another state which has had a difficult time cannabis legalisation is Pennsylvania. Even though the governor and many senators support cannabis legalisation, opposition by republicans and lack of uniformity by democrats has acted to stifle efforts to legalise cannabis in the state.
However, it is possible 2024 could be the year that the stalemate is broken and comprehensive legislation could be enacted to change the current situation in Pennsylvania.
Medicinal Cannabis Outlook
There are also a number of states that have either enacted medicinal cannabis or face the prospect of imminent votes on medicinal cannabis in 2024.
Although Idaho currently enforces some of the most punitive sentences related to cannabis possession in the US, activists with the medical cannabis consortium Kind Idaho have until April to gather 63,000 signatures on a medical cannabis legalisation initiative. If these signatures are gathered in time, this initiative will be eligible to be voted on the 2024 ballot.
This initiative seeks to provide medical cannabis prescriptions for a range of qualifying conditions. If this passes, card holders will be allowed to possess up to four ounces or grow their own cannabis. A 4% excise tax would be enacted as part of this initiative.
Kentucky became the 38th state to allow medicinal cannabis to be provided to those with cannabis licences. This was passed last March as part of a bill drafted by Andy Beshear. While the program is being set up this year, the program will not officially launch until the first of January 2025.
Advocates in Nebraska have until July to obtain 87,000 signatures on another medicinal cannabis initiative. This proposal is broken into two parts; one of which focuses on providing legal protections for cannabis patients, while the other focuses on ensuring the government in Nebraska to set forward regulations for a medical cannabis program.
As is to be expected, the US is continuing to pave the way for further cannabis reform. All being well, by the end of this year we could see over half of US states with a legal recreational market and nearly all with medical cannabis available. At Volteface we’ll be keeping a close eye on developments and reporting on how these reforms could impact further movement in Europe.
This piece was written by Oliver Callaghan, Intern at Volteface. X @Oliver1331556