Federal Marijuana Legalization: When Will it Happen?

When will marijuana be federally legal? Looking ahead, we examine what it will take to get marijuana legalization at the highest level, ending cannabis prohibition once and for all.

There is no denying that marijuana is in the midst of a resurgence. As of today, cannabis is legal for recreational use by adults in 11 states, plus the District of Columbia, and legal for medical use in 33 states. By the end of 2020, that number could rise. Despite ongoing federal prohibition, it’s evident that cannabis legalization is an important issue in the United States.

Even with all the support for cannabis, the main questions remain:

  • What’s it going to take to legalize marijuana in the U.S. at the federal level?
  • When will full marijuana legalization happen?

In 2018, researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the Santa Fe Institute forecasted federal legalization based on data from states that already have legalized cannabis. The researchers compiled a data set based on the trajectories of 170 other policies that started at the state level and eventually became federal law.

The outcome linked to the data was a strong likelihood of federal marijuana legalization “by the end of 2022.” It also showed the probability that federal cannabis legalization will happen after 2028, which was lower than 30 percent.

What would need to happen before 2022 to push cannabis legalization forward?

Steps to Legalize Marijuana

Before we dive in, a refresher on what would need to happen for marijuana to be legal in the U.S. at the federal level.

In general, there are two paths to legalize marijuana under federal law:

The first way? Legalization it through Congress. A marijuana legalization bill would first need to be introduced by a U.S. senator or a representative, then approved by a committee before members of the House and Senate agree on the same version of the final bill. Finally, the president must sign the bill, or they can choose no action and allow the bill to become law automatically.

A second option for marijuana legalization would be to reschedule or deschedule marijuana and THC under the U.S. Controlled Substances Act through an administrative path kicked off by a Presidental Executive Order or a petition filed by an outside interested party to the U.S. Attorney General. In this situation, the Attorney General would make a request for an independent review from the Health and Human Services Secretary and then determine whether there is enough evidence for a change.

Now that we have that down, let’s take a look at three scenarios that could eventually bring about an end to federal cannabis prohibition.

A New Commander in Chief

The fastest and most likely way to gain full marijuana legalization and decriminalization in the U.S. is to elect a president that strongly supports major reform.

The president drives the agenda for its administration and conveys to Congress their priorities. A commander in chief who actively pushes Congress to finally act on cannabis would go a long way in the push for legalization.

Each remaining candidate, both Republican and Democrat, running against President Donald Trump in the 2020 election, with one exception, has voiced support for federal cannabis legalization.

After Super Tuesday, two Democratic candidates have been placed in the top spots, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. Former Vice President Biden has made comments speculating the theory that marijuana could be a gateway drug.

In November, Biden commented that he wanted to deschedule cannabis from a Schedule I substance to a Schedule III substance in order to do more scientific investigation.

“Nationally I’m not prepared to push for the legalization,” Biden stated. “Medical marijuana, yes, but the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in fact is one that I need more data to make that judgment.”

While Biden has been wary of supporting recreational cannabis, Sanders (D-VT) has had no problem speaking up on the issue. In October, he tweeted, “Today, the government considers marijuana as dangerous as heroin. That’s idiotic.”

Sanders has vowed to legalize cannabis in his first 100 days if elected president. He went a step further to pledge to protect the industry from Big Tobacco. His plan consists of issuing an executive order to declassify marijuana as a controlled substance and expunging and vacating past marijuana-related convictions.

If Trump is re-elected for another term, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for marijuana legalization to take place on the federal level. However, most cannabis advocates will not be holding their breaths.

His public comments as of late have not matched with his previous pledge to leave marijuana legalization to states. Recent statements from Trump have left the public to wonder if current marijuana state protections are under attack.

Keep in mind that our federalist system of government wouldn’t allow a president to sign an executive order to immediately legalize marijuana throughout the country. A president could use an executive order to launch an administrative process to legalize marijuana in the U.S., but even then would face a long, bureaucratic process. Still, having a president that supports major cannabis reform is crucial for federal marijuana legalization to become the new law of the land.

So who should you vote for if you support What does your candidate have to say when it comes to cannabis legalization? Take a look at our 2020 Presidential Candidates on Marijuana page to learn more.

Politicians Under Pressure

In the midst of a divided political landscape, one issue has gained support from a supermajority of Americans– cannabis should be legal in the U.S. Over the last decade, support for cannabis has grown and gained enough bipartisan support that nearly two out of three Americans now endorse full legalization for marijuana.

The latest public opinion polls all consistently show that Americans across the country want cannabis legalization. In 2019, a POLITICO/Harvard poll found that the majority (62 percent) of Americans favor legalizing marijuana for recreational use by adults nationally.

That data suggests a big turn around over the last decade. The same poll showed only 44 percent of Americans thought legalization was a good idea in 2009. The pattern of public opinion shift has been identified in other public opinion surveys.

A 2019 Cato Institute survey found strong support for cannabis decriminalization. The poll revealed that 55 percent of Americans are in favor of decriminalizing cannabis, while 44 percent oppose it. Gallup, as well as Pew Research polls, have documented a sharp increase in the percentage of Americans favoring legal marijuana in the past decade.

Pew recorded a record high percentage (62 percent) of support in 2018, doubling from the 31 percent of adults that supported marijuana legalization in 2000. Gallup polls have shown an increase in cannabis legalization support from 44 percent in 2009 to 64 percent in the 2019 survey, including a record-breaking year with 66 percent support in 2018 update.

In 1969, the first time Gallup polled on the issue, just 12 percent of Americans were in favor of legalizing marijuana. The latest Gallup poll identified the subgroups who by majority do not favor legalization. They are people who attend weekly religious services, people aged 65 and older, and those who identify with the political ideology of a “conservative.”

All of this polling data makes one thing clear: Americans are ready for marijuana legalization. The question that remains is whether federal lawmakers will move forward according to the will of the people.

Unfortunately, the makeup of Congress, as it stands now, does not appear to provide a clear path to legalization.

The single biggest hurdle viewed by many for federal marijuana legalization is Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who happens to represent all those previously mentioned subgroups that oppose reform. In 2019, two promising cannabis bills (SAFE and MORE Acts) passed through the House only to be left out in the cold by McConnell’s Senate.

While conservatives rule the Senate, it will be challenging to find a way to advance cannabis reform legislation. However, there is power in public opinion. When it comes to policy change, there is no better way of showing public opinion than at the ballot box.

If McConnell, touted as the most powerful senator in Washington, loses his seat in the upcoming 2020 Kentucky Senate race and enough Democrats in Senate place a focus on cannabis, reform legislation has a much better chance.

According to Newsweek, a July 2019 survey showed McConnell ahead of McGrath by just one point in a head-to-head match. The poll, which was conducted by AARP, favored McConnell with 47 percent support, compared with McGrath’s 46 percent.

Money, Money, Money

Nothing drives American politics like money. There’s no question that the cannabis industry has a lot of money to offer. The fast-expansion of cannabis legalization at the state level has created a billion-dollar industry in the U.S.

Before 2030, America’s legal marijuana industry could be worth as much as $47 billion. In 2019 alone, legal U.S. medical cannabis sales reached $6 billion and legal recreational cannabis sales reached $7.6 billion, according to New Frontier Data.

If the federal government want to get in on the earning, they need to take action. One logical way to get federal action moving for marijuana is by pushing it through with bills highlighting protection for financial institutions and cannabis businesses.

Banks are resistant to servicing cannabis businesses because of fear of retribution from federal authorities due to marijuana’s classification under federal law, forcing businesses to operate on a cash-only basis.

The Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking (SAFE) Act, or H.R. 1595, had strong support in the House, passing with a 321-103 vote. The bill was supported by the American Bankers Association, who highlighted a report showing the federal government would save $4 million in ten years if it legalized cannabis.

Advocates of the Safe Banking Act argued that forcing businesses to operate without banking service raises public safety risks and reduces transparency. The legislation gained momentum from a long list of financial institutions, including endorsements from the National Association of Attorney Generals and National Association of State Treasurers.

All 50 state banking associations urged Congress to pass the marijuana financial services bill. In the House, 91 Republicans voted in support of the measure. The chances that a similar bill or updated version of the bill will reappear is likely, as long as the financial institutions continue to support cannabis reform.

Senate Banking Chair Michael Crapo (R-ID) has voiced support for the bill if some revisions are made. The concerns Crapo stated he felt about the SAFE Banking Act had to do with THC potency. He also requested public feedback on the issue.

While Crapo’s conservative views on marijuana policy are unlikely to change, introducing a bill with support from the Senate Banking Chair would be a major step towards cannabis legalization. It also would increase the likelihood of approval on the Senate floor.

So When?

So when will marijuana be legal federally? With all the aforementioned moving parts, it’s impossible to say exactly.

It’s clear that a majority of Americans want marijuana legalization, but it will require cannabis-supporting lawmakers inserted into leadership roles for them to truly lead the charge on the federal legalization of marijuana. With voters considering several issues when they make their decisions at the ballot box, there is no saying when legalization could see its day.

However, as public opinion continues to shift toward cannabis acceptance and the legal market’s value continues to grow, powerful lawmakers in Congress and current and future presidents who may now opposed or hesitant to move on reform could also become more motivated to push for change.