For hundreds of millions of Americans across the country, cannabis is no longer the “reefer madness” street drug it once was.
Much like alcohol before it, the cannabis plant has evolved from a narcotic trafficked across borders and sold on the black market into one of the most sought-after products in legitimate commerce, bought by consumers who seek its medical or therapeutic benefits.
In states where cannabis is legal for recreational or medical use, there are now thousands of cannabis-related businesses that buy and sell goods and services, estimated to be worth over $50 billion nationally. These states have, in the spirit of the American federal system, pursued their own economic and legal experiments, or “laboratories of democracy.” And they have been wildly successful.
A Booming Market
The $1.4 billion in total cannabis sales in the state of Colorado last year and the $266 million in tax revenue point to this. California’s cannabis market is projected to be worth $7.7 billion by 2022.
And yet, though 33 states have some measure of regulated cannabis laws and thousands of employees and consumers, the vast majority of cannabis-related businesses remain unbanked—without bank accounts and dealing only in cash. While nearly one-third of the country’s population lives in a state where cannabis can be purchased legally, the federal government still classifies it as a Schedule 1 narcotic without any medical benefit and with a high potential for abuse.
Risks Facing Entrepreneurs and Workers
If any bank accepts deposits from a firm dealing in cannabis, it risks losing the guarantee on its deposits from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, not to mention their federal banking license and the pressure from the IRS and federal investigators.
That means all businesses in the cannabis space operate in risky territory: The federal government considers them outlaws, banks won’t even touch their money, and they’re forced to deal only in cash. Employees can have their accounts shut down for even receiving a dime from their cannabis employers, and existing dispensaries are always at risk of being raided by law enforcement.
Higher risk means cannabis companies face additional costs. They have to hire security guards for transporting cash and paying local and state taxes, hire additional accountants to understand how to comply with existing rules, and dedicate hours to organizing cash for payroll and business expenses. That ends up raising the cost of the product.
Black market or free market?
For the price-conscious digital millennial who can compare prices at the swipe of a phone, an additional 20 percent markup on legal cannabis is a nudge to revert back to the unregulated black market where cannabis is relatively inexpensive. That not only risks consumer safety, but it also deprives governments and local communities of tax revenue.
At least some lawmakers, however, are voicing this concern and are prepared to act.
On Wednesday, US Rep. Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY) will lead a subcommittee hearing on access to banking services for cannabis-related businesses.
The committee will hear from law enforcement, credit union representatives who have risked accepting cannabis clients, and state administrators who are dealing with their own crises in cannabis banking.
Whether those voices will be enough to push Congress to enact change remains to be seen, but there is at least hope for the thousands of entrepreneurs and consumers who are seeking certainty.
If entrepreneurs in the cannabis industry will be able to access capital and loans similar to firms in practically every other industry, that means they will be able to grow their operations, hire more employees, and make investments—and consumers will be better off for it, not to mention cash-strapped state and local communities.
Whether or not to legalize cannabis is now a foregone conclusion. We’re living in the legalization moment, and Colorado, Washington, Oregon, and other states have opened the door. Now, our country must choose whether or not to embrace the successes of our state “laboratories of democracy,” which have proven that legalization works, and offer solutions to legitimize cannabis.
The next question is whether federal and state jurisdictions will adopt “smart” legalization that encourages markets, competition, safety, and the eradication of the black market. That’s how consumers and entrepreneurs will reap the most benefits and how cannabis can enjoy the mature industry status that alcohol has enjoyed for close to a century since the end of prohibition.