Congress has been on a wild ride for the past several months, and its political rollercoaster shows no signs of slowing down. Amid Cabinet confirmations and numerous party-line votes, several items of cannabis legislation have also been brought under consideration. While the House has a checkered past on marijuana-related votes, many cannabis advocates are hoping lawmakers will look kindly on the new Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act.
The bill, which would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, was reintroduced by Colorado Representative Jared Polis on March 30. Polis, who had introduced similar legislation to Congress in 2015, believes that the American people have made their stance on cannabis known, and that it’s time for the Feds to treat the plant and its byproducts as alcohol’s legal equivalents.
The Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act would decriminalize marijuana at the federal level and stipulate that the federal Controlled Substances Act no longer applies to products containing THC. It would also change the jurisdiction of marijuana oversight from the Drug Enforcement Administration to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Furthermore, the new laws would require the U.S. Treasury to establish a permitting system by which the government could collect an annual fee that would offset the cost of overseeing the industry.
One new change to the bill from its last incarnation involves the addition of language specifying how advertising for marijuana and products associated with the substance will be regulated.
In a recent interview with The Cannabist, Polis stressed that the time for an evolved stance on cannabis at the federal level has arrived.
“I think we have a working majority of representatives that believe the federal government needs to get out and allow states to move forward,” he said.
Polis also recently took to the social news aggregator Reddit to answer questions about the bill. In one exchange, a user with the inventive handle iwrotedabible pushed Polis on how closely cannabis would mirror the alcohol market should the legislation prevail, citing concerns about a monopoly in the market.
“I’d urge you to look into the trend of consolidation in beer distributors over the last 10 years and how the craft beer movement has played out in your state and others,” iwrotedabible argued. “There are a lot of lessons to be gleaned about how the end of cannabis prohibition might play out.”
Polis gave a detailed and realistic reply.
“What I mean is that it will play out at the state level, and states will have different laws,” he said. “Some will prohibit vertical integration (grower and dispensary) — others might require it. Some won’t give more than a certain number of permits to a particular company. In some states, like PA, the state actually runs the alcohol stores (weird but true). So the interaction of markets and local regs will determine the outcome, but I think it’s likely a few larger players will emerge.”
To borrow from the world of alcohol and distill this statement, we see that Polis wants to have each state regulate cannabis with the same rules and regulations currently in place for the alcohol industry. That means in a place like Pennsylvania, where state law dictates that only state-owned Fine Wine and Good Spirits stores can sell wine and spirits — and where the prices are thus uniform — one might expect a similar system for cannabis.
For California, however, things would be more complex. California’s alcohol regulations operate on a three-tier system. There are manufacturers (breweries, wineries, and distilleries), distributors (wholesalers and importers), and retailers (stores that sell directly to consumers). Each tier is required to be uniquely licensed, and there are laws in place to discourage a member of one tier from having a significant interest in another.
Extrapolated to cannabis, this means that growers could not run dispensaries, and that distributors could not also grow their own crops. Prevention of vertical integration basically assures that more businesses of a smaller size are able to expand and diversify the marketplace.
While we are still a long ways away from Rep. Polis’s bill becoming reality — the 2015 version was struck down by a vote of 222-206 — the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act does present some very pressing questions about how California and other states will ultimately regulate the imminent arrival of a recreational cannabis industry.