Cannabis law reform had a record-breaking year in 2019. More than half of state legislatures considered legalizing marijuana. Just one managed to legalize recreational use, but dozens of other states now have marijuana law reform on their radar. That includes many states with Republican-controlled legislatures, such as Tennessee and Virginia.
Democrat-controlled states also made moves toward marijuana legalization. New Mexico didn’t legalize, but it did pass a law decriminalizing cannabis. Some states moved to expunge criminal records for those convicted of cannabis-related offenses.
Perhaps even more important, marijuana law reform finally reached the federal level. In October, the House of Representatives passed the SAFE Banking Act, which could allow banks to take on cannabis businesses as clients. In November, the House Judiciary Committee voted to pass the The Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement (MORE) Act. The Act would deschedule cannabis and allow states to set their own policies.
In light of all this, the question most people are asking right now is, when will legalization happen at the federal level? Fewer people are looking beyond that roadblock and asking, what happens after we legalize cannabis nationwide?
We don’t have a crystal ball, but we do have a few educated guesses about what the cannabis industry can expect when federal legalization finally does happen.
The Cannabis Crackdown: State Examples
Most people think federal legalization will bring an end to the anxiety that’s so common in the industry today. As a grower, you won’t need to worry about the feds seizing your crops, for example.
Unfortunately cannabis growers and producers might find themselves contending with a whole new set of shutdown worries. These will stem directly from stricter rules about handling and distributing products.
Examples of this already exist at the state level. When cannabis was legalized in Oregon, many smaller producers quickly went under. New state laws introduced new responsibilities and obligations, which created all sorts of barriers for smaller businesses.
In some states, growers were required to pave the laneway that led to their cannabis fields. Many growers have long laneways, sometimes extending miles to the middle of nowhere to protect crops. Paving the laneway is still an expensive proposition for large producers, but for smaller operations, it could prove to be the death knell.
Canada provides another example of how the rules can be tightened up once federal regulation is in play. Canada’s Cannabis Act legalizes cannabis, but it can only be distributed through certain channels, which are approved by the provinces. In some places, you can only buy cannabis at government-owned and -operated stores.
Child-Proofing the Industry
Another step the federal government will likely take is making stricter cannabis laws to protect children. One of the major concerns anti-legalization groups have is keeping America’s kids safe from cannabis advertising.
It’s a legitimate concern in many ways. Kids are more likely to be influenced by advertising, and researchers aren’t sure what cannabis does to still-developing minds. Cannabis growers, producers, and distributors want to be sure they’re keeping their products out of the hands of children anyway.
But the federal stance will likely go beyond what you might be envisioning. For example, concerns about kids mistaking cannabis edibles for candy could lead to bans on products that resemble gummy bears or similar treats. Advertising may be curtailed. There could be restrictions on the design of packaging and labeling for all cannabis products.
Again, you just have to look north of the border to see this in action. In Canada, the media reported several stories about children taking “special” cookies or cannabis gummies to school. Some parents and child advocacy groups called for strong protections.
The result? Some of the most restrictive advertising laws, which are modeled on how companies can advertise alcohol and tobacco products in Canada. Health Canada, the Canadian equivalent to the FDA, introduced their packaging guidelines, and people were dismayed by the bland and boring appearance of labels and packaging.
It’s hard to say what federal legalization would do to the regulations already facing cannabis companies. At the moment, each state has their own rules. Federal legalization may create new obligations and restrictions.
Descheduling and leaving cannabis regulation to individual states is another possible route. This could also create challenges for cannabis companies, as there may be a hodge-podge of different restrictions, rules, and guidelines for packaging.
Given the unsettled state of cannabis law across the nation, cannabis companies will need to stay on their toes. It may be possible to sticker over some packaging in order to meet new requirements, but it’s likely wise to anticipate change. Short-run packaging solutions will allow those in the industry to respond to change faster.
Get Ahead of the Curve
Although momentum is building for federal legalization, it hasn’t happened yet. Why worry about what federal law will look like, especially when it’s on a longer timeline? Some advocates feel everyone will get their say as the law is crafted. The FDA’s request for submissions on CBD is one step in the right direction.
Savvy cannabis industry insiders know why it’s important to have these predictions in hand now. With them, you can take now steps to build your brand,differentiate your products and be mindful of possible new regulations, before bland packaging makes all cannabis products on the shelf look the same.
Taking steps to build a robust branding and marketing strategy now will also help you be more agile in the future. When federal cannabis legalization does arrive, you’ll be more than ready to embrace it and grow. Need help developing your brand or marketing strategy? Get in touch with a team of marketing experts to get ahead of the curve.