More than 200 million Americans live in states that have legalized medical marijuana. Roughly 80 million of them live where recreational cannabis is legal.

The question now isn’t whether legal marijuana will be widely available but whether the legal market will reach its full potential.

Unfortunately, the contradictions that envelop marijuana policy in the United States are holding it back. Congress must act to sort them out.

The contradictions are on full display in Maine, which voted in 2016 to add an adult-use recreational market to its robust medicinal industry. As the medicinal marijuana market expanded, and now as the state prepares for the launch of the recreational side, entrepreneurs have run into roadblocks that come about because marijuana is not only illegal under federal law but listed alongside heroin as a Schedule 1 drug considered to have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

At the Kennebec Journal’s Central Maine Business Breakfast held last week on Maine’s emerging adult-use market, panelists said the differences in state and federal law have impeded the growth of the industry.

Dennis Wheelock, of Magnusson Balfour Commercial and Business Brokers, said landlords and property owners are confused over their liabilities when dealing with marijuana businesses and their owners, and have at times shied away from working with them. Gene Ardito, CEO of cPort Credit Union, said the credit union has to be diligent when accepting deposits from marijuana-related businesses — and cannot make loans to them at all for fear of running afoul of banking laws.

Likewise, the Portland Press Herald reported last year on the difficulties industry members were having handling large amounts of cash. And NPR reported last year that marijuana businesses were paying exceedingly high effective tax rates because of lack of access to federal business credits.

The workaround proposed in Congress is called the STATES Act. In short, it would allow under federal law the possession, manufacture and sale of marijuana in states where it is legal. It would remove the confusion around lending and allow marijuana-related businesses to interact with employees, vendors and landlords in the same way other industries do.

The STATES Act is likely to pass the U.S. House of Representatives. It would have a good shot in the Senate too, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, seems unwilling to bring it forward.

Congress could also pass the Veterans Equal Access Act, which would expand access to medical marijuana for military veterans, or any of the other bills proposed to eliminate individual problems in cannabis law, such as the ban on federal research.

But the most straightforward way to settle this problem would be to fully legalize marijuana at the federal level, an action that is so popular it would easily pass a national referendum.

Last year, three national surveys from reputable firms found support for legalization above 60 percent nationwide. Work this year by the well-regarded progressive research firm Data for Progress found support for legalization is over 60 percent in every state but one — Mississippi, where it polled at 59 percent — and over 70 percent in 14 states, including Maine.

Nationally legalized marijuana would not only allow cannabis companies to operate like any other business, producing more employment and tax revenue, it would open the way for robust research and development to make products safer and more effective.

For the majority of Americans, legal marijuana of some sort is a fact of life, and it is nearly impossible to see it ever going away. The only question now is whether we are going to make the most of it.


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