As Congress Launches A Dialogue On Marijuana Policy, Tech’s Experience Can Educate Policymakers

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In May, I joined more than 200 other cannabis industry leaders in Washington, where I had the opportunity to talk firsthand with our elected representatives and hear their views and perspectives on marijuana policy. I enjoyed the opportunity to discuss policy and educate the members of Congress on the details of marijuana regulation, and the progress that has been made.

Education is the perfect word to describe my day on Capitol Hill, and I went home realizing that education now is more important than ever.

Last month, Senators Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) introduced the STATES Act, a bipartisan bill that threads the narrow needle between federal marijuana policy and the more liberal state laws by emphasizing states’ rights. When the bill, S. 3032, was introduced, it had six original cosponsors – three Democrats and three Republicans – further demonstrating its bipartisan appeal. Shortly thereafter, President Trump signaled that he would likely support the effort to end the federal ban, which would energize the industry by completely reshaping the policies that govern it.

Bipartisan bills have become an endangered species on Capitol Hill, but marijuana policy has interestingly emerged as one of the few places where both Democrats and Republicans can find common ground and put together a workable solution for what has become a cumbersome and outdated regulatory process.

UNITED STATES – June 7: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., hold a press conference in the Senate Radio and TV Gallery to discuss bipartisan action they are taking to put marijuana legislation into the hands of state lawmakers Thursday June 7, 2018. (Photo By Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

While the Gardner-Warren legislation is just beginning a conversation at the federal level, it is well underway in states. The industry is no longer operating in the shadows of a black market, but absent federal policy directives, it exists in a gray area that can create certain challenges. And as states have legalized cannabis products, tech companies have played a key role in developing and implementing robust compliance and payment processing systems, working within the constraints of new regulatory protocols and an industry that has thus-far been cash only.

In working within these state systems, tech innovators and creators are bridging the gap between public interest and complex policy regarding the cannabis industry. Tech companies have significant experience in dealing with the rapid changes federal regulation undergoes in a new and unfamiliar industry and can transfer that broad experience to the industry. They also have significant capabilities to track and regulate marijuana from seed to sale, which benefits consumers by understanding their priorities and preferences and aids the government by accounting for all the marijuana grown and purchased. This technology also easily highlights any cannabis diverted from legal circulation.

By providing state-of-the-art compliance mechanisms, the tech industry is also becoming a fountain of knowledge for what is possible, and can be a source of education for often mis- or under-informed federal policymakers. This is a role that the industry should not only fully embrace, but double down on.

The reality is, sadly, that Congress is not as well informed as the states. This makes perfect sense, since the federal ban has largely left most of the action in state arenas. In seeking realistic solutions, state legislators have developed a nuanced grasp of the intricacies of the marijuana business. They understand the need to support the growth of small businesses while providing adequate controls for this growth to occur in a safe, secure, and well-regulated environment.With states leading the way on marijuana policy, the federal government has a tremendous amount to learn from them, and from tech’s experience in helping states monitor their legalized cannabis industries.

The Warren-Gardner bill does not go so far as outright legalization of marijuana on a federal level, but it represents a movement towards the federal government recognizing the careful and beneficial steps that individual states have taken towards marijuana laws over the last few years. The proposed law exempts states with reformed marijuana laws from federal interference and allows the legal marijuana industry to have access to banks, while maintaining certain federal guiderails on marijuana policy such as the ban on distribution at highway rest stops. It also maintains the legal age for cannabis purchase at 21.

This represents a crucial compromise that meets many concerns of marijuana opponents while protecting an industry that is growing rapidly and providing much-needed revenue to states entering the game. Tech companies have long been operating within that compromise space.

Finding a workable middle path is crucially important to ensuring that Americans have access to safe and legal marijuana, while allowing businesses the freedom to innovate and create a dynamic and effective marketplace. In states, technology companies and creators have played a key role in finding and following that middle path, helping to create controls on the marijuana legalization process that are tight enough to continue experimentation in a safe and measured manner until we understand more about the benefits and drawbacks of cannabis, while allowing a burgeoning and rapidly-expanding industry to continue to innovate and serve millions of customers.

We’ll be exploring in depth many topics with regard to the federal policies around this industry in the coming weeks, but the STATES bill is a great starting point to launch and advance an important discussion that the federal government needs to be having. It is an attempt to thread the needle here, and its approach, combined with the ability of tech companies to continue to bridge the existing gaps and develop new solutions-based technologies, will help ensure a movement towards the legalization of marijuana in a safe and controlled manner.

As we continue these conversations, tech companies will, as they should, have a seat at the table. Tech companies have the experience to get the job done and provide critical knowledge and resources to guide the dialogue. By providing a forward-looking compliance blueprint for states and the feds to follow, tech is already in the driver’s seat, and my goal is to continue leading the way.

By: Ben Curren, Forbes

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