This year will be remembered, for a number of reasons, as a turning point for cannabis.
But there is one clear moment that stood out above the rest: the news that the Department of Health and Human Services recommended to the Drug Enforcement Administration that cannabis be moved from Schedule I to Schedule III.
Now, it is almost certain that what happens next in the scheduling review, which President Joe Biden called for in October 2022, will be the most watched development of 2024. History will be made, one way or another. Already, DHHS’ recommendation is unprecedented. If the DEA disagrees, that, too, will be unprecedented. And, of course, if the DEA agrees, what happens next will have implications across the globe.
In the meantime, as we reflect upon 2023 and look ahead to 2024, several other major themes emerged.
Federal regulation knocks at the door.
In January, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration made waves in the cannabis world when it announced that “existing regulatory frameworks” are insufficient when it comes to allowing for CBD in foods and supplements, and that it hoped to work with Congress on a “new regulatory pathway for CBD.” For years, industry stakeholders had hoped that FDA was working on, and would propose, a pathway itself, so the announcement was met with plenty of frustration.
Shortly after the announcement, Cannabis Wire had an exclusive interview with Norm Birenbaum about his newly-created cannabis role within the FDA and next steps for the agency. Birenbaum, previously a cannabis regulator in New York and Rhode Island, and the founding president of the Cannabis Regulators Association, joined the FDA in late 2022 as a senior public health advisor on cannabis.
The FDA made waves again in August, as it played a crucial role in DHHS’ cannabis scheduling recommendation to DEA.
While the FDA has largely been in the spotlight, other federal agencies had some of their own newsworthy cannabis developments, from the Census Bureau’s release of its first cannabis data product to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s investigation of “the first death attributed to occupational asthma in a U.S. cannabis production worker.”
Groundwork is laid for a research boom.
In October, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that it would create a Resource Center for Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research, the most ambitious effort to-date from the federal government to centralize and support cannabis research.
Cannabis Wire interviewed Patrick Still, who has led the effort, to learn more about the forthcoming Center. “The Center will help facilitate needed research to address many of the questions arising from widespread availability of cannabis,” Still told Cannabis Wire. “The lack of high-quality studies has resulted in insufficient data on the basic mechanisms, safety, and efficacy for many of the cannabinoids and other constituents of cannabis. We envision the center will help close this gap.”
But much more has transpired in the cannabis research landscape this year.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine formed a Committee on the Public Health Consequences of Changes in the Cannabis Policy Landscape, an unprecedented “study” of “the public health implications of these policy changes.” The Committee, which met twice this year and will meet again in January, will detail cannabis’ “availability in the U.S., assess regulatory frameworks for the cannabis industry using a health equity lens, and describe strengths and weaknesses of medical and non-medical surveillance systems. Additionally, it will outline recommendations to minimize societal harms and inform policy research over the next five years.”
In June, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) brought together researchers from across the globe to discuss the research and science of substance use, including cannabis, for its International Forum. And this year, one of the panels was exclusively focused on cannabis.
This forum put a spotlight on just how much global jurisdictions continue to learn from each other. For example, as part of its information gathering on cannabis, the French Monitoring Center for Drugs led a qualitative study that focused on six jurisdictions in North America, “mixing early adopters and later movers in the US and three very different provinces in Canada in terms of regulation choices,” said Ivana Obradovic, deputy director of the French Monitoring Center for Drugs.
“We are paying special attention to policy-specific measures, price and taxation, licensing rules and so on, and the related outcomes in a comparative perspective,” she added.
America sits at a tipping point.
More Americans than ever before are in favor of adult use legalization. While polling has shown strong support for legalization for much of the past decade, the latest Gallup poll saw support jump to 70%.
All of this trickles up: elected officials who represent these states in Congress often bring to the national legalization debate the experiences in their home states.
Congress sends zero cannabis bills to Biden.
Despite this movement at the state level, Congress didn’t get any cannabis bills over the finish line this year. There were, however, several significant developments with regard to the evolving debate among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
In July, Congress picked up the baton from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on CBD when four members of Congress issued a bicameral RFI seeking data from “subject matter experts and stakeholders regarding Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulation of cannabidiol.” The next steps for this RFI remain up in the air.
And, in September, cannabis banking legislation cleared a major hurdle: the Senate Banking Committee. While such legislation managed to clear the House multiple times, it moved for the first time in the Senate this year. However, it has since stalled.
Finally, there’s the delay of the 2023 Farm Bill. This behemoth agricultural legislation has, broadly, very little to do with cannabis, but has the potential to reshape the landscape. Why? To quote the Cannabis Regulators Association’s letter to Congress on the bill: the 2018 Farm Bill was “drafted with a focus on agricultural commodities and non-intoxicating hemp products. However, the language of the bill has inadvertently resulted in a thriving market for intoxicating cannabinoid products that are included (or claim to be included) within the definition of ‘hemp.’” There is a push among cannabis regulators and some industry members to address these products in the new Farm Bill. Action on that bill, however, was pushed into 2024.
…Still, major new names lobbied.
Cannabis Wire unearthed some unexpected names lobbying on cannabis this year. In January, we had the scoop that American Express included cannabis banking in its disclosure. And in October, another Cannabis Wire scoop found that Bank of America and the National Rifle Association did the same.
Globally, the pendulum swung in both directions.
In April, Germany’s adult use plan, which was in the works since 2022, was essentially cut in half. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s administration originally planned to legalize cannabis for adults and establish a regulated system for sales. But, after pushback from the European Commission, the bill put forth includes only home cultivation and small, co-op-like clubs. That bill got a hearing in Parliament’s Health Committee in November, and now awaits a final vote. A bill for regulated sales is expected to be drafted in 2024.
This June, after months of momentum, Colombia’s Congress fell just a few votes shy of passing a bill to regulate cannabis for adult use on to President Gustavo Petro. Lawmakers tried again, but that push fell apart this month.
This month, the Netherlands launched an adult use pilot program, and pilot programs have become an increasingly popular approach in Europe to considering reform.
However, this trend toward reform has caught the attention of the United Nations, and the International Narcotics Control Board’s annual report this year for the first time devoted its first chapter to a sort of reckoning with cannabis legalization.
New York flopped onto the cannabis scene.
Few states have attracted the level of hype that surrounded New York’s adult use rollout, which began in late December 2022 and continued this year. The excitement reverberated from Congress to the state legislature and the City Council, and among the many, many cannabis business hopefuls. Even Fat Joe, the Bronx native nominated for several Grammy awards, including for “What’s Luv?” registered to lobby this year on “Application for cannabis license in NYS.”
In other words, the forecast called for sunshine in New York, but the reality has been thick clouds and plenty of storms.
Cannabis Wire closely reported on the turbulence throughout the year, due in part to litigation that challenged the state’s approach to equity. We published scoops, too, like our story about the dissonance between the City Council and the Mayor’s Office over data collection and enforcement against unregulated shops. Cannabis Wire also surveyed two New York City neighborhoods with sprawling unlicensed cannabis retailers, and we found a range of issues, such as a lack of ID checks.
Cannabis Wire hosted its first event this year: a candid conversation with New York Sen. Jeremy Cooney, the chair of the state Senate’s Subcommittee on Cannabis (the committee that will be the nexus of cannabis clean-up bills starting in January, when the legislature reconvenes).
Even with the litigation that put a boulder in the path of the legal cannabis rollout, Cannabis Wire harnessed the interest in the future of cannabis tourism and nightlife in the Big Apple. We hosted our second event later in the year, with City Council member Gale Brewer and Tom Harris, executive director of the Times Square Alliance.
Well, on the note of events, stay tuned for our next one in early 2024.
But, really, much of what happened in 2023 will continue to play out next year. New York regulators will continue to battle litigation that will slow the adult use rollout. Regulators across the country, at the state level and federally, will grapple with intoxicating hemp products until the Farm Bill or some other legislation brings about change. More states and countries will pursue reforms, for medical or adult use. Congress will continue to debate cannabis, but remains unlikely to pass anything. And, of course, everyone will hold their breath for a decision on cannabis scheduling from the DEA.