Last October, I was in Canada speaking at a convention for international lawyers just days after the country’s bold move of legalizing marijuana. Mexico is also on the path to federal legalization, and more and more countries are joining in the global end to prohibition. I wondered: Has the United States lost its opportunity to be the top dog in the legal cannabis industry?
I was presenting at the conference in Montreal on the history of cannabis and the evolution of its current regulations. When the floor was opened for questions, industry operators and scholars were not asking whether the United States cannabis marketplace would remain viable by Canada’s move. The concerns raised were quite to the contrary: People still wanted to know how to participate in the 30-plus U.S. states that have some form of a state-approved marijuana program. The focus was not on whether a cannabis trade war has now been waged between the U.S. and its northern neighbor —instead, it was on continued accessibility into the United States.
Curious, I thought to myself. Sure, Canada now has full government approval and funding, but it doesn’t have the market size and consumer population of the United States, both historically and traditionally. Canada’s entire population is roughly 36 million people, while California alone has a population of nearly 40 million. Texas clocks in at almost 29 million, and Florida has more than 21 million. Canada’s gross domestic product is $1.8 trillion, while Texas alone had a gross state product of $1.7 trillion in 2017.
Canada is already turning to international export to drive growth, with all that land to grow marijuana, but no one to sell it to — not to mention the additional barriers presented by Canada’s stringent laws against most marketing and branding, which are still fully intact.
After I closed out in Canada, I continued my international speaking tour and presented on a variety of cannabis topics in Hong Kong and Australia. Throughout my travels from the Land Down Under to the Republic of China and every stop in between, the consensus remained consistent: Entrepreneurs want to know how to get involved in the United States marketplace, and they want to know when the U.S. will legalize cannabis like Canada.
But contrary to what many may think, the federal status of marijuana in the United States is not proving to be a major deterrent for investors and industry operators from countries with favorable marijuana laws like those of Germany, Australia and Israel — and it shouldn’t be. The question is no longer whether the United States is going to federally legalize cannabis; instead, the more informed questions are when and how. President Donald Trump campaigned on the premise that the decision to legalize marijuana should be left up to the states to decide, the United States is no longer handicapped by an attorney general ready to wage the third War on Drugs, the U.S. House of Representatives is newly Democratic, and the 2018 Farm Bill, which would legalize hemp, was, at the time of this writing, making progress toward passage.
Could 2019 be the year of significant U.S. federal evolution on marijuana laws?
It really just comes down to the numbers because the vastness of the U.S. marketplace will always be tough to beat. Roughly 198 million people live in U.S. states where medical marijuana is legal, which exceeds the entire population of Canada (36 million), Germany (83 million) and Australia (25 million), combined (144 million). Imagine when the entire U.S. population of about 326 million is accessible to the cannabis and hemp industry on a federal and international level.
With more than 30 states allowing for the use of medical marijuana and 10 allowing for recreational adult-use, the U.S. is moving toward a very green uniformity among the states, and the U.S. is moving fast.
The United States is known for its opportunities. People immigrate to America from all over the world seeking to reap the benefits and freedoms the U.S. has to offer. It’s for that reason I can confidently say I believe the 50 stars and its accompanying stripes will prevail against any country in the race to lead the cannabis industry.
The U.S. will always be that 1,000-pound gorilla in the room, and it has only just begun paving its way toward dominating the world market.
Charles Feldmann is a Founding Partner of Feldmann Nagel Cantafio & Song Margulis Gonnell, PLLC and head of their international cannabis team. You can read his full bio at: MJBusinessAttorneys.com.