2021 Was a Bad Year for The Pot Industry | Opinion

Expectations were sky high this year that marijuana would be legalized at the federal level. At the very least, the so-called SAFE Banking Act, which would enable billions of dollars of banking money to flow into the pot industry, was going to breeze through Congress and garner the president's signature.

This bill was seen as a necessary precursor to broader federal marijuana legislation, like the MORE Act, sponsored by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and others.

But there's just one thing about these legislative triumphs: they never happened. Once again, the pot industry left town with nothing but empty promises and stockings filled with coal.

Despite the banking and marijuana industries spending millions of dollars lobbying for the SAFE Banking Act, the Senate refused to yield and rejected a proposal to allow pot companies inside the U.S. financial system. How much was spent to achieve this incredible feat? About $50,000.

We, the underfunded opponents of bills like SAFE and MORE, were armed with weapons money can't buy: facts, science and increasing concern among public health officials that the high-potency pot and its derivatives being peddled by the industry are harmful for our youth, for pregnant women and for people susceptible to mental illness.

Here is a partial scorecard:

In 2021, SAM and our broad coalition of teachers, parents, scientists and young people spearheaded the fight against Big Marijuana in local governments, state capitols and Capitol Hill. And we achieved a slew of victories. On Election Day, voters across the country rejected ballot initiatives attempting to legalize recreational marijuana sales. Voters in cities and towns banned pot shops by huge margins, despite their states having approved legalization.

Other localities rejected initiatives to repeal town bans on retail pot shops. In Methuen, Massachusetts, a town that is overwhelmingly Democratic, voters rejected a measure to legalize the transportation, cultivation and sale of recreational marijuana by a 15-point margin. The founder of a nonprofit that assists local children and families in one of Methuen's inner-city neighborhoods commented that such sales would send "the wrong message to the children of our community that it is okay to sell drugs in Methuen and if the city allows it, how could it be harmful to them." In New York, more than 400 localities have opted out of sales.

Chuck Schumer cannabis rally
US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, speaks during the annual NYC Cannabis Parade & Rally in support of the legalization of marijuana for recreational and medical use, on May 1, 2021 in New York City. - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation legalizing recreational marijuana on March 31, 2021, with a large chunk of tax revenues from sales set to go to minority communities. Angela Weiss / AFP/Getty Images

In 2021, marijuana legalization stalled in 18 states. In Colorado, we worked with a large bipartisan coalition to pass the country's first regulatory legislation to restrict the state's marijuana industry. In South Dakota, we witnessed the unconstitutional legalization ballot initiative being overturned after a year-long campaign against it. Several pro-marijuana incumbents in Virginia and New Jersey lost their seats, demonstrating once again that marijuana is not a driver of votes at the polls.

The SAFE Banking Act rejection was by far our biggest win on the federal level, but it wasn't our only one. Working with a bipartisan group of elected officials, we supported the inclusion of a provision in the bipartisan infrastructure law that allows for the research of state-sanctioned marijuana products, so their effects can be better understood. The Biden-Harris administration has also implemented a few of our research recommendations.

Our legislative triumphs have been matched by progress in changing hearts and minds. Last week, at our 50th educational session of the year, we featured Tom Coderre, the acting deputy assistant secretary for mental health and substance use, and Dr. Leslie Walker-Harding, the chief academic officer and senior vice president for Seattle Children's Hospital, for a discussion on "youth and cannabis use disorder." It was our most successful webinar ever.

But we have more work to do to educate people about the industry's false promises. Big Marijuana told us that legalization would reduce, and even eliminate, the underground market. Yet in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders in states where marijuana is legal are needing to spend their energy on curbing illegal marijuana operations. Just last month, a county in Oregon had to declare a state of emergency due to rampant illegal pot production. In California, the illicit market is so lucrative that Mexican drug cartels are moving there in masses to sell marijuana illegally. California's legal marijuana industry is so unsuccessful that San Francisco eliminated marijuana taxes—even though the possibility of taxation was a key reason many supported legalization.

Although the public has been led to believe that public health is a top priority for marijuana regulators, shocking developments from this year raised doubts. In three legalization states—Connecticut, Michigan and Illinois—regulators permitted high levels of mold to be present in legal weed.

The revolving door between government officials, Big Alcohol and industry lobbyists has created a breeding ground for corruption. In November, a top marijuana industry lobbyist was made the director of the division meant to regulate and control the industry. Just this month, Toi Hutchinson, a top marijuana adviser to Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker, was named president and CEO of Marijuana Policy Project, the nation's largest pro-marijuana lobbying organization. And it's not just the marijuana industry that is enjoying outsized influence on marijuana regulation. Large marijuana companies are now headed by former Big Pharma and Big Alcohol executives, and Big Tobacco has moved in to take over several large pot interests.

"Money talks in politics" is certainly an adage with which most Americans are familiar by now. The power of special interests has long been alive and well in Washington. The campaign to legalize and normalize marijuana is no exception. But despite being outspent again and again, public health triumphed over private profit.

That should give "the little guy" some hope.

Dr. Kevin Sabet is a former senior drug policy advisor to the Obama administration and currently serves as president of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. His latest book, Smokescreen: What the Marijuana Industry Doesn't Want You to Know, was published on April 20 by Simon & Schuster and is available everywhere books are sold.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.