Cannabis ‘tends to be more popular than any politician on the ballot’: Cannabis Council CEO

U.S. Cannabis Council President & CEO Steve Hawkins joins Yahoo Finance Live to talk about cannabis legalization and sales in New Jersey, promises on marijuana regulation made by politicians, and the pathway towards federal legalization.

Video Transcript

DAVE BRIGGS: Better late than never. New Jersey opens its doors to recreational marijuana the day after 4/20 national cannabis celebrations. 13 dispensaries will open across the Garden State, the 18th state to legalize recreational weed. Let’s talk about that with the CEO and president of the US Cannabis Council, Steven Hawkins. Steven, good to see you, sir. Before we get into New Jersey, give our viewers a sense of what exactly the US Cannabis Council is and what are your goals.

STEVEN HAWKINS: Well, Dave, great to be on the show. The US Cannabis Council represents many of the largest MSOs, multistate operators, in the cannabis industry today, as well as some of the leading advocacy organizations. The organization was formed to really have a comprehensive and unified voice in Congress, as we see the inevitable day that cannabis is descheduled and legalized, and we see the end of federal prohibition. So we seek to reform the cannabis laws at the federal level and have a presence in the states.

DAVE BRIGGS: All right, we’ll dive into the likelihood of legislation in a moment. But let’s talk New Jersey, a lot greener today in the Garden State. There were fears that lines would be out of control. I did see across Twitter long lines before dawn. How’d the opening go?

STEVEN HAWKINS: Oh, the opening was fantastic. It just shows the breadth of public support for cannabis. The number of Americans– we know that public opinion polls for legalization at 68% nationally. The latest polls in New Jersey show that 56% of all New Jerseyans would be fine seeing municipal– their municipalities with cannabis businesses.

So this is really the start, these first 13 medical dispensaries that have opened their doors to today. We fully expect that New Jersey will be incredibly robust. And there’s an estimate that we’ll see $2 billion worth of cannabis revenue out of New Jersey in the future.

DAVE BRIGGS: $2 billion, and next is New Jersey and– New York and, of course, Connecticut. What state are you eyeing next?

STEVEN HAWKINS: Gee, I think we will see Maryland, Dave, in November at the ballot. I fully expect that the constituents in the state of Maryland will pass a ballot that will bring cannabis into Maryland. Rhode Island is very close. And I think we’re going to see more activity in some of the red states.

The voters in South Dakota last election cycle voted for cannabis legalization. There was a glitch, I guess, in the referendum, and the state Supreme Court struck it down, but it will be back. So again, what we see is the cannabis– cannabis tends to be more popular than any politician on the ballot. And I expect that we’ll see red and blue states across the country pass referendums and legislatively moving cannabis towards adult recreational use.

DAVE BRIGGS: Steven, there’s no Republican or Democrat anywhere near 60% right now in favorability, not even close. We talked with Curaleaf chairman Boris Jordan yesterday, and here’s what he told us about the lack of legislative progress.

BORIS JORDAN: The Democrats, to be honest, have been a huge disappointment to the industry. We all came in after the election of President Biden, thinking that we were going to get real activity in the area of legislation. And we’ve gotten absolutely nothing. And I think that’s the real problem.

DAVE BRIGGS: Democrats in control of the House, the Senate, and the White House. How disappointed are you?

STEVEN HAWKINS: Well, I’m terribly frustrated, and I share Boris’ sentiment. We had a president who campaigned that he would do something around cannabis decriminalization. The White House has done absolutely nothing. So the blue wave that had its impact initially in terms of investor sentiment that something would happen around cannabis has steadily declined.

But I am optimistic that we will see some reform out of this Congress. SAFE Banking that would allow for banking provisions and facilities to be utilized by consumers, by entrepreneurs, you know, I think that still has a very good chance of passing in this Congress. The Safe Banking Act enjoys the support of nine Republican senators. It’s truly a bipartisan bill. It just needs to get to the floor of the Senate. It’s passed already six times in the House.

DAVE BRIGGS: Yeah, businesses desperately need that. They desperately need to be able to write off their business expenses, paying somewhere between 70% and 85% effective tax rate. It’s been a disaster. Bottom line, when do you see legislation that would legalize marijuana? How long are we– are we talking two, three, four? Are we talking 10 years, in your best guess?

STEVEN HAWKINS: We’re not talking 10 years. We may be talking another session of Congress. First, we’ve got to get lawmakers used to voting for cannabis reform. Why? Because as they vote, there’s sort of a muscle memory, Dave, right? They have to get past this first barrier of voting for cannabis and recognizing that this is a legitimate business. 425,000 Americans employed, an industry that’s going to do upwards of $25 billion in revenue this year.

So it starts, I think, with Safe Banking. I think then we’ll be looking at tax relief. And then thereafter, I think we will be teed up for a legalization. Rarely does anything big ever happen in Congress in one fell swoop. I wouldn’t expect cannabis to be any different. But I think all of the markers are there for us to see the end of federal prohibition. It’s not a matter of if, but when.

DAVE BRIGGS: And Steven, New York is coming, and social equity is obviously a huge part of everyone’s legislation. But in New York, an interesting process there. People convicted of a cannabis offense, they actually get the state’s first permits. Business owners are telling me, they’re fine with a level playing field. Why should you cut the line, though, if you knowingly broke the law?

STEVEN HAWKINS: Well, you know, this is the– but here’s the thing with the equities around cannabis. And this is why we’ve had so much discussion around what to do with communities that were impacted. We are seeing the legalization of a plant, right, that millions of individuals at one point were convicted for selling or possessing or using. And the question is, how do you rectify by that? New York is certainly doing something quite bold by offering those individuals sort of front of the line opportunities.

But other states have put into their tax provisions opportunities for some remediation to those communities that were impacted. This is part of the history, the sad legacy of cannabis. But at the end of the day, I’m excited that we are having this business industry grow. It’s going to employ over a million Americans. It will bring in revenue into states that desperately need it. And that’s all for the better. And it’s a great day in New Jersey, and I look forward to New York and Connecticut coming online soon.

DAVE BRIGGS: All right, we’ll see in New York soon. Steven Hawkins, the US Cannabis Council president and CEO, thank you.

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