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How Rescheduling Cannabis will Impact the Cannabis Industry

A gavel resting next to a cannabis leaf. This image is in reference to a blog posted by CannaSpyglass titled: How Rescheduling Cannabis will Impact the Cannabis Industry. CannaSpyglass is the leading provider for cannabis market data.

In a groundbreaking turn of events, the Department of Health and Human Services has formally recommended reclassifying cannabis from its current status as a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. This classification designates drugs with a high potential for abuse and no recognized medicinal value. In this significant recommendation, cannabis is proposed to be moved to the much less restrictive Schedule III category. This marks a historic moment, as it represents the first time a major government agency has acknowledged the misclassification of cannabis as a dangerous substance of abuse.

The impact that the rescheduling of cannabis would have on the industry cannot be overstated. In 2022, cannabis companies paid a staggering $1.8 billion in federal taxes, significantly more than their non-cannabis counterparts. This number is expected to increase to $2.1 billion in federal taxes for 2023, highlighting the urgency for tax reforms in the industry.

What does this mean for the cannabis industry?

While the reverberations of this recommendation within the cannabis industry are eagerly anticipated, its immediate impact may be less pronounced. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) now stands at a critical juncture, tasked with conducting a thorough review to determine whether to align with the recommendation the Department of Health and Human Services put forth.

It's crucial to clarify that this rescheduling would not equate to cannabis legalization. State-licensed cannabis businesses would continue to operate in a legal gray area, violating federal law despite local regulations permitting their activities. 

One of the most impactful consequences of moving cannabis to Schedule III would be liberating state-licensed cannabis businesses from the burdensome shackles of Section 280e of the IRS tax code. Currently applicable to Schedule I and II substances, 280e categorizes cannabis businesses as federal drug traffickers, depriving them of standard business deductions enjoyed by enterprises across various industries. This provision has emerged as a substantial financial hurdle, draining the industry's resources and impeding profitability.

The removal of 280e for cannabis businesses could be a game-changer, particularly at a time of escalating price compression and intensifying competition. With thinning profit margins rendering profitability a challenge for many in the industry, abolishing 280e could be the most impactful federal reform yet. By unlocking access to essential deductions, cannabis businesses can enhance their financial viability and reinvest in growth and development.

What does this mean for cannabis operators?

While rescheduling wouldn't immediately grant cannabis businesses full access to institutional banking and lending, it would send a clear signal to cautious investors that the federal government is adopting a more permissive stance. This shift in perception could attract new sources of capital, particularly from smaller financial institutions with a higher risk tolerance. While major banking giants may remain cautious, smaller institutions could view the reduced risk as an opportunity to engage with the burgeoning cannabis sector.

Moreover, eliminating 280e could stimulate lending in an industry where securing financial support has historically been challenging. Current cannabis loans often come with exorbitant capital costs, ranging from 20% to 40%. By removing 280e, businesses can redirect the drained cash flow toward servicing debt and financing new projects and expansions. This newfound financial flexibility could attract more lenders to the cannabis industry, potentially leading to lower interest rates on loans and fostering much-needed growth and stability.

Additionally, the cessation of 280e would substantially reduce the income tax burden carried by cannabis businesses, ultimately fostering greater profitability and leveling the playing field with other legally recognized industries. For larger multi-state operators, the financial impact could be profound, potentially amounting to savings in the millions, dependent on the state's corporate tax rates.

What does this mean for ancillary cannabis businesses?

The potential elimination of Section 280e could herald a new era for the cannabis industry, benefiting licensed operators and creating a ripple effect that extends to ancillary businesses. With greater profitability, cannabis operators will have the financial resources to allocate towards essential ancillary services like marketing, advertising, merchandising, security, and technology.

As cannabis businesses become more financially robust, they will undoubtedly seek to reinvest in their brands and expand their operations. Consequently, ancillary businesses and vendors can anticipate a surge in demand driven by cannabis operators looking to elevate their presence and reach in the market. The symbiotic growth between primary cannabis operators and their ancillary counterparts promises to shape a flourishing and more vibrant cannabis industry landscape in the coming years.

What comes next?

The journey to this potential rescheduling decision has been comprehensive and lengthy, involving a nearly yearlong investigation—one of the most extensive reviews ever conducted by the federal government. Notably, this in-depth analysis was initiated at the request of President Biden, showcasing a focused and proactive approach to the evolving discourse surrounding cannabis policy.

As we navigate these developments, it appears probable that cannabis will find its new placement within Schedule III in the coming year, possibly before the 2024 presidential election. 

The potential rescheduling of cannabis to Schedule III represents a critical juncture for the cannabis industry. It offers a glimpse of hope, promising relief from the financial constraints that have long impeded the growth and sustainability of cannabis businesses. As we await the DEA's decision and anticipate the subsequent impact on the industry, the prospect of enhanced financial accessibility and eased tax burdens stands as a beacon of optimism for an industry on the brink of transformation.