Cannabis regulations in their current form certainly leave something to desire. Yet from a distance, things sound so good for cannabis users one might think the situation on the ground would be a veritable Shangri La. One may be positively elated knowing 377 medical dispensaries have been approved in the state of Oklahoma, with its population of under 4 million people. Reality bites when one considers that the city of Los Angeles, with only a slightly larger population, has just 170 legally operating storefronts. According to a popular website used to display dispensary menus to customers, over twice that number of storefronts are currently operating despite the legal pathway which allows adults over 21 to purchase cannabis legally.
We wondered, how will we arrive at the point where most people feel we have effective, sensible cannabis policies, laws, and regulations? What will it really take? Is ending federal cannabis prohibition enough? Will descheduling cannabis by removing it completely from the Controlled Substances Act be enough to make the superior quality cannabis products which were recently available in California dispensaries appear on shelves in Louisiana, Nebraska, and Tennessee?
In comparison to the medical cannabis program in Oklahoma, Los Angeles is clearly failing to meet license density requirements to satisfy the needs of its citizens, a majority of whom voted to make cannabis safely available to adults over 21 years of age. License density–specifically how many cannabis dispensaries, grows, lounges, product manufacturers, and micro businesses which both grow and sell cannabis are available within city and county jurisdictions–is crucial to giving adults the choices we know the regulated market can provide. Until we get sensible cannabis regulations at the county and local level, the traditional underground cannabis market will continue to thrive, as it has during all phases of inadequate regulation under the prohibition regime.
When compared to the regulated dispensaries, the above ground activities of the traditionally underground marketplace are more challenging to watch in action but certainly not impossible, especially for anybody with the time to look around online for delivery services, or visit actual storefronts. Unless one knows to look for license numbers on advertising, or spot other regulatory clues about compliance, it’s entirely possible to mistakenly believe an advertised LA cannabis dispensary is legit in the eyes of the law. It happens every day.
We can see it all unfolding in broad daylight outside the purview of the law, in California, as in New York, despite the stark differences in laws and cannabis regulations in each respective state. After all, supply and demand will continue to meet in the marketplace, whether that be the traditional hand to hand, person to person, friend to friend market which has met my own needs in every American city I’ve visited for more than a week since the ‘90’s, or the legal, regulated, taxed approach. The clear choice for a permanent solution would be a marketplace which matches those of other legitimate businesses in America in terms of practical expectations for ease and safety during normal business transactions.
As big as cannabis is as a national issue, In the end, it is all about the attitudes of locals. California and New York states have effectively passed the buck of prohibition onto cities and counties by allowing all-out bans on cannabis accessibility which was nonetheless approved by majority vote of the citizens of both states. Local bans are prohibitionists answer to the constitutional power given to the citizens of states to control their own destiny through changes in law. What a quaint notion in our democracy, citizens deciding their future. We’re into it.
Believe it or not, in California product diversity and access for medical patients has actually been reduced since cannabis became legal for adults ages 21 and up. The costs of meeting requirements for the legal market, and doing business in competition against traditional markets has proven too much for many small cannabis farms and cooperatives. Judging from recent reports of possible upcoming shortages, when it comes to inventory on dispensary shelves, the worst is yet to come.
In California adults currently face tax rates in excess of 40% for cannabis for personal use. We all know taxation cannot be excessive, like taxation with everything other product in the marketplace, or it won’t work. Period. Hats off to Berkeley Patients Group’s Director of Government Affairs Sabrina Fendrick who diligently worked last February to help city officials in Berkeley, California cut their tax rate in half to help ensure that the regulated marketplace can compete against the traditional one. Her solid work helped officials realize that the best way to reap multiple layers of taxation from cannabis businesses and consumers is to let brisk commerce thrive. The economic ripple effect pours out into the greater economy, generating far more in taxes from a cascading host of industries than could ever be paid by the cannabis industry alone.
So as best to free ourselves from the prohibitionist thinking which got us into this mess in the first place, we’ll need an engaged and aware citizenry of seniors who are as knowledgeable about the need for a working supply chain, free of encumbrances, bottle necks, and other overzealous results of excessive regulation. We hope to encourage a distancing from antiquated ideas which treat cannabis somehow as dangerous as plutonium.
For example, the notion of a track and trace system for the entire supply chain, from seedling to product on the shelf, is as onerous as it is shortsighted. If we don’t require it for alcohol, and cannabis is objectively safer than alcohol, why require an expensive track and trace system for cannabis? Beyond that, if the track and trace system isn’t adequately checked by regulators, as we are seeing now in the state of Washington, how can it ever work as designed?
As we continue to move towards sensible cannabis regulations, and go beyond simply compromising with prohibitionists, previously unadopted ideas like access to banking services for legitimate cannabis businesses, and allowance of interstate, and international cannabis commerce can start to become a reality. As recently as last Fall, a bill in New York’s State Assembly called for health insurer coverage of medical cannabis. Lawmakers nationwide are fast becoming aware of the cost savings of scores of patients who can ditch expensive pharmaceutical drugs, and make a switch to insurer covered cannabis instead.
Last, we must remember that home grown cannabis, often overlooked as a necessary part of the supply chain, can fulfill needs for specific strains or concentrate preparations which might otherwise be unavailable in a local area. Due to the diversity of cannabis varieties in existence, and the vagaries of a legal marketplace fraught with product shortages not experienced equally in all states, home grown cannabis will always have a place in sensible policy thinking as we work to ensure safe local access.
Now, for how exactly we achieve these things. That is up to all of us. In theory, our elected representatives should handle all this for us. I contend they’ll need to be reminded of the vision of what’s missing.
Summary: Cannabis regulations in their current form certainly leave something to desire. We wondered, what will it really take to arrive at the point where most people feel we have effective, sensible cannabis laws, policies and regulations? Banking services, interstate and international commerce, and fair taxation are just some of the ideas which make sense for the cannabis industry in the United States. The cost of regulated, taxed, legal cannabis is too high in most of the country to compete with the traditional underground market. We suggest some real world approaches which will bring balance to a cannabis distribution system which will certainly operate, whether legal or not. Informed citizens will drive the process towards ultimate success. The more solid information that’s shared, the quicker balance will be achieved with cannabis for adults in our society. Working models exist in state laboratories of democracy, and we’ve seen politicians’ minds changed post-legalization in light of improved conditions in their communities.