Err … recap
2018 was bookended by two major developments in the cannabis industry, and my oh my, what a lot of interesting stuff got sandwiched in-between!
The year did not get off to a promising start for cannabusiness. On January 4, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded the Cole Memo, to the dismay of dispensary operators and investors (not to mention virtually everyone in the entire country with dreadlocks). The Cole Memo, an Obama-era directive issued a few months after the first joint was sold legally in Colorado, essentially instructed federal law enforcement agencies not to interfere with the legal cannabis industry so long as it was regulated responsibly. Sessions’ decision potentially paved the way for a major crackdown against regulated dispensaries and growers.
And then they waited: the budtenders, lawyers, weed connoisseurs, pundits, regulators, investors and scary guys with badges. … for nothing!
The last 12 months showed that the political willpower for drug policy reform solidly outweighed the oppositions. The Justice Department (DoJ) essentially left prudent legal cannabis industry operators alone and, meanwhile, the industry crossed some major milestones.
In terms of recent historic cannabis milestones, 2018 was second only to 2012, when voters in Colorado and Washington voted to legalize the stuff. Here’s a recap:
Canada became the second country (after Uruguay) to legalize cannabis
Last October, our neighbors to the north finally passed the long-anticipated reform to legalize cannabis. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, whose campaign platform included legalizing cannabis, tweeted in support:
I still don’t fully trust the Canadians because I think my wife has a crush on Trudeau, but I guess they deserve credit for finally going through with legalizing weed.
Legal recreational sales commenced in California, but they botched practically everything
You would think that since California was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, they’d be pretty good at regulating recreational cannabis. If anything, however, it made everything much more complicated. California’s medical cannabis industry has long been comprised of co-ops and collectives operating in a legal grey area. As I write, they’re being squeezed out of the industry for better or worse. Established grey market operators either struggled to comply with new regulations or disregarded them throughout 2018, and their prior legal protections just expired on January 9.
Most municipalities have not opted to allow recreational sales to commence. Those that have aren’t adequately resourced to deal with licensure applications, enforcement or third-party testing. And that hardly even qualifies as a synopsis of all that has gone wrong.
Taken together, legalization has been a surprisingly raw deal for industry veterans (including producers or marijuana-infused products) as well as some patients who have lost or will lose their preferred provider. In some localities, they may lose access altogether. Hope California’s cannabis industry veterans and incumbents are keeping up on their blood pressure meds.
Vermont’s legislature legalized cannabis, making it the first state legislature to do so. (All other states to legalize weed have done so by ballot.) Michigan became the first Midwestern state to legalize cannabis, and three red states—Utah, Oklahoma, and Missouri—legalized medical marijuana by ballot.
Epidiolex, developed by GW Pharmaceuticals to treat rare epileptic conditions, became the first cannabis plant-derived drug to receive full FDA approval last June. (The long-approved drug MARINOL, an anti-emetic and appetite stimulant, is made with synthetic THC.)
Senators Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the STATES Act (Strengthening the Tenth Amendment Through Entrusting States). If passed it would have greatly improved access to financial services and extended trademark protection to the cannabis industry, as well as shielding compliant operators from seizures by the DoJ.
The Marijuana Freedom and Opportunity Act was introduced in the Senate shortly after the STATES Act. Among other things, it would have rescheduled “marihuana” (as the DEA spells it) to a less-restrictive category in the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
Although neither has passed, it’s a huge deal that these issues are being discussed seriously across the aisle.
Hemp was legalized in the nick of time
A provision in the 2018 Farm Bill, signed into law on Dec 20, 2018, removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act, essentially legalizing it. Because Congress finally figured out what so many other people have learned the hard way by smoking ditch weed: hemp doesn’t get you high.
Auld lang syne!
It might take a couple more attempts to achieve a major legislative (as opposed to administrative) drug policy reform at the federal level, but it will probably happen within five years. What will that look like?
These are my guesses, in descending order of likelihood:
- Congress will update banking regulations and intellectual property laws to de-risk doing business in the cannabis industry.
- Cannabis will be reassigned from Schedule I to a less restrictive classification on the CSA.
- Cannabis will be legalized at the federal level (Don’t count on it though).
… But will it still be fun when it’s fully legal? Will it?!?
John Garvey is the Chief Storytelling Officer (pomp!) at Garvington Creative, a content marketing agency which specializes in cannabis and social enterprises. His objective on every project is the same: to improve the quality of the conversation with accurate and useful content.www.GarvingtonCreative.com; john@GarvingtonCreative.com