It has certainly not been a bed of roses.
Like a lot of supporters of Washington’s I-502 – the November 2012 voter initiative that legalized adult-use marijuana, I saw the vote as a major victory in the struggle to end the ‘War on Drugs.’
For me, the issue was about civil liberties. As a lifelong pot smoker who grew up in the conservative Midwest of the 1960s and 1970s, I had witnessed firsthand the real and lasting damage that the ‘War on Drugs’ had done to the lives of friends, classmates, and fellow tokers: the jobs and scholarships lost, the family and community ties severed, the legal and financial pain of living outside the law.
The 2012 Washington elections showed overwhelming public support for Legalization, if not consensus on how best to structure the new industry.
The victory had left politicians flatfooted, as almost no official holders had supported legal cannabis, and there were no plans in place on how to execute on the people’s will. While it is true that medical marijuana had existed in Washington State since 1998 – it was essentially an unregulated program, with no patient registry or established protocols for testing, packaging distribution, or sale.
Instead, there was a loose caregiver system that was allowed to exist in the shadows, providing only a thin modicum of legal defense for patients and caregivers. Washington had no appetite for establishing the type of regulated medical marijuana system that existed in Colorado. So, even though Washington was technically the first state to pass adult-use, Colorado was able to transition its state-regulated medical dispensaries into retail stores in short order, while Washington took the slow, conservative approach. It waited for the DOJ to issue its COLE memo, and did not include provisions for home grow or medical patients.
It was left then to the fledgling industry to make up the rules itself, and to pro-actively build the community and industry from the ground up. To fill this void, we started the Marijuana Business Association, a trade organization focused on the nuts and bolts of building a sustainable, equitable and profitable legal industry. The MJBA began by establishing local meetup groups and launching the MJNews Network – physical and digital forums where participants in the newly legal industry could exchange information, build community, and explore business opportunity. We gathered together the growers, processors and retailers, as well as the many ancillary professionals they would need to launch their new businesses – attorneys and accountants, bankers and soil experts, economists and brand specialists.
These early meetings met a critical need – providing a professional community, and the mechanisms for collaborating with regulators and community stakeholders to establish best practices and policy — and soon MJBA was hosting monthly meetings in Seattle, Spokane, Portland, Denver, New York, and anywhere we could gather a quorum of industry folks who needed a place to meet and talk shop. We hosted seminars and job fairs, organized panel discussions, and threw industry parties. We launched our Women’s Alliance, and established key partnership and sponsorships.
Those early days were heady times – the canna community was small, tight, and intensely committed. There was a ‘cannabis circuit’ that many of us followed – traveling like modern day Gypsies from trade show to MJ Event — Canna Con to CCC, NECANN to MJBiz Con, Champs and ASD to High Times Cannabis Cup, DOPE Awards, and Seattle Hempfest. I truly felt like part of a ‘cannafam’ as we crisscrossed the country, working each other’s booths, sharing weed, and talking shop.
It was good work, and we felt like we were making a difference. After decades of Reefer Madness propaganda, public sentiment was palpably changing, and the grand policy experiments in Washington and Colorado were soon extended to Oregon and California, Nevada, and Arizona. Before long, even the conservative Midwest had opened, with huge marketplaces in Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio. Today, cannabis is legal in New York, and Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey. From coast to coast, 39 legal states and counting.
After ten years, Legal marijuana is here to stay. We won, at least from a civil liberties perspective. Pot smokers do not face the same kind of social stigma, or workplace discrimination that I grew up with. ‘The War on Drugs’ is now universally considered a failure. Politicians who support legalization no longer face ridicule or public backlash (in fact the opposite is true: prohibitionists pols are now perceived to be out of tune with the public). Steps are even being taken to address the racist core at the heart of prohibition – with Social Equity provisions included from the get-go in most of the newly legal East Coast markets, and retroactively on the West Coast.
Marijuana has indeed gone mainstream: legal cannabis products (including unregulated hemp-derived CBD and Delta-8 THC) are available in all but the most backward states, in a crazy patchwork of medical dispensaries and licensed pot shops, hemp boutiques and gas station vendors. And while legal pot has grown, well, like a weed, the industry itself has struggled, in large part because Federally, Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 dangerous drug. This designation prohibits normalized banking, removes critical IRS deductions (280-E), and makes it nearly impossible for cannabis companies to achieve profitability.
In the US, the legal cannabis industry is about the same size as ice cream – weed valued at around $10.8 billion in 2021, while Ice Cream industry estimated at $10.6 billion in 2023. But that has not translated into sweet success for most cannabis licensees (including the largest MSOS) or investors. For most players, legal cannabis has been a bust. The Green Rush has become the Green Flush, as over-regulation and taxation have kept manufacturing costs high, while zealous over-production and competitive pressure from the legacy market have sent wholesale prices plummeting to the bottom. One does not have to look far to find legal ounces going for less than $100 (and some as low as $40) in established markets like Washington, Oregon, California, Montana and Michigan, while in newly legal East Coast markets, with few legal retail stores open, prices remain artificially high.
It saddens me to report that many of the early licensees – as well as many of the ancillary players (including most of the cannabis media and many of the early cannabis technology companies) have fallen on hard times. Many have already sold out, or shuttered their doors, while others are desperately seeking suitors.
So, as we celebrate Ten Years of Legalization, I feel proud of the role that MJBA has played in helping to legalize the plant, however, I must admit to being disappointed in the current state of the industry. The grand ideals of cooperation that we set out to establish, has given way to greed and selfishness. An industry we hoped could set a higher, more ethical standard, has not been able to agree upon the most basic standards – testing, contaminants, synthetics, pesticides – and that lack of industry-focus has allowed the biggest and most corrupt influences to emerge dominant.
The cannabis industry is quickly fragmenting and becoming subsumed into the traditional industries it once threatened to disrupt: Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Alcohol, Big Tobacco, Big Retail. If we are not careful, the age of the grassroots entrepreneur will soon go the way of the mom & pop drug store owner and family farmer.