To the sheer bliss of marijuana lovers everywhere, federal legalization of marijuana appears to be right around the corner. The 2018 Farm Bill moving to the President's desk, with the full support of Congress, indicates the winds of change are looming for the hemp industry and may be foreshadowing changes for cannabis, too. But, after decades of activism and advocacy, many wonder... are there drawbacks to legalization that we've overlooked? Could legalization ultimately do more harm than good? Are we really on the right side of history?
Whether you want to call it conspiracy theory or an educated guess, there are several reasons some cannabis advocates feel federal legalization may not be the golden ticket to utopia.
Before the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937, pharmacopeia readily recognized cannabis sativa as a medical remedy. Unfortunately, demonization and racial bias imposed by Harry Anslinger, skewed science, lack of research, and false propaganda, like Reefer Madness, kept people in fear and changed the national perception of marijuana.
However, as humans and technology evolved, and the information age was born, keeping the general population in the dark became harder and harder. Since the '60s, marijuana lovers have been advocating for the right to consume cannabis legally. And slowly but surely, they're winning the war. In North America, decriminalization started in Oregon in 1973, California first legalized medical marijuana in 1996, and full adult-use, or recreational cannabis, is now legal in 10 states in the US and nationwide in Canada.
Arguments Against Legalization
With the cannabis legalization experiment across random states, a few concerns about the commercialization of the plant have cropped up. After years of fighting against the administration, many veteran marijuana advocates and consumers aren't so happy about getting warm and cozy with the Fed.
Ben Franklin is often quoted saying, "you can't be certain about anything in this world except death and taxes." With legalization, comes taxation. Considered a 'sin tax' like alcohol, tobacco, and junk food, the tax on recreational cannabis in some places is significant. The state of Washington collects 37% in taxes on every purchase, add in municipal taxes and in some areas consumers can expect to pay as much as 48% on cannabis purchases. Colorado imposes a 15% excise tax and a 15% sales tax, and dispensaries also collect municipal taxes as well.
Generally speaking, most of us don't have a problem paying our taxes when we can see the return on our investment. In Colorado, reports of how the money is being used leave many consumers with a sense of community and outreach knowing their tax dollars helped pay for a homeless shelter or a school initiative. In Pueblo, so far this year, more than $634,000 in marijuana tax dollars helped fund scholarships for their students. Yet, many wonder, if cannabis is legalized on a national scale, will consumers still have this assurance that our tax dollars are being spent appropriately? Most of us already have doubts about the fleecing of America with $640 toilet seats and a $7600 coffee pot caught in past government expenditures, so it's not so far fetched to think taxes collected from cannabis sales could be misappropriated in some way.
Again, decades of lack of trust in the administration leave many questioning more government involvement. While most agree, decriminalization and the right to access safe cannabis are constitutional rights; some also believe federal legalization and government involvement could spell disaster for the industry and the products within it. As our counterparts to the north will testify, stringent cultivation requirements don't necessarily mean high-quality products.
After federal legalization in Canada, their equivalent of our FDA, Health Canada, imposed stringent regulations regarding retail cannabis and even suggested cultivators use a process called irradiation to sterilize the flower before it goes to retail. While using radiation to kill contaminants in food products isn't new technology, there are still questions regarding its safety for the end consumer, as well as the impact of radiation on the product. Test results have shown that irradiation may cause a depletion in the terpene content and many consumers report a lackluster taste in irradiated cannabis.
Additionally, with so many people suffering from ailments and side effects caused by previously FDA-approved drugs, vaccines, and treatments that end up being recalled, few trust the system anymore. With so little confidence in past and current regulations, many question giving politicians more control over the future of cannabis.
Taxes aren't the only reason cannabis consumers can expect to see prices increase after legalization. The demand for cannabis is far above the legal supply, which is why black market dealers are still in business. Depending on how the plant ultimately gets classified under federal legalization, the price for the cultivation of medical treatments, dietary supplements, and nutraceuticals made from cannabis or hemp will likely increase.
To receive USDA certification or FDA approval, cannabis and hemp farmers must pay for permits, licenses, and other administrative fees. The increase in operating expenses is going to equate to an increase in cost to the consumer. Additionally, where the products are being used for human consumption, producers are likely to see a change in cultivation regulations, similar to Canada, to ensure product safety for the consumer.
Just as California growers witnessed, with the new state regulations after recreational marijuana became legal, many small farmers will not be able to afford the necessary changes to their operation to comply; thus, the number of producers in the federally legal market will diminish. Unfortunately, it's generally the small players who get bumped out in a big market, leading to the next significant concern in the industry.
The Big Three: Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol, Big Pharma
While many advocates shout "Regulate like alcohol and tobacco!" Maybe one of the biggest fears most long-time cannabis consumers have is that big business will step in and bastardize cannabis for the sake of consumerism and the all-mighty dollar. All three industries have their eye on the budding market, and in Canada, some are already starting to make their move. Each of these industries makes a profit from heavy users, addiction, and prolific advertising budgets.
Constellation Brands announced plans to invest in the industry in Canada, and Philip Morris also appears to be ready to invest as well. The concept of a Marlboro branded cannabis cigarette isn't so far-fetched based on recent headlines.
An article from the Washington Post shows 60% of the population provides very little to the alcohol industry. So, approximately 40% of drinkers contributed the most revenue to the $231 billion industry in 2017. The tobacco industry formed an empire off of addiction, and few doubt the pharmaceutical industry's ability to create customers over cures.
GW Pharmaceuticals, and their FDA-approved cannabis-derived, CBD extract, Epidiolex is a prime example of big pharma trying to capitalize on illness. Priced at more than $32,000 per year for the average consumer, Epidiolex costs more than 13 times the amount of similar extracts made by reputable distributors in the hemp and cannabis industries who use similar, if not identical, processes for extraction.
If big business takes over the legal cannabis market, there will be three spectrums of cannabis:
"Wal-Mart Weed" – mass-produced, generic marijuana designed to be affordable, but lacks the superior flavor and effects of the small-batch, mom-and-pop cannabis grows.
"GNC Bud" – higher quality with a high price. In an era of health and wellness, nutraceuticals are in high demand. Just as many people pay top dollar for vitamins and other health supplements, in the age of big cannabis, expect this market to explode.
"Pharma Pot" – prescribed by a doctor, covered by insurance, and ridiculously expensive because the 90% of the population who pay for health insurance is covering the cost so pharmaceutical companies can charge more for it.
No Reliable Intoxication Measure
Another argument in regards to federal marijuana legalization comes from both sides of the fence. No one wants to put more impaired drivers on the road. However, due to biological differences in how individuals tolerate cannabinoids, the level of impairment is not necessarily parallel to a particular bio measurement like the roadside tests and BAC (blood alcohol content) measurements of alcohol. A medical patient with a high tolerance for THC may not show any signs of impairment with a very high level of THC, while a new recreational user may lose the ability to drive with a minimal dose.
In the same respect, many may question a medical marijuana patient's ability to perform specific tasks or work in some industries. THC metabolites, stored in fat cells, remain in the system longer than other drugs. In fact, THC can stay in the body 30-45 days after consumption depending on how often the consumer partakes in the substance. Yet, actual "intoxication" usually only lasts a few hours. So, many wonder about cannabis consumption by those in high-risk jobs such as career drivers, heavy machine operators, or careers involving weapons, such as military and police.
Recently, in Ottawa, officials announced a policy to allow police officers to use cannabis while off-duty. With no reliable testing method to interpret intoxication level, determining impairment in an officer-involved shooting incident could be challenging.
The Loss of a Counter-Culture
Although less significant in terms of societal impact, as cannabis becomes more mainstream the "stoner persona" and rebellious counter-culture which led the cannabis movement are slowly dying. While recreational use will likely carry a certain amount of stigma for several years after marijuana prohibition officially ends, the lovable, though blissfully, unaware pothead is losing ground to more modern appeal.
As women, seniors, and professional, hard-working adults learn the benefits of cannabis consumption and start to lean on the industry for a myriad of reasons, the perception of cannabis consumption causing laziness and apathy is as offensive as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions saying "Good people don't smoke marijuana." We know it’s not true. But, the tie-dye wearing, long-haired, pot-smoking hippie is a part of the rich history of the illustrious herb. While legalization is disproving the age-old stereotype, no one is ready to say to goodbye to our beloved Cheech and Chong.
Putting Federal Legalization into Perspective
Although many of these concerns are legitimate in nature, it's still important to recognize the benefits of federal legalization, as well.
Reduced Strain on Law Enforcement – less time spent on small marijuana offenses, means more time for higher priority problems.
Reduced Prison Population – less incarceration rate means less burden on the prison system, less strain on the taxpayers, and private, for-profit prisons will lose ground.
Reduced Dependence on Opioids – multiple studies prove cannabis can help to reduce dependence on opioid-based medications.
Increased Tax Base – while we may not like paying them, taxes improve our communities.
Decreased Unemployment – the cannabis industry is the largest growing industry in the United States with job listing increases of more than 700% year of year.
Allows for Research – to prove what cannabis consumers have been saying for decades, we need unbiased science to support our theories, with federal legalization comes proper research.
Improves Farming Industry – the agricultural industry can benefit from the advanced science and technologies that are being funded by the high-profit margin in cannabis and hemp farming.
Access for All ? many people, in non-legal states, are still missing out on their opportunity for an alternative to less effective pharmaceuticals because their lawmakers are hesitant to pass the laws.
For nearly nine decades, the U.S Government portrayed marijuana as a dangerous substance, and it will take time and a certain amount of sacrifice to reverse the public perception. Just as many states are taking baby steps into legalizing cannabis by voting on low-THC, CBD extracts and then later expanding on those programs as time passes, we can likely expect the end of marijuana prohibition in the United States to be implemented and expanded upon slowly. While paying additional taxes, abiding by standards and regulations, and following the rules isn't necessarily always fun to do, taking the precautions required for safe, accessible cannabis for everyone who needs or wants it, should be something we can all embrace.