The headlines have been telling us all year that marijuana is now legal in one form or another across the country. Pot possession has been decriminalized or the penalties reduced in more than two dozen states. As of this month (October), in only 10 states is it still “fully illegal”. The convictions of tens of thousands are being expunged. Congress has been inching toward easing banking restrictions for cannabis companies.
Since January 2018, when recreational pot became legal in California, marijuana - yesterday’s menace – has morphed into today’s cannabis, touted as medicine for all sorts of maladies from a sore shoulder to cancer. Stock prices of publicly-held cannabis companies, many offering eye-popping projections but not much else, pierced the stratosphere as investors scrambled to get in on the coming Green Rush. The industry appeared poised to explode – just as soon as marijuana “inevitably” became federally legal in the U.S.
It all sounded great – until weed (“nobody ever died of a marijuana overdose”) became the focus of the vaping epidemic. Public health officials say they still haven’t identified the exact cause, but the outbreak has been convincingly tied to vaping cannabis oil contaminated with a fungicide that, when heated, breaks down into cyanide.
As 2019 draws near an end, real federal reform is unlikely anytime before the presidential election – not before 2021. Meanwhile, the 50 states, thousands of counties, and tens of thousands of small towns and cities are making the rules up as they go. Last year’s bright shining future for cannabis is this year’s fumbled experiment.
- A Jamaican-American musician, Patrick Beadle, is currently sitting in a Mississippi state prison sweating out a three-year sentence for possession of marijuana while another motorist who was stopped last February on Interstate 95 through Baltimore – where the DA has refused to prosecute pot possession cases – was sent home with nothing more than a speeding ticket.
- The Transportation Safety Administration announced this year that, “TSA officers DO NOT search (passengers and bags) for marijuana or other illegal drugs” at airports in legal states.
- Yet arrests nationally are rising. FBI and law enforcement officials in parts of the country have reported that arrests for pot possession rose in 2018 – one every 48 seconds.
- Philadelphia police will ignore you if you smoke pot in public, but a few miles away in the suburbs you’ll be whisked away in handcuffs, on your way to a holding cell and a bail hearing.
- The vaping epidemic first surfaced in June, just two months after The Marijuana Times reported that a cannabis testing lab in Willits, California found that the oil in a huge shipment of black market vape cartridges was contaminated by astronomically high levels of a fungicide which, when heated, breaks down into a deadly form of cyanide. Now, as of mid-October, nearly 1,500 largely THC vapers have sustained lung injuries, many of them severe and permanent. Nearly three dozen have died.
- California state officials in two different agencies – Cannabis Control and Pesticide Regulation – were warned in May that a major health crisis might be brewing, before the first cases emerged. Officials at each agency told this reporter that contaminated cannabis oil “is not our department”, but were unable to suggest another department to call.
- CBD, the hemp element that doesn’t make you high but is supposed to be so good for you, lacks much in the way of credible science on how these substances interact with all the others we put on and in our bodies. CBD is a virtually unregulated Wild West national market, a cornucopia of untested and sometimes contaminated and phony products that people trust to put on and in their bodies.
- California’s system for granting permits to legally grow, process, track, and test cannabis is such a bureaucratic chokepoint that there isn’t enough product to meet demand, so the black market is booming and so is the potential spread of contaminated products.
- Taxes, fees, and multiple layers of regulation make it impossible for legal dispensaries to compete with illegal marijuana. Hundreds of rogue, pop-up pot shops in Los Angeles alone can openly sell potentially dangerous black market cannabis products at steep discounts because the city police force lacks the spare manpower necessary to shut them all down. For most of this year you could even find those illegal California pop-ups listed on a website: Weedmaps.com.
- U.S. companies in the legal cannabis business still cannot put their cash in federally regulated banks because marijuana remains federally illegal. Legit companies are limited in what business expenses they can deduct on federal returns related to cannabis activities.
The Money Pit:
- Proponents of legal recreational use predicted billions in new state tax revenue as users migrated from the black market. But legal sales in California fell by about 20 percent between 2017 and 2018. State tax receipts for 2018 were about half the projected $643 million. Factoring in the bureaucratic, enforcement, and other regulatory costs, some experts believe it may be costing taxpayers in some jurisdictions multiple dollars to collect one dollar in cannabis taxes.
- Billions of investment dollars – no one really knows how much – poured into every nook and cranny, from land on which to grow the pot, to equipment makers, to testing labs, to vape pen makers. A big chunk was invested through reverse mergers into shell companies listed on the second tier stock exchange in Canada, where marijuana is federally legal and regulated. To a former stock market columnist like myself, much of this investment activity – accompanied by a great deal of hype – had a familiar fishy smell that this year ruined investors’ appetites. Cannabis stock indices have cratered, down by as much as two-thirds from their highs, now at two-year lows, with little reason to expect a rebound anytime soon.
It is impossible to describe in a single article just how big a mess, how tangled a ball of string, America’s experiment with legalizing marijuana has become. Suggesting that the Green Rush is a failure so far has been controversial and generated some hate mail. The cannabis industry tends to operate under a cone of silence where inconvenient truths are muted in favor of topics like how to pass a drug test, or feature stories with quirky angles: “Reports Claim Bisexuals Smoke the Most Cannabis”, or, “California Rules Inmates Allowed To Possess Cannabis in Prison”.
In covering the industry during the past year, it’s been rare to find a company – and sometimes even a cannabis news site – that strays very far from the hype, self-congratulation, and fetishism of marijuana insiders and consumers. As a result of this news desert, stories about potentially poisonous vape pens that begged for widespread attention – before vapers got sick – were relegated to niche websites like The Marijuana Times.
But the facts speak for themselves. There are few standards. Public authority is scattered, disorganized, and understaffed. There is no comprehensive mechanism or central agency responsible for protecting public health (as opposed to reacting to a crisis). What’s legal or not depends on when and where you happen to be standing. And now that the fast-money crowd has left the party, you can expect a number of underfunded public companies to disappear.
Meanwhile, public officials are speaking in anxious tones, perhaps fearful of being caught on the wrong side of legalization. Although Americans overwhelmingly support it, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) recently compared the health claims for cannabis with health claims made a century ago for tobacco. “We’re hearing a lot of the same happy talk with regard to marijuana and none of the facts that we need to understand about the public health impact.”
The vaping epidemic is a jarring and pivotal moment in the development of the cannabis industry, but in retrospect predictable. Dr. Jeffrey Raber, CEO of TheWercShop, which provides technical and other services to the industry, had been warning about cannabis contamination for years. In an interview earlier this year about the problem with vape cartridges, Raber told veteran cannabis writer Mitchell Colbert, “We are all in a running experiment, and we are the subject.”
Other insiders agree and are alarmed by the health risks. Michael Doyle, a partner in Modular Processing Systems, a California-based company that processes, tests, and purifies contaminated cannabis oil, says that effectively all products made from the marijuana plant “are probably contaminated to some degree or another.”
The rise and reconsideration of cannabis today is reminiscent of the patent medicine mania of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when cocaine was touted as an instant cure for a toothache and opium was sold as a “soother” for infants. Then, as now, the truth had to be learned the hard way.