State cannabis policies are more of a patchwork now than ever before, with cannabis legal for adult use in 15 states (and Washington, D.C.) and for medical use in dozens, but state regulators took a step toward cohesion with the formation of a national group.
The Cannabis Regulators Association (CANNRA), formally announced on Thursday, aims to find best practices and model policies among a sea of disparate approaches to the legalization of cannabis for medical and adult use. The group will also “assist” various agencies and jurisdictions, from federal to local, as they mull cannabis policies.
This announcement of the group comes on the heels of Election Day, when New Jersey, Arizona, and Montana voters legalized for adult use, Mississippi legalized for medical use, and, in an historic first, South Dakota voters legalized for both purposes on the same day.
“The association will strive to create and promote harmony and standardization across jurisdictions which choose to legalize and regulate cannabis,” Norman Birenbaum, CANNRA’s inaugural president, said in a statement. “The Cannabis Regulators Association will also work to ensure federal officials benefit from the vast experiences of states across the nation to ensure any changes to federal law adequately address states’ needs and priorities.”
Birenbaum is also currently New York’s Director of Cannabis Programs, which regulates the state’s medical cannabis and hemp programs, and will also regulate the state’s future adult use program, if rumblings are true that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo will renew his push to legalize in January.
Cannabis Wire reported last December in a Q&A with Birenbaum that Birenbaum was a coordinator of a group called the Regulators Roundtable, which brought together regulators from the US and Canada to “share emerging trends in cannabis legalization and develop best practices in cannabis policy and regulation.” Birenbaum confirmed to Cannabis Wire on Thursday that while not all past Roundtable participants have joined as members, CANNRA will now be “facilitating and hosting” the Regulator Roundtable meetings and programming. Some meetings will be public, while others will be closed for members-only, Birenbaum said.
“This collaborative forum made a significant impact on past initiatives in Rhode Island and I expect it will continue to help me in my new role here in New York,” Birenbaum told Cannabis Wire last year.
Over time, the information conversations became “more structured,” Birenbaum said, bringing in necessary regulators and subject matter experts.
“As more states began to legalize and regulate cannabis, and as the regulatory issues and the industry continued to evolve and become more complex, it became clear that a formal organization is needed to support and expand this work,” Birenbaum told Cannabis Wire on Thursday. “We have been working to establish the Cannabis Regulators Association for over a year and are pleased to announce our formation at such a pivotal time as local, state, and federal officials continue to debate cannabis policy and refine regulatory approaches.”
So far, cannabis regulators from 19 states have joined the effort. These include: Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, and Washington.
Birenbaum told Cannabis Wire that CANNRA will be creating committees and working groups on specific focus areas, including: federal policy and engagement, equity, banking, compliance and enforcement, interstate coordination, local coordination, testing, education and youth prevention, impaired driving and workplace consumption, packaging and labeling, energy and environmental policies, research, hemp policies (industrial and cannabinoid), and taxation.
For years, cannabis regulators have informally leaned on each other for tough lessons learned and best practices. Last October, Cuomo hosted the Regional Cannabis Regulation and Vaping Summit, which brought together governors, lawmakers, and regulators from New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Colorado to debate—and, they aim, to agree upon—cannabis policies, from legalization to vaping.
At the time, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont said he took a fishing trip with Cuomo to discuss policies that could be better implemented in concert, from cyber security to cannabis.
“This patchwork quilt of regulations makes no sense at all,” Lamont said at the summit. “My state of Connecticut, people cross the border. They drive up to Massachusetts where they buy some cannabis and bring it back, and that makes a real problem for our state police.”
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy told Cannabis Wire, and a small group of journalists, “The more coordinated and harmonious we can be, the better off we’ll all individually be. Obviously, we’d keep our own legislative reality. Your executive order authority is your own, but I’m optimistic we can do this in a way—this being both vaping and adult use of recreational marijuana—in a coordinated way.”
In another example of state leaders trying to learn from each other, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan hosted an event last December called a “Conversation About Cannabis: Lessons from our Neighbors,” which included Erik Gunderson, director of Maine’s Office of Marijuana Policy. Discussion drew heavily on experiences with legalization from Maine and Massachusetts, where voters legalized cannabis for adult use in 2016.
In another example, Colorado stakeholders, who have spent months this year hammering out equity provisions, years after voters legalized in 2012, suggested that other states could provide a blueprint.
In August, John Bailey, of the Black Cannabis Equity Initiative, brought up the need, several times, for Colorado stakeholders and regulators to seek data points and experiences from lawmakers and regulators in other states that have embarked on social equity cannabis initiatives.
“What has been the research done from a comparative analysis to see what other states are doing? Because at the same time, other states are learning from us. There are some other states from a social equity perspective that have done some things, not just sporadic gestures of goodwill, but have actually done some things,” Bailey said.
This story was updated at 1:05 p.m. with comments from Norman Birenbaum.