Looking back at December of last year, it’s hard to believe how much the cannabis industry has changed. California and three other states legalized cannabis; voters in four more states passed medical cannabis laws, too.
But so much more happened. So, we rounded up the most important cannabis news of the past year for the annual Cannabis Wire Year in Review.
16) Support for legalization hit new highs
While a majority of Americans have long been in support of cannabis for medical use, support for full legalization hit 50 percent in 2011 and has steadily risen since. An October Pew survey showed that 57 percent of Americans favored legalization, while Gallup released a survey in October that showed support at 60 percent.
A Gallup poll released in August 2016 also showed that cannabis use had nearly doubled in the last three years. It could be that use continues to increase as more states legalize, or it could be that adults responding to their survey feel more comfortable being honest about their cannabis consumption.
15) Cannabis moved further into the mainstream
Cannabis continued in 2016 to rise to the mainstream of not just politics, but pop culture, and investment.
The cannabis industry chipped in to back a proposed Kevin Smith comedy about cannabis called Hollyweed. High Maintenance, previously a web series about a cannabis delivery guy, premiered on HBO. MTV released Mary + Jane about two women who sell cannabis. Elizabeth Banks’ comedy platform, WhoHaHa, launched a show called Cannabis Moms Club.
After Melissa Etheridge and Snoop Dogg released cannabis products in 2015, celebrity involvement in the cannabis industry continued this year. Woody Harrelson tried (but failed) to open a dispensary in Hawaii, Willie Nelson launched the Willie’s Reserve cannabis brand, and now there’s talk of a Hunter S. Thompson strain.
Big name brands also got involved with the cannabis industry, from Microsoft partnering with a cannabis company to cloud host seed-to-sale tracking data, to the CEO of MiracleGro’s six-figure investing in cannabis agriculture. The alcohol giant behind Svedka vodka has also expressed interest in cannabis-infused alcoholic drinks.
14) Religious leaders spoke up about cannabis
Cannabis and religion crossed paths in 2016. Utah had two medical cannabis bills up for consideration: SB 73, which included non-smokable cannabis products that had both THC and CBD, and SB 89, which would only expand their CBD law.
The LDS church said in an unprecedented statement that they had “expressed concerns” about potential unintended harms created by the passage of a medical cannabis bill. A week later, they clarified their stance to indicate that the problem was with THC, not all kinds of medical cannabis. “While we are not in a position to evaluate specific medical claims, the Church understands that there are some individuals who may benefit from the medical use of compounds found in marijuana. For that reason, although the Church opposes SB 73, it has raised no objection to SB 89. These two competing pieces of legislation take very different approaches when it comes to issues like access, distribution, control and the potential harm of the hallucinogenic compound, THC,” the church said in a statement.
(Neither bill passed in the legislature.)
Boston’s Archdiocese made waves in Massachusetts when it gave $850,000 to oppose the state’s legalization initiative. While voters were consistently split on cannabis legalization in the run up to the election, voters passed recreational cannabis with 53 percent support in November.
13) Some professional athletes want access to medical cannabis
The conversation around sports and cannabis has been in the spotlight throughout 2016. Cannabis Wire published a feature in partnership with Narratively, which followed several professional athletes and discussed the current and former athletes that have turned to medical cannabis–and are becoming increasingly public about their use.
In November, Buffalo Bills offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson was handed a 10 game suspension because he violated the NFL’s policy on cannabis multiple times. Henderson, who has Crohn’s disease, uses cannabis to control pain related to the disease and related surgeries.
(Recently, this conversation extended to coaches because the coast for the Golden State Warriors admitted to using medical cannabis.)
Athletes punish their bodies over years and decades of competition. Some turn to opiates to manage chronic pain, but those pain management programs can lead to other health problems, or even addiction. The conversation around pain management in sports and medical cannabis overlaps with another major conversation this year, which is around cannabis as an opioid replacement. Elizabeth Warren (D – Massachusetts) called on the Center for Disease Control to further examine studies that show there are fewer opioid-related deaths in states where medical cannabis in legal.
12) Cannabis on tribal lands is still complicated
Cannabis on tribal lands has always been a complicated issue (read Cannabis Wire’s Starter Kit explainer on the topic here). In short, tribes have leeway to legalize cannabis, but sometimes those tribal lands are in states that have not done so.
While there was a flurry of excitement around the business opportunities across the country in 2015, most of those plans were too bold, too opportunistic, or poorly thought out. Instead, this year, a small number of tribes within states that have existing legal cannabis frameworks have slowly and quietly rolled out their plans.
Cannabis Wire published a feature in partnership with the Guardian US about one such tribe, The Squaxin Island Tribe, which opened the country’s first recreational cannabis shop on tribal lands, just northwest of Olympia, Washington.
11) Banking woes continued for the industry
Access to banking remains a key issue for the cannabis industry (read Cannabis Wire’s Starter Kit explainer).
At the beginning of the year, the ongoing case around a Colorado credit union that wanted to serve cannabis businesses was dismissed. The court sided with the Federal Reserve’s decision to deny the Fourth Corner Credit Union the master account necessary to operate.
Though, the number of financial institutions willing to work with cannabis businesses in the last couple of years has increased to roughly 300, according to information obtained for Cannabis Wire’s California Legalization Report.
10) Cannabis cafés are coming to America
While Colorado has been attracting “cannabis tourists,” their cannabis tourism has likely peaked. Legalization passed in four states, including California and Nevada, where Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Las Vegas already draw tourists on their own. Colorado is bound to have cannabis competition.
“This is going to be more of a tourism thing than a local thing,” Senator Tick Segerblom (D-Nevada) told Cannabis Wire. “We’ll advertise all over the world: come to Nevada, get stoned, have a great meal, go to a great concert.”
Pauline Frommer, editorial director of Frommer’s, and also daughter of Frommer’s creator Arthur, told Cannabis Wire that she didn’t think that the uptick in visitors to Colorado was “just from skiers,” instead implying that legalization was part of the reason. “I think it’s already mainstream,” Frommer said, of cannabis tourism.
There is one tourism trend that will change the cannabis landscape in 2017 and in years to come: cannabis cafes. Alaska was the first state to allow on-site cannabis consumption, and Washington, D.C. came close to doing the same earlier this year.
This past election day, the trend continued when Denver voters passed an ordinance that permits cannabis consumption in public places, like event spaces or restaurants (but not bars). The reasoning behind the need for on-site consumption? Tourists need a place to consume cannabis legally–out of public sight and off park grounds.
Interestingly, California and Maine explicitly created a license type for on-site lounges, and the door is open to it in both Massachusetts and Nevada. Massachusetts’ legalization initiative noted that the state “may allow” on-site cannabis consumption with the approval of localities, while Segerblom told Cannabis Wire for our Legalization Report that he would push for on-site consumption.
9) Alcohol industry influence increased
While the alcohol model has guided legalized cannabis from the beginning (the Washington State Liquor Control Board became the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, for example), the influence of the alcohol industry was more wide-reaching than ever in 2016.
One example is the addition of the distributor level license in Nevada and California. In Nevada, where voters legalized cannabis on election day, a provision in the initiative stipulates that for 18 months, only entities already licensed to distribute alcohol may distribute cannabis; others can do so only if too few alcohol distributors come forward. We outlined in our Legalization Report that in California, Ted Simpkins, a former senior executive at Southern Wine & Spirits (the largest distributor in the country) opened a cannabis distribution facility.
Also noted in our California Legalization Report: The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America has named cannabis legalization as a “Regulatory Key Issue” on their site: “WSWA stands ready to serve as a resource for states in explaining the merits of the three tier system as a systematic and effective regulatory framework.”
Further, for the first time, a legalization initiative included language around appellations. Appellations will be an important part of California’s emerging legal cannabis market. As noted in our California Legalization Report, some cannabis could soon resemble region-specific wines, like Champagne or Bordeaux. So far, Humboldt is ahead of the pack because growers’ groups pushed for appellations that they hope will give them a distinctive marketing edge over cheaper, mass-produced cannabis.
8) Quality control was on regulators’ minds
One area of the cannabis industry that remains of utmost concerns to regulators, consumers, and license holders is cannabis quality control.
In January 2016, as Washington merged their medical and recreational markets after voters passed legalization, a new rule emerged: all cannabis infused edible and liquid products would have to include the “Mr. Yuk” poison control label.
In September, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis board announced that they would, in collaboration with the state agriculture department, randomly test cannabis for prohibited pesticides.
“This new agreement will increase consumer protection in the emerging marijuana retail industry,” Derek Sandison, the Washington State agriculture department director, said in a statement.
In addition to rules around pesticide concerns and subsequent recalls, regulators also started discussing potency caps. Cannabis Wire published a feature on how regulators weighed the issue, and what it meant for public health.
“The industry always wants higher limits and public health folks always want lower limits,” the Oregon Health Authority’s Andre Ourso, manager of the state’s medical cannabis program, told Cannabis Wire. “But we do look to compromise between the two sides. The people in the industry understand the public health focus and concerns. They’ve not been unreasonable and have been helpful in suggesting limits that could benefit everyone on all sides.”
In addition, Oregon officials decided to prohibit strain names that appealed to children. So cannabis strains like Girl Scout Cookies and Grape Ape will disappear from Oregon.
Colorado cannabis edibles now need to have a stamp indicating that they contain THC; this will help differentiate cannabis products so that it has a better chance of staying out of kids’ hands, and so that adults can consume cannabis more responsibly.
“With the new universal symbol, people can more easily identify marijuana products, monitor their intake by serving size and avoid eating too much,” said Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director and chief medical officer at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, in a statement.
7) Countries moved toward changing cannabis laws
While a number of individual countries made big moves around cannabis in 2016, perhaps the single most important global event around the issue was the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs (UNGASS)–the first convening of its kind in nearly two decades.
Canada and Mexico made major announcements around cannabis. First, Canada’s health minister announced a timetable for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign promise to legalize cannabis. And Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto announced that he would introduce medical cannabis legislation, and said “we must move beyond prohibition.”
To applause, Jamaica’s foreign minister argued against the restrictions around cannabis for medical use, and she also suggested that countries should have more flexibility in the global drug treaty to determine their own approach.
In the months since, Canada has stuck to the timeline of introducing legalization legislation by the spring of 2017. Along the way, there have been crackdowns on unlicensed medical cannabis shops and changes to the existing medical cannabis program.
It’s unclear what this will mean for the northern border, which will be longest border in the world between one country that has legalized cannabis, and one that hasn’t. It’s possible that cannabis will begin to flow more frequently into the U.S. through its Canadian border.
In Mexico, on the other hand, the medical cannabis legislation failed, and the full legalization forums across the country did not lead to legislation.
Conversations around medical cannabis are progressing in England and Greece.
6) State of the states: what happened with cannabis policy on a state level?
At the state level, cannabis policies have been rapidly evolving. Some states passed medical cannabis laws while others debated legalization, and some states expanded their cannabis industry while others reined it in.
A handful of legalization bills failed this year, including in Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Mexico, and Michigan.
With Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin behind the effort, legalization in Vermont appeared poised to pass; Shumlin expressed disappointment when it didn’t.
“The War on Drugs policy of marijuana prohibition has failed. I want to thank those House members who recognize that and worked to move this issue forward. It is incredibly disappointing, however, that a majority of the House has shown a remarkable disregard for the sentiment of most Vermonters who understand that we must pursue a smarter policy when it comes to marijuana in this state,” Shumlin said in a statement.
Medical cannabis was legalized by legislature in Pennsylvania and Ohio. Pennsylvania’s governor was behind the effort in the state, which is so far unfolding smoothly. In Ohio, the Marijuana Policy Project successfully forced the legislature’s hand to move on medical cannabis by proposing a competing initiative.
Maryland’s medical cannabis program rollout has been a bit of a mess, in part because of how competitive the application process was. More than 1,000 applications came in, causing delays in the selection, which has since spurred lawsuits and controversy over a lack of racial and geographic diversity among the selected. Maryland’s program is particularly competitive because the industry could be more lucrative than other recent medical cannabis states; Maryland includes chronic pain as an approved condition, which could increase the number of patients that can participate. In addition, by permitting whole plant (bud) sales, costs could be lower to cannabis business owners than those who run a cannabis business in a state like New York, which requires non-smokable products.
There’s been a lot of conversation around local control, with a number of localities in Ohio and Florida opting out of medical cannabis, and with votes in Pueblo County, Colorado, and throughout Oregon, around whether to opt out of full legalization. In the coming months, local control will perhaps be most important in California, where localities are given significant flexibility around their participation in what will become the country’s largest cannabis market (our report includes a survey of where each of these California counties stand on commercial cannabis activity).
Medical cannabis sales began in New Hampshire and New York, and could begin this month in Delaware. New York has already expanded its program by opening up the list of approved conditions to include chronic pain, a similar move made in Minnesota and Illinois this year. The combination of restrictive conditions, and approval of only non-smokable medical cannabis products for sale in Minnesota and New York (Pennsylvania has a similar rule), led to low sales for some medical cannabis companies.
States with both legal medical and non-medical cannabis have experienced some growing pains. In Oregon, the state has been slowly establishing the recreational use industry while phasing it away from the medical cannabis industry that has been, in the interim, serving recreational use consumers. Washington state fully merged their medical and recreational programs; there are no longer standalone medical cannabis shops, only recreational shops with the option to also serve medical cannabis.
And in Michigan, where illegal medical cannabis shops have proliferated for a half decade, the state finally passed legislation to license and regulate them.
5) The cannabis legalization experiments were evaluated…with data
There are still a number of unanswered questions around legalization, for example, whether stoned driving will increase. One benefit of the state-by-state approach is that the early states can collect data that will inform states to come. So when regulators in states with upcoming recreational markets craft rules, they have concrete information on which to base decisions. Here are some important findings from this year:
A February study from New England Journal of Medicine found that the majority of people who went to Colorado emergency rooms were tourists, suggesting that public education efforts needed to focus on visitors, not Colorado residents.
“The initial educational efforts through mass media have focused primarily on Colorado residents. These data underscore the importance of point-of-sale education for visitors regarding the safe and appropriate use of marijuana products,” the researchers noted.
Colorado released their 2016 state patrol data and it showed a slight decrease in drivers who took to the road while impaired by cannabis. It wasn’t a dramatic decrease, though: the number went from 354 to 347. Dual consumption of both alcohol and cannabis remained the same at 209 citations.
Could cannabis mitigate some effects of alcohol in drivers? Maybe. Cannabis Wire reported on a study sponsored by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the Office of the National Drug Control Policy, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Conducted using the University of Iowa’s National Advanced Driving Simulator, the study found that, essentially, cannabis-impaired drivers are more self-aware than alcohol-impaired drivers. “Cannabis was associated with slower driving and greater headway, suggesting a possible awareness of impairment and attempt to compensate.”
4) Cannabis forced some federal conversations
While federal policies around cannabis remained unchanged this year, state movement around cannabis forced some conversations to the top.
For example, the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear the case by Nebraska and Oklahoma against legal cannabis in Colorado. These two states, which prohibit cannabis, argued that cannabis from Colorado was crossing their borders and putting a strain on their law enforcement resources.
While the Food and Drug Administration cannot make policies around cannabis product manufacturing in the same way they might around a conventional food production facility, as a result of federal prohibition, the Association of Food and Drug Officials told Cannabis Wire that they passed a resolution asking for “federal leadership” around edibles.
Finally, federal legislation came close to allowing Veterans Affairs doctors to recommend medical cannabis to their patients; currently, veterans have to get a recommendation from outside the VA. The VA system presents a particularly interesting intersection for doctors and medical cannabis because VA physicians are employees of the federal government, which adamantly prohibits cannabis.
This leads to perhaps the most significant federal development around cannabis in years…
3) DEA: no to rescheduling, yes to research
There have been four major developments around cannabis research this year amidst unprecedented debate about the plant’s medical potential among federal officials and lawmakers (including Barack Obama, who said he would not reschedule the plant while in office, and former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who said the plant “ought to be rescheduled”).
The first development is the DEA’s decision not to reschedule cannabis, leaving cannabis in Schedule 1, which means it is considered to have no medical value and a high abuse potential. The second development is the decision to, for the first time, license more than one entity to grow cannabis for research–a privilege for decades held only by the University of Mississippi.
While no other university has been federally approved to grow cannabis for research, a third development is an increase in exploration of medical cannabis by academic institutions. Colorado State University-Pueblo launched an Institute of Cannabis Research, backed by tax revenue from legalization. Revenue from legalization in California will also go to bring back to life the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research at the University of California San Diego, which wrapped up funding from the state legislature several years ago. Jefferson University launched a Center for Medical Cannabis Education and Research, which includes on its board Mahmoud El-Sohly, who is in charge of the Ole Miss federal cannabis farm. And in Louisiana, both state universities are making plans to become the first state universities to provide medical cannabis for a state medical cannabis program–if the feds let the plan unfold.
Finally, this has been a year of intense interest around cannabidiol (CBD) among federal officials. The compound could be, independently of the whole cannabis plant, rescheduled. Clinical trials have wrapped up for Epidiolex, which could become the first CBD-based cannabis pharmaceutical to hit the market.
2) Legalization initiatives were front and center in 2016
Of nine medical and recreational use legalization initiatives on state ballots this November, eight passed.
California, Maine, Nevada, and Massachusetts all voted to legalize cannabis for recreational use. Arizona came close, but did not pass. Advocates in the state have said they will prepare for another push in either 2018 or 2020. And Arkansas, Florida (which already had a CBD law), and North Dakota all voted to legalize cannabis for medical use. Montana also passed a medical cannabis initiative, but it was to resolve a longtime rollercoaster around the existing medical cannabis law, and to formalize an avenue for sales.
Legalization in California is perhaps the single biggest event to hit the cannabis industry since its inception. The cannabis market in the nation’s most populous state, and the sixth largest economy in the world, will shape not only the U.S. cannabis industry, but the cannabis industry across the globe. Cannabis Wire released its first report. Read some findings and buy it here.
1) So, what’s next for cannabis policy under a Donald Trump administration?
The most significant growth in the cannabis industry happened during the eight years Barack Obama was president. Before then, there were roughly a dozen states with medical cannabis laws (it has since doubled), and only a couple of those formally allowed commercial activity.
While Obama did not officially change federal policy around cannabis, his administration opted for a hands-off approach through a series of Department of Justice memos. These memos essentially signaled to the states that the DOJ would likely only interfere if the cannabis activity in the state trickled across borders, or into the hands of kids, for example.
The next administration has great latitude, and the ripples of Donald Trump’s victory this November will continue to emerge in 2017. While the Democratic National Convention platform included a “pathway for future legalization,” there was no such support for legalization among Republicans. During his campaign, Trump was unclear about his stance on legal cannabis: at one point he indicated support for states to choose their own policies, and another time called Colorado a “problem.”
Trump’s administration selections have begun to paint a clearer picture. On one hand, Peter Thiel has been heavily involved in the transition, and Thiel is a major investor in the cannabis industry (Privateer Holdings, to be specific). On the other hand, Jeff Sessions was selected to be the next attorney general–a role that matters deeply when it comes to cannabis policy. So who is Jeff Sessions and what does he think about cannabis?
One of Sessions’ most well-known quotes about cannabis is when he told Benjamin Wagner, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California, that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” This happened in April 2016 at a Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control during which Sessions drilled into Wagner about a failure of leadership at the White House around cannabis and the great benefits of “Just Say No” and the hardline approach to drugs in the 80s.
So, on a single election day, four states, including America’s most populous, voted to legalize cannabis, which means that the U.S. now has medical cannabis in a majority of the states and recreational cannabis in eight.
Conversely, the Obama administration is handing the baton to a new administration that could easily achieve a chilling effect with a single federal memo. And with effort, federal raids could shut down much of the cannabis industry. December 2016 represents a time of both promise and uncertainty for the cannabis industry. And next year it could continue to boom–or bust. It comes down to whether the Trump administration’s version of the GOP will favor business and let the billion dollar cannabis industry grow because of state’s rights–or whether an inherent moral opposition to cannabis will prevail as federal cannabis policy decisions are made over the next four years.
The answer to that question will determine the future of cannabis in America.
This Year in Review is informed by stories that Cannabis Wire published in 2016, and also our weekly newsletter. To stay up-to-date on cannabis news throughout the year, sign up for our newsletter here: tinyletter.com/CannabisWire