Despite Shifting Views, Cannabis Stigma and Discrimination Holds Strong

On the surface it may seem that the world has finally grown to accept cannabis – the plant, the users, and the culture. Laws on the subject are relaxing, legal markets are becoming increasingly common, and high-end, lab-tested products are available with a simple click of a button. One thing that’s proving more difficult to shake is the stigma that has been a dark cloud over cannabis use for decades. Where did these ideas originate and why are they so hard to break away from?

I enjoy smoking weed outside. I come from a rural area where I had a large, very private backyard, friendly progressive neighbors, and smoking around my property was just something I did without giving any thought to it. I recently sold my home and have been temporarily living in a more condensed “suburbia” type of neighborhood for the last few months.

Here, weed is NOT ok.

Trying to be somewhat discreet, I’ve been sticking to quietly smoking in my garage while keeping an eye on my oldest son as he plays with the other kids in the neighborhood. One afternoon, one of my son’s friends approached me in the garage (my garage) and said, “oh, you’re smoking that stuff again… my mom said I’m not allowed to smell it.” And unfortunately, that’s not the only comment I’ve heard, but that’s one of the ones that sticks out most to me.

So clearly, my cannabis habits are being discussed among the other parents; and clearly, they don’t approve. It’s worth mentioning that block parties with drinking are a semi-regular thing but a measly bud has everyone up in arms. It honestly baffles my mind, but as all the neighbors continue to rally against my pot use, it has shed a light on how many people still hold on to these negative views about cannabis and how engrained this stigma remains in our society.

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The US and Its Complicated History with Cannabis        

Cannabis and other psychedelic plants have been used therapeutically in Eastern traditional medicine for centuries and its use has been noted in numerous different countries and continents throughout history. Even in the United States, the value of cannabis as a healing plant was known far and wide.

Back then, Eli Lilly, Bristol-Meyer’s Squib, and other major pharmaceutical brands were using cannabis extracts, sometimes even whole plant matter, in their formulations. A New York Times article from 1876 even cites the use of cannabis to cure a condition referred to back then as “dropsy”, which was swelling in the soft tissues from an accumulation of fluid in the body. Today this would be known as edema.

Before 1910, the word “marijuana” did not even exist in American culture. It was known by its scientific name because recreational use was not very widespread at the time. Following a wave of LEGAL immigration in the early 1900s, the idea of recreational cannabis use was on the rise. The government used that as a scapegoat to push ridiculous cannabis regulations, but it’s one of those situations where it really is hard to determine cause and effect: was the uptick in cannabis use caused by the new citizens and population growth, or where these two events completely unrelated and just occurring at the same time? Cannabis was nothing new and increased curiosity and use seemed inevitable.

Regardless, once the government realized people were using cannabis for fun and not just to treat chronic illnesses, the war on weed began. A familiar name in modern cannabis history is Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics. When he got appointed is when the word “marijuana” start making the headlines and the word “cannabis” became of thing of the past. It really shows how powerful is the parallel between language and public opinion.

Although “cannabis” was a medicinal plant that was relatively well-known in the United States, “marijuana” (spelled “marihuana” at the time) was seen as a dangerous drug that creeped in the shadows of America’s counterculture. Many point to the fact that without his fabricated war on “drugs”, Anslinger would have had nothing to do and inevitably lost his position. So he took some disturbingly racist ideologies, a lot of fear mongering, and a touch of hardcore conservativism and weaved together what would end up being a decades long campaign against a harmless plant and many innocent people.

Public Perception Framing the Legal Landscape

Among one of Anslinger’s most powerful weapons was his manipulation of the media and understanding of public perception. On the milder end of things, he was perpetuating the negative cannabis stereotypes we still hear today: marijuana users are lazy, unmotivated, unintelligent, reckless, thoughtless, dangerous, low-lives, etc.

On the more extreme side of the spectrum, he insisted that cannabis use led to “insanity, criminality, and death,” and that “smoking marihuana cigarettes for a month” would cause a completely normal person’s brain “to be nothing but a storehouse of horrid specters.” He added that “Hasheesh makes a murderer who kills for the love of killing out of the mildest mannered man who ever laughed at the idea that any habit could ever get him” Yes, he was very dramatic, but that proved to be incredibly effective.

In 1936, an infamous propaganda film called Reefer Madness hit the screens. In the movie, teenagers try smoking weed for their first time and their night spirals into a series of horrific events such as disturbing hallucinations, attempted rape, and ultimately, murder. The movie was right in line with what Anslinger had been babbling about and people were terrifying that “marihuana” was going to corrupt their youth.

Cannabis quickly became public enemy number one and we’ve been fighting the negative reputation ever since. Only in the last few years have we seen decades of activism come to fruition with more mainstream recognition and legal leniency. That said, we’re still a long way from where we need to be, and much of the roadblocks have been a direct result of the existing cannabis stigma.

Because of the way cannabis is viewed, it has always been difficult to pass any kind of progressive legislation which means research efforts are hindered, an outrageous number of citizens have criminal charges for cannabis possession, and in general, people suffer because of these outdated attitudes.

Stigmatized Socially

Cannabis users have reported “stigma” in the form of discrimination, rejection, and judgement in many different social contexts and from many different types of people. Most commonly, it’s experienced in the workplace, housing, and travel. For example, it is well-known that most jobs drug test all potential hirees and cannabis is usually a disqualifying factor. Not only that, but cannabis stays in the system longer than other substances – 15+ days for cannabis and only 2-3 days for drugs like meth and heroin – so it’s more likely that a cannabis user would fail an employment drug screen than a user of harder drugs.

In housing, we face unique issues as well. When you rent a home or apartment, there are often stipulations in the rental agreement regarding smoking. Typically, if you’re found to be smoking then you’ll need to pay an extra cleaning fee when you move out. Sometimes, it’s small and insignificant, but other times the fee is rather exorbitant and in some extreme cases, the person could be kicked out of their home for breach of contract.

The obvious issue here is people who smoke cannabis for wellness reasons are still on the hook financially, even if they can provide a medical recommendation. The same thing happens at hotels, air bnbs, and other short-term lodging facilities which can make travelling a seriously daunting task for a medicinal cannabis user.

Researchers from the University of Amsterdam recently set out to understand this phenomenon even better by comparing seven European countries to see if the stigma was higher in areas where cannabis was more strictly criminalized. The results, which found a definitive link between criminality and stigma, were published in the European Journal of Criminology. Although the study was conducted overseas, the same principal applies here in the states. In a state like California or Colorado, you’re more likely to find a larger number of people who are not only accepting of, but open and transparent about cannabis use than you would in a state like Alabama or Mississippi. I personally was much more discreet about my pot smoking when I lived in Indiana then I am here in California.

This all makes sense considered that cannabis stigma only became a thing when public views and laws began to regress. Remember, less than a couple hundred years ago cannabis was a widely accepted, easily accessible, and heavily utilized herbal remedy… but by the early 1900s anti-cannabis campaigns were in full force, filling people’s minds with misinformation and fear. In this new age, cannabis was a threat, it had no medicinal value, and stigmatization of cannabis users became the societal norm.

Stigmatized Medically

Medical stigma is real, and it’s dangerous. Stigma and discrimination in healthcare is well documented and it has a profound impact the treatment and health outcomes of patients who experience it. Examples of this can include making people wait longer for care, passing off their care to junior colleagues or students, outright denial of care, threats of legal action, or even verbal and physical abuse. The fear of being judged can make people completely avoid much needed medical procedures and put them in possibly life-threatening situations.

For instance, take a woman who is using cannabis to minimize her anxiety while dealing with some mild postpartum depression. To me, that seems perfectly reasonable, normal, and even responsible since I view cannabis as being much safer than prescription medication. But a medical doctor would likely feel different, urging her to switch from cannabis to some type of antidepressant and mandating drug tests to make sure she stops smoking weed.

If she fails the next drug test, she will be threatened with legal action and might even lose custody of her child, and from that point it can take years (if ever) to regain control of her life. Knowing all this, it’s more likely that this hypothetical woman will avoid talking to a healthcare professional at all. In this circumstance, and in a perfect world where cannabis research was more widely accepted, a combination of therapy and cannabis treatment would probably be the perfect remedy; but in a world of politicized healthcare, what is best for us takes backseat to what is most profitable.

A Canadian study surveyed twenty-three individuals who use cannabis therapeutically for a wide range of health problems, to determine how the stigma affects their treatment and daily lives, as well as see what they do to manage it. Some people have been denied other medications based on their cannabis use, been intimidated by their doctors, had to pass up certain jobs, some have lost friends and relatives stopped talking to them.

The most common strategy for minimizing these issues was to be more secretive about their cannabis use. But stop and think for a minute how ridiculous that sounds. Would someone taking heart medications, or something for high cholesterol or blood pressure have to hide their health condition to avoid being judged? Do diabetics have to hide in their car to check their glucose levels for fear of being fired if anyone finds out they have a chronic disease? So why is this a problem for people medicating with cannabis?

How to Be Part of the Change

Talk more! Be loud and unashamed of your cannabis use. Be part of the movement that pushes cannabis forward. Often, the people who are least vocal about it are the ones who would do the most to shatter these preconceived notions that people have. The quiet biology teacher that goes home and smokes a joint to unwind from dealing with other people’s teenagers day after day. The firefighter who likes to munch on some edibles after a 72-hour shift. The old combat veteran down the street that hates taking 12 pills a day and chooses to light up instead.

It won’t always be the in-your-face, cannabis activist types that make waves in politics… that has to be a combined effort of everyone who has the privilege of utilizing the cannabis plant’s undeniable benefits. Together is the only way we will move past cannabis stigma.

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Advocates Stress Need for Equity in Cannabis During Museum of Weed Panel

Members of the diverse communities that were savaged by the war on drugs are working together to be sure that they will not be cast aside in today’s cannabis industry. 

Whether they’re politicians, pastors, entrepreneurs or activists, social equity advocates are united in ensuring that the predicted economic boon of legalized marijuana will not leave them behind.

That was the consensus of panelists and a crowd of 200 gathered Sept. 26, 2019 at the Weedmaps Museum of Weed in Hollywood, California, for Social Equity Day. The free event at the museum featured two panel discussions on advocacy and social equity to raise awareness on social justice efforts in the marijuana legalization process.

Cannabis industry insiders and outsiders alike are engaged in intense grass-roots efforts to secure a foothold in the cannabis industry, particularly among people of color who were disportionately targeted by cannabis prohibition.

Social equity isn’t just just a noble idea; it was part of the intent behind Proposition 64, which California voters approved in 2016. The law calls for regulating cannabis to reduce barriers to entry into the legal, regulated market by offering technical, financial, regulatory and other forms of support to those who were disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. 

Democratic California state Sen. Steven Bradford, a panel participant, wrote the California Cannabis Equity Act of 2018, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed, thus allowing distribution of grant money to cities with local equity programs.

(Anthony Brown/Weedmaps)
Maria Cordona, left, a political consultant and CNN commentator, moderates a social equity panel featuring speakers Frank Louie of the CalAsian Chamber of Commerce, Armando Gudiño of the Drug Policy Alliance, cannabis law consultant Yvette McDowell, and California state Sen. Steven Bradford on Sept. 26, 2019 at the Weedmaps Museum of Weed in Hollywood, California.

Part of the Weedmaps Museum of Weed‘s mission is to spotlight the history of cannabis and shed light on the most damning moments throughout the last century. In addition, Weedmaps recently launched a program to accelerate more inclusive minority participation in the cannabis industry. The initiative will help entrepreneurs as they apply for and obtain licenses and receive professional development training and compliance resources. Minority entrepreneurs also will receive free advertising for their licensed businesses. 

“We want to make sure the people who drove the industry to where it is today have a chance to succeed in the industry,” said Weedmaps Chief Marketing Officer Juanjo Feijoo in a pre-conference discussion about the company’s support of social equity initiatives.

The panelists noted that it also will take personal and organized efforts to work together so that independent business owners from the diverse communities that were savaged by the war on drugs will not be cast aside. Several mentioned the need for creating political will and policy to keep Big Tobacco and Big Pharma from moving in to co-opt the market and reap all the rewards.

It will also take education, funding, and well-crafted legislation to make social equity and social justice foundational in the coming cannabis revolution.

In recent years, as the cannabis industry has grown and prospered along with legalization, many advocates have called for a focus on social equity and justice.

And that all starts on home turf, organizers said.

“You must get involved. You have to start locally because all politics start locally,” said Yvette McDowell, a cannabis law consultant and co-chair of the California Cannabis Industry Association’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Equity Committee.

“Know your council members. That’s where you have to start. You have to start educating them,” McDowell said.

Sen. Bradford agreed and urged attendees to engage with and educate local lawmakers.

Kika Keith, a social equity advocate and founder and CEO of Gorilla Life Beverage Company, said people need to read and understand the law, which provides the foundation and guiding principles of social equity.

“Then we have to show up,” she said. “We have to show up at our neighborhood councils and tell them why it’s important. There’s a whole community reinvestment. Social equity isn’t just about racism, it’s about job creation. Also about equity in the communities that were affected by drugs.”

Keith and her colleagues travel to Sacramento, California’s capital, to be heard as well.

“You’ve got to go to these meetings and get on the mic and be part of the record,” she said. “Then all of a sudden you see the tone start to change. And that’s the only way we can effectively make our way all the way to the state.”

An executive for a tech company specializing in cannabis urged participants to act quickly.

“The faster we buckle up, the better off we’ll all be and be able to not just rally as a community, but rally as a community that’s educated that can play the game,” said David Hua, CEO and co-founder of Meadow, a software company specializing in California cannabis. “That when we need new legislation, we can create the bill that we can all get behind.

“If we need to rally to get someone in office or go to a board of supervisors meeting we can do that and speak the language,” Hua said.

(Anthony Brown/Weedmaps)
Frank Louie, center, Chief Operating Officer of the CalAsian Chamber of Commerce, addresses the audience Sept. 26, 2019, during the Weedmaps Museum of Weed’s social equity forum in Hollywood, California. Political strategist and CNN commentator Maria Cardona, left, was the moderator, and Armando Gudiño, Policy Director for the Drug Policy Alliance, was also a speaker.

In response to calls for equity, a number of California cities, including Los Angeles, Oakland, and San Francisco have created social equity programs, “to acknowledge and repair the harm caused by the War on Drugs and the disparate enforcement of cannabis prohibition,” according to the Los Angeles Social Equity Program website.

However, the legislative clock is ticking, said Armando Gudiño, Policy Manager of the Drug Policy Alliance. He said in 2023, California is set to open its cannabis markets to major tobacco and pharmacology companies. When that happens, equity partners that are not in business and running may find themselves out of luck trying to compete with the corporations. In addition, he noted that more than 75% of the cities in California have yet to set out regulations for cannabis operations, which is problematic for potential equity partners.

Gudiño advocates for a law that would add a five-year moratorium before the corporations can move in. 

Several equity partner applicants from Northern California engaged at a round table before the panel discussions and talked about the struggles they face. These included finding adequate funding for fees, legal help, and rents. They also discussed the need to be educated in business and law, the better to navigate unscrupulous lenders, endless red tape, and delays in the licensing process.

Many have been waiting for more than a year for their licenses.

“Equity was never meant for us to succeed,” said Alphonso “Tucky” Blunt Jr., who was the first equity partner to successfully open a dispensary in Oakland. “It was meant to be a bone.”

The war on drugs tore many communities apart, incarcerated generations of men of color, and set the stage for systemic inequity.

The numbers are staggering and show how deleterious the drug war has been on communities of color. Marijuana prohibition enforcement is predominantly targeted against the most vulnerable, low-level users, the majority of whom are people of color. According to DPA statistics:

  • The United States still spends $47 billion annually on a still-active war on drugs, according to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) In 2017, 85.% of drug arrests were for possession, not selling or manufacturing. 
  • There were 659,700 arrests for marijuana violations and 90.8% of those were for possession only.
  • In 2016, 456,000 people were incarcerated in the U.S. for a drug law violation.
  • Blacks and Latinos make up nearly 47% of the people arrested for drug law violations, though they make up just 31.5% of the U.S. population.

There have been no credible studies showing higher usage among people of color. Jay King, president of the California Black Chamber of Commerce, said the war on drugs is another chapter in ongoing suppression of the black community throughout American history that must be addressed.

“We need more honest conversations that are uncomfortable,” he said, adding that those are the conversations that often produce real results.

“You have to understand what led us here and it’s a very layered conversation,” said Andrea Drummer, Head Chef at Lowell Farms: A Cannabis Cafe, which opened the first cannabis cafe in the U.S. in West Hollywood in October 2019.

(Anthony Brown/Weedmaps)
Guests of the Weedmaps Museum of Weed listen to experts in business and law describe the barriers people of color face in establishing enterprises and careers in the fast-growing cannabis industry. The social justice forum was part of the educational and advocacy efforts of the Weedmaps Museum of Weed in Hollywood, California.

“You have to talk about racism, you have to talk about the disproportionate economics in terms of income,” Drummer said. “We have to have the hard conversations and unearth the layers.”

The Rev. James K. McKnight, senior pastor of the Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship in Los Angeles, saw the dual-edged future of cannabis in his community.

On one end is coming to grips with “the pain we’ve all experienced,” McKnight said, adding, “if we can figure out a way to do this right, we can right some wrongs. If it’s done right, there’s promise.”

The audience applauded a suggestion from Hua to right the wrongs: “Anyone currently serving time in jail should be released,” said the tech entrepreneur. He also urged those in the audience to know that their efforts to support California social equity have larger ramifications. “Everyone wants this to succeed because the world is watching.”

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How One Entrepreneur Went From Credit Repair to Becoming Michigan’s First POC Dispensary Owner

When Earl Carruthers was captain of the Wayne State University football team, he cracked his pelvis, leading to chronic pain. After graduation, he worked as a resource supervisor for UPS and then a financial adviser for JP Morgan before starting a credit repair business. Next, he wanted to start another business that was more product-focused and kept customers coming back rather than serving them just once. 

Since he’d been looking up natural remedies for the pain associated with his cracked pelvis, he thought about creating an anti-inflammatory supplement for athletes. In his research, he learned about cannabis. He hadn’t actually heard of it before and didn’t even know it was marijuana. But it sounded like it could be a fit both for his business and for his own personal use, so he signed up for an eight-week course at a local cannabis college.

That was where he learned what cannabis was, as well as some basic facts like the difference between indica and sativa strains. He also learned how to start growing it legally in his home state of Michigan

Carruthers had avoided smoking because he’d been taught negative things about cannabis, such as that it was addictive. But his girlfriend at the time, who is now his wife, smoked cannabis daily. She rolled his first blunt, and he smoked for the first time with her. 

Once he’d learned about the technicalities of growing cannabis and realized it wasn’t the life-ruining drug he’d been taught it was, Carruthers became a caregiver — someone who provides medical cannabis for up to five patients and oneself. 

His patients included himself, his girlfriend, his mother (who had been diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia), and his father (who was recovering from quadruple heart bypass surgery). Once he started growing more than he could use, he considered starting a delivery service. 

“I took what I’d learned as an entrepreneur and ran a delivery service that way,” he explained. Once it got busy, he realized he needed an office, so he repurposed the office he was using for his credit repair business to take appointments. “It kind of got weird, because the smell doesn’t go away,” he said with a laugh.

To avoid suspicious questions from credit repair customers, he got a separate suite for each business. Other caregivers also began using his medical cannabis office to meet with patients, so it turned into a collective of sorts. He called this collective the Green Greener Grow, and it later grew into the G3 Cannabis Therapy Network. This was technically a dispensary (legally called “provisioning centers” in Michigan), making him the first person of color to own a cannabis dispensary in Michigan. 

Trouble with the Law

That was not an easy position to attain. While he was selling cannabis brownies to patients, Carruthers was arrested and sent to jail on the premise that the edibles were illegal narcotics. Rather than count how much cannabis they contained — which was within the limits of the law — the prosecution counted the total weight of the brownies. 

“I was confused as to why they were trying to create a criminal,” he recalled. “I thought there were enough black people in jail.” The labels on his products that designated them as medical marijuana were blacked out with marker, and the trial was treated as if he had been selling drugs for recreational purposes. 

On top of that, an undercover cop with a fake medical marijuana card, cashier’s check, and ID pretended to be a medical cannabis patient and signed his membership agreement, leading him to get raided. “The jury perceived me as another black guy with marijuana, and I was found guilty and had to go to jail,” he remembered. He was there for 33 days, then was sentenced to five years probation. 

Even after the conviction, he continued to fight the brownie case all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court. While there wasn’t a change to his charges, the case inspired new legislation in Michigan that included a mathematical equation to calculate the amount of “usable material” in cannabis products such as edibles and oil extractions. He also continued to fight the dispensary case involving the undercover cop for almost four years until all charges were dismissed.

Not Easy Being Green

Needless to say, Carruthers, who now runs the Cannabis Therapy Potcast, has learned that “the grass is not always greener on the other side” (no pun intended) — working in cannabis isn’t easier than working in another area.

“You have to have a nice risk tolerance because it’s a very volatile and risky and changing environment, and you will have to step in and be in it for the long haul,” he said. “I think the only way to be really strapped in is to really have a purpose other than to make money.” 

For him, that purpose was combatting the war on drugs and the racism implicit in it, plus advocating for personal autonomy. “It was more about furthering the movement of normalizing cannabis,” he said. “And when you have that purpose, you can handle a lot of the bumps and bruises that you’re going to get.”

However, he wishes he’d been more prepared for how fast-paced the industry was so that he could gather the resources, education, and network to weather the storm. “One year in the cannabis industry is like seven years,” he said. One thing in particular he didn’t realize he’d need to learn was how the government and the law work, both on the federal and local level, since the cannabis industry is so heavily regulated. 

Tiffany Hoven, director of operations at The Grove, a vertical cannabis operation that includes cultivation, production, distribution, and retail stores, agrees that education is key for entering the cannabis industry.

“The more you know about this plant, the better you can understand each and every position within this booming industry. Understanding cannabinoids and terpenes is vital to understanding the products,” she said. “The stronger your base when it comes to education in this field, the easier it is to transition into a solid employee in the cannabis arena.” 

There are lots of opportunities relevant to many different skill sets, though, so you don’t be intimidated if you don’t have previous experience in cannabis.

“The cannabis industry is huge and growing and includes all parts, including but not limited to cultivation, production, retail, sales, and distribution,” Hoven said. “All of these positions are trainable, so when a candidate is able to adapt easily, learn, and grow quickly, even better. Computer knowledge is a plus when it comes to managerial or admin positions, and of course, experience in your field and management when it comes to department lead positions.”

If you can handle the challenges that come with transitioning into the cannabis industry, Carruthers believes they will ultimately benefit you.

“I’m thankful for the obstacles and for the setbacks and the hurdles you have to overcome because you build character,” he said. “You build perseverance, and no one can take that away from you. They can take your money, take your bank account, they can change legislation, but they can’t take away your perseverance. They cannot take away your will.” 

After running up against many obstacles of his own, Carruthers has only become more determined to stay in and change the industry.

“You will not hear the last of me,” he vowed. “I am in this industry to stay. I will adapt, and I will adjust, and I will go from there.”

Feature image: Earl Carruthers, second from right, stands with Democratic Michigan state Rep. Jewell Jones, third from right, and Michigan Medical Marijuana Association Director Jesse Riggs, right. Carruthers, a former college football player turned financial adviser and entrepreneur, is the first African American cannabis dispensary owner in Michigan. He is also joined by Margeaux Bruner, Political Director of the Michigan Cannabis Industries Association, second from left, and two Students for Sensible Drug Policy members wearing National Expungement Week T-shirts. Taken at Oakland Community College in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan during National Expungement Week 2019. (Photo courtesy of Komorn Law) 

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Veterans Call for Legal Marijuana Access During Policy Summit at Weedmaps Museum of Weed

Against the backdrop of the Weedmaps Museum of Weed, on Sept. 14, 2019, representatives of three leading veterans advocacy groups, California State Treasurer Fiona Ma, and Weedmaps Chief Operating Officer Steven Jung, discussed the benefits of medical cannabis for veterans and the barriers that make it difficult for veterans to access it.

Along with Ma and Jung, an Army veteran, the panel participants at the Hollywood, California, event included, Aaron Augustis, founder of Veterans Cannabis Group (VCG); Sean Kiernan, chief executive officer of Weed for Warriors Project; and Ryan Miller, founder of Operation E.V.A.C. (Educating Veterans About Cannabis). 

Ma began the wide-ranging discussion by pointing out the hurdles that face anyone trying to open and operate a legal cannabis business. Federal law still classifies cannabis as a Schedule 1 controlled substance, which places it in the same category as heroin and ecstasy and categorizes it as having no medical benefits and a high potential for abuse and addiction. Subsequently, banks, payroll companies, accounting firms, bookkeepers, and lawyers often refuse to service cannabis businesses. 

“Since dispensaries and other cannabis businesses can’t open bank accounts, they’re forced to handle transactions in cash, including paying their taxes, their rent and their employees,” Ma said, “That’s a huge barrier to success in this industry.”  

High taxes are another hurdle. In California, for example, taxes in dispensaries are close to 40%.

California State Treasurer Fiona Ma tells an audience at the Weedmaps Museum of Weed how she has worked to address veterans’ concerns about difficult access to legal medical marijuana. (Anthony Brown/Weedmaps)

“When people have to pay that extra 40% in a dispensary, they often choose to go down the street or make a phone call and purchase illegal marijuana instead,” Ma said. 

She noted several actions that would address these concerns on a state level, including the establishment of a state-backed financial institution devoted exclusively to the cannabis industry, and legislation that would allow cannabis companies to deduct the same business expenses as any other business.

With a father-in-law who’s a Navy veteran and a brother-in-law currently serving in the Navy, Ma is aware of the challenges veterans face accessing medical cannabis to treat chronic pain or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Along with Augustis and the Veterans Cannabis Group, she’s promoting a bill in the California Legislature, AB 1569, that would give veterans an exemption from sales taxes on medical cannabis products.

Getting any legislation passed, federal, state or local, requires mobilizing veterans and their advocates to make the issue a pressing one for politicians. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” Ma said. “If legislators don’t see a lot of people walking the halls, emailing them, texting, and phoning, showing up day after day on an issue, they’re not going to feel it’s a priority.”

At a panel at the Weedmaps Museum of Weed, California State Treasurer Fiona Ma, left, joins Weedmaps Chief Operating Officer Steven Jung, second from left, and representatives of U.S. veterans groups to address how veterans can access medical cannabis. (Anthony Brown/Weedmaps)

But, as others on the panel pointed out, open advocacy on cannabis issues poses risks for veterans. 

“Many veterans are afraid that they’ll lose their veterans medical benefits if they testify in public,” Augustis said. “Right now, the policy of the VA toward cannabis use can be summed up at its best as ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Kiernan said. He’d found relief in cannabis from PTSD so severe it led him to attempt suicide.

Augustis agreed. After returning home from serving in an Iraqi war zone, he found himself reliving the stress and trauma of active combat.

“Cannabis would calm me down,” he said. “It helped bring me back to the present.” 

Today, when he tells a VA counselor about his cannabis use, he said, “They’ll ask ‘Is it helping you?’ I tell them yes. ‘Is it hurting you?’ I say no, and they’ll say, well, then, continue to do it.”

This ambiguous stance is reflected on the VA’s website. As long as marijuana is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, the website states, “VA health care providers may not recommend it or assist Veterans to obtain it.” But, “VA providers can and do discuss marijuana use with Veterans as part of comprehensive care planning, and adjust treatment plans as necessary.”  In addition, “Veterans will not be denied VA benefits because of marijuana use,” however, the use will be noted in medical records. What’s more, VA clinicians cannot write a recommendation for medical marijuana and VA pharmacies will not fill prescriptions for medical cannabis and “will not pay for medical marijuana prescriptions from any source.” 

“That’s why the black market is thriving among vets,” Kiernan said. “Many people have no choice if they don’t want the opioids and other pharmaceutical drugs that the VA willing to pay for.”   

Miller is hoping that might change. “If the VA could distribute cannabis,” he said, “the three of us on this panel would be out of jobs. I’m looking forward to that. That’s my exit strategy.”

Veterans fought for liberty and we should have liberty of choice when it comes to cannabis use.
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With more than 18 million veterans in the U.S., “you’re not going to find a homogenous voice on the issue of cannabis,” Kiernan noted. “But we can find common ground. Whether conservative, liberal, libertarian, or whatever, we can all agree that cannabis works and that it’s a good subtitle for addictive opioids. Veterans fought for liberty and we should have liberty of choice when it comes to cannabis use.” 

Featured Image: Representatives of military veterans’ groups discuss legal access to medical marijuana at a panel at the Weedmaps Museum of Weed Sept. 14, 2019. From left, California State Treasurer Fiona Ma Aaron Augustis of Veterans Cannabis Group, Sean Kiernan of Weed for Warriors Project, and Ryan Miller of Operation E.V.A.C.. (Anthony Brown/Weedmaps)

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What Washington’s ‘Cannabis 2.0’ Would Do for Social Equity, Deliveries

Five years after Washington launched its pioneering legal cannabis market, officials are proposing an overhaul of the state’s industry rules, with plans for boosting minority ownership of marijuana businesses, paving the way for home deliveries of medical cannabis, and letting the smallest growers increase the size of their operations to become more competitive.

Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board Director Rick Garza detailed the proposals — part of what the board calls “Cannabis 2.0” — in an interview with The Associated Press. It’s an effort to picture what the legal marijuana market will look like over the next five years, after spending the past five years largely regulating by reaction as the difficulties of building an industry from infancy absorbed the agency’s attention.

“We’ve typically been so challenged with the issues of the day we haven’t been looking out long-term to determine what the future looks like,” Garza said.

The board has been freeing up its bandwidth by coordinating with other agencies to share the responsibility of regulating the market, such as having the Department of Ecology oversee the certification of marijuana testing labs and the Department of Financial Institutions examine the sometimes complicated ownership structures of licensed cannabis businesses.

No to Tracking, Yes to Exports?

One big-picture issue the board could rethink is whether to abandon the state’s seed-to-sale marijuana tracking program, beset by software issues and sometimes grinding business to a halt, in favor of a system where businesses report their transactions to the board and are then audited. California also experienced trouble with its $60 million tracking system. Another is whether to prepare to allow marijuana exports, as neighboring Oregon did in 2019, in the event the federal government approves it.

For the next session of the Legislature, the board has proposed two bills. One would create what some critics describe as a long-overdue social equity program, encouraging greater ownership of marijuana businesses by people of color, women, and military veterans. Part of the rationale of legalizing marijuana in Washington in 2012 was to remedy the disproportionate effect the drug war has had on African Americans and Latinos, but ownership of cannabis businesses by people of color in the state remains paltry.

While Washington is not currently issuing any more marijuana licenses, 11 of the more than 500 retailers have surrendered their licenses, Garza said. Under the board’s proposal, those could be reissued, or, if cities or counties agree to increase the number of dispensaries within their boundaries, new licenses could be granted — this time, to participants in the social equity program.

Businesses would be eligible if they are owned by a woman, minority or veteran, or if a majority of its ownership group are members of a protected class under state anti-discrimination law. Applicants would be barred from consideration if any owner already has a majority share of another cannabis retail license.

Businesses would be eligible if they are owned by a woman, minority or veteran, or if a majority of its ownership group are members of a protected class under state anti-discrimination law.
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The legislation would also create a technical assistance program run by the Department of Commerce that would provide grants totaling at least $100,000 per year to help minority-, woman-, or veteran-owned businesses navigate the licensing process, receive compliance and financial training, and buy equipment, software, or facilities.

The Washington CannaBusiness Association, an industry group, said it agrees there is a need for a social equity program, and it’s working on its own version.

“We think there’s an opportunity to go even beyond” what the board is proposing, said spokesperson Aaron Pickus.

A marijuana plant grows at Hollingsworth Cannabis Co. near Shelton, Washington. After five years of adult-use marijuana sales, the state’s top regulator wants to overhaul the state’s cannabis industry. Among changes affecting producers and retailers, Washington might scrap its seed-to-sale tracking system in favor of reporting to and auditing by regulators, and it would allow the smallest categories of producers, known as Tier One, to expand. (Ted S. Warren/Associated Press photo)

Another legislative proposal would allow struggling Tier One producers — the smallest size, limited to 2,000 square feet, or 186 square meters, of plants — to sell medical-grade products directly to the state’s 36,000 registered marijuana patients. The patients have long complained that they have a hard time finding medical-grade cannabis, which must go through additional testing for pesticides and heavy metals, in retail stores, and Garza said the proposal could help the patients while giving the growers an incentive to offer more medically compliant products.

The Tier One growers could sell to patients onsite, with other growers at indoor farmers-market-style locations, or by delivery, Garza said. Local jurisdictions would have to approve, and to avoid competition with other licensed retailers, the growers or farmers markets would have to be at least 3 miles, or 4.8 kilometers, away from established retailers.

Deliveries May Face Resistance

Any proposal to allow delivery or sales by small growers is certain to be controversial, as other retailers might object to additional competition. Garza said the board will consider industry feedback.

“There’s going to be real concerns by retailers out there,” he said. “If we’re going to do that, we’ve got to be cautious.”

Even more significantly for the smallest growers, the board wants to allow them to expand, first to 5,000 square feet, or 465 square meters, and then possibly to 8,000 square feet, or 743 square meters. Those producers have long complained the Tier One licenses, designed to ensure craft growers have a place in the market, are so restrictive that they can’t succeed. Though they must make similar investments in security, insurance, and product tracking as the largest growers, they are allowed to grow and sell only a tiny fraction of what the largest growers produce.

Paige Berger, CEO of Hygge Farms in Onalaska, said she’s excited about the board’s proposal. She initially obtained a Tier One license because she didn’t have enough money to invest in a larger operation. Now, she said, she’s hamstrung by her limited size: She can produce only enough marijuana to have products in 10 licensed cannabis shops.

“I can’t get out there and expand my brand to what I think it could do,” Berger said.

— Gene Johnson

Featured image: Shoppers examine the selection of edibles Jan. 4, 2018, at Herban Legends, a Seattle marijuana retailer. Washington’s adult-use market has entered its fifth year, and the state’s top regulator envisions a social equity program for women, veterans, and business owners of color to participate in the industry, as well as to allow deliveries for medical marijuana. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press file photo)

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New Group Organizing Cannabis-Focused Outings for Edmonton Professionals

A new Edmonton group wants to smoke out cannabis stigma by organizing social outings for professionals who are stoned. Brad Ward is preparing to launch a series of events under the banner of Meet and Green. His ideas include movie showings, charitable events and getting 20 or 30 people to smoke a joint, put on name tags and go on a hike together. “I’d like to do something where we go out and support new…