At this year’s Cannabis Europa, I was invited to join the moderation panel for a discussion on how to ensure that racial equity and social justice are embedded in future cannabis policymaking. While we only had an hour to discuss this important topic, we had some fantastic insights from all our speakers.
Alana Byrd is a patient with first-hand experience of accessing legal US cannabis markets, the trials and tribulations of trying to set up a business there, and having to access the illegal UK markets. Katrina Ffrench, the Founder of Unjust UK, spoke on how we can include those previously incarcerated for drug-related offences into this burgeoning industry. My Release colleague Shayla Schlossenberg rounded the discussion by highlighting how our cannabis justice paper highlighted the importance of addressing the historical damage that the persecution of cannabis and those who used it, particularly by advocating for the automatic expungement of cannabis-related crimes, as well as fast-track avenues to help patients and former cannabis prisoners into the newly legal industry.
However, these interesting findings contrasted massively with what was discussed on the conference’s main stage shortly after our panel. In a hall about three times larger than the one we had been speaking in, the head of an American cannabis company claimed that “no illegal market could supply weed as good as ours”. Across other talks, many speakers agreed that the illegal market (euphemistically labelled the “legacy” market) needed to be “captured”. While there were some experts like Professor Kojo Koram who sought to temper these claims with a need to address the historically racist and classist enforcement of cannabis prohibition, this was a perspective often sidelined for the focus on the lucrative need to capture the illegal market.
The legal market can fail consumers and sellers
Legal cannabis markets have struggled to transition consumers onto their products across the world: in the US, it’s been estimated that the size of the illegal cannabis market could be seven times larger than the current legal market. A mixture of high taxation, excessive red tape to access the market, and other operating limitations (such as people’s opening hours and staff qualifications) create all sorts of disincentives for using the legal market.
Access struggles have also been felt by medical patients, particularly in the UK, who need to fork out hundreds of pounds per month to access their medicine through legal means, often to get a product that is of similar quality yet at an inflated price to what is offered from the illegal market. Even when they’ve gone through all these hoops and barriers, they can be left with tasteless or mouldy weed at the end of the day.
Struggles have also been felt by medical patients, particularly in the UK, who need to fork out hundreds of pounds per month to access their medicine through legal means, often to get a product that is of similar quality yet at an inflated price
From the supplier side, there are also understandable concerns about entering the legal market. Firstly, traditional growers may struggle to raise the needed capital to purchase licenses and other necessary equipment to produce legal cannabis. This problem is replicated worldwide: small-scale South African cannabis cultivators fear being priced out due to prohibitive industrialisation costs, leaving the market open for European corporate capture. They further raised concerns about a legal market dominated by white foreigners threatening their way of life, with no guarantees for their future market involvement or financial stability. This is not a question of European competitive advantage; local cultivators simply can’t afford (or don’t want) to compete with multinationals.
Stop capturing – start collaborating
Protecting consumers from price-gouging while undercutting illegal market prices, and ensuring cultivators are not locked out of newly-legalised markets should be key drivers for cannabis policy-makers. There are policy solutions that offer these protections while ensuring patients, consumers, and sellers are safely transitioned into a legal market.
Non-profit cannabis models like social clubs, which are common across Spain and soon in Malta, can be a successful model of access: they offer options for self and social cultivation, enable consumption monitoring while respecting the needs of patients and consumers, and offer a solution to popular fears around cannabis overconsumption that are often circulated in mainstream media. However, they’re frequently criticised by certain cannabis companies, particularly multinational players, for limiting potential market growth and shareholder returns.
Cannabis decriminalisation is also often dismissed or ignored by cannabis circles. Industry leaders at Cannabis Europa claimed decriminalisation was ill-fitting for facilitating cannabis access; however, they fail to see how it is an attractive policy option that prevents the arrest and persecution of all cannabis consumers. While models vary, decriminalisation could protect those sharing cannabis socially and those growing at home. It could eliminate damaging police records for cannabis possession, and reallocate resources from its criminal enforcement to other needed areas, such as health-based interventions or social justice measures.
What’s particularly beautiful about decriminalisation is that it can be implemented simultaneously to a legal cannabis market: as we saw in New York, home cultivation and cannabis sharing was immediately decriminalised alongside its new legal market, with the police prohibited from registering your details for a variety of previously-criminalised cannabis-related activities like public smoking or smelling like cannabis. We can have our cake and eat it. And while some select few cannabis companies have come out in support of decriminalisation, this should be the norm across the board, not the exception.
While it was disheartening to see key industry players dismiss the value of the illegal market’s current cannabis knowledge, capacity and consumer support, I remain hopeful that cannabis advocates will pursue collaboration over capture, as this is the only way that we can protect the rights of consumers while transitioning as much of the market into a legal sphere.