I spent a short time working in the marijuana industry in Washington state. At a small medical marijuana access point in the suburbs of Seattle, I learned how the industry thrived in a gray market, and saw first-hand how full-scale legalization was debated back and forth among the people themselves, and between policymakers in Olympia. As Washington became the first state to vote in a legalization measure, simultaneously with Colorado, all of the old rules were thrown out the window.
The bet has seemingly paid off as the federal government has allowed the states to dictate their own rules (so far), and the economic benefits to the states has been enormous. Entrepreneurs are making money, jobs are being created, and law enforcement agencies are conserving resources – which is good news for taxpayers.
Still, the industry is up against some serious issues. Though the federal government hasn’t pulled the plug on legalization laws in Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska, and other places, the threat still looms. And business regulations are still keeping them in check, despite the fact that money from big businesses and venture capitalists is starting to find its way in.
Now that the industry has more or less taken root, rapid change is bound to take place. Many other states are looking to legalize, and this year will likely bring the hopes of many voters to fruition across the country. But many people are still unsure about the prospect of legal marijuana. Having been on the inside, I thought I’d share a few interesting things I picked up on, which may or may not influence how you think about it.
All told, my experiences were positive – in fact, I could say that it was one of the more interesting and worthwhile jobs I’ve held. Drawing from that experience, here are a few things I learned that I wouldn’t have picked up on as an outsider.
1. Many people aren’t crazy about legalization
In the medical marijuana community, there are a good number of people who aren’t crazy about full-fledged legalization. This may seem ironic, but there is some legitimacy to the worry. Prior to legalization, Washington’s medical cannabis industry was unregulated (this varies from state to state) – and people purchasing or donating to get what they need was unobstructed by the government. Fears of high taxes and difficulties obtaining what they need were the main focus of patients against the legalization push.
Those fears weren’t unfounded, and now even small-time producers and processors are worried about bigger businesses taking over the market. Of course, these small-time producers only existed because big business wasn’t willing to risk the time and money on a gray market that could get shut down. They benefited, for a time, from government protection. It’s unclear how this will play out in the long term, but there are real concerns among medical marijuana activists.
2. Customers aren’t who you’d suspect
You probably imagine teenagers, old hippies, and tie-dye clad Gen-Xers frequenting marijuana stores and access points. The truth is, yes, those folks do make up a percentage of the customer base. But by and large, the people coming and going are not who you’d suspect.
Men in business suits, blue-collar guys, and even a good deal of stay-at-home moms and dads made up the majority of the faces that would come in. Most simply wanted something to help them deal with a specific issue – be it chronic pain, problems regulating appetite, etc. – and to get on with their day. They were normal, everyday people. I even had a former manager stop in one time.
3. People are using cannabis to treat (real) addictions
One of the biggest reasons people oppose legalization is because they think marijuana poses a health risk. This is not really true, as cannabis has been shown to be much safer than many other perfectly legal substances, like tobacco and alcohol. Ironically, many people came to my shop seeking treatments for addictions to these legal substances, and others.
People were trying to escape addiction from other substances with the medical properties of cannabis. Cannabis has been shown to treat addiction, and work as an alternative for people looking to get away from booze or other drugs. Even people trying to escape opioid addiction are trying cannabis as a treatment option. So, while worries about addiction and health risks abound in the legalization debate, people seeking treatment from the addictive properties of perfectly legal substances are caught in the middle.
4. Regulation is a real problem
Some sort of regulation is needed and healthy, in any market. Marijuana is no exception, and while the states try different approaches, one thing is becoming clear: Certain restrictions and rules are stunting the industry’s growth, and actually leading to dangerous predicaments for those working in it. Case in point – banking laws. Marijuana businesses don’t have access to banks, which means most rely on cash transactions, and are targeted by criminals more often. Criminals who know there are large amounts of cash lying around.
But banking is just one issue. There are other laws – licensing restrictions, which artificially restrain the market size, for example – which only end up costing entrepreneurs opportunities, people jobs, and ultimately, less tax revenue for the state. There should be some oversight, but being overly cautious is leading to some real issues. The laws will likely evolve with time.