Imagining Cannabis Communities


by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

Today’s post examines the meaning of “community” as it intersects with both “culture” and “cannabis.” Let’s start with anthropologist Benedict Anderson’s concept of “imagined communities” (the title of his 1983 publication). Anderson’s big contribution to social theory reconstructs the meaning of community as a signifier of common identity, especially as it applies to the emergence of national identities. Really he was taking part in a social theory turn that was about how social identities are constructed and performed, rather than biological or natural. A good example of this is the concept of “race,” which before the 20th century was a term applied to ethnic and national identities rather than common skin tones: the Irish race this, the Italian race that, and so forth. It was all about the process of defining Selves and Others, and usually had a territorial as well as biological connotation. A community is a group of people who are imagined to be like each other, and nations are “imagined communities” in the sense that all their differences get subsumed under a few common identity markers, one of which is having a place of origin or belonging in common.

But having a place of origin or belonging in common, and having that marker of identity mobilized, can often mean that a great deal of internal difference is being erased, often violently. Okies from Muskogee can only be Okies from Muskogee if they don’t smoke marijuana or take LSD, according to Merle Haggard, but Dr. Sunil Aggarwal has often contested that assertion. If it’s true, then he doesn’t get to belong to the place he grew up. Hence nationalism — and all other imagined community identities — are political: who gets the final word depends on power in social relations, not who’s technically right. The power to define community is the power to include or exclude.

So what’s the cannabis community, exactly. I experience a lot of positive and a lot of negative meanings associated with that post-ethnic identity marker, which can be and sometimes is framed in terms of nationalism. Some mourn the loss of community as cannabis becomes commercialized and inserted into the formal capitalist economy. Some celebrate the opening of cannabis community membership into the ecology of legally sanctioned communities subsumed under national, State, and local identities. What’s the Washington cannabis community like, and so forth.

The challenge for this post isn’t to define what “the cannabis community” is or might be, though I have a few strong feelings about it. The challenge for this post is to identify community formation as an ongoing and vital part of social survival. Communities are always being lost, broken, made, healed: they are created by performing common ground, and they have to be constantly re-created and renewed to gain political and economic purchase on the ecology of community formations in society that aren’t punished for existing.

I must admit I’m pretty ambivalent about “cannabis community” as a singular concept, sweeping up difference under the rug of community. I find that when it’s singularly deployed it tends to be either deployed as a brand, on the one hand, for getting people to buy things; and as a stigmatized group that isn’t allowed to participate in “modern” legal cannabis markets, events, or even spaces outside one’s own home on another end. I find it more useful as a term of aspiration or auto-critique, usually associated with efforts to be together on something or an acknowledgement that the failure to renew community and mobilize it in a productive fashion has created missed opportunities for the cannabis peace movement from which we should learn.

That’s not terribly specific, I know, but this is not a space for dictating how folks who’ve found cannabis therapeutic in their lives should shape their identities. I’m specifically anti-identity in many ways: I’m less interested in what we have in common than how we can peacefully coexist despite our differences, because we are interdependent at the very least in the spaces we share.  But the practice of calling a community together can help considerably in the search for peaceful coexistence.

The way we are organizing for peaceful coexistence involves the production of popular education events. Our Terpestival is a whole plant conference: the focus on Terpenes helps decenter approaches to centralize the meaning of cannabis, and therefore what cannabis communities can be. That problem of centralized meaning is not just a negative power function — “dangerous drug”, signifier of “Bad Actor,” and so forth — but a positive power function with negative effects. The focus on low cost THC production for prohibition markets has dramatically limited non-cannabis communities’ willingness to step away from stigma and let the plant be a plant.

That model, interestingly, is now being perpetuated in Washington’s legal system for public and private reasons. The State wants revenue, and it gets the most revenue when retailers copy the prohibition market’s tendencies toward highest THC and lowest prices. At the same time its onerous regulations make THC information on the label the most reliable information available to consumers (and budtenders) who aren’t allowed to smell the flowers or sample the product. Combine that with the McDonald’s fast-food high volume business model and it’s no wonder cannabis is becoming just another commodity here. And communities based on commodities have a name: industry. Not much room for cultural difference and community formation there, except as ways to brand, market and sell things.

Which is, I suppose, the proverbial American way. It’s the familiar same-old centralized national identity subsuming all of the differences that constitute our social ecologies under the generic flag of consumer identity. It works, for a lot of people in the cannabis industry — especially the new ones, intent on producing a tornado of creative destruction out of which they build their empires of exclusive wealth and individual glory. I’m just not into it.

But it’s not enough to be “just not into it.” If I want cannabis community — and I desire a cannabis community of decentralized differences that peacefully coexist — I have to create spaces where other people can understand what I desire and desire it with me. Also at the same time I have to navigate the social ecology of acceptable and tolerated communities who feel threatened by my cannabis-positive values. I have to understand what they are afraid of, and not get frustrated that their fears are irrelevant even if they aren’t based on evidence. And I have to find and work strategically with people who share my values and are able to act on them.

This last point is crucial. The re-criminalization of medical cannabis in Washington State has meant that for the last year at least, people who share my values — chiefly, that cannabis is a plant with many, many beneficial uses and the problems attributed to it are caused mostly by its prohibition and stigmatization — have been losing their jobs, losing their margins, and transitioning to a new system in which margins are vanishingly small and controlled by people who put profits over social peace. Washington’s model of legalization has certainly made cannabis communities everywhere more afraid of legalization, and that can’t be a good thing.

It’s not a good thing for a lot of reasons, but I’ll point out an especially Big One. Cannabis legalization is first and foremost about getting people out of jail and ending the drug war — both of which affect communities of color disproportionately. It’s not really about cannabis, it’s about the practice of prohibition — which was never about cannabis, but about social control. We need legalization to happen to end the drug war. It’s that simple. But we need models of legalization that care for the hundreds of thousands of people that see themselves part of a community that is under attack. There’s no reason why ending the drug war can’t also promote livelihood continuities and broader spaces of social peace. No reason at all.

But there are no cannabis peace stakeholders at the table, because cannabis communities have always been marginal to society. They aren’t at the table even to write initiatives anymore — that process is clearly being privatized. That marginality is cultural, not just “forced” upon cannabists: cannabis consumption, production and distribution under conditions of prohibition have been carried out largely by people who are culturally disobedient — the counterculture.

This is a fundamental tension that prevents cannabis communities from having a voice in how things are changing. What’s to come is going to depend on how people imagine their communities, and whether those people find a way to act together and actually perform those communities.


A few words about our co-fundraising partner: Project CBD

Martin Lee and Dominic Corva on a tour post 2015 Emerald Cup . Photo by Shango Los.

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

I first met Martin Lee about 6 years ago, after disembarking from a Seattle Hempfest stage where I delivered my five-minute “now that legalization is on the table, it’s time to talk about how” address. He was on his way up to give his 5 minute talk between music acts, and he stopped me on the stairs to tell me he appreciated my words. I was already familiar with his book “Acid Dreams,” and I knew him not only as a countercultural author but an online journalist and whole plant information organizer through his partnerships with Fred Gardner in O’Shaughnessy’s and Project CBD. What they were doing was familiar to me as grassroots nonprofit “nongovernmental organization (NGO)” work, which I had encountered and been helped by considerably in my research on drug policy in Latin America. There’s no question that their example influenced my decision to leave institutional academia to create CASP: in some ways their “ongoing history of cannabis” work is what I turned to, with a particularly geographical approach given my background.

So when Martin invited me to come hang out at their booth that day I was all over it — there was so much to talk about, especially the cultural history of cannabis reform and the politics of organizing around it. When Debby Goldsberry showed up to hang out a few minutes before catching her flight back to the Bay Area, I got to meet a key historical figure around those topics. She was a key part of the late 80s/early 90s Cannabis Action Network (CAN), itself funded by Zippie pot dealer Steve Deangelo, and the Zippies were a faction of the Yippies, who bridged the counterculture movement and the anti-war movements of the 1960s. In short, Martin opened up a world of amazing people to me starting then, and he’s never really stopped. Debby and fellow CAN pioneer Rick Pfrommer are two key parts of our upcoming Terpestival in Hopland.

Which is more or less the focus of this post. The origins of the July 23 co-fundraiser can be located in Santa Rosa, California, at the 2015 Emerald Cup. Dr. Sexton and I rented a cottage a few blocks away from the event, where we hosted Rob Clarke as the first stage of taking him on a bit of a tour following Tim Blake’s amazing event. The first stage of that tour was taking a group of people in our van to various CBD Guild locations — pretty much all of the ones that got raided last week, with Martin as the tour guide. I had been on a more private tour, with cannabis breeder DJ Short, the previous year, before MRSA compliance kicked the locations into active production. The photo that is at the head of this post gives you some idea what we were looking at, but we also got to see Absolute Extracts and Care by Design, as well as Emerald Pharms (the retail wing of Martin’s network) about an hour north, in Hopland.

This time, Dr. Sexton was with me and at some point Martin raised the possibility of doing a co-fundraiser. After reviewing potential difficulties doing the event in Washington after July 1 of this year, we began our co-fundraiser partnership.

Most of the key partners for this event are friends and allies our organization have in common. Debby’s Oakland access point, Magnolia Wellness, is an entry dropoff point and she will also be participating in our panels. Rick Pfrommer, who I met separately in my Sohum journeys, has assembled an amazing and experienced professional team of judges to cement the legitimacy of our unique competition. Tim Blake, the founder of the Emerald Cup who I’ve also met on my Sohum journeys, made Area 101’s Healing Harvest Farms an entry point and his staff is doing a lot of social media promotion as well as hustling entrees. Kevin Jodrey, who was an integral part of our first Terpestival (and the final stop for the Rob Clarke tour), made Wonderland Nursery an entry point and guaranteed 10 entries which allowed us to move forward when we had no entries at the first deadline, June 8. Emerald Pharms is of course the “host” of the event, located at the Real Goods Solar Living Center which is owned by a good friend of Martin. They are an entry point, promoter, and general organizational asset especially for the day of the event. And Martin and Michelle’s friends at SC Labs picked up the testing tab which makes the event possible at all.

We’ve had lots of challenges, and are still in the process of overcoming some of them, but last week’s Federal raids of the CBD Guild created a big one. After the media publicity around the raid surged and the joint task force found zero butane solvent extraction going on (which was what a disgruntled former employee falsely alleged), charges were dropped, and Dennis Hunter was released on his own recognizance just days after facing a $5 million bail. But the raids came on payday, and over $600,000 in cash was seized. As a result, we lost thousands of dollars in anticipated sponsorship.

Our network allies are stepping up, and in true countercultural fashion are most effective and productive at the last minute anyway. Last year to be honest we were in much worse shape leading up to the event, which turned out to be a sold-out, smashing success. Martin and Michelle are at the annual ICRS conference, along with our keynote speaker and fellow Project CBD collaborator Dr. Ethan Russo. You can be sure that they will bring back the latest whole plant science from the premier cannabinoid research conference in the world, and we are looking forward to the best part of the event, being able to be together and preform a great ritual of community.

Cannabis, Capitalism, Creative Destruction

Economic Historian Karl Polanyi

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

In “The Great Transformation” (1944) economic historian Karl Polanyi considered the rise of the international capitalist order out of the historical conditions set in motion by the collapse of the West’s fuedal-theocratic order. Polanyi’s story elaborated a key analytical concept for our times: “creative destruction,” the process whereby growth and global “order” were created by destroying the lives and livelihoods that depended on that order — that political and economic liberalism did not come from nowhere, but built with and upon the remains of social orders everywhere. This was not strictly a moral critique, but an analytical one: that it happened matters far more than what one thinks of the result. It can however guide us in our search for peaceful cannabis policy.

Without getting too “ivory tower,” I want to use this post to consider the concept of creative destruction as it applies to current cannabis markets and social orders. The movement to end prohibition has little to do with the movement of previously informal markets, people, and knowledge into the “normal” routines and practices of capitalism, but it is clear that cannabis market legalization (different from cannabis legalization) involves a radical restructuring of human lives and livelihoods. For every job created in legal cannabis, an “informal sector” livelihood has been destroyed, even if that job is occupied by someone previously operating in the informal market. For every giant, investor-owned warehouse that becomes regulated (in theory, anyway) and taxed, dozens of small producers have been put out of business. This is certainly the case in Washington, but does not have to be the case elsewhere.

The closer a State gets towards bringing informal markets into the system, the less social impact this destruction has on the existing order. As we put thousands of independent owner-operators out of business, it’s important to remember that these folks were previously able to pay their rent, bills, and groceries, and now they can’t. This creates a social problem that the State of Washington is clearly nowhere near being concerned about, but affects our neighborhoods, our churches, our schools, and our stability.

This isn’t just the case for home growers. It’s especially the case for minority-dominant neighborhoods, where white-owned and operated businesses are putting people of color out of work — people who never had a chance, at all, to be part of the new legal markets given the incredibly high barriers to entry and short, closed windows to even apply.

One thing about medical cannabis markets — as ubiquitous and apparently offensive to policymakers as they were — is that even the “bad actor” access points that barely catered at all to patients did everyone a major social service. They got a lot of cannabis off the streets and into an orderly space. The lack of formal regulation made barriers to entry extremely low, and plenty of folks who can barely function in the normal social order were able to get and keep jobs that made them happy. Some of that was the ability to consume cannabis while they worked! That’s also been destroyed by I 502 and its legislative changes, so much so that I 502 businesses have trouble educating their employees and providing samples.

But the destruction of medical cannabis businesses is most certainly creating non-I 502 jobs, too. Black market job creation is happening, possibly as fast as I 502 job creation, and those aren’t the jobs anyone wanted to create, on the one hand, or go back to, on the other. Given the State’s interest in destroying the black market, I’m pretty sure this isn’t an outcome that the State wants either. At the same time, white-owned retailers who are tone-deaf to the experience of gentrification are stoking the fires of neighborhood resentment.

Let’s consider those I 502 jobs as a mixed bag, though, not just the colonial expropriation of skills, time, investment, and lives by Big Money investors and real estate sharks. Informal markets are notoriously volatile, and being an entrepreneur reliant upon handshakes instead of contracts can be incredibly risky and stressful. Those handshakes, when they do work out, are incredible: they replace credit and threats of lawsuits with trust and human, face-to-face, construction of interdependence. And let’s be clear, there would be no informal cannabis markets now — no formal ones either — if those networks of trust and outlaw community didn’t pay off more often than not.

One more extremely socially optimal outcome is associated with I 502’s “creative destruction” should be highlighted, and it’s a doozy as far as I’m concerned. In Washington, we are replacing a mostly indoor, import cannabis market with what will eventually be a mostly outdoor, environmentally friendly and local one. Eastern Washington is experiencing the beginnings of a sustainable agricultural industry that fits very well into its agriculture-dependent social orders. Virtual ghost towns are being revived: the city of North Bonneville has pioneered a public-private cannabis partnership that means a future instead of extinction. The latest numbers I’ve received from trusted sources indicate that we have a ways to go, but considering that Washington State had so little sun-grown, ecologically sustainable cannabis before I 502 was passed, we’ve come a long way.

The broader implication of these kinds of creative destruction is clear. If States simply make bridges for the previous order to come in and own their own experience, skills, and livelihoods –rather than crush them through unnecessary legislative fiat — the social peace can be optimized. We live in an incredibly and increasingly unequal society, and prohibition was a tool for making that happen. Post-prohibition markets must not reinforce that process. It’s not good for anyone. Let the livelihoods transform themselves, instead of being thrown away like the disposable citizens they seem to be.


Legality, Medicality, and Good/Bad Actors

CASP T Shirt

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

The previous conceptual post really helped me find a way to engage with complex intersections without flying too far off the ground. Today’s post is an effort to deal with the “moral panic” phenomenon around medical cannabis in Washington, and elsewhere. I start with the assumption that policy that is created in response to moral panic is not good social policy, because (a) prohibition morality stems from fear not science and (b) in order to leave prohibition behind — the urge to punish our way to public health — we have to leave prohibition culture behind. And prohibition morality is perhaps the foundation of prohibition culture. It’s the equation of law with justice absent any critical reflection or nuance. If one is doing something legal, then one is doing something good. That attitude got us to mass incarceration and the politics of fear. Here’s a series of connected engagements with intersection of legality, medicality, and the moral distinction between Good and Bad Actors.

  1. Legality is a technical term, not a moral or ethical one. This is helpful to keep in mind as the State of Washington continues to deploy it as a moral or ethical one — State-legal cannabis is constructed as “good” versus “bad” medical and black cannabis. The logical problem: State-legal cannabis is Federally prohibited but tolerated under interpretations of the Cole Memo. Even those who argue that legality connotes moral superiority — those that disagree with the first sentence — have to face a simple logical argument: any moral or ethical quality associated with State legality is cancelled out by its simultaneous association with Federal illegality.
  2. The basic premise of ending the war on drugs rests on the assumption that laws can be unjust, and therefore morally wrong. The argument about whether legalization can be unjust (not that it is, or is not) is therefore supportable. The argument that legalization can also, at the same time, be just is also supportable. Efforts to critique legalization are not necessarily against legalization.
  3. So, technically: regulation and tax collection are the two main State practices of legalization. The active participation of the State in these two ways constitute what we mean by legalization. There are many dimensions to this participation: altering the legal code is both an end to the first step and the beginning of a network of practices associated with implementing legalization. The implementation of legalization — system creation, output and maintenance — is and always will be an ongoing process.
  4. Technically, this time with respect to medical cannabis: since “medicine” is not a state monopoly, medical cannabis means many, many things. For our purposes here let’s distinguish between medical state laws and “legal medical” state laws, since the former came first. Medical state laws are “decriminalization” laws for which the state plays no active implementation part. “Legal medical” laws require the active participation of the state via regulation and/or special taxation (independent of sales taxes, for example). The core of Washington’s current medical cannabis controversies stems from the State’s unwillingness to transition from medical to legal medical in 2011.
  5. Technically, this can be avoided in every state that adopts “legal medical” either as its first step or as a reform (see California); and then using the existing medical legality to develop (not replace wholesale immediately) the pre-existing legal system. Oregon’s decision to allow and tax over-21 nonmedical purchases at its medical retail points is one example of this. Technically, if the starting conditions for legal medical were unjust, this transition will not necessarily be a socially optimal one.
  6. Oregon is complying with the same Cole memo as Washington, so model variation can’t be explained by that. There was no technical reason why Washington’s medical cannabis system couldn’t have been more slowly transitioned, as the I 502 system continues to come on line. This is not the same as an argument that medical should have remained unregulated. “Regulation” as a practice as opposed to a concept deserves far more critical attention than I can give here.
  7. The illegality of medical cannabis under (some) State laws is now being used to stigmatize and exclude cannabis people by implementing high barriers to entry, while attempting to bring the plant as a commodity into a regulatory framework. That stigma is not necessarily new, and not confined solely to medical cannabis. In fact, the stigmatization of medical cannabis seems to be the re-enclosure of black market cannabis stigma to include informal medical cannabis markets. Prohibition culture never stopped fearing a stoned planet, and that fear is now being encouraged and amplified by legal cannabis militants. Pointing this out does not mean I conclude that “all cannabis markets are good.”
  8. I will say that the closer the consumer is to the grower, in any cannabis market, the easier it is to sort the good from the bad. The distance between consumer and farmer is a function of two things: prohibition, and the fact that most of the rest of the formal economy has been increasing that distance since the Industrial Revolution.
  9. Legal cannabis markets and actors are not inherently “good actors,” nor are they inherently “bad actors.” The legal economy is filled with bad and good actors — many of them both at the same time. The Gilded Age philanthropists whose names are plastered all over our urban landscapes were a symptom of massive inequality, against which the Labor Movement formed. Our second Gilded Age is no different.
  10. Medical cannabis markets and actors are not inherently “good actors,” nor are they inherently “bad actors.” Our medical system in the U.S. is totally commercial, a far cry from the single payer systems of most of our peers. Our herbal product markets are virtually unregulated. Our televisions give us medical advice. Our diet fads rage from year to year. And we are on more pharmaceutical drugs per capita than any other society on Earth. If there is anything nonprofit or community-oriented in a medical marijuana system, then our medical marijuana systems are far more socially conscious than virtually every sector of the formal economy that might be related.

There’s a lot of conditionality and open-ended starting points for engaging with prohibition culture, which is coming now not just from prohibitionists but legalization stakeholders. It should be clear that this critique does not apply to legalization stakeholders en masse. I have no idea how prevalent prohibition culture is amongst legalization stakeholders, but enough of them so that we are getting a socially violent transition via policy. It also should be clear that medical cannabis markets and actors are not necessarily less greedy than the level accepted for non-cannabis markets and actors. Neither of those facts should get in the way of basing policy on facts instead of fear in Washington State.

Cannabis, Culture, Medicine

Photo by Steve Hyde
Photo by Steve Hyde

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

It’s Friday, so I’m going to approach this meta-social issue a little differently. Not with an organized essay, in other words, because the intersection of those three words — cannabis, culture, and medicine — is hyperdimensional and divergent. There are many wildly different ways to map their intersections, maybe because the words themselves are overflowing with meanings and interpretations. Let’s locate a few combinations and go from there.

  1. Cannabis is a plant, first, and therefore its cultivation by humans is agriculture. An argument can be made that it’s manufacturing, but if so that’s the direct result of how cannabis came to be policed in the U.S., or prohibition. The artificial production of a controlled environment for growing under lights is directly connected to the artificial production of a controlled society under the police function. Every effort to tightly control cannabis production that doesn’t treat cannabis like any other plant by prohibiting its growth to selected social actors so they can make a profit is unnatural, on the one hand, and the continuation of prohibition’s basic logic, which for now we’ll call “prohibition culture.” Which has never been about prohibiting a plant, but punishing and making examples of certain segments of the population (see Michelle Alexander’s ubiquitous “The New Jim Crow” for a basic explanation).
  2. Culture is a system of shared meaning based upon the reproduction (and evolution) of Value in society. Oof. This one’s going to be tough. Cultures are dynamic, open, evolving, alive, contradictory, messy, disciplined, and most of all political. What counts as Valuable in society depends upon who is speaking to whom, where and when. Cultural violence happens when one system of shared meanings not only declares itself the Right One but disciplines and punishes people who deviate from the reproduction of those meanings. Cultural violence is the byproduct of Monoculture, a simplified set of standardizing values that are supposed to mean the same thing, over and over, everywhere and any time. Prohibition monoculture attempted to kill the diversity of value and values associated with a plant, and replace it with one Meaning, “threat to society.” Thus meaning was codified differently over time, but the 1971 Controlled Substances Act is the one that declared the plant a Threat to Public Health by classifying it as one of the most dangerous substances known to humanity. The modern War on Drugs is a perversion of Public Health, in that it has promoted violence as a way of promoting health.
  3. Medicine is the food we consume to make us well. “Wellness” is a pretty broad, polydiverse signifier, and therefore so is medicine. What makes one person well can very well kill the next person, depending on each person’s physical and environmental makeup. This is true for food in general: peanut butter is deadly to many, many people. We don’t prohibit peanut butter, we educate consumers not to kill themselves by ingesting delicious peanut products. Our culture therefore allows for widely divergent understandings of the peanut as both dangerous and delicious.
  4. Foods are composed of lots of different molecules, some of which have multiple medicinal benefits depending on how they are arranged and broken down in the body. When isolated and concentrated, many molecules become powerful agents of biophysical change. In Western/pharmaceutical/industrial medicine, those molecules are evaluated as “dangerous” or “medical” depending on who’s approved their use or not. Unless they are on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, through which they are declared simply dangerous. And even then, Schedule I drugs are legally accessible to pharmaceutical elites who ask the appropriate State representatives the appropriate way.  Foods that are molecularly simplified, standardized, and sold as State-sanctioned promoters of health are called “pharmaceutical drugs.” They are the monoculture of Modern Medicine.
  5. Modernity is a mixed bag, and the fact that this statement might be controversial tells us something about the monoculture of Modernity. The monoculture of Modernity is that on balance, things are getting better, usually in contrast with a prior period of history that is now over. This year compared to last year, this decade before the last, this century before the one before. Modernity is a moving target to which we have arrived, again. Bruno Latour wrote a book that elaborates on this. But Francis Fukuyama wrote a book against this. I’m with Bruno: declaring that we have evolved into the best society we can make is the hubris par excellence of every historical moment there has ever been. The world is round, and every revolution introduces variation that can only sometimes be described as progress.
  6. In the last forty years or so, we have returned to the notion that single molecule medicine, the medical monoculture of modernity, is maybe not all there is and on top of that often extremely flawed, as evidenced by the history of FDA recalls and the evidence of physical disfigurement and death associated with recalled or abandoned miracle drugs.
  7. In the U.S., “alternative and complementary” medicine has returned traditional medicine, herbal products, and a host of other ways to get and be well to the repertoire of Modernity. These heretics used to be burned at the stake, along with the women that knew about them. The cannabis plant has been a vital component of that repertoire for millenia, and the return of cannabis-based approaches to wellness is part of that process. Thanks, hippies.
  8. The monocultures of Modernity have been under serious re-evaluation, and the point above is just one example. Tolerance of diversity, defined as “not killing people, physically or symbolically, structurally or directly, for being different or having different values” is a relatively recent development in the United States. But see point number 5! Tolerations of difference aren’t exactly a recent development in human history, and still aren’t all that prevalent in this society.
  9. Tolerations of difference usually turn on questions of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, language and sexuality in this country. The public debate about diversity is pretty much never about neurological diversity or consciousness, except through the Monocultural lens of  pharmaceutical medicine. Thinking differently is evidence of disease. Thinking that cannabis is a plant that people have played with in search of wellness throughout history is evidence that one is a heretic, a heretic of modernity. Acting on that thought can get you burned at the stake, a phenomenon that started in this culture hundreds of years go.
  10. Being a heretic of modernity means one won’t be taken seriously by Modern, normal people like many politicians, lobbyists, doctors, university administrators, law enforcement officers and so forth. For these folks prohibition may have been a failure, but it was the product of a few bad actors or good actors making bad decisions rather than the structural violence of prohibition culture. Let’s stop incarcerating people who consume acceptable amounts of the plant, but let’s still stigmatize and punish the heck out of people who grow it or distribute it without authorization from the State. Because Public Health! Which Modernity has such a great track record on promoting through punishment, assumably.

I hope to continue this sort of exploration in future posts. It may or may not be included in some form in the forthcoming book, but if nothing else contributes quite a bit to the transparency of the assumptions held by its author(s).

Contingency, Canopy and the Producer/Processor Application Process

Inventory June 15 final

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

Last week I focused on how the retail application process, however planned, has had to be adjusted on the fly based on unexpected applicant phenomena. Our Medical Transitioners represent, by contrast, a segment of the applicant population that was expected by the LCB, and who may have initially designed their rules in anticipation of their participation. The LCB has had to adjust their rulemaking processes — all of them — significantly based on outcomes they did not, and perhaps could not, anticipate. This post sketches that phenomenon as it applies to “Producer/Processors.”

Before we begin, let’s establish that the formation of 3 different kind of licenses (producers, processors, and retailers) reflected a segmentation of the legal cannabis supply chain that was not balanced so in the underground and Medical markets. Many access points started out at least partially vertically integrated, as an extension of underground gardens and gardeners. Many Medical businesses were collective gardens (and networks of these) that vended to Access Points. And many Medical Cannabis brands developed from singular enterprises that grew, processed, and branded an array of products besides flower.

The tripartite division of licenses developed by the LCB meant that initially, our Medical Transitioners had to figure out what they were and how they would specialize in the I 502 market. So even given the regular input the LCB sought from Medical Collective Gardens like Solstice and Dama at the beginning of their rulemaking process didn’t necessarily give the bureaucracy a clear picture of who would be applying for what, and how many. The process was fraught with contingency and unexpected outcomes, rather than designed and executed in a way that could either benefit or damage existing actors. The purpose of our Producer/Processor chapter, as well as our Specialty Processing chapter, highlight just how uncertain the landscape was for everyone, and how that posed particular challenges for Medical Transitioners.

The evidence considered stems from the fact that the LCB always received far more applicants than it anticipated, for all of its licensing windows, and that a large percentage of these came from applicants that were not ready to actually open or operate their licenses for a variety of reasons. This conclusion is even more stark for Producer/Processors, and is a bit simpler to discern through an analysis not only of applicant numbers, but how these translated into canopy potentials.

That’s because the LCB’s own rules anticipated 2 million square feet of canopy would capture 13-25% of the cannabis consumption market in the first year of retail operation, based on initial BOTEC analysis. Those numbers are easy to identify and break down. By those calculations, it would take four or eight times as much canopy — 8 million to 16 million square feet — to meet 100% of the State’s adult consumption market. That potential canopy was far exceeded in the first round, and sort of only, application round. But only a tiny percentage of those applications were ever able to open, and it appears that of those that opened most have fallen far short of their maximum allotted canopy.

The 30 day application window started Monday, November 16, 2013 and lasted till December 20, 2013. The LCB received almost 3000 producer applications (processor applications usually but not always accompanied producer applications). More than 900 of those applied for the up to 3 licenses permitted by rules. The resulting potential canopy from those applications dwarfed the LCB’s 2 million square foot goal, and in fact exceeded the upper limit that BOTEC had calculated as sufficient for the entire State’s supply. This unexpected development immediately resulted in two significant rule changes.

First, all applicants who applied for more than one producer license were allowed to move forward on just one of them. Last month, the LCB made that change permanent, but with one caveat: starting in January 2016, all licensees would be permitted to acquire up to two more producer licenses by purchasing them on the open market. Over the course of three years, many licenses were acquired via “minority” partnership by existing licensees and new venture interests, a point to which I will return in a moment.

And second, the canopy allotment for each application was reduced by 30%. It was restored last fall, across the board. Let’s discuss the results not only up to now, but how those results threw LCB projections out the window very soon after retail stores opened in July 2014.

Eleven months after the application window opened, LCB director Rick Garza reported that 267 producer/processor applicants were either approved or had begun the process of approval, and that the canopy represented by that population was 2.8 million square feet, about 50% more canopy than their target date for having 2 million square feet of canopy … seven months ahead of schedule. Retail stores had only been open 5 months at that point. Of course, the fall harvest data indicated that about 70 of 182 approved licenses were actually producing and of that number, seven producers accounted for more than 50% of production through December 2014, of which most of it was the fall harvest. Six of those seven were outdoor Tier 3 producers.

This incongruity demonstrates the difference between LCB accounting and real production capacity, which has always been difficult to determine. It’s clear that most producers struggled to get off the ground once they were approved, and the ones that did averaged a very low percentage of their maximum possible canopy. As a result, the potential canopy of the system itself has far exceeded actual production.

This was difficult to “see” as late as December 2014, given the relatively high prices for flower in the few retail stores that struggled to stay open with so little product on the shelves. But the Fall outdoor harvest, which was driven by seven (!) outdoor producers, created an inventory glut that allowed retailers to open, and stay open, for good — and with lower and lower flower prices. Edibles and concentrates remained rare on the shelves until July 2015, when the tiered tax structure choking intermediate supply chains was replaced by an end tax through 2166, 5052’s companion bill.

The inventory glut stabilized about six months later, when monthly indoor production began to exceed monthly retail inventory, and was probably finalized after the Fall 2015 harvest when outdoor’s annual boost created, essentially, a bottomless inventory for the limited retail landscape to exploit.

After two years of production, when it came time to decide whether to open another canopy approval window, the LCB decided that the original application pool — active or not — still represented far more canopy than than the State system needed. As a result, they permanently closed the up to two more licenses applied for by 900 applicants and ruled that all remaining inactive license applications, as well as active ones, could be acquired on an open market starting January 1, 2016. This rule changed in tandem with the decision to allow out-of-state financing at the same time.

The decision to move from a “command economy” approach to a privatized market approach solved one technical problem, how to deal with the vast amount of potential canopy held up by nonviable canopy applicants. But it also created a potential social problem. Producer/processor expansion could only happen via investment, increasingly likely to be out of state investment. “Mom and Pop” small businesses that hoped to expand their way to sustainability given very low wholesale prices had to abandon that hope. They would either have to finance license acquisition themselves or take on investors that could buy them out. The likelihood of Producer/Processor industry consolidation just went through the roof.

This narrative addresses the “aboveground” evidence of canopy allocation and rule changes, but to be clear, investors have been finding ways to acquire licenses and control canopy over the last several years. This is not inherently “bad” for undercapitalized applicants and small businesses, as many have found new life with the right investment partners. But it has been happening in the “loopholes” of I-502 regulation. Shell corporations fronting for out of state money, the most underground example, operate in direct defiance of LCB rules and intent — and many of these are behind some of the biggest producers in the State.

But canopy control doesn’t have to happen through direct ownership. Instead, “brand” companies have emerged to coordinate supply chains from canopy production, usually through agreement with processing licensees, to develop and sell branded products for I 502 shelves.  They are following a model pioneered by original applicant Producer/Processors that have used their Processor license to acquire production and create their own branded products. The tax structure reforms from July 2016 essentially opened up this business strategy by eliminating transaction costs associated with buying product from production licenses not held by the Processor — really, Brander — in question.

The emergence of the Processor/Brander as the market’s primary canopy allocator is really the story of the last year or so. There are plenty of Producers who just want to grow, harvest, and be done with it — especially outdoor producers, whose costs of production are so much lower than those of indoor producers. This is common across the Tiers, and many licensees who originally thought they would be processing and branding from their own production are now sourcing from “Producer only” licensees. This has helped many struggling producers with no branding or distribution inclination stay afloat, and provided otherwise struggling Producers with a way to increase their razor-thin margins.

The basic logic, though, is indifferent to whether its wielders are Big, Medium, or Small. Our interview subjects run the gamut, but every last one of them have shifted or are attempting to shift their business identities from Producers to Producer/Processor/Branders. In fact, that’s kind of what they were when they were Medical. In the book, we will examine how our Transitioners chose to become Producer/Processors, how that process worked for them, and how their business identities are adapting to the changing landscape.



In a different voice, on the pending closure of Medical Cannabis in Washington

Dr. Corva at Seattle Hempfest 2014.
Dr. Corva at Seattle Hempfest 2014.

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director


The opinions expressed in this editorial analysis belong to Dr. Corva, and do not necessarily reflect organizational consensus.


As the July 1, 2016 deadline for Medical Cannabis markets in Washington State draws near, I would like to offer a few observations about how and why this phenomenon is nearly impossible to address, politically. There can be no focused essay, as a result, so I’ll offer a few openings on the closure of an 18 year trajectory in which patients in Washington State gained more access, until now.

First, a disclaimer. Our organization’s mission is to facilitate a peaceful human-cannabis relationship, which we cannot do by denigrating, stigmatizing, or dismissing any individual that grows, distributes, consumes, authorizes, tests, legislates, or regulates the plant. Nonetheless we have to deal with the fact that many if not most of the above people do this, to others, and that the coming re-creation of the Recreational Cannabis system into Boss of Medical Cannabis Access is the direct result of this happening. It was not necessary, but it’s what happened. My position is that this is the opposite of peaceful policy, and congruent with the extension of Prohibition culture into Regulation policy. And that we need to continue to work peacefully to get those “two steps back.” It all starts with accurate, reliable, and unpoliticized information.

  1. The WSLCB cannot fulfill their obligation under 5052 to ensure that patient access in Washington state is not disrupted on July 1. It has already been disrupted. I have personally had to scramble to make sure an older friend could replace the product she could no longer get, and have directed many, many inquiries towards the few Access Points that remain open.
  2. There is also the matter of physical geography, product diversity, product availability, and affordability. The I 502 system won’t even get close to the kind of geographic access, access to diverse and specialized products, access to the amount and diversity of CBD rich products available in the access point system, and of course nowhere near the amount of access points previously available including delivery. And while cheap flower prices have arrived in much of the I 502 system, concentrate and edible prices remain far above those of their flower counterparts — and these are often widely preferred ways to consume for patients, for many reasons.
  3. Responsibility for reduced patient access in Washington State should be apportioned widely — the legislature, the LCB, the big money lobbyist, the monopoly-hungry trade association, the previous governor, the Majority Whip, the I 502 architect, the death-threatening activists, the patient advocates, the disorganized and fractured industry groups, the prohibition culture addicted to punishment, the law enforcement lobby, the UFCW, and more. We do not call for punishment, but responsible assessment of reality and its alignment with policy. And nothing responsible can be done unless people take responsibility for what has been done.
  4. Responsibility is something to which every one of these stakeholders seems to be allergic. Nothing that ever goes wrong is their fault, and everything that goes right has a raft of people ready to take credit. “Legalization” is an inflection point, historically and geographically; which means it’s both a continuation of what came before and the beginning of a new process that remains connected to all of the other processes that made it possible. No single organization or individual should be proclaiming victory, and there is way too much more work to be done. Legalization is not an endpoint.
  5. People often ask me about the black market. Even Clark County called me to ask about the black market. I told Clark County that their black market was now called “Oregon.”
  6. “Cartels” haven’t had much of a market share in the Pacific Northwest, maybe ever. This State is the birthplace of indoor cannabis. The original owner of Fremont’s Indoor Sun Shoppe wrote the first indoor grow guide ever published. It was 1972, and his shop was located on University Avenue across from the campus. Also I don’t think we call Southeast Asian-Canadian organized crime from BC “cartels,” but their dominance went into terminal decline at the turn of the century.
  7. The Washington black market, “domestically,” can be found on every college campus in the state and all of its music festivals. Access points hit lots of “middlemen” hard, but perhaps the dorm room dealer most of all. Things are looking up for dorm room dealers, street dealers, and small personal network dealers. That might be a good thing, since it’s a windfall for economically marginalized populations.
  8. NSDUH statistics show that people under 21 (read: college students especially) constitute the biggest cannabis-consuming demographic there is. As long as cannabis is legal only for “over 21” adults — as opposed to people who can vote, get a credit card, and join the army as “over 18” adults — the State will hit a wall in its efforts to eliminate the black market, no matter how low prices go. The U.S.-American higher education system will welcome cannabis culture and markets until the last dorm room gets turned into a prison cell.
  9. The black market that the State doesn’t address by shutting down “gray market” access points is called the export market. It’s been going on for decades, and closing medical does nothing at all to those exports.
  10. There’s a new black market, and it’s called diversion from the I 502 market. No one wants to talk about it, but somehow I still can’t avoid running into it. An interesting irony: I can hear folks talk all day long about state, interstate, and global black market developments but the minute anyone accidentally or on purpose mentions seeing I 502 diversion they shut up completely. It’s more dangerous to talk about than normal felonious activity. Disclaimer: the previous sentences in “point number 10” are hypothetical, I’ve never heard of nor seen diversion from the I 502 market. I don’t know what I was talking about.
  11. SB 5052’s new “four person cooperative garden” provision is a mystery. It has to be located in people’s domiciles, which would indicate that whatever happens there is protected by privacy laws, so … are there supposed to be cameras? where are registered patients supposed to get their plants? Is it a 15 day window 365 days a year? Has anyone signed up for this, a little over a month before “collective gardens” become illegal? In fact, how many patients have signed up for the registry so they can save 10% sales tax on their “medically endorsed” purchases? I’ll let you know as soon as I hear back from my public information request.
  12. Will there be a Kleiman-recommended huge crackdown, by Federal and/or other law enforcement agencies, immediately after July 1? Mark Kleiman has in many places recommended a big crackdown to “break the back” of the black market as soon as a regulated system is in place.
  13. I suspect there won’t be the budget nor the political will to make examples of home growers, but I do expect unregulated warehouse grows to be targeted and Federal investigations that have been pending for a few years to conclude.
  14. A legislative home grow option, especially if pitched as a “home brew” provision, would deal with many of not most of the problems caused by the hostile takeover of medical cannabis markets by the State. It will happen eventually — every other state has one, and California’s direction will steer the national policy ship once either AUMA passes or, if it doesn’t, once its legislature takes on the task of legalizing and regulating. But here in Washington, I keep hearing “some time in the next couple of years” from lobbyists and legislators.
  15. The I 502 system is never going to be a failure — it’s a conspiracy to sell weed without fear of enforcement, how could it be, but it is going to be full of individual failures, especially from small businesses. I’m aggressively uninterested in “$X billion sold” headlines and extremely concerned that X out of that X billion will go to a very few people rather than support small farmers, who will cash out and sell to investment groups as the rules and rule implementations evolve away from what used to be an advertised State concern — the protection and promotion of small businesses.

Thanks for reading! Again, the opinions expressed in this editorial analysis belong to Dr. Corva, and do not necessarily reflect organizational consensus.


Merit and the Second Wave Application Process

By February 2015, about 120 of lottery-allotted 334 retail stores had opened across the State.

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

This blog post skips the politics of 5052’s legislative process and focuses instead on how 5052’s mandated “merit process” for approving new I 502 retailers, ostensibly as a window for existing Medical Access points, was defined and implemented, between July 2015 and February 2016. It’s a post about an unfinished process, given that three of our interview subjects aim to be part of that transition but their individual processes are not completed. Dockside has two locations open from the first application window and three from the second wave in process; and Herban Legends transitioned to a new I 502 location almost as soon as the second wave application process achieved lift-off in January.

One of our other three applicants remains unapproved to transition and has a lawsuit pending against the WSLCB over whether there was in fact a merit process; another has fought to remain open in their current location until a Jul 1 switch over, and the fifth interview subject has closed her Access Point down while working to open in another location by July 1. All three in this group received letters from the WSLCB in January 2016 stating that they would remain open at their peril, since they were too far down the Priority I merit list to expect to be approved for Seattle. A flurry of media coverage ensued, as well as a different lawsuit, and about a week later two of these three applicants were informed that they were approved for Seattle, after all.

Which is to say that our Transitioner sample had a very diverse experience with the second retail application round. One of them made the top of the Priority I application list for Seattle; one of them and each of his two other business partners cleared the approval bar right away (two in Seattle and one elsewhere); and the other three have had to fight for Transition approval for different reasons with one of those still fighting.

Now that you know the current status of the results, let’s review the context for these highly variable outcomes.

SB 5052 directed the WSLCB to create a second retail application window based one merit criteria, which the WSLCB would also develop. This process began early summer 2016, not long after the bill was signed by the governor. Interestingly, the merit language appears to have been developed in the legislative process by UFCW, who intended merit criteria to include stringent labor standards. Those merit standards were recently folded into the renewal process, after closed-meeting pressure from the UFCW. It would have been bureaucratically difficult, if not impossible, to triangulate labor standards when the LCB’s main legislative obligation was to re-create Medical Cannabis access for the State by July 1, 2016.

So the initial challenge faced by the LCB was to define merit criteria that was focused on defining what criteria could plausibly be used to identify Medical “good actors” who deserved a chance to get into the I 502 system — especially since the previous window’s lottery process made such qualifications irrelevant.

However, the lottery results were still active — all of the lottery applications from the previous window had numbers, and had been promised that if their numbers came up, their applications would be processed. A second window had to fold the first window in to avoid lawsuits from hundreds of still-pending applicants further down on the lottery draw.

As a result, the LCB settled on two merit criteria that would define three Priority Tiers. The first criteria was, did you apply in the lottery round? And the second was, had you been paying taxes since before January 1, 2013 — roughly, the timeframe in which I 502 had become a reality. Priority I was the list for applications that met both criteria; Priority II was for applications that met the second criteria without the first; and Priority III was for applications that met neither criteria.

Effectively, the primary merit consideration became, did the application include someone who had applied in the lottery round. The secondary merit consideration had to do with whether someone on the application had belonged to an Access Point collective garden, evidenced by tax receipts. The prioritization of lottery applicants meant that every existing I 502 retail store had in hand the primary merit consideration. And that every access point that hadn’t applied did not. Those with the easiest route to Priority I status were access points open and paying taxes before 2013 AND a lottery application in hand. Four of our five Transitioners met those criteria.

A marketplace developed for applicants that had one of the stated merit criteria and not the other. This became especially clear when most of the new retail allocation went to existing I 502 recreational stores, all of whom partnered with a criteria-eligible access point business partner or collective garden employee to meet both merit criteria. Applications were cobbled together to meet both criteria, usually in exchange for business partnership or payout, to such an extent that by mid-November more than 800 retail applications had been received by the WSLCB. That number increased considerably through the March 31, 2016 closure of the second retail window. In the book, we will look more in depth at merit criteria and the way it affected who was able to transition and who was not.

Parallel to the development of the merit criteria, the WSLCB found its retail window process challenged unexpectedly by another powerful State political force, the Association of Washington Cities. The new window was originally conceived as uncapped and indefinitely open: applications would be accepted, assigned a Priority Tier, and then approved on a rolling basis, at LCB discretion. Jurisdictions revolted en masse, individually and through the AWC, citing concerns about clustering and not willing to leave it to the LCB how many could open in each jurisdiction. Even Seattle pressured the LCB for a capped process that would specify how many per jurisdiction would be available, and to close the window sooner rather than later. Some of this pressure was amplified by a new I 502 trade association representing existing I 502 retail stores that clearly didn’t wan’t more competition. But jurisdictions backed up their concerns with a promise to limit new retail stores by zoning them out of possible locations and establishing minimum distance to existing retail stores.

As a result, the LCB initiated a process for determining how many new retail stores could open, and in mid December announced specific allotments per jurisdiction as well as an end-date to the window process. That’s a story for another post, but the takeaway point to this narrative is that the second window application process was shaped considerably by political pressure on the LCB after 5052 was passed. The messiness and discontinuity of that process can’t be laid at the feet of 5052 itself, nor the bureaucracy charged with its implementation. The difficulties with defining merit and the ease with which existing I 502 retailers gamed the system to grab new stores at the expense of possible Medical Transitioners is not strictly the fault of the legislature, nor of the LCB, but broader political and economic developments concerning I 502 in the rest of the State. In the book, we address the complexity of these power relationships as they were experienced by our interview subjects.


Caution: Approaching Legislative Vehicles

State Medical Cannabis tax revenues July 2013- November 2014. Source: Washington Department of Revenue
State Medical Cannabis tax revenues July 2013- November 2014. Source: Washington Department of Revenue

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

NOTE: this excerpt is from a work in progress, as indicated by the first paragraph. We will adjust our analysis going forward, without a doubt.

This post addresses a section of the retail chapter that is a recently discovered blind spot, and for which we have just begun to re-envision, through focused archival research and a few phone calls out. Until recently, Dr. Corva has understood SB 5052, the Rivers vehicle that ended “parallel” cannabis systems as of July 1, 2016, as coming a bit out of the blue due to Senate capture by Republicans in November 2015. In fact neither parts of that narrative are true, although they aren’t completely false either. This post provides a starting point for revising that history, that will be developed completely in the book.

First, let’s start with why it matters. The approximately biannual (because in Washington, bills have a two year life-cycle) tradition of Senator Kohl-Welles’ amendments to RCW 69.51.A since the 00s produced amendments in 2007 and 2010, but generally those amendments were aimed at increasing and/or improving patient access. For example, the 2010 amendment that liberalized authority to write authorizations may have had a great deal to do with the explosion of retail access points, in two ways. First, authorized patients were necessary for medical access points to function in compliance with State law, and now there could be a lot more of them. And second, for collective gardeners (some of whom were vertically integrated into retail spots), there was a surge of demand through less underground “off the street” outlets. Patients could be authorized to grow their own, but that didn’t mean they had the skill, time, or inclination to do so.

Senator Kohl-Welles’ 2011 bill, SB 5073, was a comprehensive reform of the Medical Cannabis legislation in that it sought to improve through regulating the increased and improved patient access to which her previous efforts contributed. There were a LOT of other factors, and it’s impossible to say what percentage each contributed, but here are a few: the election of “choom gang” veteran Obama to the presidency; the financial crisis that had most of our country trying to figure out how to pay mortgages and bills; the Ogden Memo and its successor Federal memos of which the Cole Memo is only the most recent and clearly spelled out; the bankruptcy of State and local budgets including for law enforcement against a plant; the widespread availability of information on how to grow cannabis on the internet; the completion of years-long prosecutions in favor of Medical Marijuana defendants that set a more liberalized precedent; and so forth. If not perfect, it was a hell of a storm for evolving social and policy conditions. And our subjects, along with many others, certainly found those conditions amenable to choosing Medical Cannabis livelihoods.

Certainly, the choices made by more and more people to practice civil disobedience against a racist, unjust and genocidal Federal prohibition meant more and more storefronts becoming visible in the landscape. They not only served a burgeoning number of authorized patients: they channelled cannabis markets off the streets and into a space of visibility that itself may have served to discipline violence associated with street corner dealing and turf warfare. They served to employ an army of unemployable people in the middle of the greatest financial crisis of our lifetime. In the book, we go into more detail about the social benefits of visible access points and the commercialization of domestic sinsemilla. But the point of this paragraph is to highlight the social conditions that, indisputably, made cannabis markets much more visible to policymakers and the public.

But prohibition culture did not recede as rapidly as the post-prohibition economy. Some lawmakers chose the old fashioned response to “seeing cannabis like a prohibition State” (see anthropologist James Scott on “seeing like a State“). Cannabis could be tolerated as long as it remained in the social closet, but the emergence of retail access points in the urban landscape began to promote a politics of “moral panic” that joined with other political currents (I 502 being one of them) to demand something be done. Senator Kohl-Welles SB 5073 caught the State legislature at a moment when the politics of regulation were just beginning to sort themselves out, when those politics could only be framed in terms of reforming the current system rather than attempting to re-create it via not just “recreational” law (I 502, one year later) but the subsumption of Medical into a Recreational legal framework (5052, four years later).

What seems clear is that SB 5073 represented a reformist turn for Senator Kohl-Welles, for which the legislature was ready (but not the Governor); that the Medical Cannabis community had started to go its own way via Representative Appleton in a “improve patient access” vehicle that went nowhere but siphoned energy from the previously unified Kohl-Welles Medical Cannabis front; and that power in the State legislature shifted away from Democrats (and therefore towards Republican lobbyist-recently-turned Senator Ann Rivers. Legislative focus shifted definitively away from “increasing patient access” towards “regulating patient access,” ostensibly in order to “improve patient access” via quality control.

At this point it is obligatory to state that the objective of improving patient access via quality control was always necessary and could have been a focus of legislative energy starting in 1998. It’s not the basic meaning of the discourse that became a point of major social conflict, it’s how the discourse was mobilized in a way that could not improve patient access because it was busy tearing up the access system that had evolved organically over 15 years, through Senator Ann Rivers.

In 2013, Rivers successfully killed Kohl-Welles’ efforts to resurrect SB 5073 and introduced her own vehicle, SB 5887, that definitively shifted how Medical Cannabis would be handled in the legislature right through to 5052’s radical re-writing of what it meant, legally, in Washington State. SB 5887 was introduced late in the 2013 session and re-introduced for the biennial 2014 session, when most of the legislative work that ultimately proved futile was done. It died when revenue sharing disagreements in the context of the ongoing State budget crisis proved irreconcilable. The end of the two-year legislative cycle meant that legislative reform efforts would begin again in 2015 with a clean slate.

Senator Rivers’ majority party advantage established through the “Majority Caucus Coalition” formed with two renegade Democrats 2012 was cemented by the November 2014 elections, when Republicans gained an outright majority. Any cannabis legislative vehicle would have to go through her, and thus the 2015 session began with a radical one: SB 5052. It was economically radical because it sought to re-create cannabis markets in Washington State, rather than align the old with the new via regulation; it was politically radical because it accepted no input or amendment from the political representatives and stakeholders that had been increasing and improving patient access since 1998; and it was culturally radical in that it relied on a campaign of “moral panic” to characterize the Medical Cannabis policy experiment in Washington State a total failure because Medical Cannabis people were “Bad Actors” creating a “Wild West,” “unruly,” and “out of control” environment. Collective gardens were unredeemably greedy, patients were 90% fakers and gamers of the system, and so forth. The only verifiable fact associated with this discourse was that yes, the State could finally begin to see Cannabis culture out of the closet and, over more than 20 years, totally invested in Medical Cannabis in all its definitions, and these just weren’t the people it wanted to regulate. Well, maybe some of them — but just a few.


Continuity, Discontinuity, and Contingency between Legal and Medical

Active_Pending_Medical Seattle Map 07162014
July 2014 map by Steve Hyde, of then-pending Legal retailers and advertised Seattle Medical access points

by Dominic Corva, Social Science Research Director

Legal Cannabis Phase I, for our interview subjects, overlapped with another State legal regime, Initiative 75, which was codified as RCW 69.51.A in 1998. Washington State medical cannabis laws were first passed by citizen initiative in 1998 and amended legislatively multiple times until 2011. The 2011 amendment, SB 5073, was a legislative bill requiring the State to regulate and tax commercial medical cannabis. It was the culmination of over a decade of then-Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles collaboration with Washington State medical cannabis patients and stakeholders. Those efforts continued for four years, until SB 5052 swallowed them up by folding medical cannabis regulation into the I 502 framework in 2015. First, let’s clarify this timeline, and then let’s discuss how this is relevant to our study of Legal Cannabis Phase I.

The timeline goes something like this.

  1. Medical Phase I: 1998- April, 2011. Key legal framework: affirmative defense for possession; evolving criteria for authorizations; and evolving plant counts.
  1. Medical Phase II: April 29, 2011 — July 1, 2016. Key legal framework change: commercialization tolerated in policy, especially in Seattle and King County, via a noncommercial clause, “collective gardens.”
  1. Legal Phase I: I 502 (December 2012/13 — April 28, 2015/July 1, 2016). Key legal framework: an explicitly non-medical system regulated by the WSLCB.
  1. Legal Phase II: July 1, 2016- .  Key legal framework: a single integrated medical and non-medical system regulated by the WSLCB, plus other reforms to the 502 law. 

      5. Overlap: April 28, 2015-July 1, 2016. Medical Phase II and Legal Phase I co-exist.

This timeline could easily be broken up further. For instance, the 2008 liberalization of authorization authority had a significant impact on the availability of authorized consumers for access points. And the 2011 legislative vehicle was the first of Senator Kohl-Welles’ reform efforts that sought to regulate patient access, rather than improve patient access. Between 2008 and 2011, something or some things happened to centralize legal reform efforts away from “more cannabis and more patients” to “discipline unruly State cannabis markets.” This is the subject of another book or chapter, however.

Instead, we want to understand the dynamics of Medical policy and markets as continuous and parallel to the dynamics of Legal policy and markets. And to do that, we have to unpack the evolution of both processes in relation to and separate from each other. We want to use Medical Phase I to break up and analyze Legal Phase I as the upstart — or start-up — framework with messy and unanticipated dynamics, not a homogenous legal time in which one thing logically followed another until it was time for Legal Phase II in Washington State.

In fact, the reason they evolved separately had less to do with the passage of I 502 than the way the WSLCB chose to implement it. And the way they chose to implement it was to create a completely different system rather than to use State Medical markets as a foundation. This is probably the defining characteristic of the “Washington model,” since no other state has chosen to do it that way.

The WSLCB took about 10 months to go from figuring out what cannabis was at the most basic level to implementing a “starting from scratch” model. For the first six months or so, that process was dominated by public and private meetings across the state so the Board could learn from existing cannabis market stakeholders a few things about the commodity they were charged with regulating. Starting in about April 2013, that process overlapped with a more academic exercise, in which BOTEC was contracted to estimate the size of the cannabis market, its potential environmental impacts, and so forth.

By the fall of 2013, the WSLCB had decided on a course of action that may or may not have been understood by the bureaucracy itself as a model for starting from scratch. There would be a one month window for applications, some time to process producer and processor applications, and then a lottery for retail applications, then some time to process those, and then by June 2014 Legal Phase I would open for business. This is a well-known timeline, but we emphasize two things about it that are poorly understood.

First, the applicant pool was much larger and different from what the WSLCB expected. Instead of a few hundred experienced applicants, they received a few thousand applications, many of whom were “gaming the system” by forging real estate claims and creating rings of applicants from friends, family, or straight up business associates to maximize their odds in the retail lottery or gain control of more canopy than they could otherwise.

And second, applicants to the 502 system were applying to a system that was legally forbidden from making any medical or therapeutic claims about cannabis. Although some of our interview subjects anticipated that this would change, it was a great disincentive to existing Medical Cannabis stakeholders against joining the I 502 system. This applies especially to retail access points, whose products and customer base revolved centrally around making those claims. But it also applies to producers and processors, since medical markets themselves continued to evolve away from simply growing high THC sinsemilla flower, towards CBD-rich cultivars, extracts, and edibles of much greater potency and diversity than would appeal to “recreational” consumers in the new system.

The takeaway for this post is that while the WSLCB may or may not have intended to “start from scratch” with I 502 stakeholders that were overwhelmingly new to cannabis, that’s how it worked out. This is most clear for the retail side of things, in which the lottery system could have by chance favored existing Medical Cannabis access points, but the odds were pretty slim given the amount of applicants and the way they gamed the system.

This is how it shook out for our interviewees. One of them “won” a lottery position outright, but was derailed repeatedly over real estate and business partnership issues. One of them acquired a Shoreline lottery position very early, and once a few of the winning lottery positions failed to take advantage, had their Seattle number come up. They have a Sodo location now. Two others drew extremely low lottery numbers whose numbers never came up. And one did not apply at all, figuring that the two systems would remain separate given that the 502 system was not allowed to be medical in any way. We will address who these are, and how this process shook out, in the book.