Pamela Chotiswatdi, MPH
May 18, 2022 - Cannabis Report/Essay
What’s wrong with the cannabis industry? Everything.
There is one California cannabis market of consumers and patients and two supply chains or ecosystems: aboveground and underground. There is one movement that has evolved into fragmented infighting with many egos, elitisms, and other isms. All too busy battling each other, government officials, legislation, the public at large, and corporations to step outside the bubble and look at the unified work that needs to occur. And to add to it, elected officials flipping positions and selling out create more hostile, gamed, and exploitative environments. We continue to ignore, deny, and dismiss these facts and throw fuel on the ‘us vs them’ narrative that the government originally started.
That said, I cannot ignore the fact that personally dealing with assholery has left me traumatized with PTSD. While unity must happen, there are some individuals who I could not look in the eye without disgust, let alone talk to, no matter how professional I need to be, it is not going to happen. People like this person are prevalent in this space: white bro-dudes with family money and no cannabis education or culture beyond college frat parties; dudes who purposely exploit, stip, and steal people of their ideas, content, and work; dudes who do not know how plants work let alone how their own bodies interact with cannabis; dudes who cannot relate to social justice or human rights, but wear that outfit to garner more victims to support their greed; these dudes along with the government are killing the real transition from underground to above ground.
It’s the epitome of what Annie Lowery wrote about ‘late capitalism,’ stating “Late capitalism” skewers inequality, whether businesses’ feverish attempts to sell goods to the richest of the rich (here’s looking at you, $1,200 matgarita) or to provide less and less to the rest (hey, airlines that make economy customers board after pets). It lampoons brands’ attempts to mimic or co-opt the language, culture, and content of their customers. Conspicuous minimalism, curated and artificial moments of zen, the gaslighting of the lifehacking and wellness movement: This is all late capitalism.” And this is the backseat driver of the cannabis industry.
February 2022 marked my fourth year of working in California cannabis, five years as a public health community educator, and ten years as an editor. I came into a cannabis position of advocating for fair policy led efforts at the beginnings of Prop 64 adult-use regulations. I’ve been a writer a few years longer than I've been a cannabis consumer, stepping on the bus in early 1989 at age 13. Coming from a mostly loving but unstable childhood, I’ve come to understand that we all experience childhood trauma in one way or another, our parents and their parents too, whether from our own families, the government, society, and/or people or situations we are exposed to. Cannabis provided me a community and somewhat normalcy as much as it helped me escape: It made me forget about trauma, kept me in the moment, lessened anxiety, and experience for the first time a kind of ‘normal’ state or as I would learn about 20+ years later, my endocannabinoid system’s homeostasis.
My biggest distractions as an early 1990s teenager were dudes, friends, and researching drugs and religion. My distractions were my world with little authoritative guidance and direction, common for the time for a majority of my peers. My hippy parents worried more that I would end up in jail before I would succumb to any ill effects or death from a substance. Fast forward through several careers, multiple rentals, a few degrees, groups of friends, and decades of experiences, I have found myself just about full circle—still distracted by a group of dudes, communities of friends, researching altered states and policy, and my parents are still worried that I might be arrested.
What does my life have to do with the California cannabis industry and advocacy? Everything.
I am Southern California. My story is not unlike many in the aboveground and underground cannabis ecosystems, activists, and peers. We have been abused, used as tools to harm others, used by the government, tokenized, demonized, raided, arrested, jailed, wounded, and killed. We are also compassionate, passionate, adaptive, and resilient. We are similar to the plant. We are used the same way the government and large corporations use the plant without compassion or education, and fragmented just as much. “Hemp” is cannabis. It's only categorized as hemp under legislation, not science. Science is not stigmatized. Plants do not know what ‘ .03%’ THC means just as much as Sativa means ‘energy.’ There are many issues being exposed under one area that it is hard for me to keep organized as I explain my position.
Cannabis is our culture and it's the culture that sets the backdrop of today’s California legal industry; everything wrong with the space starts with culture.
The Culture Collision of the Cannabis Industry and Infighting Orchestrated by the Government
What did we call the process or actions of the growing, processing, transporting, and distributing cannabis before cannabis prohibition? It was called farming. Like corn and wheat, there are many different things to do with cannabis agriculture and many industries to sell it to. Cannabis became an illicit crop because of racist elitism, greedy politics, and competing industries. You know the story. But farmers still farmed and cannabis consumers still consumed. If you do not know your cannabis history, I suggest you pause here and get some reading in before you continue.
Cannabis culture is an often forgotten discussion because of the lack of historic documentation. Criminalization prevented creating or keeping documentation of any kind. We were teenagers when the internet was born, the last generation who’s childhood is undocumented on the internet ethers. Sure, we may have had video cameras, polaroids, and one-hour photos, but we hardly used them. We lived in the moment of the experience to bond over later. We rallied at 1990s’ Hemp Breakfast Smoke-Ins eating hemp-seed pancakes dancing to the Dead, where Jack Herer’s book was passed around with joints, while Northern California farmers pushed for decriminalization for medical access in San Francisco dispensaries for patients suffering from the AIDS epidemic.
As a state-wide cannabis ecosystem, we were connected by those who transported cannabis from farmers in the north to our mutual friends in the south; or also, in my case, friends coming off the Grateful Dead tour and bringing home amazing wares from Shakedown and the stories across the nation with them. I continued as a consumer, sourcing cannabis through friends, friends’ friends, friends’ relatives, who were all mostly hippies with the ‘kind bud’ connections from Northern California. I actually didn’t pay for any products until I was 18 because my friends were generous and I often bartered, once trading a couple nugs and dinner for a pair of 3-hole Doctor Martens. It's always been a culture of community and trust with friends introducing friends to friends and ‘strangers stopping strangers.’
Culture shifted around the early 2000s for me, people went to jail because the war on drugs was strong as ever under Prop 215 despite decriminalization for patients and caretakers (also known as farmers) with medical papers, some people moved away, some just parted ways, et cetera. Despite Prop 215, with no real regulations, mass decriminalization, continued miseducation and stigma, and policy that fueled the drug war, law enforcement was heavy on farmers, transporters, and smoke shops with continued record-number of arrests in Black and Brown communities especially in California’s Oakland/Bay Area and Los Angeles regions.
About this time, people in Southern California started to grow indoors, hydroponics was a big thing and messy. Consistency of access was not always there as policy and culture began to shift. For a few years, I received cannabis flower in the mail and sold some to my friends, until that became too risky when a package got stuck at an Oakland post office. My other sources began to fade because of criminal risk and opportunities in other states, so I started going to dispensaries and eventually called on deliveries.
The main person I bought cannabis from was a high school acquaintance, but we didn’t become friends until a year or two after. Eventually, she lived in an indoor grow house that she never took me too, although I had let her into every aspect of my life and garnered her a lot of business through my friends. She also worked at a couple smoke/glass shops which were also owned by other people who had farms. I would hang out with her at the shops at times, even sell glass and papers to people for fun while we smoked in the back. She would lampoon me for my cannabis math, which I could never get right, how many 1/8ths are in an ounce again? Unfortunately, our friendship fizzled around 2009 due to our both needing to self-heal and grow, she eventually moved to Colorado just after they legalized as a state. Although she kept me in the dark about operations, she taught me the most about cannabis before I ever thought of jumping into the movement as a career or activist.
I hated dispensaries at first, they were like bikini bars with no information, just half dressed girls pushing products to get consumers as lit as possible. The trust aspect was crushed, some spots were better than others, while products were typically good, overconsumption through edibles was hard to avoid without compliance for homogeneity and dosing. The community began to fade and was replaced with egotism and elitism…the “if you know, you know” crowd is different from the innate “share-the-education” crowd. My white-bro dude connections became more pretentious than ever, even people I had known for decades.
I attended several seshes and meet ups here and there prior to 2017, mostly in OC and the Inland Empire, but never an atmosphere that I connected with or witnessed any serious activists organizing. I had no idea what I was reading when we voted for Prop 64. People against it did not have a solution; people for it seemed like they could fix things as policy unfolded. As a consumer and supporter, I was not exposed to real education from either side. I strongly wanted to legalize and decriminalize cannabis because it was the right thing to do. I had been singing that song with Mr. Tosh for a while by then and I wanted to live it. What did policy and regulation even mean or look like? I had no idea. No one did.
My first encounter with an awareness of colliding culture was at a cannabis advocacy meet up and discussion in 2017. Prior to this, I had an illusion that “we” were all in it for the same things: safe access, decriminalization, non-stigmatized, fair business policy, and social regulations. I had started to explore the cannabis space and learn some of the who’s who. With a fresh public health degree, I naturally gravitated to advocacy organizations.
When the language was more of ‘us and them’ regarding “the industry,” I was stunted and became aware of divisions in the space. ‘The Industry,’ like it was a dirty word. Cannabis provided me a voice in this new arena, I responded, “Without an industry what do we do after prohibition? It's always been an industry, underground and illegal, but an industry nonetheless, it needs to be an industry aboveground too for safe access for patients, economic development, and to keep people out of the prison system.” Crickets. I continued, “The farmers and people we purchase from are the underground industry and did not create the war on drugs, that was the government. Seems like we need to unite advocacy and industry and educate the government and public at large.” Crickets. I excused myself from that table to find something else. As a consumer, my cannabis sourcing was the underground industry I grew up with; to me, industry and advocacy were one in the same. I was mistaken.
Cannabis Culture is being young, philosophizing with friends, meeting up for a show or a sesh, exploring nature and cities; the culture is also the political movement of decriminalization and safe access; it's also ending prohibition and the War on Drugs; it's also creating a fair and equitable industry, it's also changing cannabis’ political role from a racist tool of incarceration and social enslavement to a paragon of social change.
The 'underground culture’ of Pre-Prop 215 collides with Prop 215 culture collides with miseducated and stigmatized elected officials and communities at large collides with Prop 64 political culture collides with miseducated and stigmatized corporate culture and bro-dudes collides with consumers and patients of today, all set to a backdrop of a 100 years of government-induced prohibition, stigma, division, and racist/elitist greed.
Each time cannabis political activism progresses, it unveils layers of needed social change: Prop 215 and LGBTQIA+ and patient rights and Prop 64 and the war on drugs reparations.
Because of the lack of documentation and constant infighting, there is no spotlight on the pioneering groups, people, farmers, transporters, retailers, healing and less suffering patients, and millions of people who were arrested and families destroyed that brought us to this time of cannabis decriminalization and legalization. Unless every person coming into any cannabis position or business or government is educated and comprehends Cannabis History, there is no shared understanding of ancient and medicinal uses and general cannabis history. That knowledge is not there, so there is no mutual understanding of uniting behind the movement. It's fractured into self-serving and legislative actions where corporations and governments pit cannabis groups against one another.
The underground cannabis industry is large and in charge with a handle on more than 70% of the cannabis market. Inaccessible and unaffordable permits and licenses close out family farms and those most harmed by the war on drugs, leaving legal access only open to those with large funds, investors, generational wealth, and multiple partners. Decriminalization and legalization promised and did not deliver. Very few underground operations moved above ground, probably under 5%. New businesses and large corporations that never experienced cannabis culture outside of high school and college or the underground industry joined that 5% resulting in a Clash of the Titans in the aboveground industry. More like Clash of bro-dudes egos.
The underground cannabis industry is familiar with operating out of sight with no documentation, no marketing, no human resources, no business plans, and no people-skilled management; there were/are no business degrees or workshops or navigation offered to any underground businesses coming above ground. There was/is criminal judgment and stigma from the public at large, government, and institutions. New cannabis businesses understand above ground business operations but do not understand cannabis culture because they fail to educate themselves and realize that they cannot ‘cookie cutter’ the cannabis industry.
This Culture Collision produces a legal market that has some amazing visual marketing and workforce teams surrounding products I wouldn’t offer to anyone. Some of it is good, but a lot of it is not, bringing back memories of dressed up brick weed. The underground ecosystem is still mixed with good people helping others and patients and bad people destroying humans and the environment, so going backwards into the underground completely is not the answer either.
Culture Collisions occur between social equity and the ‘industry’ as well. Similar to how some patient advocacy groups create division between patients and ‘industry,’ so do some social justice advocacy groups. Cannabis touches many topics and social justice is one; patient access is another: housing is another; human rights is another: topics are as complex as the plant. Some equity groups blame the “industry” for locking Black and Brown people impacted by the war on drugs out of the legal cannabis market. The “industry” is both the above ground and underground ecosystems of producing cannabis and getting it to consumers. There is one market - patients and consumers either go above ground or underground or both - it's the same pool of consumers in two ecosystems. Despite the paths to an operating cannabis business, it will be operating off of the one cannabis market in either the above ground ecosystem or the underground ecosystem. Equity is the industry.
The government, not the industry, locked out people who were harmed by the war on drugs, along with small businesses, patients, and family farms with over regulation, over taxation, and barriers that only corporations or groups with large funding could access. The lack of system navigation or funded ancillary support and extreme fees and expenses of permits, licensing, build outs, et cetera was either designed on purpose to fail BIPOC, small businesses, and family farms specifically or to fail the entire legal cannabis program altogether and make a ton of money while “trying to make it work.” I suspect it is both.
While Black and Brown people are arrested 10x more than their white counterparts, cannabis farmers have been traditionally white folk. Particularly, the white hippie Northern California type. Even when Southern California started to grow indoors, it was my white friends and their uncles and some aunties too. My Black and Brown friends bought from the same people I did, mostly white hippies who grew or sourced from a Northern California white farmer. I once met a Black friend while we were both purchasing from the same white friend. We continued to purchase from the same dude for many years because he had the Northern California connections to farms, that is until legalization and then he stopped selling cannabis and we had to start sourcing elsewhere.
Cannabis operators who operated under Prop 215 fought for legalization for medicinal purposes, dispeling stigma, and paved the road for adult-use and decriminalization through educating elected officials. This is the same method that activists have been using ever since, educating government officials and institutions. Activists organizing is needed in cities that have banned any cannabis regulations, but organizing and educating communities about cannabis is not easy.
The idea of social equity reparation was not introduced under any legislation until Prop 64 in 2016 because society had to literally evolve. Social movements must take place for the impact of social growth to occur. This has been repeated throughout history for thousands of years. Outcomes differ, but it starts the same: continuous loud actions from a large group.
The cannabis industry is the pilot program of a should-be government reparation-equity program. Instead of the government holding the cannabis “industry” accountable for its own impact of a hundred years of bad policy targeting Black and Brown communities and low socioeconomic neighborhoods, the government needs to be accountable for it own mistakes of the war on drugs and the cataclysmic impacts they have caused and continue to cause to generations of families and communities.
Elected officials and government staff need to take the $100 Billion dollar California budget surplus and create programs to support everyone harmed by the war on drugs. The application should ask, “Have you or your family been impacted by the war on drugs?” with programs providing navigation, any trauma care needed, and funds for education and/or business startup in any industry or interest, cannabis included. Instead, we have programs that do not work, only create divisions and problems.
Similar equity programs could be created and offered to California’s Indiginous communities that had suffered genocide for centuries, coericed to specific land, and the same racist policy forced on them. Add access to health and trauma care, and this type of program would help a majority of homeless persons who have been impacted by community mental health policies of the Kennedy and Reagan eras that have come to a crescendo in our urban cities. It costs $106K to incarcerate a person for a year; and it takes $80K a year to put someone through a rehabilitation program and it costs about $84K for a year of assisted living.
The Culture Collision of unregulated operations and toxic corporate culture leaves most cannabis workplaces operating under storm clouds both underground and aboveground. The cannabis workforce has been treated less than for decades. They are judged as ‘drug users’ from politicians and the public at large and even their own employers. With managers who wear all the hats of supervisors, human resources, trainers, and marketing directors blurring lines of operational accountability from management and workforce, creating environments of dictatorships, favoritisms, and high turnover rates.
The cannabis workforce who transitioned from underground to aboveground went from risky front lines to minimal aboveground benefits: from working farms, seasonal migrating trimming, transporting throughout the state and across state lines, overworked with 20+ hour days of processing, packaging, and retail, some who also experienced sexual assualt and harrassment, required to wear revealing clothing, pushing questionable prodcuts to bare minimum of legal minimum wage jobs, reasonable work hours, healthcare, minimum PTO, and thankless, unmotivated environments in a failing industry. Is it a wash or a fail?
The cannabis workforce is starving, struggling, and exploited. The minimal women in the workforce are leaving in droves. Employees do what they love for the price of not being paid their worth and not receiving the benefits of a fair, successful industry. They are undervalued, underpaid, and treated as replaceable and disposable even under union facilities. Most are exploited for their ideas and then tossed aside or shelved. They are never paid their worth, some are only paid in cannabis products, and we all know cannabis does not pay rent. The cannabis workforce, both aboveground and underground ecosystems, suffer the most.
Which brings us to the California Legal Cannabis Supply Chain, Governments, Corporations, the Public-at-large, Politics, & Stigma.
Starting at the beginning of the supply chain and breaking down each chain; the California government cannabis regulations set the legal industry up to flail and fail.
Cultivation and Manufacturing:
I combine cultivation and manufacturing because they work together in both ecosystem supply chains, above ground and underground. Farmers cultivate cannabis flower for direct consumption or send to manufacturers to process into other products. There is no other agricultural product that forces taxes at the beginning of product production besides cannabis.
There is a current bill battle in the California State cannabis legislature process that has pitted cultivators against retailers. Northern California cannabis farms are dying because of several factors based on over taxation, over regulations, lack of public and consumer education, and lack of access. Someone led farmers to believe that the reason they are failing is because they cannot sell directly to consumers and they should demand to sell to consumers at events. State bills cost money and time and choke other policy changes. When there is not a unified voice, the government stops listing and makes its own conclusions, as played out in the struggle to eliminate cultivation tax. Sometimes the movement sits on its hands too, mostly out of fear. I created a draft tax elimination campaign at the end of 2019 on the heels of the Long Beach tax modernization, a slept on campaign that was picked up by someone else two years later. Fear stunts the movement itself.
Before legalization and decriminalization, the industry ecosystem looked like Northern California cannabis farmers selling packs to their neighboring urban cities, Southern California, and across state lines; literally sourcing the nation’s cannabis as the underground market still does to this day. In Southern California, retailers bought cannabis from Northern California farmers and from local Southern California indoor farms and dispersed through friends, deliveries, dispensaries, or seshes. For those not in the know, California cannabis is like California almonds and strawberries, probably larger, but we do not have exact yields from underground or even above ground yet.
Cannabis farmers made/make most of their profits distributing their own products, not sold directly to consumers or patients. Cannabis farmers are so stressed with over regulations, over taxations, and corporations buying up all the land that they grew up in, that they have no idea which tree to bark up, they have had no ‘above ground’ business operations training or workshops, and forgot that what actually made Prop 215 go sideways in the first place which was stigmatic politics, tax greed, and straight up environmental pollution and greed.
The government did not/does not educate themselves. Every government elected officials or staff need mandatory cannabis education training. Because of the nuance of aboveground industry, they need to understand the “how we got here” to dispel any miseducation and stigma including science. One of the biggest fights for Prop 215 was what our predecessors called the “magical ounce.” The law decriminalized patients from processing, transporting, and consuming, but they also needed to include the farmers or who they called ‘caretakers.’ The government and society at large was not educated on cannabis enough or at all to dispel stigma to dig in on the policy work to create a supported industry, instead they created a 20-year gray market with no one pushing public cannabis education or advocating for business and workforce education for underground operations; the community was distracted by its own access and had little to no educational leaders, so it did not pick up the public education tab.
Creating a separate distribution license gave the government and public at large a sense of false control. But it only created problems and bottlenecks in a new aboveground industry. Some distribution companies have put farms and manufacturers out of business through bad deals and exploitation, and straight up theft.
In the legal California cannabis supply chain, cultivators and manufacturing licenses should have an automatic distribution license just like any other industry. Most other industries, breweries, distilleries, packaged foods, makeup/beauty products, produce, wineries make, package, and distribute their own products. Distribution companies can still be an option as it works for some business models, but with a new industry of small businesses, cultivators and manufacturing licenses need an automatic distribution license.
Cultivation does not want retail, they are confused, they want their own distribution, so they can package and transport directly to retail stores and cut out the whole re-testing and distribution fees and costs. They can sell and market their own products to retailers, wholesalers, and consumers.
If they want retail too, then, that’s the micro-business model that some locations had under Prop 215 days. Some places grew and sold their own products as well as flower from several other farms and then other types of products from other producers. That model is available now and the cost is unattainably high, but it is offered. Clogging up state bills is what corporate lobbyists do. The industry needs to lobby together on lowering the barrier of entry all around and not creating new infighting issues and other problems on the supply chain.
Farmers cannot truly believe that selling by the ounce to the public instead of by pounds to retailers is going to save farms; someone sold them magic beans with that state bill, it probably was an event promoter or someone who is used to doing ‘government math.’ With inflation, not many consumers or patients are buying ounces at festivals, they are lucky to buy a pre-roll.
I refuse to use the word ‘dealer’ for too many reasons, but I’ll paint that picture for some of you. The people I bought cannabis from were not farmers, not until people started to grow indoors in Southern California, then I met some farmers. I am a Southern California urbanite born and raised, where the asphalt is my lawn. Before indoor grows, I purchased from a friend or a friend of a friend, who purchased from someone who purchased from someone else’s farm. I never asked questions about operations only about products, they would tell me as much as they knew. Shakedown was a much better place to meet actual farmers, but that’s left behind in cannabis history.
State and local governments have taxed legal cannabis out of success and that is a simple fact of greed and stigma based on fear and miseducation. Debilitating regulations are deliberate based on some elected officials’ or government staffs’ own stigma and the miseducation of cannabis profits. Cannabis, like any other industry, will be profitable with practical regulations. With over regulation and over taxation, there will be no survival of an above ground industry.
As the first leg of the supply chain, cultivation incurs a tax at the state and local levels, when no other agricultural product has such taxes. Most recently, cultivation tax was eliminated at the state level only for the tax elimination to be picked up with an increase in excise tax. A bait and switch tactic learned in critical writing 101 at most community colleges. There is no tax reduction - there is only tax moving around - with all taxes compounding to the consumer and patient as with any other industry. Taxes taxing taxes and taxing the same product multiple times.
If the consumer is still paying 45+% in taxes no matter where you move taxes, this is not going to work. With a $100 Billion dollar surplus, California taxes are generally too high all around. My own city of Long Beach has the highest sales tax in the nation at 10.25%.
Workforce Culture Collision occurs at every facet including cultivation and manufacturing. Gone are the days when documenting anything would get you busted; transferring operations to above ground is a whole traumatic experience in itself. What is HR? What is marketing? What are employee rights? What is team building? What is mentoring or supporting employees? The culture clash between the hustle and the 9-to-5 is a very real and a tangible strangle within the industry itself.
When there is a partnership between those who cut corners in the underground cultivation for bigger yields or to fix a pest problem with no care about end products to consumers, patients, or the environment and toxic corporate structures that also cut corners who exploit the workforce, it produces hostile working environments, disgruntled employees with class-action lawsuits, union backlash, and terrible, overpriced products.
Manufacturing is in the same boat as cultivation, except manufacturing can be used as a vehicle for farms. Farms can sell pounds to manufactures as a revenue stream. Manufacturers can offer contract manufacturing to people/companies who want to start a cannabis brand without operating a license. This is community building. Yet, manufacturing facilities are extremely debilitating and costly to build and maintain.
What’s wrong with Cultivation and Manufacturing?
Culture Collision; High taxes; Bad management; No self distribution; Not enough access to retail; Not enough contract manufacturing or shared-use manufacturing; Misinformed & under informed government; Lack of operational structures; not enough retail licenses in the state for products to go and not enough consumers to purchase because of high taxes and not enough educated budtenders to sell products. Budtenders should be thoroughly educated like pharmacy technicians. It is a multifaceted plant with multifaceted effects that needs specific education.
Distribution is mainly the government’s tax gopher. As a mandatory middle chain, distribution is only mandatory because they are the part of the chain that delivers both cultivation and excise taxes to the state. That is really their main job and they are currently paying the state and local municipalities to do that job. And no one gets to write any business expenses off because of 280E, which makes operation expenses even higher. The view that the government has on the cannabis industry can be seen through its perception of distribution.
Picture this: During cannabis prohibition, the government made money by implementing programs that criminalized illicit drugs; creating an underground market that has survived 100 years of criminalization. The money made from private prison institutions and drug criminalization has to be offset with the changes that legalization has made. High taxes fill that gap; if the supply chain also handles all the administration of tax collection, then it also saves the government money in administration overhead. At the same time, the cannabis industry pays the government to operate through not only taxes, permits, licenses, but also through job duties of a tax collector. The industry will just eat itself up. Of course, Distribution can handle this job, the diversion is the diversion, silly government.
What’s wrong with Distribution?
Culture Collision; High taxes; Supply Chain structure; Bad management; Mandatory but unnecessary middle chain; Tax Gopher; Lack of operational structures; not enough retail licenses in the state for products to go and not enough consumers to purchase because of high taxes and not enough educated budtenders to sell products. Budtenders should be thoroughly educated like pharmacy technicians. It is a multifaceted plant with multifaceted effects that needs specific education.
Government regulations and corporation-funded-and-backed legislation has the cannabis industry and advocacy groups fighting with each other. Distractions are at the local level with unsuccessful equity programs clashing with supply chain bottlenecks all created by the government‘s miseducation, over taxation, and over regulation. Meanwhile, the aboveground ecosystem is struggling to make operations work with the lack of any aboveground operational business education and structure.
Picture this: Budtenders are given products to sell without any cannabis education or product knowledge. They must sell these products to patients and consumers with various levels of cannabis exposure or education. Consumers then ask for products that the budtenders relay to the buyers of the shop who are also uneducated on real cannabis history, science, cannabis products, relationship building, or general consumer-to-inventory data analysis, other than their own consumer experience. Buyers then relay to management that products are not selling because budtenders are not selling them. Budtenders relay to management that consumers are asking for products that they do not carry. Management lacks human resources and aboveground business operation experience and/or structure to make the disconnect between the entire process to create a retail operational system that works. Most retail operations fall short. The communication breakdown in retail facilities is real. Management needs to educate themselves on cannabis and educate their workforce. Buyers need to believe and trust the budtenders they work with. Buyers, marketing, and budtenders need to collaborate on consumer data to build inventory and drive the market by educating consumers.
Budtenders are given subpar products to try to convince consumers to buy them; most of the time products that they themselves do not understand or use. Brands then miss their mark on education and branding because their operations also lack human resources, above ground operational systems, and/or real cannabis education. I’ve had a vape brand give me matches and a lighter; how does that even make sense?
The lack of communication and education within a retail store between its budtenders, buyers, and management is killing the industry. As retail gate-keepers, buyers inherited the ego-elitism, some of celebrity-dom. Most have no idea of cannabis history, analyzing marketing data, and the act of building professional relationships with budtenders and brands. This prevents actual professionalism in an aboveground industry. Instead of leading brands on with aloof, unapproachable, elusive behavior, buyers need to be accessible and honest. Retail buyers can drive markets and crash them too.
If buyers were honest with sub-par brands and did not take any incentives or kickbacks, the aboveground market would not be saturated with bad products that do not sell or amazing products at inaccessible prices–both that sit on shelves. If buyers took the time to educate themselves and their budtenders and build that relationship, there would be better retail sales. Budtenders cannot sell what they do not know, so they sell what they do know–read that again.
Buyers are not all to blame because they all have managers and management teams that manage them. If management teams are fragmented or running other sub-par operations outside of cannabis, it's going to reflect. There are no aboveground operating standards; as a new industry, the standard operating procedures are being made now and its trial and error at every operation level.
All cannabis and operations education should be leading employee and management training, every position should start like a college course with a “how we got here” training including continued education regarding industry and legislation changes and/or political actions. Most management teams in cannabis believe that they are above any training; this ego-issue makes education and operations extremely difficult to excel and grow. Consultants and trainers often suffer from the same ego and elitism issue.
Marketing focuses on the cannabis party culture, dodging social media censorship, and public stigma while the whole industry is dying. It is a false narrative to consumers and a missed opportunity to engage in political actions. Integrating cannabis policy, science, and history to promote activism in the cannabis community of consumers and workforce is what is strongly needed. Just because the state said it’s decriminalized and legalized, there are decades of work ahead to hold governments accountable and keep corporations on leashes while small businesses can operate and thrive in the fledgling aboveground ecosystem.
Brand Marketing hits hard with lifestyle and culture content and misses the mark to include the movement or pioneers. Political organizing and activism is easy to avoid because it is messy, the work is thankless, and does not pay. It's what the pioneers have been doing for decades. Marketing usually is the last funded, especially by legacy operations. The margins do not allow for a budget or the original business plan never included marketing underground. Maneuvering through stigmatized media platforms who cancel any advertising, marketing teams have little resources and run up against barrier after barrier. They should be data focused with CRM tools on all campaigns to save them time and money, yet there is a lack of cannabis-supported CRM platforms that are all inclusive with communication capabilities. These concepts are as new to underground operations as is human resources.
An organizational culture that does not value quality work gives employees no reason to strive for quality. A culture that tolerates bad behavior gives other employees license to behave the same way. Yet, instead of being the driver of the market and of employee morale, retail is letting the market drive it. It plays up the media hype of THC percentages instead of speaking truths and relaying to the public what testing was intended to bring: public and environmental safety.
What’s wrong with Retail?
Culture Collision; High taxes; Tax structure; Bad management; Lack of operational communication; Lack of operational structures; Expensive, subpar products; Mandatory but unnecessary middle chain; Misinformed & under informed government; not enough retail licenses in the state for products to go and not enough consumers to purchase because of high taxes and not enough educated budtenders to sell products. Budtenders should be thoroughly educated like pharmacy technicians. It is a multifaceted plant with multifaceted effects that needs specific education.
Cannabis testing laboratories were supposed to be the industry regulators, the ‘health department’ of the industry; instead the leaders in this area also suffer from the greed of egotism and elitism. If there was any integrity left, it must come from the testing laboratories. Cannabis testing laboratories are the biggest sell outs of the industry. They have driven consumers to believe in the ‘percentage’ hype by altering COAs. With no standards or enforcement or anyone calling anyone out, the kickbacks continue.
Testing laboratories need to reveal the manipulations that are going on in the industry. The payoffs to alter THC percentages is a normal conversation. The only way to change this, is to expose bad players. No one wants to talk. They want to keep the hype going because they all get paid both aboveground and underground. Testing laboratories could be the heroes to actually lead with education and science to drive the consumers to informed status.
Most cannabis regulations are the government’s fear-based reactions, turning into media hype where society eats it up. Combined with no testing standards and no retail education standards, budtenders verify the hype consumers bring at the counters.
This is how we got here as a society with the hype of “high THC'' percentages. This lame cycle needs to end. Because there are no laboratory standards being enforced to hold testing laboratories accountable, the integrity of the industry is lost.
Testing laboratories are testing cannabis products on both the underground and above ground ecosystems. On the one hand, it is proactive that some underground operations are testing their products, but on the other hand, what if the underground is only testing for the percentage hype and not any harmful pesticides, molds, fungus, or other microbes that are tested for in above ground regulations? Eagle 20 is most likely still big with the bad underground players. What if testing laboratories are the real profit makers and diversion players in the legal supply chain and not the retailers who everyone thinks is where all the money is at.
The government is blind to the inner workings of both ecosystems and the players in them. Because of the lack of education and discussions of real data, the government has false perceptions, spreads false narratives, and then bases policy on those false narratives and sometimes kickbacks. The good players in the government who are somewhat cannabis educated stay strong in support, and the bad players continue to flip and flop on the dioceses.
What’s wrong with Testing Laboratories?
Culture Collision; COA payoffs; High taxes; Tax structure; Bad management; No industry standards or enforcement; Lack of operational structures; Mandatory but unnecessary middle chain; Misinformed & under informed government; not enough retail licenses in the state for products to go and not enough consumers to purchase because of high taxes and not enough educated budtenders to sell products. Budtenders should be thoroughly educated like pharmacy technicians. It is a multifaceted plant with multifaceted effects that needs specific education.
Packages and Labels:
During my first year in cannabis, I witnessed an extinction in July 2018. And again January 2019. Wasted money, busted dreams. It took me an entire year to digest, and gain more experience to understand what happened. Many of the packaging and labeling regulations are based in fear and as my public health peers like to lean on “the unknown” with their skewed data. Because of miseducation, they focused on the wrong details and many companies simply ran out of money with continued changes and the demands and threats of compliance.
Cannabis packaging is excessive. This is a universal truth and agreement. Packaging was an issue even under Prop 215 creating an endless stream of poptop plastic garbage. At least it was somewhat bulk in large jars. Now, added to poptops are an endless stream of child-resistant packaging, mylar bags, cardboard inside of cardboard, vape cartridges, vape batteries, glass jars, plastic jars, silicone, plastic, and glass dab pucks. Some companies try to combat the regulations with biodegradable packaging and jars, but it's an expense that does not make sense on top of excessive taxes and excessive annual permits and licenses fees, an exploitative supply chain, and an inaccessible, hostile marketing environment.
Labeling regulations are also driven by fear. The fear of children accidentally ingesting an edible or the fear of the unknown, from not understanding how cannabis works to the idea that they have no control over THC and its effects of euphoria. The same regulators and deal-makers who store their alcohol next to their kids’ juice boxes because that’s U.S. culture. Cannabis is U.S. underground culture, the ‘alternative’ culture. Alternative to what? The answer to that question was not often discussed until most recently and has become a mainstream ‘uncomfortable conversation.’
Cannabis flower labels confuse the public at large and create false narratives in the media and community. Regulations drive the misinformation in the cannabis community. Like any nutritional panel, cannabis needs a panel of cannabinoids and other plant compounds like terpenoids, esthers, flavinoids, and other metabolites to better direct cannabis education, inform consumer choices, and increase retail sales.
‘Strain names’ and the categorization of cannabis is a joke perpetuated by no standards, the industry, the government, and the consumer, which makes advocacy work harder—another culture collision.
Standardization of labeling is a must. Yet, the focus on the potential ‘harms’ of cannabis is blind.
THC percentages are hype directed by government regulations and now used as a marketing mechanism because of the lack of education and testing lab integrity. Besides any ingestible products, mandatory expiration dates also do not make sense and seem to be numbers pulled from the sky much like cannabis taxes and fees creating more waste.
Vape cartridges and any infused item have erroneous labeling. How is a budtender supposed to sell a vape cart with its ingredients listed as ‘cannabis oil?’ What kind of cannabis oil is it? How was it derived? Were cannabis derived terpenes added back in? Were they HTFSE? What does ‘unrefined live resin’ mean again? Regulations and standards need to be education-based not fear-based.
As a public health practitioner and community educator, the practice of labeling products is to inform the consumer set by a federal act in 1906. Any preventative public safety measures need to be addressed through continuous and repetitive public education also not based in fear, but based on practical science with the intention to inform and educate consumers without stigmatized lenses.
Events & Consumption and Consumers & Patients:
The lack of real cannabis education at the institutional and government level is stark. I pursued a degree in public health to learn about history, health care, social and systemic disparities, mental health programs, and gain skills in program development/evaluation and social data analysis. I had no intention of garnering a career inside of a government-led institution, I knew my work would be on the outside working to change the inside in some capacity, I did not anticipate how far that rabbit hole would take me.
My intentions in cannabis were to support cannabis education at a public level. I did not realize that the fragmentation within the space would prohibit progress and consistency. Cannabis education and research has recently led me to the harm reduction movement, substance use disorder (SUD), opioid overdoses, mental health access, health and mental care, trauma-induced SUD, crimes and lifestyle associated with illegal SUD, and homelessess. Cannabis is sometimes used as an exit drug and/or alternative healing tool in most cases.
Lack of education and access are at the crux of the legal cannabis industry’s failing as much as it is the crux of homelessness. Housing is a small percent of the issue, folx.
My institutionalized public health peers blame exposure to substances as the root of leading children to use them. My peers do not look past the substance use, it is part of their blindspot including embedded racist systems and processes. My own city’s unified school district does not participate in the YRBS, Youth Risk Behavior Survey which surveys children in middle school and high school about risky behaviors they may or may not have participated in or experienced, such as sexual activity, substance use, driving with others who are impaired, and other risky behavior questions. From this data, we create interventions in peer-led, evidence-based programs that provide access to resources, guidance, and navigation for needed life skills and opportunities—this is public health.
Looking into past YRBS surveys, the trends of substance use follow similar trends of adult substance use and mainstream media of the times. Often a paradox in U.S. culture and society, high school and college campuses have been hotspots of substance procurement and experimentation. Whether it is the ages of experimentation or deflecting trauma, high school and college students seek them out through their peers. When parents refuse to discuss their own experiences with substances or deny their use, that denial sets the stage for secrecy and avoidance of education. The best diversions for high school and college students is education about substances not based in fear but science, plus access to mental health services outside their families with options for alternative treatments.
Without a shift in public health and public safety, cannabis events and consumption lounges will be rolled out across the state in the same slow movement it is going. The alcohol community has social bars and unlimited festivals dedicated to their industry, yet leads in DUI fatalities nationwide and directly kills ~6 people per day from alcohol-related diseases. Direct deaths from cannabis is still zero.
In harm reduction language, the intention of a bar is to drink alcohol safely with tested and regulated products and staff who (are supposed to) look out for your safety. Unfortunately, some bars have become dens of violence and sexual assult.
While the cannabis community is in dire need to connect regularly at safe spaces there is little access four years after decriminalization and legalization. Unless a celebrity or a well-educated, progressive municipality opens a consumption lounge, the cannabis community is left with their homes, gray-area events, and trade or industry shows with inaccessible, unaffordable, inflated ticket prices—late-stage capitalism.
The government view of cannabis events and consumption is based in fear and denial. Similar to the fight of Prop 215’s ‘magical ounce;’ we are fighting for the ‘magical locations’ to consume. Police departments release false data because they are in fear of losing funds based on the war on drugs. It is not a new conversation that police departments need rehauling, they need to do better on their assessments, their definition of public safety, their racists training, and stigmatized view of drugs and the persons who use them. As a government institution, all PDs, sheriffs, and other law enforcement need cannabis history education and so much more.
I dare you to compare the state’s plethora of permitting options for events involving alcohol and the limited, miniscule, fear-based cannabis events licensing process. Besides localities who are experienced in cannabis and have taken the initiative to participate in cannabis tourism, there is still so much stigma at the public and local municipalities level that most conversations are empty.
Or the conversation continues and the path lacks diversity. Cannabis tourism, just like other areas of the cannabis industry and every other industry out there, are white-led ventures. The lack of diversity is evident and a reason the government has pushed the infighting between ‘industry’ and equity groups. Equity is the industry.
Even though patients were at the heart of the cannabis movement, they have been literally pushed off a cliff. They are not seen or heard, drowned by adult-use legislation, unsuccessful equity programs that often leave medical retail out of the discussion, and greedy politicians and corporations wanting control and profits. Patients paved the path to where we are today in decriminalization and legalization, working to keep people out of jail. Patients pointed and highlighted the wrongs of the war of drugs. Yet, patients are not taken care of, they are dismissed.
They were never included in Prop 64, taxed out of the legal market, and the state MMIC program is calling its death rattle. If patients participate in any compassion programs, their products may be free, but they are inconsistent, bad products, and/or not accessible due to distance.
Compassion programs still require a doctor’s recommendation, which is a racket in itself due to federal prohibition and the risk to a doctor’s license. California cannabis regulations require that all compassion cannabis programs participating patients must have a doctor’s recommendation. The process to obtain a recommendation cost anywhere from $42-$50+ and must be renewed annually. Unless the program has a low-economic status verification, consumers can potentially ‘game’ the programs for free cannabis products. If products are sourced correctly, patients can potentially receive products that are most useful to them.
Many veteran compassion programs literally provide grab bags of cannabis products to veterans despite their doctor’s recommendations or low-economic status. Many times, the bags will be a hit or miss of products that patients will actually use for themselves. Cannabis consumption is an individual process with cannabis regimens unique to every individual, consumer education is needed especially for persons experiencing PTSD or pain management.
Northern California and Southern California have different cannabis cultures and sometimes different cannabis regulation needs, but they are connected by the whole California industry ecosystem that existed before regulations and exists here after.
Despite groups in patient advocacy, social justice advocacy, ancillary businesses, or the supply chain itself, there needs to be unity to demand for legal, fair, successful regulations. Practical taxes mirroring other agriculture, lower barriers to entry on permits and licensing fees, practical operational compliance regulations, and the plant needs to be put back together—“hemp” is cannabis.
We all have trauma—even the cannabis plant—we all need to heal. We need to unite—aboveground and underground, consumers and patients, equity and advocacy—to educate the government, corporations, public at large, and bro-dudes. Political actions need to be scheduled with voices inside and outside government institutions. We need to put aside the egos, unite, weed out the bad players, organize operators, workforce, patients, and consumers…and be loud. There are more of us than there are of them—that is the government’s greatest fear.