5 Issues the AZ Medical Marijuana Industry Can Fix I'm mostly happy as an AZ MMJ patient, but it's not perfect.

Legalized cannabis is a booming industry in the U.S., there’s no doubt about it. MJBizDaily’s 2019 Marijuana Business Factbook pegs it at $12 billion by the end of 2019, with projected growth up to $30 billion by 2023.

Meanwhile, I spent the past two years supporting my local Arizona medical marijuana program, which approached 200,000 patients coming into 2019. Together, we’re expected to spend roughly $500 million on medical marijuana products from dispensaries and delivery services.

I support the state’s MMJ program, mostly in Pima and Maricopa counties. But I’ve also quite loudly opposed some of the shenanigans that occurred in the early stages of the industry’s growth. Industry in-fighting is sure to sour the 2020 election, and pricing is still not ideal, but it’s better than I’ve seen in Las Vegas and California’s recreational programs so far. There’s still hope for our local industry, but we have to work out a few common kinks of the cannabis industry first.

Of course, it’s not all bad news – in fact the cannabis industry is actually ground zero from some health care innovations that have been stalled by the FDA.

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1. Quality Control Is Lacking

Let’s be clear right now – cannabis is a great replacement for opiates, but it’s by no means a miracle cure for anything. Nor is everything you buy in a dispensary safe from contaminants.

The biggest problem facing the modern cannabis industry is quality control.  Despite everyone touting full seed-to-sale tracking, the reality is a lot of black-market product makes it onto store shelves. And even product from legally registered growers can get contaminated by mold, heavy metals, and other infestations that destroy massive amounts of crops.

Arizona only barely adopted basic minimum cannabis testing standards through SB 1494, which just went into effect today, nearly a decade after the MMJ program was started. Of course, that testing for mold, pesticide, and even potency, won’t begin until November 1, 2020, and even that isn’t a bulletproof solution, as we’ve seen in other regions.

Just this summer, Canadian cannabis company Zenabis Global (ZENA) reported that it returned half a ton of contaminated pot to billion-dollar grower Sundial Growers Inc. The contaminated batch contained mold, rubber, and other undesirable additives.

Growing cannabis comes with a ton of fees on top of normal cannabis business fees. On top of this, flower harvests are getting smaller while the industry is losing approximately 15 percent of flower to mold and mildew, according to research in Colorado. And with tight margins, it’s no wonder businesses are doing everything they can to salvage profits, even if it means putting end-users (Arizona’s medical patients) at risk.

2. Misinformation Continues to Spread

I can’t spend any amount of time in a Facebook cannabis group without seeing misinformation being posted. Many of the hardcore pot advocates that supported Safer Arizona in 2016 were spreading completely unscientific claims about cannabis curing cancer, using a magnifying glass to ignite flower being healthy, even spreading the fallacy of vaping being “healthy” versus the reality that they’re dangerous but minimally safer than smoking.

Things got even worse when the 2018 Farm Bill made a landmark legal distinction between “hemp” and “marijuana.” Even though both are the same cannabis plant, people on both sides of the debate now confuse legal and biological definitions. And that’s just the start.

I’m as much a fan of cannabis as anyone else. I have a lot of listicles on this site recommending my favorite strains for writers and other creative endeavors, along with strains recommended by Leafly for certain ailments. But even Leafly isn’t a great reference – it’s about as trustworthy as Wikipedia. And before you get upset, I’ll tell you right now I actually don’t hate Wikipedia. I cite it often on this page.

But neither Wikipedia nor Leafly is a scientific resource. And no matter how well-trained your dispensary agent, caregiver, delivery driver, brand ambassador, and other hookup, they’re not medical professionals. They’re mostly just hot young men and women who are hired to sell us on the fantasy of cannabis. It’s romanticized, and that doesn’t help a veteran patient suffering from PTSD and needing an indica to sleep but is sold a sativa-dominant hybrid because the budtender didn’t know the specific cannabinoid profile.

Every time I go to the dispensary and ask for a recommendation, I’m pointed toward either the house brand, something super expensive, or the most potent strain on the board. I’m all for a high THC count, but there are over 110 cannabinoids alone in an individual strain’s chemical makeup, much less the terpenes involved. I’d rather have a 17% strain that’s right for me than a 24% strain that’s not.

These are potent cocktails to be prescribing willy nilly based on marketing labels. It’s a dangerous game we’re all playing, and it’s not a good look for this industry. We are all responsible for riding a line between education and sales. Thankfully, technology is coming to the rescue.

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3. Personalized Health Care Is Coming

What’s most fascinating about the cannabis plant is how much actual academic research is going into its effects. Dr. Sue Sisley, for example, went from UofA to Canada back to Scottsdale over the course of her decade-long research into the effect of cannabis on PTSD. Still pushing through red tape, the Scottsdale Research Institute (which is helping her work) is currently suing the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) over the continued delays.

Meanwhile, cannabis-focused tech companies are using the black cloud of federal drug scheduling to implement advanced technologies faster than traditional healthcare. StrainSeek, for example, is taking Leafly to the next level by truly mapping each strain’s genome to the blockchain.

Blockchain is just one of many important emerging technologies that’s more than a buzzword. Medical advancements can be made when our medical records, fitness tracker data, diet, sleep, and drug usage can be tracked on an immutable decentralized digital ledger.

Many of these consumer technologies are only being slowed down by FDA approval processes, and the FDA is currently swamped on all ends. It’s flooded with misinformation about CBD stemming from the 2019 CBD Green Rush that followed passage of the 2018 Farm Bill. Then there’s the cannabis-derived pharmaceuticals, vape pens and e-liquids, and all the other food and drug issues it dealt with before these three industries (cannabis, hemp, and vaping) became so all-consuming.

The stress on the agency is palpable, and cracks in the armor are to be expected. But because state-legal cannabis industries are already operating against FDA approval, they have the ability to push the limits and start incorporating real, personalized, prescription care to people that incorporates past usage and all the other data gathered when technology bridges major gaps in our current healthcare system.

And that’s just half the battle.

4. Justice Has Cataracts

Arizona’s cannabis laws are archaic, and we basically keep piling half laws on top of each other, leading to medical patients and dispensaries around the state living in constant fear. Even though I’m legally allowed to purchase up to 2.5 ounces of medical marijuana with my card, I can still be pulled over by Border Patrol (or even local police) and lose it all. It’s a common occurrence here and the root of the divide between the pro-cannabis activist camps.

In fact, the issue was pushed all the way up to the Arizona Supreme Court in 2019 for the case of the State of Arizona vs Rodney Christopher Jones. Jones was convicted and sentenced for carrying cannabis extract, as the police, prosecutor, and judge felt that “cannabis” and “marijuana” were legally different because of laws predating the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act’s passage.

While the issue was ultimately found in Jones’ favor, it’s a long fight for many who are trapped in the system due to working in the legal cannabis industry. In fact, a former cannabis delivery driver I know from Cathy’s Compassionate Care in Cochise County caught a bullshit misdemeanor in the infamous BP stop on Highway 90 leaving Sierra Vista toward I-10. This notorious BP stop has been a pain in Southeastern Arizona’s cannabis industry since it was run by the cartels (which it still predominantly is due to lackluster legal enforcement nationwide).

The proposed recreational cannabis legalization measure for the 2020 general election does have provisions to lower cannabis penalties to petty offenses with minimal fines. Still, it does nothing to address the 15-20k annual convictions in Arizona for cannabis possession and sale. Cannabis offenses are currently treated as felony offenses with mandatory sentencing laws in Arizona making it difficult to get out the system once you’re in.

Sure, you’ll catch a Class 6 felony, and if it’s your first offense, it can be reduced to a misdemeanor after 3 years of probation (assuming you’re not above the threshold). But that probation period will include drug testing even for medical marijuana. Your felony will bar you from voting, owning a gun, getting college financial aid, or working in the cannabis industry, much less getting a job anywhere else that’s not blue-collar contracting or greeting shoppers at Walmart.

There are a lot of people currently fighting cannabis cases in the state of Arizona, and none of them will be grandfathered into whatever protections are ultimately approved by the voter-backed initiative (if passed) in 2020. We need to really focus on voting politicians into office who support our local cannabis community, or the drug war will only intensify in coming years.

And that’s the heart of our final issue.

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5. We Lack Support for Local Businesses

National retailers jumped on the CBD bandwagon in the summer of 2019. CVS Health, Walgreens, Rite Aid, Ulta Beauty, GNC, Designer Brands (formerly DSW), and Urban Outfitters are all stocking CBD products now in select states (which include Arizona for many of them). It’s great to see CBD becoming mainstream, but it’s unfortunate that none of our local CBD brands are being carried. Pioneers like Hempful Farms or even dispensaries that managed to stay locally owned are being ignored.

Even many of our “local” dispensaries are just franchises of brands based out of state (or even out of country). Harvest Health and Recreation, for example, is a Canadian business that has branded dispensaries in Tucson, Cottonwood, Tempe, and Scottsdale. It also forged partnerships to distribute its CBD products through Circle K and Sunoco gas stations across states like Arizona.

In fact, the vertically integrated cannabis juggernaut that is Harvest actually owns 13 of Arizona’s medical marijuana dispensaries and 5 cultivation processing facilities. This stemmed from acquisitions of Devine Hunter and Leaf Life in 2019.

And this push from out-of-state money is the same thing Dave Wisniewski and Safer Arizona fought in the 2016 general election. This out of state money is crushing local cannabis companies, and it’s up to us as consumers to push for a “buy local” mentality, instead of spreading misinformation or arguing.

Regardless of how you feel about any particular dispensary in Arizona, the fact is they can’t compete with the Circle Ks, Walmarts, and Safeways of the world. The expensive real estate and licensing they fought for will be replaced by a counter display at retail, grocery, and c-stores around the country. It’s something I’ve been warning the industry about since 2014, and it’s only becoming more of a reality over time.

We’re at a turning point in Arizona cannabis. How we spend our money and vote over the next two years will determine the direction of our industry. Personally, I’m hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. I suggest you do the same…

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Dr. Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. You can find his work in Cracked, High Times, HuffPost, Lifewire, Forbes, Fast Company, and dozens of other places, although much of it is no longer under his name. Dr. Penny loves annoying fake media.

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