The marijuana industry, predicted by some to be a boon economy, and with all of the new and exciting growth and positive outcomes, is not the rising tide that many thought it would be. After almost a year of legal retail sales, and approaching three years since Amendment 64 passed, crime and teen use has gone down, but the black market has thrived. Sure it has only been just shy of nine months, but in places like Denver, the black-market, and what has become known as the grey market, is still alive and operating as it was before. Driving this are high costs to market entry, high taxes, high application and high licensing fees, and localities who have banned medical and retail marijuana.
On the streets in Denver, nothing has really changed in terms of the black market. Black “marketeers” are as easily found as legitimate business owners. They aren’t passing out cards, but those who established in the marijuana community know who they are. No one is ratting them out either. The rules of the game on the streets haven’t changed overnight, nor will they in the next hundred years. For people in urban communities, they have more trust in their neighborhood networks. Going to a recreational store is a novelty, and a place where people have more variety, but at a cost, especially for the underprivileged. The same group who in mass contributed to grassroots activism to get marijuana legalized.
The marijuana industry is a different story. Many people became very wealthy after January 1, 2014. Many of them were lucky enough to have money to influence policy and regulations in their favor to set them up for this success. The result, a barrier to entry into a market so high, that it is easier for people to get into just about any other industry out there, save for the oil and gas (many of these folks are migrating to cannabis now), and pharmaceutical industries. This happened with Colorado HB 1284, that regulated and licensed the medical marijuana industry, and again with the regulatory structure supporting Amendment 64.
Across the country, it is increasingly getting more and more expensive to break into the marijuana industry. As expensive as it is, Colorado is actually one of the cheapest. Some blame it on the prohibitionists, but the truth is, the marijuana industry and most industry lobbyists are to blame. A good example of this is the Realm of Caring organization by the Stanley brothers. They are going across the country and lobbying, and getting, some of the most expensive licensing fees to date, coming in at $150,000 to get a license to grow CBD in Florida. To grow weed. Yup. That is happening. Guess who bears the costs? The consumer, and we fought for this right. I think many people can agree this is not what they expected.
In addressing the elephant in the room, a good deal of the new marijuana industry is classist, whether it was intentional or not is irrelevant at this point. Because the laws and regulations favor those that are already wealthy, or those that have access to wealth (which is technically also considered wealthy). Lotteries in states are picking winners based on their assets, in some states requiring them to be worth a million dollars. This is not regulating like alcohol. Mason Tvert, Communications Director for MPP, and former SAFER Executive Director says that the poor in the marijuana community are suffering from similar social policies across the board. So why perpetuate them? He also says that it is too soon to make any calls about the black market, and that the same drivers of market behavior apply to this industry as others. Then he should know that when it comes to quality and variety that the poor choose lessor cheaper items, exactly what you find on the black market. The Cannabis Consumers Coalition supports marijuana legalization, but believes that consumers and many of the grassroots activists, not grassroots donors, but those marginalized because of the drug war who gathered in all-weather conditions to protest marijuana prohibition, were sold a bill of goods
To combat the issue of the black and grey markets, some law makers and industry lobbyists are going after caregivers to address concerns of diversion to the black market. To combat attacks on rights given under Amendment 20, an organization has been formed called the Cannabis Caregivers Alliance. It is not fair that the industry and state officials, sometimes working in tandem, go after legal caregivers, especially without taken meaningful measures to address the issues of economic and racial disparity. The reality about caregivers is that the majority of them are growing for less than five patients, and in areas where medical retail marijuana stores are banned, and in rural areas, caregivers are still needed. It is not the caregivers’ fault that the black market is thriving; to blame are protectionist policies, and policies made out of fear and discrimination.
The presence of a black market is something that significantly impacts consumers. So far arrests have gone down, however one bust of a large illegal marijuana operation will make the whole industry look bad, threatening the whole “experiment.” The lack of quality control over products on the black market puts consumers at risk, yet high costs force them there regardless of the appeal of variety and safety. Money is money, and for those living from paycheck to paycheck or less, but want a safer alternative to alcohol, sometimes the logical choice to them is to go to the black market.
To eliminate the black market, taxes need to be lowered, and more importantly, application and licensing fees need to be in line with alcohol licensing costs, and restrictions on people with non-violent criminal drug charges need to be removed. Removing these barriers will collectively add to lower costs and more incentives for people to become legitimate businesses, or at least switch to other riskier activities outside of marijuana. After all, many marijuana business owners were illegal operators themselves, they just never got caught. It is only fair to create a market where all people who are passionate about marijuana can participate, not only just those with privilege and access to wealth. The Cannabis Consumers Coalition understands why these laws are being created, yet it is time to start working on making things right for those that suffered the most under marijuana prohibition.