By Allie Haroutunian
Everyone wants to get in on the marijuana business. States are making it legal and business is booming. Many entrepreneurial ventures can be started from merchandise to accessories to marijuana itself; many millionaires will be minted. Founders Fund, a major institutional funding company, and Privateer Holdings have invested in a Canadian medical growing facility, Leafly, and Marley Natural which grows recreational strains branded with Bob Marley’s name. MedMen marijuana (operational) consulting firm raised over $3.7 million from large institutional investors. British pharmaceutical giant GW has marijuana stock available as an investment opportunity. The people behind movements like these are politicians, celebrities, and capitalists who have money to burn and want to strike gold in recreational marijuana.
But where does that leave medical marijuana patients who have seen an industry emerge into a commercial product for all? Major reservations are being expressed by the medical marijuana community about how commercialization of marijuana will affect them.
I’d like to state that I feel pretty territorial about this topic in the sense that medical patients have fought long and hard for people to start viewing marijuana differently, for states to accept its medical benefits…and all this fighting and advocacy for what? So that the patients can be disregarded in favor of capitalism. Without the medical marijuana movement taking hold of people’s hearts and minds recreational legalization wouldn’t even be a discussion or consideration point. Let’s not forget where all this started: the patients.
Moguls like Snoop Dogg, Melissa Etheridge, and Sean Parker want to create an industry by developing branded niche strains and products. The old adage is true: mo’ money mo’ problems. Of course, the flood of entrepreneurship is rooted in recreational legalization movements across many states — regardless medical marijuana acceptance. At the end of the day it seems large amounts of money are being eagerly invested in the recreational market completely overlooking medical patients and their needs. A good example of this is Daniel Conway, former chief of staff for Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson. He too is entering the industry as an investor, referring to the game [marijuana industry] as changing in the coming years on the heels of recreational legalization. He is quoted in the Sacramento Bee stating, “At some point in the not-so-distant future, this industry is going to emerge like craft beer. You will be able to know where it is created, how it is created, and what the ingredients are that it is going to be a premium product.” Ok, that’s great — at least we know where his head is at.
All marijuana users want to know where their product comes from, how it’s grown, with what pesticides, etc. However, the majority of fairly sick patients aren’t specifically looking for a fine curated boutique product for use as medication on a consistent basis. They aren’t looking for a separate premium product because the expectation is that all products (edibles, tinctures, flower) are premium by nature. I don’t know anyone who anticipates buying mediocre medical marijuana. They are looking for legitimacy and quality of marijuana…not smooth marketing and fancy packaging.
These are all attempts by big industry to stake their claim on marijuana. This point brings to light the fact that medical marijuana has officially been othered. That medical marijuana isn’t spoken of in the same light as non-medical marijuana (oxymoron) for recreational users. I like to call it designer marijuana — the kind with celebrity endorsements but not really being all that different of a product. Like the difference between Wheaties brand and grocery store brand shredded wheat. Sure, Shaq being on the box makes it more appealing but in reality doesn’t make a big difference in terms of product. Yet still, patients aren’t mentioned by anyone with their sights set on this burgeoning industry — they’re referred to as consumers. Everyone is a consumer now. Patients aren’t the targets of branding campaigns, they aren’t catered to by boutique craft marijuana growers, strains aren’t specifically cultivated for different medical needs. No, this is mainstream appeal in the same manner alcohol is mainstream…and with a mainstream price tag.
Realm of Caring out of Colorado is the best example of patient centered, patient driven business model for medical marijuana. Their strains are grown specifically for patients and then produced into whatever form needed (mostly tinctures). Their products are tested and they provide transparent information on chemical makeup and growing processes. There is an operational sincerity to this company, while for profit, does not exist for profit. They are interested in their patients (not consumers). The distinction is important. This makes a big difference in terms of the future of marijuana — a security that your medicine will always be cultivated with you, the patient, in mind first.
An interesting move out of California to protect certain marijuana strains from commercialization is to assign appellations to cannabis in the same manner champagne can only be labeled as such if produced in the geographical region of Champagne, France. This label will allow for small businesses to have exclusive rights to certain strains indigenous to the area. Any other strains grown outside of their region will need to go by another name. As with champagne — cannabis appellations certify a purity and quality standard that goes beyond the name. Theoretically a person could trace their gram of Mendo Purp to the farm it was grown in. Compared to the guess-what’s-in-the-bag untested strains you get as a product of unregulated environments, this is a great way to quality control. Not only will it ensure accountability for use of things like pesticides and mold on farms, but brings an all new meaning to consumer responsibility. This is a provision that will protect growers and insulate local industries from big business. With recreational legalization on the horizon, mass cultivation of a particular strain is inevitable and a part of commercialization but with terrible implications. Over farmed strains could flood the market and drive up prices of other more valuable less available strains. This could be bad news for some patients who rely on certain medical strains with consistency. Providing the exclusivity of growers means the potential for branding — it also means quality, availability, responsible farming, and potential for medical marijuana only farms. This is a small consolation for patients shut out of the marijuana boom. (Implementation of appellations will be difficult; not until 2018 will these measures be put in action).
There is no stopping commercial marijuana but states should regulate the market to protect patients from the businesses. Medical marijuana should be protected in different ways and be impervious to outside influencers trying to make a quick buck. Since medical marijuana is considered a medication — it should be treated as such. With new designer strains and products emerging there is no telling how the states will regulate the economics — market over saturation, and price gouging. The quality of marijuana may change with the influx, and strain popularity may dominate dispensary shelves. As patients, we can only hope for regulation.
Editor’s Note: Allie Haroutunian is a 25-year old chronic pan patient. She uses medical marijuana to address her chronic pain. She moved to Nevada from Georgia in order to more easily access medical marijuana.
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