Comment: Legal cannabis best bet to curb illicit suppliers

By Vicki Christophersen / For The Herald

It’s been less than a decade since Washington voters led the nation in approving a new approach for cannabis.

By creating a legal, regulated and quality-controlled marketplace that generates hundreds of millions in tax revenue for critical public services, Washington embraced an alternative to the failed “War on Drugs.” Instead, we have proved that a system grounded in robust regulatory oversight that is continuously honed by what we learn in the marketplace is possible. Today, a majority of Americans have access to legal cannabis products for either medicinal or recreational use. But skepticism toward legal cannabis and rhetorical reflexes from another era continue to persist, ignoring the realities of the illicit marketplace, history and science.

A recent guest commentary published in The Herald suggested that legal cannabis — specifically, cannabis concentrates — is detrimental to the health of kids and that certain legal products should be banned. The cannabis industry unequivocally agrees that no minor should have access to or ingest products produced by the regulated marketplace. In fact, cannabis retail locations have the highest compliance rate for not selling to minors, exceeding even the high compliance rates of tobacco and liquor sales. The guest commentary, unfortunately, sets aside the safety track record of the regulated industry and the reality of one of the most heavily monitored cannabis systems in the country.

The illicit marketplace for cannabis concentrates, flower and other products was thriving before voters approved Initiative 502 in 2012 to legalize cannabis. And while that illicit marketplace has been undermined by the availability of safe and regulated cannabis, it still offers — as it did before legalization — high-potency cannabis concentrates produced in garages with no visibility into what is added into and pushed to the streets. We don’t have to look far for evidence of the ongoing dangers of the illicit market. In 2019, more than 1,000 people became sick from vitamin E acetate in specific cannabis vapor-related products, an ingredient prohibited in regulated products in Washington but produced and sold in the illicit market to unsuspecting consumers, nonetheless. The public health threat of products found on the illicit market are a continuing reminder that product bans are rarely effective and don’t contribute to solutions for what concerns those who are currently focused on THC.

The cannabis industry — licensed, vetted business owners and their employees — who produce, process, and sell legal cannabis, strives every day to not only invest in a viable marketplace but also partner with regulators, lawmakers and the public in upholding the safety of those products and working to keep them out of the hands of minors. Science and a cautious approach, appropriately, guides the decision-making for policymakers. It’s also why visitors to a regulated cannabis retail store will see a variety of products on the shelves, from pre-rolled joints to mints, tinctures, oils and concentrates. Visitors will always see clear labels describing the relative potency of each product, the details of which are all required by state regulations in part to help inform adult users, and the THC-content in each serving.

The legalization and regulation of cannabis has driven the development of this wide variety of products. More and more people rely on cannabis products (via CBD) for wellness effects, whether it’s arthritic knuckles, nausea or sleeplessness. For products that are developed for THC’s properties, purity and dosage matter most, and both are heavily regulated. Today, regulated products are tested, quality-controlled and tracked to the point where even a single edible chocolate can be traced back to the very plant it came from in a field or indoor facility containing thousands of plants. As an industry, we encourage additional scientific research so that products used by adults may find more safe and beneficial applications of the cannabis plant.

None of this is true in the illicit marketplace. We cannot rely on garage chemists and dealers driving around plastic baggies of weed and jars of concentrates to keep cannabis out of the hands of kids or responsibly regulate the contents of those baggies and jars. That’s why Washington approved a legal marketplace and it’s why the regulated industry will continue to be a partner in any conversations founded in science and earnestly endeavoring to uphold a safe, quality-controlled, taxed and regulated marketplace for cannabis.

Vicki Christophersen is the executive director of the Washington CannaBusiness Association, which represents licensed cannabis producers, processors, retailers and certified labs in the state. Its mission is to advocate on behalf of a safe, quality-controlled and regulated cannabis marketplace that keeps products out of the hands of minors.

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