Unlicensed marijuana producers and sellers haven’t gone away, even in areas with a regulated market, leading to a decision: Shun them or continue to patronize? In most cases, you shouldn’t have a problem with continuing to buy from “your guy.”
Lost in the outrage over “Permit Patty,” the white owner of a San Francisco-based medical marijuana tincture company who called the police on an 8-year-old black girl for selling bottled water, was the inherent irony of the situation.
Not too long before Treatwell Health CEO Alison Ettel destroyed her brand and her career in the nascent cannabis industry with her ill-advised phone call, she was in a nearly identical position: making and selling cannabis products without any government regulation or approval. And though Ettel has since announced her departure from the company — which may not yet survive after a slew of California dispensaries announced they had severed ties with the disgraced brand — you could make an argument that Treatwell still isn’t fully permitted.
Though Treatwell does have a pair of manufacturing permits from the state of California, according to records, medical cannabis is still not officially approved for use on animals — the target market for most of Treatwell’s products. The arrangement nonetheless (until lately) had generated nothing but positive press for the company. It’s “kind of like ‘don’t ask, don’t tell,’” Etttel explained to the San Francisco Chronicle in 2015.
The saga illustrates an ongoing concern within the marijuana industry. Not “should you call the cops on black people not committing crimes” — you should really, really, not ever do that, in case it weren’t blindingly obvious — but to what standards the cannabis industry should be held, and what standards marijuana consumers should demand.
And the answer — and whether you, the marijuana user, should turn your back on “black-market” cannabis forever, and only demand regulated product from now until forever — is not as easy or as obvious as you may think.
The Permit Problem
Nearly everywhere cannabis is sold, sellers and manufacturers need a permit from some kind of licensing authority. That seems reasonable, given cannabis is a psychoactive drug with the potential to cause some harm (even though, by almost every metric, the benefits far outweigh any problems).
But not every cannabis maker can qualify for a permit. They might be making edibles in a kitchen that’s not zoned for commercial use. They might be growing cannabis on a hillside that was graded incorrectly or is too close to a watershed. They might not be able to afford a permit. They could be the nice old hippie couple next door. They could be your friend from school. They could be your kids’ friends.
There is a nearly endless list of possible permutations of a basic situation: Someone operating in good faith, doing things “the right way” with good intentions as well as good business practices and ethics, but for the lack of an official piece of paper attesting to the fact.
Such cannabis is by default “black market,” even if the name conjures up the wrong connotations and is so broad as to capture pesticide-contaminated weed grown by stone-cold criminals in the same bucket as the edibles baked by your weird aunt in the same imperfect bucket. Further confusing the situation is the fact that such cannabis may be the only or the best available cannabis, even in an otherwise regulated market. In California, the tax toll at licensed dispensaries is so high that cannabis users — many of whom are low-income sick or disabled people, let’s not forget — have turned to underground sales out of sheer necessity.
So there it is. Maybe it’s “your guy” you’ve been buying from since forever. Maybe it’s someone you met at a sesh, or — hell — maybe you’re just buying an edible at the music festival. Should you? And either way, is it a problem?
The simplest answer seems to be some version of “not necessarily — and the black market could, in fact, be mostly okay — but more information and context is needed.”
A Question of Fairness
One of the great consumer benefits offered by marijuana legalization is a continuous supply of lab-tested, regulator-approved product. Prior to legalization, contamination from toxins like pesticides even in established markets like California were endemic. But that’s no guarantee — in both Canada and in Colorado, even after pesticides were limited or banned outright from cannabis, they appeared in products sold on the legal market.
In a way, this is a question of ideology. In another, it’s fairness.
Cannabis was banned by the government for so long — what’s it to them that someone’s now exercising a right no libertarian would deny them? Why should the government be able to intrude into the affairs of the same people it sought to jail for decades — and if “Big Pot” backed by venture capital has a creeping monopoly, shouldn’t “the little guy” get a shot, in the same way that you can sell tomatoes from your garden at a farmer’s market or — dare we say — lemonade or water on a street corner?
At the same time, if other producers go through an oft-laborious process and do everything “right,” why should shirkers be tolerated? And how can consumers, who may very well be very sick, be given a guarantee without the government’s stamp of approval?
It’s hard to see the harm posed to anyone by selling water without a permit. A bottle of water is not a bag of weed, but there is an honest analogy to be made. Is the unlicensed cannabis product safe? Is the producer taking care of the environment—and is it the best or even just the preferred product available to the consumer? It may seem odd for a blog on a delivery company’s website to argue this, but given the totality of the circumstances, the black-market may be the best option, no matter what other blithely unaware Permit Pattys may say.