As more states legalize the “recreational” use of cannabis, the definition of medical marijuana is changing, and, as the definition changes, many of the pioneering small farms who started the industry are finding themselves going the way of the dinosaurs. But, is the disappearance of medical marijuana farms really in the best interest of the patient or big business?
How is the phrase medical marijuana defined?
What exactly makes marijuana “medicine”? That’s a tricky question, one with varying answers depending on who is asked. Ask a sick person and they will tell you that any food or substance that provides relief of symptoms without doing physical harm is therapeutic, a necessity and “medicine.” Unfortunately, sick people don’t get to define “medicine,” the government does, and as pharmaceutical cannabis products like GW Pharmaceuticals’ Epidiolex inch closer to FDA-approval, the rush is on to make competitive government approved “medicines” and transition the botanical cannabis market from farm-to-patient to a highly-taxed highly-regulated “recreational” market.
These definitions matter most for small growers and patients, because ultimately they define who can supply cannabis for medical purposes and who can economically benefit as laws continue to change across the United States and abroad. While western states that pioneered the industry have traditionally favored a free-er market of small farms, businesses and collectives, in midwestern and eastern states, medical marijuana markets are becoming highly exclusive clubs for the very wealthy and well-connected.
Who gets to grow medical marijuana?
Many newer state laws (like Florida and New York) are being shaped from the onset as oligopolies, which are cartel-like markets where there are only a handful of competitors controlling the entire supply. Many of these state laws favor extracted products over raw cannabis flowers and also call for vertical integration, meaning these lucky few license holders have the exclusive right to grow, process and distribute the entire supply.
Forced flower extraction into standardized products and a limited market of early producers gives these companies a head start on making their own Epidiolex-like drugs that could potentially become lucrative FDA approved medicines. And, should cannabis be moved from Schedule I to II federally, these oligopoly-market license holders will be in line for some serious cash-ins when they go public and begin to formally merge across state lines to supply the national medical market.
Of course, the exercise wouldn’t be worth the cost of FDA approval if pharmaceuticalized cannabis products must compete with genetically diverse botanical cannabis as medicine, which can be grown at home but never standardized like traditional “medicines.” Unfortunately for the small growers that supplied the earliest medical cannabis markets, they no longer can call their crops “medicine” or “medical marijuana” once the FDA defines it first, and they already are.
The first medical marijuana farms
In the early days of medical marijuana, most state governments declined to regulate. In California, Oregon, Washington and Colorado, legislation passed by citizens through ballot initiative was more rights-based than commerce based, thoroughly acknowledging first that the criminalization of this useful plant was a fallacy to begin with. It was also an unspoken but acknowledged reality that hundreds of thousands of farmers on the west coast have been supplying the demand for this illegal plant since the early days of prohibition, and giving them a path to a legal market was just as important as patients getting product. The result was a highly competitive and diverse cannabis economy that flourished in the gray area between state and federal law.
These small medical marijuana farms were allowed to grow anywhere from six to 99 plants per patient, as long as they provided said patients with the medicine they needed, free of cost. Starting with California’s S.B. 420 in 2004, these growers could sell the excess of what they grew for patients to locally-regulated dispensaries at a profit. In this way, the broader market for medical marijuana (whether or not the government deemed their use “medical”) subsidized the heavier use of the chronic and fatally ill.
Just as the botanical medical marijuana markets are being eliminated by the legal definition of “medicine,” they are being shrunk by the legal definition of “patient” too. One of the biggest criticisms of California’s medical marijuana law, Proposition 215, was that it allowed medical cannabis for any condition which a doctor chose to recommend it for, meaning “anybody who wants it can get it.” Not only was that part of the intention of the law, but it is scientifically valid as educated use of cannabis is technically safer than most over-the-counter drugs, processed foods, refined white sugar, tobacco, alcohol or the vast majority of prescription drugs.
What happens next to medical marijuana farms?
So, what exactly is the difference between medical and recreational marijuana? The plant itself is the same, regardless of the reason a person chooses to interact with it, but as the United States gets closer to nationalized medical marijuana, the answer is shaping up to be the difference between a factory and a farm. And, besides the harm to small growers and patients, if most cannabis production is standardized and concentrated, what effect does that have on the future of the plant itself?