Yesterday, three US states voted to legalize recreational marijuana. Casual smokers in Massachusetts, Nevada, and California are now free from the social stigma–and threat of jail time–that had clouded cannabis use for decades. (Maine is still up for grabs; Arizona voters kept the status quo.) In these states, downlow smokers will become legal consumers, and formerly clandestine growers and sellers will start responding to the demands of bona fide mass market.
Consumer demand is responsible for widely salable wonders like the Big Mac, Budweiser, and Granny Smith apples. It also supports copious bespoke industries like craft beer, Etsy, and the cupcake industrial complex. So, an open market is probably going to force a range of changes on the cannabiz. If it happens, it will be most apparent in California, with its huge population and extant cannabis culture.
“Obviously, California is a large enough market where those problems aren’t very big hurdles,” says Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. The state has 40 million people, 50,000 pot farms, and a medical marijuana industry worth $815 million in 2015. But the state’s law includes a five year moratorium on outdoor farms bigger than an acre. Which won’t hold off Big Jane for long. Five years is pretty negligible for anyone looking to become, say, the Phillip Morris of cannabis. After the moratorium expires, don’t be surprised if you start seeing hundred-acre pot operations pop up in the state’s ample ag regions.
In this way, the weed industry might look like the wine business. California’s climate and soils support homogenized vines that grow grocery jug staples like Carlo Rossi; as well as some of the world’s most coveted vintages. “Just like we see in the microbrew and wine industries, there will always be a place for craft, artisanal, and small market flavors,” says Tawnie Logan, executive director of the Sonoma County Growers Alliance. Her organization, however, opposed California’s now-law. “The problem is how many of these things can compete on a shelf.” After the size moratorium ends, she fears that market forces will edge out many of the state’s growers. “Homogenization and consolidation are absolutely the corporate model, as are reducing variables, lowering costs, and increasing profits,” she says. “The market will be too cutthroat for many small farmers to survive.”
In some ways, that’s to be expected. Whatever your opinion of Budweiser (and by extension, the masses), it and other megabrews won the market by playing to the public’s appetite for consistency. The same forces explain how American orchards went from growing hundreds of apple varieties a century ago, to just a half dozen or so today. “That creates a lot of competition on things beyond just price,” says West.
Not everyone sees such forces as a negative. “I think the open market will accelerate innovation and increase the diversity of strains,” says Sean Donahoe, a policy advisor for the California Growers Association. In his view, if anything gets standardized, it will be the process of showing where the weed came from, and what to expect when you smoke it. “There should be greater transparency of the product’s content, how it moves through the supply chain, and seeing what was cultivated, when, and by whom.”
In the smaller states, which also have more aggressive grow limits, expect small farms to keep pouring out a potpourri of strains. That is, unless the feds act. For the past few years, the DEA has been acting curiously thoughtful about its hard stance against cannabis. Earlier this summer, it announced that it would make it easier for researchers to access the plant. California’s legalization affects so many Americans that the agency has little option but to respond in some way.
Whatever happens, expect the cannabis business to keep growing, baby.