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A Kiwi in the land of legal cannabis

1 Jul 2017
Stephen Blyth
This article was published 7 years ago. Content may no longer be relevant.

Setting out to see what is happening in three USA states where it’s legal to possess, use and sell cannabis, the Drug Foundation’s Stephen Blyth was uncertain what he’d find. In this report on his short visit, he shares how things are playing out on the ground.

There is a big difference between what we might conjure up in our imaginations about how legal cannabis might look in the United States and the reality of what’s actually happening there. As I packed my bags, I expected to be surprised and not a little shocked by blatant advertising, rampant use and concerted opposition.

In the places I visited, almost the opposite was true, and it was surprisingly ho-hum. Not only was the business side of things restrained, but with use only allowed in private homes, public displays of cannabis use were hidden away. After speaking to taxi drivers, barristers, locals and experts, the heat really seems to have ebbed out of the debate. I came across no controversy. Unexpectedly, it was quite an anticlimax.

The good and bad impacts of legalising cannabis are not necessarily visible to the naked eye, and its significance only comes clear when you dig deeper. Legal cannabis was ushered into Washington state in November 2012 when 55.7 percent of voters put their hands up for Initiative 502.
Licensed stores have been operating since July 2014.

“I generally say the sky isn’t falling,” says Mark Cooke, a Campaigner for Smart Justice with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Washington State chapter.

“If you ask most people, and there has been some polling about how the Washington law has impacted on your life, they’d say it hasn’t made any difference. Life really hasn’t changed that much. This really is a reflection that prohibition wasn’t working.”

The ACLU-Washington spearheaded change to tackle the state’s discriminatory approach to drug laws. Almost overnight, cannabis possession charges dropped. Records show arrests fell by 98 percent between 2011 and 2013.

“We immediately see this nose dive in terms of arrests – from an ACLU perspective, this is a big gain. We didn’t want to see people harassed or getting in trouble with the law,” Cooke says.

Advocates for healthier and fairer ways of dealing with drugs say significant social justice gains follow legalisation.

Speaking from a national perspective, Jasmine Tyler, the Open Society’s Washington DC-based Senior Policy Adviser, repeated a familiar refrain about the impacts of a simple drug possession conviction being lifelong. Not only do people get tarred with a criminal record, but they face numerous restrictions, including barriers to education loans, public housing, food stamp benefits and access to licences in various professions.

“Marijuana prohibition has not only cost billions of dollars for taxpayers, but it really has affected millions of lives, particularly communities of colour,” Tyler says. “The drug is only really a gateway to the criminal justice system for the black and brown communities.”

A staunch critic of the War on Drugs, Tyler argues that the shift to legalisation is about achieving health and public safety gains by getting control of the black market through good regulation.

“Any system where kids don’t have access, where dosage can be controlled, where quality assurance can be maintained and where individuals involved in the business aspect are insured and assured of legitimate business dealings, then we also don’t have the problems you see with prohibition,” she says.

Marijuana prohibition has not only cost billions of dollars for taxpayers, but it really has affected millions of lives ...

Jasmine Tyler

While staying in Overlook, Portland, my host told me the New Amsterdam dispensary was just around the corner. It was the first place I headed to. As I strolled down Killingworth Street, passing the friendly Milk Honey neighbourhood café, I had to strain my eyes to see the dispensary across the road. A minimalist green cross was the only sign it was a dispensary and not a doctor’s surgery or a yoga studio. A bold notice on the door warns off anyone under 21 years.

The New Amsterdam shared a lot in common with many other dispensaries I wandered by in Oregon. Retail sales in the state began in July 2015 after 56 percent voted to allow recreational use of cannabis, based on regulation and taxation. Businesses have to comply with regulations that stipulate appropriate promotion, location, labelling and a raft of other conditions.

Exterior signage is invariably kept to a minimum. From the outside, no products are visible, and on the inside, everything is under glass or behind the counter.

You can’t approach a dispensary without knowing the age restrictions, and staff seem vigilant about checking. If you don’t have a valid ID, you can’t even get in the door at many places. And once back outside, it is not ok to light up. There was no one smoking cannabis in the parking lot or on the footpath. It’s takeaway only, intended for consumption on a couch at home.

According to Mark Cooke in neighbouring Washington, similar regulations are working pretty well so far.

“The way the marketplace is set up with a limited number of stores, only marijuana sold there, it can’t be by schools or parks, so there’s some buffers, there’s restrictions on advertising and you have to be 21 years or older,” he says.

Picking up price lists for products at the dispensaries, it’s obvious there is a lot of money to be made. Some of the strains attract a premium, selling for as much as US$17 a gram. Other products are designed to be sold in bulk, with the price for a pre-rolled joint set at US$4.

The variety is plentiful and the language flowery. The lists of balms, concentrates, whole leaf bags, edibles and topicals are extensive. And it’s not only plant matter. Pipes, vaporisers and bongs are also stacked up. 

At Uncle Ike’s, a well established Seattle utensils retailer, you’ll find something at every price level. At the top end, a one-off bong costs as much as US$2,500. Information about what type of high a particular strain will give you is plentiful, but harm-reduction information is scant.
If there is signage about health effects, it’s most often only the minimum required. It’s obvious retailers aren’t going out of their way to display anything that will warn people off the products.

It’s the same deal with packaging. A warning about age limits and details of the THC and CBD ratio is printed, but cautions about potential health risks are absent.

All this growing and selling is generating a lot of turnover. The profits are spilling over beyond just the growers and shop owners. Visiting a downtown Portland law company specialising in advocating for and defending the interests of cannabis growers, I hear about the scale of the industry. In Oregon, which has a population of 3.7 million, 14,000–15,000 people are said to be employed in the ‘canna-business’. And added to this count are the lawyers, security companies, electricians and others in ancillary trades.

The numbers aren’t a surprise as it’s a labour-intensive process to grow and process crops. I saw this first-hand when I toured an indoor growing operation in an industrial zone near Portland International Airport.

From the street, the innocuous warehouse betrayed nothing whatsoever of the scene inside. But on the day I visited, 20 employees were engaged in various tasks, while the business owner fielded calls from dispensaries, legislators and a printing company. The team were busily engaged in pricking out seedlings, scrubbing down one of three massive grow rooms and harvesting, packing and testing.

It’s pretty obvious that cannabis has quickly grown to be a formidable business. The tax take in Oregon bears this out as projected revenues are being surpassed. Last year, US$60 million was collected, with estimates being at around US$90 million for 2017. In neighbouring Washington state, the tax take in the second full year of operation was US$220 million, US$60 million ahead of earlier estimates. This suggests growth will continue, with tax being earned at the rate of US$1 million per day.

As much as politicians may be torn between damning the industry and delighting in the economic contribution, the income does accumulate, and it’s unlikely anyone wants to see less money flowing in once the pipe is pumping away.

Jasmine Tyler - Jasmine Tyler: Marijuana prohibition has not only cost billions of dollars for taxpayers, but it really has affected millions of lives." Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/gbcsumc

This type of money is not being talked about in the nation’s capital itself. Apart from four tightly regulated medical cannabis dispensaries, it is not legal to sell cannabis in Washington DC, so the Council can’t generate tax from it. Instead, residents may legally grow up to six plants, carry up to two ounces in public and give away as much as they like.

There were few outward signs that people there ‘give and grow’. With outdoor use banned, I smelt as much cannabis in DC as I might in our own cool little capital.

That’s not much, but, inevitably, there were some trying to bend the rules. 

Wandering the bustling Adams Morgan café scene one night, I came across a few people enticing passing revellers with promises of bags of cannabis in return for a donation. One tattered business card from 420 Road Side DC offered 24-hour cannabis delivery.

“A lot of gifting is going on. And of course, some people are trying to push the envelope and get cute with the system in terms of having delivery and homebaked edibles in return for a donation”, says Washington DC resident Sanho Tree, a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.

This is the type of thing the local police are unwilling to let get out of hand, so there have been prosecutions of some operators in this ‘grey market’. Tree is quick to point out that overwhelming support for legal cannabis wasn’t so much about people lighting up for themselves. Voters’ primary concern was addressing high arrest rates for drug offences experienced by the African American community.

“According to exit polls, 70 percent of DC voters were in favour and were so because of racial justice aspects. Given who was consuming and who was getting arrested, it was outrageous,” Tree says.

The changes have led to a turnaround in arrest rates, but DC voters and politicians still want legal sales. However, despite popular support, the Council is unable to proceed because Congress has vetoed the change. A lack of any regulated approach means usage data is not collected, nor can education efforts be ramped up.

Long-time cannabis law reform advocate Dan Riffle says there is a lot to like about what is happening in DC. He started work as a prosecuting attorney in Ohio and then spent six years working for the Marijuana Policy Project and has been tracking what has happened since cannabis became legal in US states.

“Frankly, the grow and give system like we have in DC, when anyone who wants marijuana can get it but you don’t see billboards and signage, is fairly ideal. It is probably better from a public health perspective than what you see in Colorado and other states where the drug is heavily marketed and promoted,” Riffle says.

In hindsight, change was inevitable. It was like a freight train coming down the track, partly because of culture war politics in the United States and how it has exhausted itself in many respects.

Sanho Tree

Visitors to Washington State can pick up a gaudy tourist map showing where all the dispensaries are, what tours are offered and details about the types of products available. Kush Tourism offers trips in Seattle where you can see behind the scenes, including journeying through a forest of cannabis. “Breathe deep, relax and enjoy your Washington adventure!” the brochure exhorts.

“You tend to have advertising from the industry that glorifies or glosses over the negative impacts. So far, the laws haven’t been written with an eye towards what is the best way to reduce the harms from the use of marijuana,” Riffle says.

It’s still early days, but the influence of the industry is growing rapidly. For those who have seen the path taken by tobacco and alcohol industries, this is worrying.

“Creating a for-profit industry that promotes a drug is about demand promotion. The way a business that sells marijuana will work is the same as a business that sells shampoo, batteries, t-shirts or other goods. Its aim is to increase demand for its products,” says Riffle.

Already the influence of the industry in politics is being felt. Riffle points to funding of advocacy organisations by industry players and a revolving door between regulators and companies.

Under a fully commercial model, there is a certain inevitability to this. Tree, who has studied drug market dynamics in the USA, Central America and Asia since 1998, says a standard business logic will take hold. He argues it’ll take active vigilance and checks and balances from policy reformers and legislators to avoid any excesses.

Pushing back against commercialisation is something Cooke would like to see. But he is not optimistic. “The best way to do it would be to have state control, so you really can limit advertising and the ability to ensure public health messaging. Unfortunately, I don’t think it is a viable option in the United States.”

Dan Riffle - Dan Riffle: "Frankly, the grow and give system like we have in DC ... is probably better from a public health perspective."

Pick up a copy of The Nickel, a Kelso, Oregon-based classifieds-only giveaway, and you’ll find an ad showcasing the wares at the local Marijuana Mart, over at the 7th Avenue Shopping Center. A big deal is made about the price of pre-rolls and wax products. In tiny print, a warning mentions that the product is intoxicating and may be habit forming. This is about as good as it gets when it comes to public health messages.

In neighbouring Washington state, promises about education and prevention haven’t been kept as legislators try to get their hands on the new pot tax revenue.

The ballot initiative included provision for a swag of public health activities such as a helpline, prevention resources for schools and education aimed at adult users. Four years after Initiative 502 passed, the helpline has not been set up and funding for prevention is not at the level expected.

This is galling to one of the ballot’s backers, Professor Emeritus of Social Work Roger Roffman. Having researched the impacts of cannabis use since the late 1960s and published many studies while working at the University of Washington, Roffman saw inherent dangers in legalisation.

“I opposed legalisation until this point, because marijuana is a drug that can be problematic. People can and do become dependent,” he says.

He also cites dangers when people drive, operate machinery or have preexisting mental health issues. The emphasis on addressing inequalities in arrest rates began to sway Roffman.

He ultimately changed his mind when he saw commitment from others behind Initiative 502 to address responsible use by adults, provide good education and adequate treatment. Not all this has come to fruition.

“Public education, prevention, treatment and research is funded at a far lower level than originally stated. Much of the money has gone to other purposes. It’s still substantial but not as much as envisaged.”

Rather than providing evidence-based guidance, the “just say no” message is being repeated. Efforts to reach out to adult consumers will only be rolled out later in 2017.

“The money allocated for public education went to a state agency and was spent without this new legitimate way of dealing with marijuana, without really acknowledging and accepting legalisation,” Roffman says.

Notwithstanding these concerns, Roffman believes that legalisation has done more good than bad. Reviews of the impact of legalisation are part of the law, with the first report by an independent research agency due in September 2017. At this point, little is known about whether freer access has meant higher levels of cannabis dependence. But some data on prevalence is in.

“What was feared by many – an explosion of cannabis use by young people – has not occurred,” Roffman says.

According to exit polls, 70 percent of DC voters were in favour and were so because of racial justice aspects. Given who was consuming and who was getting arrested, it was outrageous.

Sanho Tree

If what happens with alcohol stores is anything to go by, retail outlet density plays its part in determining how much use there is. Driving through downtown Seattle on the way to my accommodation, I didn’t see any dispensaries. It’s not surprising, because in the city of almost 4 million, only a few of the 30 odd dispensaries are located in the CBD.

The signs the city is cashing in on green tourism are modest. When I got to the room I booked through Airbnb, I rifled through the care package from my hosts. Along with the standard toothpaste and mints, I found a whiskey miniature and pre-rolled joint. I could have had it for a suggested donation of US$5.

The place of cannabis in society and culture is only going to become more normalised as the years pass. Columnists in local papers share cannabis cake recipes, and it’s not hard to find reviews of cannabis varieties and products. In the Portland Mercury, the pot lawyer answers readers’ questions.

Nobody seems bothered by me asking questions about dope, none are outraged. 

Moves are under way in Oregon for local authorities to offer cannabis café licences, with an option for people to run weddings and other events where guests can take cannabis. This feels like just the beginning.

“In hindsight, change was inevitable. It was like a freight train coming down the track, partly because of culture war politics in the United States and how it has exhausted itself in many respects,” Tree says.

“This is particularly with regard to Baby Boomers and their baggage. It was just a question of when.” 

Despite a conservative Attorney General tilting at pot, most people I talked with agree. Commentator Dan Riffle sees legalisation as inevitable but says look to states other than those adopting a fully commercial model. None of the reformers want to see Big Cannabis having excessive influence.

For any jurisdiction looking at change, Riffle says the starting point will always be rapidly shifting away from the punitive approach.

“The no brainer part of this is don’t arrest and prosecute people for marijuana, don’t treat it as a criminal infraction,” he says.

Across the country in Washington state, the sentiment is the same as Cooke underlines.

“It’s not totally perfect. But at the big, big picture level, we didn’t want this to be treated as a crime any more, and we wanted to create a market that would replace the black market. So on those two measures, it’s working.”

Any change comes with its share of surprises. For me, the most unexpected thing was observing how undramatic the early days of legal cannabis in the USA are playing out. Perhaps it’s true that, if you sweep away the allure and make something boring, the fuss dies down.

I’m certain that there are many problems that have yet to surface, but I’m also heartened by the certainty that there are many people determined not to let things get out of control.


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