2018 Was Blazing: Our expert reflects on the past year and dreams of what’s to come

It was hard not to notice that 2018 was a big year for cannabis. The biggest win for weed has got to be national cannabis legalization for adult use in Canada — as if we needed another reason to emigrate — and the enormous impact that this policy change is already having on the cannabis industry. Legalization on a federal level means that companies don’t have to operate in a legal gray area anymore, which means they can publicly trade stocks, merge with smaller companies and open up to a wider range of potential investors. This victory is hugely important because Canada is the first developed nation to tax and regulate cannabis for adult use, and its proximity to the US market means it will shape our relationship with legal cannabis for years to come. Canadian provinces also can create their own laws and regulations surrounding the industry, which will provide valuable insight into how the “state experimentation” approach that the US is currently using can continue to be implemented under a federally legal framework.

On our side of the border, a very recent national victory came with the approval of the latest Farm Bill, which officially legalized industrial hemp as an agricultural product. This is an enormous win because farmers all over the country can now produce hemp for grain, fiber and oil — the latter of which is finding increasing popularity as the many benefits of CBD (the non-psychoactive cannabinoid compound found in industrial hemp) are discovered and embraced, and the misinformation associating hemp with other forms of cannabis are slowly diminished.

Here in New England, all eyes were on Massachusetts as they (finally) made their first legal recreational sales on November 20, a little over two years after voters approved a measure to tax and regulate cannabis for adult use. With only two shops open and demand as high as it is, it will be exciting to see how our neighboring state handles the rollout into 2019.

Speaking of beating us to the punch — in January 2018, Vermont became the first US state to legalize cannabis for adult use through the legislature, as opposed to through voter referendum. Rhode Island law requires that we legalize cannabis through the legislature (which we have been attempting to do for the past eight years), but there is one major difference between Vermont’s policy change and what we would like to do in Rhode Island: In Vermont, anyone over the age of 21 can now grow and possess a limited amount of cannabis, but they chose not to set up a legal framework for sales. Obviously, this eliminates a lot of the regulatory headaches of attempting to create a legal market, but it also leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

Even in little old Rhode Island, we saw our fair share of victories as well as setbacks in 2018. In July, we became one of only seven US states to allow patient reciprocity in our medical marijuana program, meaning that any patient from any state can use Rhode Island dispensary services. The state also launched the RI Industrial Hemp Agricultural Pilot Program in October, establishing a framework for Rhode Island growers to participate in the industrial hemp market. Unfortunately, we also saw the failure of Governor Raimondo’s budgetary plan to increase the number of state dispensary licenses from 3 to 15, with the final budget instead raising the annual fee that existing dispensaries have to pay from $5,000 to $250,000. In classic Rhode Island fashion, lobbying power and corrupt politicians led the charge in creating policies that fail Rhode Islanders in a multitude of ways, from inhibiting patient access to medicine to increasing the barriers of entry for new businesses.

Next year is sure to bring more exciting cannabis news and more victories for consumers, patients and advocates. We’ll be watching as Massachusetts and Vermont figure out how to smoothly roll out their versions of cannabis legalization, and if we get our act together, hopefully Rhode Island will finally join them this year! Who knows? Maybe the US will follow in Canada’s footsteps and federally deschedule cannabis once and for all!  “New year, new weed,” anyone?

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