Four years ago, Leaf Magazine Founder Wes Abney asked me to write an analytical piece drawing comparisons between two craft industries – Craft Beer and Craft Cannabis – for the 2019 Leaf Magazines Tannins & Terpenes Issue.
It was the very first assignment he handed me for the Leaf – long before he asked me to lead the team.
At the time, I focused on differences between the current Cannabis scene and the well-matured craft beverage industry, outlining the chief changes we would need to see before the sprouted legal industry could bloom into something resembling its closest craft analog: beer.
Now, nearly half a decade later, I’m taking some time to revisit that column, to ruminate on where our community stands and where it needs to go.
We’ve traveled far since 2019, but not always in the right direction.
A case of confused identity
One thing that will hopefully come with time and effort is the development of a cohesive identity for Cannabis. Craft beverages have one distinct advantage going for them – there’s no argument about what they are, or what they do. They’re far simpler than the complex plant we all love.
Conversely, weed’s identity changes from region to region. Depending on where you’re trying to blaze, Cannabis means something different – at least from a regulatory standpoint. In some markets, it’s a medicine only. In other areas, such as New York, it’s like cigarettes – you can spark a J anywhere you can light up an American Spirit (except for in cars).
Advocates for consumption lounges treat Cannabis more like booze. It has the potential to be a social catalyst, providing a reason for people to gather and imbuing public conversation with life and vibrance. But that’s not without its complications. No one gets a contact-buzz when sitting next to a drinker, and it’s hard to stay 100% sober in a consumption lounge – presenting a conundrum for the designated driver who gets stopped on the way home from a sesh. (For sake of argument here, let’s forget about the longstanding tradition of rolling up a J specifically for a drive with a well-curated soundtrack.) Those arguments against public consumption are temporary road blocks, and not an excuse to hobble an entire industry.
Back to identity. Is Cannabis a medicine, an intermittent mood-adjusting respite (like cigarettes), or a social catalyst for public consumption?
In short, yes. It’s all of them, and they’re not mutually exclusive. And just because the people writing the laws seem to be confused about that, doesn’t mean consumers should be subject to more restrictions. If anything, they should benefit from less stringent legislation and place the burden of public safety on the people and organizations developing the machinations of enforcement. Let the smokers smoke – while the law develops robust field testing to judge impairment. After all, people were allowed to legally drink and drive for decades before someone developed the first breathalyzer.
The regulatory trap
The one constant in the weed world is that lawmakers continue to get it wrong. Whether they’re acting out of complete ignorance, confusion over conflicting interests and information, or just plain greed – not one jurisdiction has rolled out proper Cannabis legislation.
Alcohol didn’t thrive without its own post-Prohibition hurdles, but for Cannabis, aside from punitive tax rates, the core of the matter ties into public consumption and direct sales. Combined, these embody the highest hurdle for Cannabis to clear before it’s treated like every other similar and reasonably regulated consumer product.
The traditional market is crushing the licensed market in this regard. Pop-ups, seshes and all-out trap festivals have taken center stage on the legacy market – most of the time out in the open. Damn it feels good to be a gangsta.
Meanwhile, licensed cultivators are having their dogs shot by law enforcement on their own property while being taxed into extinction.
Set aside the fact that the prohibitive laws shouldn’t exist in the first place, it makes one wonder what endgame the political and financial stakeholders prescribing rules for the licensed market have in mind. On the current regulatory high seas, those with a true craft product – meaning high-quality goods made in small batches with limited distribution – continue to drown, with the only option being either to return to the trap or sell to a larger company with more financing. Big bank takes little bank. End of story.
The simple ability to sell directly to the consumer, with no legal loopholes or mandatory third-party delivery services necessary, is the quickest path to survival for the licensed craft scene. After all, at least 25% of a craft brewery’s revenue comes from direct on-premise sales at the brewery. Just imagine a world where you could tour a grow and walk out with half ounces of the best strains you sampled in the tasting room.
With the way things are, the Cannabis industry is acting like an Ourobouros, or a snake eating its own tail. Licensed, compliant companies see their friends succeeding in the traditional market while they drown in taxes and overregulation, and the resentment starts brewing.
In some markets, people are out here dry snitching on people they would have been seshing with a few years ago, because they’re tired of having to fight for the last spot on a sinking licensure lifeboat.
Cannabis companies are acting like tuna fighting over a school of baitfish, oblivious to the sharks circling just outside the periphery. Those sharks have lots of money and want the best brands to struggle, so they can waltz in on the heels of federal legalization, buy up all the distressed assets, and let the federal government go after the enterprising entrepreneurs who chose to go back to the trap.
At least that’s one possible future. It could cut another way. One thing’s for certain: Until the Law treats Craft Cannabis at least as fairly as it treats Craft Beer, we’re all going to be duking it out in the primordial soup, fighting to see who’s going to grow legs and walk.