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Drugs

The Challenges Facing Legal Weed in America

After the historic decisions regarding marijuana in the 2016 United States election, we talked to Krishna Andavolu of Weediquette about what might lie ahead.

by VICE Staff
Dec 1 2016, 5:57pm

The 2016 United States election was historic in a very obvious way—but it also had seismic effects on the ongoing movement to legalize marijuana in the country. Maine, Nevada, and Massachusetts all legalized pot for recreational use, while North Dakota, Montana, Arkansas, and Florida all passed measures in favor of medicinal marijuana. (Arizona voted against recreational pot use.)

What do these new measures mean for those who use marijuana, and for those looking to profit off of the US's growing acceptance of the drug? And what is the Trump administration going to do about weed? We talked to Weediquette host Krishna Andavolu about these topics; what follows is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

VICE: Amid everything that happened in this election, there was also a lot of movement in terms of the legal issues surrounding marijuana regulation in America.
Krishna Andavolu:
There's a huge amount of disappointment that I'm feeling about the outcome of the presidential election, but [the election was] also a lesson that persistence, on a grassroots level, can shape public policy over time in a way that is logically and scientifically consistent, as well as beneficial at a public policy level. From California's perspective, it might not seem like things are all that different—medical marijuana has been legal there for a long time, and if you're a motivated weed buyer, you can find it. But it's symbolic in that it shows that concerted action over decades at a grassroots level can actually produce change, which is something to actually be hopeful about and understand as part of our American democracy.

It is just weed—a minor issue if you look at what's at stake as far as global warming, nuclear nonproliferation, and other issues that our president can address, but politics is about results and practice. We can tip our hats to the generations of weed activists who people thought were stupid, crazy, or dumb for working on a minor league issue but have, against all odds, been successful. We've reached a tipping point where it's inevitable that pot will no longer be thought of as [similar to] heroin, but [similar to] alcohol, and the next 40, 50, or 100 years of how we consider the punitive elements of marijuana have changed—not [entirely] for good, but it's going to be good to roll [the punitive elements] back.

Were you surprised to see the results in terms of marijuana regulation?
Massachusetts is a big college town—it's a blue state. Florida has tried to get medical marijuana before, but it requires a 60 percent supermajority, which it did not get last time, and if you think about how marijuana can be helpful for various conditions that the senior community faces, it's not surprising that the needle has moved there. You might say what Arkansas and North Dakota did sounds surprising, but their systems are really rigid—only certain debilitating, qualifying conditions can actually get you pot. Nevada was a bit of a surprise, because casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson donated a lot to fight against it because his son died of a drug overdose—so he's anti-drug in a very specific way. There's also a theory that the alcohol and gambling industries—which kind of control Las Vegas's entertainment value—are anti-pot because it's seen as a competitor.

It was a bit surprising that Arizona wasn't for it, but Arizona is where the drug manufacturer Insis is located—they make the opioid patch for fentanyl, which has claimed thousands of people's lives. Insis donated almost $800,000 against the recreational marijuana bill there. In California, I think there's a big fear of new taxation as a result of [recreational marijuana], and whether people will be able to afford the pot that they smoke. The election is going to shape the next four to eight years of presidential politics, but its ramifications on marijuana will be much longer lasting.

What are the challenges that the marijuana industry faces going forward?
The challenges are localized—how to operate businesses at scale within artificial boundaries of states, which no other industry has to do. Taxation is a big issue still until it goes federally legal. It's a business that's going to be worth $50 billion and has to operate as if it was going to be a much smaller business. And the culture is going to change. The big brands that are trying to go out there and do stuff are poised to become players in the California market, which presents a cultural challenge: What kind of pot do you want, and who do you want to be growing it?

The Trump administration's attorney general, [Jeff Sessions], will be running the Justice Department, too. Former attorney general Eric Holder signed the Cole Memo, which basically said that states could do what they wanted to do on [marijuana], but that memo can change at any point. While the Trump campaign said that they wouldn't do anything to the Cole Memo, that's not necessarily going to be the case. My hypothesis is that the FBI is going to take a bigger role in interstate diversion from legal markets, which is currently operated by local teams on a county-by-county level.

There was an episode in this season of Weediquette about how legal weed is affecting people of color in the industry. How does that stand to change after this election?
People of color were disproportionately arrested for pot possession, and as a result, they've been cut out of the legal market because of those convictions. The bigger structural issues behind that haven't changed—specifically, access to mass amounts of capital for the type of business connections needed to operate at scale and influence local lawmakers. In California, it's still county by county in terms of whether it can be produced and sold there—so lobbying local officials to get what you want is something that networks of professionals have more of an opportunity to do than people who have been in the black market for a long time. If anything, it just brings more money to the table, which is more likely to push out the small guy. That sounds like bad news, but the good news is that fewer people are going to go to jail—so it's a balance.