The Top 10 Cannabis Stories of 2019
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2018 was always going to be a difficult year to beat for the cannabis industry. It began with the world’s largest cannabis market opening in California and ended with Canada’s national market following suite – achievements that are tough-to-top.
And if 2018 was the cannabis party, 2019 was the hangover. The US’s vaping crisis sparked a new outcry of recreational cannabis’ dangers. New scientific research shadowed medical cannabis’ benefits with doubt. And on the economic side, the promises of California’s and Canada’s legal markets were undercut by an indomitable illicit trade.
But 2019’s strife isn’t its only story. Following the 2018 Farm Bill, hemp production, transport, and trade bloomed across the US, giving insiders confidence that at least once facet of the cannabis industry was on safe ground. And while total federal legalization is still out of reach, the year’s many political events hint that it’s on the horizon.
So while not quite the crescendo to the ‘post-prohibition decade’ many were hoping for, 2019 still plotted a steady course towards a more momentous future. To understand how far the industry has come, Analytical Cannabis looked back on the leading stories of the year.
10. The illicit market stands its ground
Everyone can agree that prohibition has its problems, no matter which side of the legalization debate they fall under. From discriminatory arrests to human slavery, some of society’s worst offenses can be traced back to the war on drugs. Legalizing cannabis, advocates say, will curtail these ills. They’ll fall by the wayside as society transitions into a cleaner post-prohibition age. Well, that was the plan.
If 2019 taught drug reform advocates anything, it’s that they’ve got to have patience. Because nearly two years on from its legalization of recreational cannabis, over two thirds of California’s marijuana market still belongs to illicit trade. And over the border in Canada, the ratio isn’t any better.
“If you look at the amount of [Canada’s] cannabis market that is now within the legal regulations, it's still, for some people, disappointingly small,” Steve Rolles, a senior policy analyst at Transform Drugs Policy Foundation, told Analytical Cannabis.
The problem? While it’s difficult to be conclusive, Rolles and other experts have blamed the slow roll-out of retail stores, the high costs of legal products, and a reticence from customers to leave their traditional suppliers.
“A lot of people – if they don't have immediate access to retail stores – they're going to stay with their existing dealers. Why would they shift?” Rolles asked. “Especially given the fact that legal cannabis is more expensive than illegal cannabis.”
It’s hard to see a way beyond this slow start, especially with cannabis tax hikes in California on the horizon. But the hope is that with increasing social acceptability, autonomous regions will license more businesses, which will bring over more customers and further dwindle the illicit market into obscurity. There’s certainly hope yet for a fully fledged legal model.
“I feel fairly confident that the problems that have arisen are mostly short-term teething problems that will be ironed out in the coming months and years,” Rolles added.
9. Dr Mechoulam does it again
No living scientist has a fanbase quite like Dr Raphael Mechoulam’s. Making a rare appearance at CannMed 2019 in Pasadena, California, ‘the Godfather of Cannabis’ was greeted by a throng of enthusiasts, proudly wearing his face on their t-shirts and thrusting cannabis cuttings out to him like babies to the pope. But Mechoulam didn’t come for the adoration. He had science to discuss.
Taking to the podium, the organic chemist who first synthesized THC back in the ‘60s announced his latest creation: synthetically stable cannabinoid compounds fit for clinical use.
It might not sound revolutionary. It might not even sound comprehensible. But if Mechoulam’s legacy was ever in doubt, the announcement will cement his name in the top tier of cannabis scientists.
Now, for the first time, there’s hope that unstable cannabinoids, previously unusable in clinical settings, can bring their benefits to patients. Compounds like CBDA, which can bind to a particular serotonin receptor a thousand times more effectively than CBD. Thanks to Dr Mechoulam and his team, a new form of CBDA, stabilized by a methyl ester, is now “a potential medicine for treating some nausea and anxiety disorders.”
There’s still some way to go before these stabilized cannabinoids could be benefiting patients, but if Mechoulam’s track record is anything to go by, the medical cannabis community have a lot to look forward to.
8. The UK goes without medical cannabis
The first of November should have been a day of celebration among the UK medical cannabis community. Alas, resent sat in its place.
One year into the country’s legal medical cannabis framework and only a handful of patients have been allowed to access it. The rest? Well, a recent poll found 1.4 million Brits were using illicit cannabis to treat a diagnosed medical problem. It’s hardly the ratio of a healthy medical cannabis system.
Of course, UK doctors haven’t been withholding cannabis prescriptions without good intentions. Many understandably feel uncomfortable issuing medications they know nothing about. The Biological Effects and Benefits of Medical Marijuana is not a compulsory module in any British medical degree, after all. Damning guidelines issued from public health authorities this year hardly helped either.
Fortunately, efforts are underway to finally bring patients and medications together. In a bid to satisfy doctors with more evidence, up to 20,000 UK patients will be enrolled in a two-year-long medical cannabis experiment that will ascertain medical marijuana’s efficacy as a treatment for chronic pain, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and several mental health disorders. And for those too desperate to wait, aid could soon come from the UK’s first medical cannabis charity, which will soon provide financial support to those on modest means who wish to access medical cannabis in the UK.
The 2010s was the decade when medical cannabis became legal in the UK. But the 2020s could see it become accessible.
7. Every time cannabis was nearly legalized federally
Eager to put the pains of prohibition in America’s past, representatives of both major parties have endorsed legislation this year which would legalize cannabis at a federal, nationwide level. The result? Well, politics is a long game.
In February, the Oregon senator Ron Wyden introduced the playfully titled S.420 bill. If passed, the Drug Enforcement Administration would have had 60 days to remove cannabis from its list of controlled substances, establish a federal tax on all legal sales of the drug, and create federal permits for cannabis businesses. It didn’t.
In the same month, presidential hopeful Cory Booker introduced the Marijuana Justice Act of 2019. If it had passed the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, the act wouldn’t have just legalized cannabis, but supported the communities which have been disproportionally affected by marijuana prohibition. It didn’t.
Progress looked bleak, but marijuana proponents aren’t dissuaded easily. And while cannabis still remains an illegal substance on a US federal level, 2019 wasn’t without a few legislative victories.
In a landmark vote in June, the US House of Representatives approved an amendment that would block the Department of Justice from interfering with state-legal cannabis laws. And just last month, the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act was passed by the House Judiciary Committee in a 24-to-10 vote. Of course, the leading legalization act still needs to make it through seven other congressional committees and the Republican-controlled senate before it can take effect. But even if doesn’t make it that far, the act’s existing progress is already a testament to the tenacity of the many drug reform advocates at work in Washington.
And with tireless effort like that, Canada’s national cannabis industry may be competing with its neighbor's sooner rather than later. The 420nd time’s the charm.
6. More medical scepticism
For many patients, marijuana’s medical benefits are without question. Advocates claim that the plant’s chemicals can relieve them from the pain of fibromyalgia, the seizures of epilepsy, and the anguish of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But some scientists are less convinced. And throughout 2019, many of those researchers laid bare their scepticism in several studies, reviews, and reports.
In August, the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence concluded that there was a “lack of evidence about the long-term safety and effectiveness of medicinal cannabis” for the treatment of epileptic disorders.
In September, a research team from University College London found that while some cannabinoids show promise for reducing nightmares, there’s inconclusive evidence to support their use in PTSD treatment.
And in October, a major review from the Lancet Psychiatry found little evidence to support medicinal cannabis use to relieve depression, anxiety, or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.
One after the other, the reports piled damning doubt onto marijuana’s most reputable aspect. But before the words ‘placebo effect’ leave any sceptic’s lips, it’s important to note that the reviews all had one other thing in common: a call for more clinical trials, so scientists can firmly conclude cannabis’ medical properties once and for all.
“That's one of the main things highlighted in [the Lancet Psychiatry’s] meta-analysis: there's not been enough clinical trials to say one way or the other if cannabinoids can be beneficial,” Dr Amir Englund, a postdoctoral cannabis researcher at King's College London, told Analytical Cannabis.
With Europe’s largest medical cannabis trial now already underway, perhaps the 2020s will be the decade that finally puts medical cannabis doubt to rest.
5. Hemp blooms
Of every facet of cannabis, hemp undeniably had the best year.
Following on from the 2018 Farm Bill, the US’s hemp industry entered a new age of blooming, legal opportunity. For the first time farmers saw their crops covered under the 1980 Federal Crop Insurance Act and hemp scientists faced fewer restrictions when looking to research the plant. And the result? Well, according to some estimates, the total number of acres used for cultivating hemp in America has increased by 328 percent since last year.
Fuelled by the CBD craze, at least 70 percent of American hemp ends up in an extraction facility, wherein the coveted cannabinoid is pulled out and processed from the plant material. But despite the hemp hype, this big business still carries big risks. Truck drivers transporting hemp were still stopped and arrested by law enforcement in the early part of the year. Fortunately, as 2019 crept on, local law officers seemed to learn of hemp’s newfound legality.
“We actually got stopped over in Oklahoma,” Zach Wilcox, a hemp transport specialist, told Analytical Cannabis. “The cops pulled him over because of a taillight or something, and next thing you know they're saying, ‘Hey, this kind of smells.’ But he showed them the paperwork and they actually didn't even offer to go into his truck.”
And luckily for hemp, the progressive policies kept on coming. In October, the US Department of Agriculture released draft interim regulations to help inform states and Native American tribes how to develop their own hemp production plans. And in December, it was announced that US banks no longer had to track accounts for hemp-related businesses, freeing the nascent industry from burdensome financial restrictions.
On all fronts, it seems the hemp industry has finally been given the green light to prosper.
4. CBD woes
But what about CBD, the chemical that truly brought cannabis to the mainstream? Well, it was a mixed year.
On the economic side, the compound was a goldmine. The American CBD market alone was worth $270 million this year, and predictions place the global market over $2 billion by 2024.
But on the regulatory side, things were a little less rosy. Several US companies were issued warnings about their egregious medical claims – which extended to an advertised anti-Alzheimer’s effect – and tests in the UK revealed that 62 percent of popular products didn’t contain the CBD content promised on the label. One product (retailing for £90) didn’t even contain any amount of the key cannabinoid.
To cap things off, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just warned consumers last month that CBD-containing products “have the potential to harm” consumers. And although the World Health Organisation has found “no evidence of public health related problems associated with the use of pure CBD,” products claiming to be CBD do have their high risks. Between December 2017 and January 2018, synthetic products marketed as CBD were responsible for the poisonings of at least 52 people in Utah.
To avoid another such disaster, more regulation will be needed. In the UK, that progress is being driven by the Centre for Medicinal Cannabis, which has launched a charter that commits any signatory CBD company to work with accredited laboratories, prohibit any inaccurate labelling and reference to medical claims.In the US, the FDA is still re-evaluating its regulatory framework for CBD, but has indicated that it cannot conclude CBD to be generally recognized as safe to use in human or animal foodstuffs.
It’s going to be a bumpy road towards full regulatory compliance. But for the sake of consumer safety, it’s the only road to take.
3. International calls to end prohibition
There’s nothing that excites legalization advocates quite like the sound of crumbling international drug accords. And while no global prohibitionist legislation has fallen yet, if you listened closely this year, the trembles were plain to hear.
The first sign? Back in January, one of the oldest and most influential groups in the UN endorsed the decriminalization of drug possession and use. Then in February, in a letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, a WHO committee advocated for marijuana to be removed from the strictest classification within an international treaty on controlled substances.
And on frontlines, Luxembourg ministers have cemented their commitment to legalizing cannabis for their citizens, while the New Zealand government recently previewed its draft Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill ahead of the country’s cannabis referendum next year.
As 2019 comes to an end, Canada and Uruguay are the only two countries in the world holding the line against prohibitive international treaties. But with Luxembourg and New Zealand waiting in the wings, 2020 could see that number double. And with four democracies standing together in defiance of draconian treaties, how much longer can such legislation last?
2. Illinois legalizes and New York decriminalizes
But while international change is important, for any advocate living in Illinois, progressive drug legislation really came home this year. Back in May, Illinois became the 11th state to legalize cannabis for residents following a last-minute vote in the State House of Representatives.
It was another momentous achievement for the progressive cannabis movement in America; the 11th pillar of prohibition had fallen. And come January 1, 2020, any state citizen over the age of 21 can reap the rewards when cannabis sales open to the public.
Crucially for the communities who have been disproportionally targeted by prohibitionist laws, the state’s legislation has been described as the “most equity centric piece of cannabis legalization in the country.” A $100 million per year fund will provide resources to disproportionately impacted areas, a $30 million fund will provide seed capital for social equity entrepreneurs, and many previous marijuana offenses will be expunged as soon as 2021.
And while 2019 only saw one more state join the growing recreational fraternity, over on the east coast, another did at least move a step closer. New York, the fourth most populous state in America, decriminalized recreational cannabis use back in July. No, it wasn’t a complete victory for advocates. But the power of the legislation shouldn’t be underestimated. From now on, possession of small amounts of cannabis is punishable by fines rather than jail time – a major feat for those pushing for drug and prison reforms.
And as New York governor Andrew Cuomo is still committed to the full goal of legalization, the title of the 12th recreational state may be taken as soon as next year.
1. The vaping crisis
Unfortunately, the biggest cannabis story of 2019 isn’t a victory for the legalization movement. But it isn’t exactly a detriment to it, either.
Like an epidemic outbreak, the vaping crisis burst across the US at the tail-end of the summer. By September 13, 6 people had died and 380 were suffering from lung injuries. Three months later, the figures had shot up to an alarming 48 dead and 2,291 injured. And still no one knew the definitive cause.
There are theories, of course, backed up by hard evidence. Vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent commonly used in the illicit vaping market, is still the chief suspect. In October, two separate studies from commercial testing labs found that the thickening additive was entirely absent from the legal cannabis vaping market in California, while one study detected it in 9 of the 12 illicit products tested.
Some still have their concerns over the legal market, though. In December, Massachusetts authorities claimed that six patients with suspected vaping injuries has “probably” purchased THC products at licensed marijuana dispensaries. But the vast majority of hard evidence still links the outbreak to the unregulated market. All of which, some analysts say, only strengthens the arguments for a federally legalized system.
“Vitamin E acetate is very heavily used in the illegal vaping market; 20, 30, 60 percent of a cartridge could be vitamin E acetate,” Dr Swetha Kaul, a cannabis testing advisor, told Analytical Cannabis.
“The safer option is to shop [for] legal, tested products. I feel like that's the messaging that might resonate,” she said. “Because if you just tell people to stop vaping, they're just going to ignore the entire message. So how about giving them a route where at least their chances of staying safe are higher and better?”
Fortunately, the vaping crisis seems to be abating. The proportion of hospitalized EVALI patients reported to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention declined from 58 percent on November 12 to 30 percent on December 3. But this moment of calm shouldn’t be squandered. Given the existing facts, it seems that quashing the illicit cannabis market would the most effective step towards averting another outbreak. And how best to do that? Well, establishing a nationally legal, accessible, and regulated market could be a good start.