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The Top 10 Cannabis Stories of 2021

Published: Dec 24, 2021   

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The Top 10 Cannabis Stories of 2021

Leo Bear-McGuinness
Science Writer & Editor

To say that 2020 was an aberration is a bit of an understatement. But, for the cannabis industry, the word fits quite well. Marijuana sales across North America boomed around March of last year, just as the coronavirus pandemic began. And they stayed high during the months that followed. Many states and jurisdictions declared cannabis dispensaries “essential businesses”, and many dispensary regulars used the opportunity to buy in bulk, should the pandemic last long. And last it did.

When 2021 arrived, many regions across the world were still in the grip of a miserable, Covid-heavy winter. Stuck inside, cannabis consumers continued on as they had done for the past nine months or so, by buying a lot of cannabis.

But as the global vaccination rollout began, restrictions started to ease, ordinary life became a little bit more ordinary, and cannabis sales started to slump. According to the cannabis industry data company Headset, sales in the summer and fall of 2021 dropped significantly from their 2020 highs. But this fall in demand, the analysts say, simply reflected a return to pre-pandemic spending habits.

So, does this mean 2021 was an ordinary year for the cannabis industry? Not exactly. In many ways, 2021 was a stellar year for cannabis. Several US states either opened, voted for, or approved their own recreational cannabis markets. Countries like Germany, Mexico, and Malta made colossal strives to roll back their policies of prohibition. And cannabis regulations in North America became more fledged and rigorous.

To understand how far the industry has come, Analytical Cannabis looks back on the leading stories of the year.


10. The illicit market remains


Three years after they both opened their own legal, regulated cannabis markets, some might have expected that California and Canada would have quashed their respective illicit marijuana markets. But that wasn’t quite the case in 2021.

Granted, Canada’s legal market has had more success than its Californian counterpart; it’s been estimated that 2021 was the first year that legal adult-use cannabis sales dwarfed illegal sales. This flip in consumer choice has been attributed to several factors, including further retail rollouts in Canadian provinces, the growth of delivery services, and the falling prices of legal products. But all these boons were hard-won by the industry.

“It’s been difficult to get approved in the provincial markets because the provinces, from their perspective, would rather deal with a handful of very large companies rather than hundreds of very small companies,” David Brown, a former senior policy advisor with Health Canada’s cannabis branch, told Analytical Cannabis earlier this year.

Canada’s illicit market may have raked in hundreds of millions of dollars this year, but it’s in decline nonetheless, which is more than can be said for California’s illicit cannabis trade.

After almost four years of having a legal marijuana sector, the state is still at the mercy of its illegal counterpart. Some experts estimate that up to 90 percent of cannabis sales in the west coast state are carried out illicitly. Many reasons have been blamed for this intransigence, but the deep roots of the gray market – a laissez faire hangover of the partial medical cannabis legalization in ‘90s – is often named as the prime cause. Put simply, many Californians are still happy with their legacy suppliers, and the mixed availability and high prices of legal cannabis isn’t tempting them to the other side.

To help beat this colossal competitor, legal business owners in California have called on regulators to provide tax breaks and fee waivers (the latter of which has been given to some social equity applicants), so they can have more capital to sustain their businesses.

Will these measures work? Only time will tell. Whatever happens, California’s obstinate legacy market, in conjunction with the hardy illicit market of neighboring Oregon, served as a cautionary reminder this year: legalizing cannabis isn’t enough; industry support is still needed years on from a market’s opening.


9. Vaping testing gets serious


Vaping has been a bit of a bogeyman for the cannabis industry since 2019. That was the year the vaping crisis burst across the US. Patients with painful lung lesions were being admitted to hospitals in all corners of the country, and the one thing they seemed to have in common was a cannabis vaping habit. By December of that year, the number of vaping-related deaths stood at 48, while 2,291 remained injured.

Cannabis itself was quickly blamed, but research soon showed that the culprit behind the illness was actually vitamin E acetate, a thickening agent commonly used in the illicit vaping market to bulk out cartridges. Even with this vindication, some in the industry vowed to further regulate cannabis vaping products, just to err on the side of caution. Colorado, in particular, has taken a strong stance on vaping testing. Come January 1, 2022, all certified cannabis labs in the state will be required to test the vapor of a cannabis vaping device for heavy metals – a US first.

But how will such testing work?

“The standard way to collect gaseous molecules is to bubble [the gas] through impingers. These impingers are little glass tubes with frayed glass at the end, to make very small bubbles,” Dr Amber Wise, scientific director at Medicine Creek Analytics, told Analytical Cannabis earlier this year.

“[But for cannabis vapors] these impingers would just get clogged up with cannabis oil as it condenses back down to these oily droplets. It just would clog up the system and then we wouldn’t be able to pull air through very well,” she explained. “There’s just a bunch of logistical things that aren’t the case for e-cigarettes.”

Luckily for the labs in Colorado, Wise and her colleagues published their own method for testing heavy metals in cannabis vapor this November. But will it suffice the new Coloradan rule? We’ll find out come 2022.


8. Cannabis research continues


2021 was a record year for cannabis research. According to one analysis by the non-profit group NORML, more than 3,800 scientific papers were published on the topic of cannabis in the first eleven months of the year– a record high.

Among 3,800 other discoveries, these papers found out that the white brain matter of daily cannabis consumers and the matter of non-smokers don’t significantly differ, that rare cannabinoids such as CBGA and CBDVA can help treat seizures, and that teenage sleep patterns can even predict a person’s future cannabis habits.

We covered a lot of this research at Analytical Cannabis, the bulk of which can be found by searching through our News and Features page.

But despite the record high number of papers published this year, researchers in the US still face many barriers when studying cannabis.

“A key component of study feasibility for cannabis and cannabinoid studies is the existing infrastructure needed for this type of research, including institutional support for this research, investigator expertise, and a schedule I license, if required for the study medication proposed in the grant application,” researchers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wrote in a paper published this December.

Fortunately, plans are afoot to streamline US cannabis research. Representatives from the NIDA and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) recently voiced support for a White House proposal to expand researcher access to Schedule 1 drugs, such as cannabis and certain psychedelics. If this policy is actioned soon, 2022’s list of published cannabis papers could put 2021’s to shame.


7. US states step up their regulations


Many states in the US with legal access to cannabis have had pretty thorough regulations since their markets opened. But pretty thorough isn’t the same as thorough. And in 2021, several states decided it was time to make some regulatory upgrades.

Colorado, for one, passed a bill that, come January 1 next year, will limit medical cannabis patients aged 21 and over to 8 grams of concentrates per purchase (down from the previous limit of 40 grams). The seemingly regressive decision was made in an effort to limit the availability of high-strength cannabis to teens, many of whom have reportedly been accessing the drug through medical channels. Colorado’s Department of Health also unveiled a new batch of hemp testing and packaging regulations this summer.

“[The new tests] are sort of in line with what Canada’s doing and a little bit of what California is doing, but maybe with the action limits of Oregon,” Lisa Stemmer, senior director of marketing at Botanacor Labs, told Analytical Cannabis earlier this year. “And so it’s a sort of a mash up of what’s already out there.”

Speaking of California, the Golden State also made sizeable steps to organize its own cannabis regulations this year, including condensing its three legal cannabis agencies into one new agency: the Department of Cannabis Control (DCC). Following the signing of the state bill SB 544 in October, this new department was then endowed with the mighty task of fully regulating the state’s cannabis contaminants list and establishing a new standard test for cannabinoids in cannabis samples.

“The real significance of SB 544 is that is taking the contaminants list out of legislation and giving the DCC the authority to set regulation,” Art Hentschel, general manager at pH-PSI Labs, told Analytical Cannabis at the time.

“This is going to give the DCC the ability to modify the contaminants list and action levels without the need for legislative approval.”


6. The NIST study


There are hundreds of efforts currently underway to standardize testing in the cannabis and hemp sectors. And while they’re all welcome initiatives, there’s one that carries a little more regulatory weight than the others: the National Institute of Science and Technology’s (NIST’s) Cannabis Quality Assurance Program (CannaQAP).

Launched in 2020, the program has since partnered with over 100 commercial and forensic labs. Across several stages of the program, these labs have been tasked with testing cannabis and hemp samples for various analytes and potencies. The CannaQAP team then review these results and judge the quality of the labs’ methods.

As a federal project, CannaQAP’s end-results could help determine the standard testing methodologies nation-wide cannabis regulation will require, should cannabis ever be federally legalized. Luckily for US cannabis labs, the initiative’s 2021 findings showed that most industry methods were pretty spot-on.

“In general, the community values and the NIST target values did compare well with significant overlapping in their tolerance ranges,” Brent Wilson, a research chemist at NIST and member of its CannaQAP, told Analytical Cannabis earlier this year when discussing the results of CannaQAP’s first phase.

Wilson and his team spent the rest of 2021 analyzing data from the second phase of their program and preparing for its third. Thanks to their work, the whole industry may one day soon be using the same cannabis reference materials and carrying out the same standardized tests. Roll on 2022!


5. Federal regulators tighten


NIST’s program may prepare the industry for future federal regulations, but a surprising amount of federal cannabis and hemp guidance was actually given this year.

As early as January, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) published its long-awaited final rule on regulating the production of hemp, which was largely welcomed by farmers as it expanded the margin of error for THC levels in hemp plants before a farmer is declared criminally negligent.

The same month, the FDA announced that it intended to use poison control records and other databases to better identify CBD products associated with adverse events.

But for cannabis researchers, the relevant new regulation came in May. It was then that a team of researchers at the NIDA announced a new standard unit for THC: 5 milligrams (mg). Since May 7, US researchers have been required to measure and report results using the unit in all studies involving THC and human subjects.

The new rules and advice may appear meager when compared to the vast list of cannabis and hemp standards that remain unregulated on a federal level, but they’re welcome additions to the regulatory landscape, nonetheless. And they’re a promising sign that 2022 will bring the industry even more guidance.


4. Other drug decriminalization efforts


Naturally, cannabis industry workers and legalization advocates can be preoccupied with, well, cannabis. Yet marijuana is just one drug out of a plethora of plants, fungi, and other compounds that have been prohibited for decades, to the detriment of overly criminalized communities and the worlds of medicine and scientific research. But now, thanks to the tireless efforts of campaigners, legal cannabis is starting to get some company.

Back in February, Oregon became the first US state to decriminalize all drug possession, following a ballot vote in November 2020. Those found in possession of heroin, MDMA, LSD, or any other substance now faces a $100 fine or a health assessment that could lead to addiction counseling.

Later in the year, Seattle followed suit and became one of the largest cities in the US to decriminalize the use of some psychedelic substances, including psilocybin and mescaline.

Then the momentum spread to Detroit; voters in the Michigan city approved a ballot measure to decriminalize psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics this November.

Joining the likes of Denver, Ann Arbor, Oakland, and Santa Cruz – which all enacted drug decriminalization policies in previous years – Seattle, Michigan, and Oregon are showing the way for progressive drug reform in the US. Cannabis opened the post-prohibition door, and there’s plenty more substances to come through.


3. More US states go green


While psychedelic and general drug decriminalization efforts are trickling in, cannabis reform is gushing in the US. Four whole states legalized recreational, adult-use cannabis this year!

New York went first; the then-state governor Andrew Cuomo signed a legalization bill in the afternoon of March 31, effectively legalizing adult-use cannabis across the state. A regulated retail market isn’t expected to launch until 2023, but, in 2021, cannabis consumers in New York could at least breathe easy, knowing that their drug of choice is finally a legal commodity.

Virginia and New Mexico followed; both states approved adult-use cannabis legislation in April. Then Connecticut went green in June when the governor signed the state’s recreational cannabis legalization bill, effectively legalizing marijuana from July 1.

The markets for all four states may be a long way off yet, but 2021 wasn’t without a cannabis retail launch. Barely two months after voters in the state passed a legalization ballot during the November 2020 election, the first legal recreational cannabis products were sold in Arizona this January – a record-breaking turnaround time from legislation to legal retail.

As the year draws to a close, then, the tally of US states that have approved recreational cannabis stands at a staggering 18 – up from 14 at the beginning of the year! Will the figure reach 19 by the end of 2022? Or even higher? Rhode Island legislators have promised that legalization is on the way. Who else will join them?


2. Cannabis legalization goes global


But we mustn’t just focus on the US. There’s a whole world of cannabis reform out there! And 2021 was a great year for it.

Back in June, Mexico’s Supreme Court removed the laws prohibiting the use of recreational cannabis, effectively decriminalizing the drug for adults.

Over in Rwanda, a new ministerial order legalized cannabis for medicinal use, allowing Rwandan doctors to prescribe medical cannabis products to patients.

Then, just before the close of the year, Europe decided to get in on the action. The new German coalition vowed to legalize cannabis and launch the continent’s first regulated recreational cannabis market.

And then, with just weeks to go until the new year, Malta beat Germany to the prize, becoming the first European country to legalize adult-use cannabis. While there are no plans for a regulated cannabis market, adult citizens of the island nation are now permitted to possess up to seven grams of cannabis for personal use.

Elsewhere in Europe, the Luxembourg government is still planning its own form of marijuana legalization, which will likely resemble Malta’s framework and become legal in 2022. Which other countries will follow them? It’s difficult to say. But one thing is certain, with Mexico, Germany, and Malta rejecting cannabis prohibition, other nations just lost three good reasons why they should retain the policy themselves. The pillars of prohibition are crumbling…


1. The rise of delta-8 THC


Now, if we’re speaking frankly, the legalization efforts detailed above are probably the most important cannabis stories that happened this year. Combined, the new policies of New York, New Mexico, the country of Mexico, Germany and the others have opened up cannabis access to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

But if you spoke to any cannabis industry worker in North America this year, as Analytical Cannabis did routinely, there was just one issue on everyone’s lips: delta-8 THC.

If you’ve made it all the way to the bottom of this article you likely already know what delta-8 THC is. But, for those uninitiated, delta-8 THC is an isomer of its more famous relative, delta-9 THC (commonly known as THC). This slight difference in its molecular structure has helped delta-8 partly evade many of the rules and restrictions that govern the sale THC in the US. Yet the compound can still induce highs comparable to its more prohibited cousin. Naturally, then, there was a delta-8 boom in the US in 2021.  

Delta-8 gummies, lollypops, and oils started popping up in dispensaries, general stores, and gas stations all across the country, sometimes with no age restrictions required for purchase.

The situation may sound innocuous to some THC advocates – the more, the merrier, right? – but most delta-8 THC products are manufactured from federally legal hemp in a very clandestine, unregulated way. Many cannabis chemists and industry regulators are thus concerned that the products could pose a health risk to consumers, especially minors.

“I live in a very small town, and I found delta-8 products in multiple stores that they say you have to be 21 to purchase. But I’ve also seen children buying them,” Christopher Hudalla, chief scientific officer at the cannabis testing company ProVerde Labstold Analytical Cannabis earlier this year.

“There’s no regulatory control. And we know children are consuming these products without any indication about how safe they are. That’s hugely irresponsible in my opinion.”

And Hudalla wasn’t alone in his caution. Several states ended up banning or heavily restricting the sale of delta-8 products during the course of the year. The FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also issued warnings on the delta-8 craze in September, the latter writing that delta-8 products “may provide consumers with a false sense of safety,” given that many delta-8 products are labeled as hemp or CBD products, labels that consumers “may not associate with psychoactive ingredients.”

Yet many in the US cannabis sector still vouch for delta-8. After all, it is a cannabis product, and it has huge consumer demand; it doubtlessly kept hundreds of businesses afloat in a challenging financial year. So an industry divide has sprung up. Lab analysts like Hudalla refuse to test the substance, while many cannabis retailers are more than happy to sell it.

Where will it end? Well, efforts are underway to standardize the testing of delta-8 THC and thus improve the safety of its products. The leading US testing standards organization ASTM International only just released a white paper on the compound and the testing standards it mandates. With a bit of luck and a lot of help from state regulators, there’s hope that delta-8 could find its way into the fold of properly tested and approved cannabis products, at least in states with legal cannabis access.

But chop off one head of the hydra, and two will more appear. And just as delta-8 THC products have been removed from store shelves, new novel cannabinoid products have taken their places. Delta-10 THC is already growing in popularity, along with products containing delta-O THC and hexahydrocannabinol (HHC). The hemp-derived cannabinoid craze is here, and we’ll just have to wait and see how cannabis regulators and testers confront it in 2022...


Leo Bear-McGuinness

Science Writer & Editor

Leo joined Analytical Cannabis in 2019. From research to regulations and analysis to agriculture, his writing covers all the need-to-know news for the cannabis industry. He holds a bachelor's degree in biology from Newcastle University and a master's degree in science communication from the University of Edinburgh.

 

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