Right now, 2018 seems like the most momentous year for the cannabis industry. There’s been record investment, breakthrough research and never-before-seen recognition. And all with the tantalizing promise of more to come.
As we begin 2019, Analytical Cannabis looks back on the stories that made 2018 the year of cannabis.
A growing market
In 1996, the California Proposition 215 bill was passed and for the first time in US history, medicinal cannabis became legal. The Clinton Administration called the bill a “falsely labeled, cynical initiative” and in an open letter, former Presidents George Bush, Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter claimed it was a threat to the public health of “all Americans.”
Now, 22 years later, it’s fair to say attitudes have changed. The majority of Americans, some 216 million, now have legal access to medicinal cannabis and cannabis is available recreationally in 10 states. Thanks to the midterm elections and other bills, a number of these states turned green in 2018.
But America’s acceptance is only one slice of the story. All around the world, 2018 was another record year for progressive cannabis legislation. Greece, Jamaica, Mexico, South Korea, Thailand, New Zealand and the UK all joined the growing number of countries with medicinal access to cannabis in some form or another. In probably the biggest cannabis story of the year, Canada became the world’s largest cannabis market place, setting a progressive precedent for others to follow.
In the coming years, as legalization spreads and the market grows, analysts will look back on cannabis’ history to find ‘the turning point’ when public and governing opinion around the world began to shift for the better. For many, 2018 will be just that.
The drug of choice
After a decade of failed attempts, 2018 was the year that a cannabis-derived drug was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Named Epidiolex, this drug is an oral solution derived from CBD and developed by GW Pharmaceuticals. The company claims it can treat childhood onset epilepsy syndromes, including Dravet syndrome, Lennox-Gastaut syndrome and Tuberous Sclerosis Complex.
While many patients still struggle to access Epidiolex, the drug is undoubtedly a landmark in the short history of cannabis pharmaceuticals. Along with its FDA approval, Epidiolex became the first CBD-containing drug to be rescheduled by the Drug Enforcement Administration and thus recognized for its “medical benefits and a low potential for abuse”.
However, the US government still considers all other cannabis-derived CBD products to be a violation of federal law, so an incoming wave of approved CBD medicines is unlikely.
That said, Epidiolex’s success does show one pathway to approval. And as attitudes to cannabis continue to change, it’s a pathway many more companies will look to follow
The next genetic step
Whether in 1517 or 2017, clandestine or legal, cannabis production has always been agricultural. But the green fingers of future producers might be just wearing latex gloves.
Back in September, the cannabis industry was rocked by the $122 million deal between Ginkgo Bioworks and the medicinal cannabis producer Cronos.
Together, the companies will produce cannabinoids within genetically modified microorganisms, such as yeast, instead of the plants themselves. Ginkgo claims this transgenic process will produce a greater array of valuable compounds at greater purity and lower cost than traditional agricultural techniques.
While no success stories have been reported yet, this venture is emblematic of the industry’s maturity. Countless food additives (such as citrus) and medical compounds (such as insulin) are produced at such factory-like scales, and as cannabis regulations catch up to the standards expected of food and medicine it’s inevitable that production models will follow.
As Ginkgo’s competitors pursue their own vat-grown cannabis, it’s clear that the cannabis industry is now embracing the great science it has at its disposal, stepping into a mature, more technological market.
As the race to regulate cannabis continues, there are bound to be those that fall behind. While stifling for the market, these growing pains are inevitable as an industry matures.
And in 2018, the worst growing pains were in recreational states.
In Massachusetts, residents could finally buy recreational cannabis, two years after they voted for it to be legal in the state. This severe delay was down to a voter-approved clause that required all cannabis products to go through California-like potency and contaminant analysis from a licensed laboratory.
Slowed by state bureaucracy, it took two years before any Massachusetts labs got the go-ahead.
In Washington, state regulators announced stricter rules on everything from potency to packaging, which controversially removed edibles from shelves.
Meanwhile, in California, retailers were hit by the state’s first ever product recalls: after new safety regulations were enacted in July, one in five batches of cannabis failed to pass, mostly due to the mislabeling of products and contamination from pesticides and bacteria.
Safety and sales
While most of the new state regulations have helped improve the safety of consumers, there have been exceptions.
Back in July, the Californian Bureau of Cannabis Control moved ahead with its new safety requirements, most of which would better the market’s reputation. But lab analysts were quick to notice the lack of a Total Yeast and Mold Count.
In an exclusive with Analytical Cannabis, industry experts showed that the lack of this criterion could lead to cannabis products that are heavily contaminated with fungal toxins still passing state tests and, therefore, making it to market.
As Dr Reggie Gaudino, Chief Science Officer at Steep Hill, CA, put it, “Steep Hill and several other labs certainly feel, to some degree, scientifically compromised when adhering to the current microbial testing regulations that allow flower with 25% visible mold to enter the market.”
Ultimately, 2018’s safety regulations have been a necessary step to progress the cannabis industry, but cases like California show that even safety legislation can become unsafe in the race to drive sales.
As the industry enters this new year, it should be comforted by the many success stories of 2018, whilst also taking heed of its shortcomings.