In June, more than 30 people were arrested and 10 were hospitalised after armed robberies at pot shops in Brooklyn, New York. Last week, more than 300 people demonstrated against expanding recreational use of marijuana in New York. And still fewer decided to pay a visit to one this week, more than two months after Colorado joined Washington and Oregon in legalising its sale.
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Is cannabis the next Big Drug? Could it have a “hit” moment the way marijuana was in 2014? The answer is a qualified yes. In the best case, the market will drive the growth of regulated, taxed and regulated recreation marijuana sales. It’s been more than a decade since an ounce of pot cost 10 times as much as a pint of milk; when marijuana is legalised on a federal level, expect it to quickly look at parity.
How many growers, dispensaries and retailers will grow the next weed goldrush? No one really knows. A report by Amherst College last year, based on analyses of Google ads, marijuana business directories and state surveys, said that if each state were the size of Oregon, the only way that pot could become a billion-dollar industry is if four-fifths of it were legalised for recreational use. That prospect is doubtful. Only seven of the 38 US states don’t have legal cannabis use, but only three of them approve it for medical use.
Rising rates of consumption will put pressure on advocates to show the proven benefits of legal cannabis use to population, says Douglas Farrow, a professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine, who is researching cannabis use and new treatment approaches. “The most important thing for the legalization advocates is showing people the benefits of the use of cannabis,” he says. “If that argument works, it gives new incentive for people to try it, or it has a death match with other tobacco alternatives like tobacco vaping and cigarettes.”
Smoking can cause disease, cancer and lung damage; vaping works well, but for those who use it for recreational purposes, getting regular use could get easier, says Al Helm, a cannabis policy expert at the University of Washington. “It’s illegal, and obviously it’s antisocial, but what’s the harm? You won’t get high but you will get experience.”
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What about people who are having problems with addiction and mental health? Farrow says that if they still have a problem with cannabis, they should be using alternatives and trying treatment options. “The goal would be to have an availability to treatment – they don’t need a new product, they need a new pathway,” he says.
The “hit” moment, if it happens, won’t be in any grand “big marijuana” rush. It’s more likely to be in a rush to avoid prosecution for having it. Cannabis is only one of the illegal narcotics entering the US. Currently, the DEA has imposed no restrictions or quotas for how many retail licences can be issued. The agency “may constrain the amount of retail licences issued”, it says. This could mean that demand at wholesale, wholesaling levels, could outstrip supply.
Up to now, the vast majority of Americans have bought marijuana illegally – but others, including many states, are experimenting with a grey market, buying it on the black market. Changes in legislation across the US might change their minds. “The market will decide how many pot shops survive on local streets,” says Farrow.