The Vibes Are Off

I struggled for a minute, thinking about what this end-of-year digest should say. Typically, year-end missives consider what has happened while offering a forward-looking view, one that’s hopefully positive. I hate to kick a horse while it’s down, which, in this case, is the wider cannabis industry and culture, but the truth is: shit sucks right now. It would be putting lipstick on a pig to pretend otherwise. So, basically, I’m here to commiserate with everyone. 

Even the Wall Street guys are pissed, so you know it’s bad. Usually, when the culture is upset, it’s because of dynamics that have big business grinning while the little guys get crushed. In this current climate, everyone is hurting. Jesse Redmond, a former hedge fund manager who writes the Green Giants newsletter, which details retail cannabis stocks investing, tweeted yesterday, “New all-time low on $MSOS. The ETF has dropped 88% over the past 686 days and is down 46% MTD. It will take an 830% return to get back to the all-time high.” MSOS is a fund that includes some of the most recognizable publicly traded multi-state operators, like Curaleaf, Trulieve, Green Thumb, and Verano.

The main reason they’re so pissed (this time) is because of repeated stalling on legislative action at the federal level, the most recent of which was SAFE banking’s demise. The Republican blocking of that legislation, while harmful to some actors in the cannabis space, is indicative of a much larger problem, one that affects everyone who touches cannabis in any way: weed is still politically radioactive for some factions of power, despite remaining overwhelmingly popular with voters. Because of this, a common refrain among advocates of all stripes is that federal legalization won’t come anytime soon unless Biden decides to truly go “Dank Brandon” beyond his half-assed pardon of federal marijuana prisoners incarcerated for possession (of which, there are not many).

That’s bad news for everyone. But things are infinitely worse for those on the ground, especially growers. California is, once again, experiencing oversupply, now with a bumper crop to boot, worsening the already severe problem exacerbated by high taxes. “Growers in states such as California, Colorado, Michigan and Washington [are] already seeing rock-bottom wholesale prices, a flood of cheaper, outdoor-grown flower hitting the market in the coming months could push prices even lower,” reported MJBizDaily’s Bart Schaneman in November. Also in California, a debt bubble exists in its supply chain, which finds retailers, distributors, and growers unable to pay taxes and bills. Currently, the state reports around $500 million are owed in taxes.

In New York, which just began legal adult-use sales, operators have been scrambling to keep up with ever-shifting legislation to get to that recreationally legal moment. A thriving grey market — arguably New York’s golden era of weed, for which I’m sure many will be one day nostalgic — threatens the health of said legalization, but the truth is there’s never been a better time for the average New Yorker to get killer buds. It remains to be seen how the above-board landscape will fare. So far, it hasn’t been great: a lawsuit threatens to overturn residency requirements for operators, holding up some would-be licensees from selling. The first 36 approved licenses in the state, which would benefit from a $200 million state social equity fund, have not received funding nor notification of how they might, stalling their openings. As of Dec 29, the first day of legal sales in the state, only one licensee can open.

Workers aren’t doing much better. Layoffs at companies like Dutchie, Weedmaps, Leafly, Curaleaf, Trulieve, The Parent Company, Leaflink, and many more abound. One worker died at a Trulieve processing facility in Massachusetts. Who knows how many other casualties there were in the greyer segments of the market.

As for the culture, it’s hard to argue that the mood is anything but down. Attendance at big events that attract more than just suits, like Hall of Flowers or the Emerald Cup Harvest Ball, was lighter this season — folks just don’t have the cash or are busy putting out literal and proverbial fires. A mold scandal infected a new grower-focused cannabis competition in Oklahoma, and so on. Many players are dropping out of the legal market, some unable to survive while others lost their taste for the rat race. Others in the traditional market gave up on the legal one years ago, and some never even tried to join up, sensing that things would likely go sideways. 

Now other long-time pot advocates are abandoning support for certain aspects of legalization based on well-founded fears that the market is headed toward an inevitable monopoly. Reporter (and High Times alum) Mary Jane Gibson asks, “is legal weed doomed to be run by big business?” In her Vox piece, she reports that activists and advocates, including some from NORML, find that certain laws will just be twisted to suit the needs of corporations, like the aforementioned SAFE banking measure, or efforts to reschedule cannabis at the federal level. She details the efforts by organizations like the nonprofit Coalition for Cannabis Policy, Education, and Regulation (CPEAR), whose goal is to “advance a comprehensive federal regulatory framework for cannabis.” She mentions the group is funded by tobacco and alcohol brands, like, “Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA; the Molson Coors Beverage Company; Constellation Brands, the conglomerate behind Corona and Modelo; and the National Association of Convenience Stores, among others.”

But the die-hards persist, as they always have. Grassroots events, like Transbay Challenge, The New York Growers Cup, and Ego Clash, are still well-attended, representing an OG culture segment that won’t fold, regardless of whatever legalization hurls its way. The people are still imbibing, as they always have, I found while reporting for the New York Times earlier this fall, making the most of time-honored practices, accessibility and market challenges be damned. There’s hope there, for sure, however niche it may be.

If there are silver linings, it’s the same as there always will be in the age of legal cannabis: a few more states legalized this year, and fewer people are going to jail for the plant than ever. Brittney Griner came home. Consumers who lacked solid access to the traditional market now have other avenues to obtain weed. That it comes at a much higher price, especially for medical patients, and with degrees of varying quality (not to mention questionable testing results) puts some dull on that shine, however. 

Dominic Corva, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Cannabis Studies Program Director at Cal Poly Humboldt, said he agreed with me that it’s a bad time in the history of cannabis culture. He especially feels for those in the legacy world: those who stayed, and those who made a run for legality based on the state’s promises that heading out of the shadows would benefit them.

“Because alternative livelihoods are disappearing at a time when they are desperately needed. How do you ride out the global polycrisis without a resilient informal economy?” he asks, referring to the variety of social and economic ills our society faces — not just in the cannabis universe. “The cannabis countercultural economy flourished because it was a refuge from the ‘Rat Race to the Bottom’ ruining everything since the 1980s, including the dissolution of previously significant formal social safety nets. Now we have neither. ‘Get racing, rats’ could be the slogan of actually existing cannabis legalization.”

There’s not much more to say than that. I bid adieu to 2022 and welcome 2023 with open arms. To better days ahead — I’m not sure when those will be or what they’ll look like, but I hope for them all the same.

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