January 9, 2017

Could Mass. pot delays lead to prohibition?

Jeffrey Friedland, marijuana author and international expert

Even though recreational marijuana has been legal in Massachusetts since Dec. 15, the move by legislators at the end of the year to delay the opening of pot retail stores – coupled with two moves on the federal level – has left the marijuana business industry concerned the long wait will add up to the drug being made illegal again.

"They [cannabis industry] are paranoid, so they react to headlines," said Jeffrey Friedland, international marijuana expert, author and blogger.

Mass. lawmakers on Dec. 28 announced a six-month delay on retail sales of recreational cannabis, saying they required more time to work on the legalization measure. Votes by the House and Senate moved licensing of marijuana shops from Jan. 1, 2018, to July 1 of the same year.

The Massachusetts move came on the heels of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's new Schedule 1 classification for marijuana extracts, saying medicinally popular marijuana-based products sold by medical marijuana dispensaries would be considered on the same level as heroin and cocaine.

Also, fueling the sudden mood swing among those in the retail pot industry is President-elect Donald Trump's pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions, a conservative who has been a longtime – and vocal – anti-marijuana political figure.

How much recreational pot is expected to sell?

Projected to reach $22 billion in sales by 2020, the cannabis industry can only speculate as to what it all these state and federal moves mean – if anything – for its grass-roots movement that doubled the ranks of fully legal states on Election Day, adding California, Nevada, Maine and Massachusetts.

Also, 28 states now have medical marijuana programs.

Marc Shepard, co-founder of the New England Cannabis Network in Needham, sought to allay fears that Massachusetts lawmakers will be able to delay implementation of recreational marijuana indefinitely.

"This is just an attempt by them to buy extra time to do the work they should have already done," Shepard said. "I'm sure they will continue to try to control the law beyond their legal right to do so, but there are plenty of smart, well-organized groups and activists ready to fight them if they do. The pointless battle to [continue] prohibition is over, and nothing will stop recreational cannabis sales in Mass. at this point."

What about the DEA's new classification?

As for the DEA move on cannabinoids, Friedland is giving the agency the benefit of the doubt when it says it merely wants to track cannabinoids for research and international drug control treaties.

In fact, he pointed out, scheduling of cannabinoids was two years in the making, so the move was not, in his opinion, a DEA shot across the bow of the industry.

Moreover, Friedland said, the DEA cannot under the current budget use federal funds to go after medical marijuana businesses. That includes those selling cannabinoids.

The code "does not affect state-licensed marijuana businesses at all," Friedland said. "It really just affects the research side under real pharmaceutical research. The state-licensed regime, it has absolutely no impact on."

As for the possible Sessions appointment, however, Friedland said the cannabis industry has a reason to be nervous.

"He's totally clueless being from a conservative state [Alabama] as to this grassroots movement, and I think that's dangerous," he said. "Sessions could live with the concept of state-regulated medical marijuana. I don't think he or the Trump Administration want to be talked about as taking away from patients their 'medicine.'"

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