“Busted, down on Bourbon Street
Set up, like a bowlin’ pin
Knocked down, it gets to wearin’ thin
They just won’t let you be”
Last December, I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs. The conference was a tremendous success, even though it didn’t bring to fruition a recommendation to the World Health Organization to reschedule cannabis at the international level. Nonetheless, I was proud to come together with influential cannabis reformers from around the world to participate in dialogue concerning the policy paradigm around this plant. And I want to reiterate the framework I posed in Vienna, here: The cannabis plant has four distinct policy lanes.
These four lanes represent the choices that every government around the planet needs to evaluate to decide how they want to enact cannabis reform. The first is over-the-counter marijuana or recreational marijuana. This is marijuana in its natural state, not to be confused with medical marijuana. If a government chooses this lane, they have a responsibility to ensure safety, quality, and consistency.
The next lane is pharmaceutical. This is the true medical marijuana lane. This lane makes cannabis available to companies to develop pharmaceutical grade medicines. The framework of this lane differs greatly than the lane of marijuana as an over-the-counter product.
The third lane is wellness and food products. This is by-and-large what we’re seeing with hemp in the United States since the passage of the Farm Bills, mainly through the extraction of non-psychoactive cannabinoids, like cannabidiol (CBD). As such, it is incumbent upon the federal regulatory agencies who oversee food and cosmetic consumer products, like the FDA and the USDA, to develop this regulatory framework.
The last lane is the biggest. This is the industrial lane, and encompasses all the uses of cannabis as an agricultural commodity (what we think of when we say “industrial hemp”), including plastics, fuels, textiles, paper, electronics, and at least 25,000 other uses.
But why is it so important to think of the cannabis plant in terms of these four distinct regulatory lanes?
Because a lot of people get stuck trying to enact cannabis policy change by emphasizing social justice. Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubts about the positive net effect of cannabis legalization – righting the wrongs of the criminal justice system by getting people convicted of cannabis crimes out of jail, the opening of research that can shed light on the efficacy of cannabinoids to be used as a medicine, and the potential to save our planet through the environmental benefits of this crop – but you can’t lead with that. It doesn’t translate into a legal, policy or regulatory framework. And it doesn’t attract the business community. And if you don’t do both of those things equally well, then you can’t succeed.
If you want the social justice of cannabis legalization, you need regulations that fit in one of these boxes, or maybe a few of these boxes. I’ve spoken about this in public and had people respond by telling me that I’m crazy. Not that I don’t know what I’m talking about, but that I’m crazy.
But the truth of the matter is that there are a lot of smart people around the world who get this. And they are the ones who are leading the charge in enacting cannabis reform. They are the ones that are attracting the level of investment needed to develop industry infrastructure, research and development, and product development. And that’s ultimately what is needed to advance cannabusiness forward.
I recognize the idealism and I don’t doubt any of it. But if you want to see the world change, you have to frame things in a way that people can understand. That’s how you get the effect you want. We all want to see a future where cannabis is no longer misunderstood, scapegoated, and stifled. But the challenge is the policy paradigm. How do we shift this paradigm? Think in terms of these four regulatory lanes. They are the key to government cannabis reform, and everything that comes along with it.