After just one month of legalized recreational cannabis, Illinois is already seeing a massive return on their investment. According to the Chicago Sun Times, Illinois has raised roughly $10.4 million in tax revenue from their newly legal market ($7.3 million in cannabis tax revenue and $3.1 million in retails sales tax revenue).
When Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker first announced their estimated budget before the market was legalized, he predicted that Illinois would generate about $28 million in tax revenue in the first six months. The totals from January more than doubling the predicted per month revenue indicates that his office’s estimates were significantly lower than reality.
In total, dispensaries in the state did just under $40 million in sales in January, which makes it the second-largest first month rollout in the country. For reference, Illinois did $39.2 million total sales in their first month which, whereas Nevada took the #1 spot with $39.8 million.
About 35% of the tax revenue that Illinois generates will be used in the state’s general revenue fund, 10% will be spent on previous expenses, 25% goes to the Restore, Reinvest and Renew Program, an initiative for unemployment and preventing violence and recidivism, and the last 30% of that revenue goes towards mental health services, substance abuse services, public education and awareness campaigns as well as a police grant program.
Toi Hutchinson, senior adviser on cannabis control to Governor J.B. Pritzker, told the Chicago Sun Times that the tax revenue from legalization is to be spent on social equity and helping communities adversely impacted by the war on drugs. “Revenue raised in this first month will soon begin flowing back into those communities to begin repairing the damage done by the failed policies of the past and creating new opportunities for those who have been left behind for far too long,” says Hutchinson.
Here’s some news that might sound familiar: recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo insisted that cannabis would soon be legal in New York. Perhaps this seems like déjà vu given that he made the same pronouncement back in 2018, insisting that cannabis would be legal in the Empire State by 2020.
Might this simply be wishful thinking on Governor Cuomo’s part? Perhaps, but if cannabis is, in fact, legalized—whether this year or anytime down the road—it’d be a boon to cannabis entrepreneurs looking to expand into New York and capitalize on the vast resources of its citizenry. Still, by virtue of the inherent challenges and question marks related to legal cannabis in the state, these would-be cannabis titans should keep their excitement in check.
When any jurisdiction considers legalizing cannabis, uncertainty follows. In the case of New York, the questions are many: Will the recreational use of cannabis be legal or just further decriminalized (as was done last year)? And if recreational cannabis is given the green light, what sort of distribution regulations will be in place; where will it be permitted to be sold; will the four-dispensary limit remain in effect; and what’ll the parameters regarding growing in state be? To properly formulate New York business plans with eyes wide open, players in the cannabis biz must be given answers to these and other related queries that are crystal clear.
Does Cannabis Equal Revenue?
No doubt about it, Governor Cuomo was beyond enthusiastic when he publicly promised for a second time that legalization of cannabis is coming later this year, citing the $300M in potential tax revenue the state can glean once that mission is accomplished. Yet this guarantee and income forecast might be best taken with a grain of salt in light of New York’s history when it comes to legal vices. Remember, the state managed to run off track betting into bankruptcy, partially as a result of oppressive taxation and the OTB being staffed with political cronies. No wonder former Mayor Rudy Giuliani called OTB “the only bookie joint to ever go broke.”
Consequently, New Yorkers and cannabis entrepreneurs must adopt a bit of skepticism when it comes to the “pot of gold” at the end of the “legalized cannabis rainbow.” This is especially true given the downturn of the cannabis business in Canada, as reported by the New York Times. According to the news outlet, the cannabis slump up north can be attributed to several factors, including an extremely slow licensing process; limits placed on the number of licenses issued to distributors; marketing restrictions (e.g., how, where, and to whom cannabis companies can market themselves); and infrastructure challenges. Is it realistic to think things would be any different in New York?
MedMen: A Case Study
To avoid the current fate of the legal cannabis business in Canada, adopting a streamlined and open-minded regulatory framework that translates to a robust and healthy cannabis economy within the state will be essential. However, New York’s track record so far—at least as it pertains to medical cannabis—isn’t very promising. The case of MedMen on Long Island is illustrative.
Colorado’s economic success story—both in terms of growth and tax dollars—is a model to emulate.Late in 2018, MedMen, the best-known cannabis retailer in the U.S., attempted to change the location of its Nassau county medical cannabis dispensary from Lake Success to Manhasset, New York. This effort was met with outrage and vocal resistance from civic leaders, who objected to the proposed move, despite the fact that it was within the very same county. The stated reason: MedMen’s sought-after location was in close proximity to an elementary school and within the town’s main commercial district. But certainly, the stigma that attaches to the cannabis world (legal or not) was also squarely on the decision-makers’ collective radar screen, which overshadowed the potential tax revenue that MedMen would’ve brought to Manhasset. No surprise, in light of the perceived obstacles and push back, MedMen scrapped its relocation plans.
The moral of that story is this: players in the cannabis industry must effectively make their cases to New York public officials, and regulators, in turn, must make informed decisions that best serve communities throughout the state and the growth of the cannabis sector, more generally. Colorado’s economic success story—both in terms of growth and tax dollars—is a model to emulate.
Common Sense Regulation Is Key
In his quest to legalize cannabis this year, Governor Cuomo will continue to be confronted with his share of naysayers, like those from the County Health Officials of New York who persist in expressing serious concern about cannabis reform. In the face of such opposition, he must make clear that like cannabis plants, cannabis businesses need room to grow—and the benefit of reasonable, common sense regulation—in order to foster a healthy crop of thriving cannabis-related companies . . . and the tax revenue that comes along with them.
Good news came to patients using medical cannabis in Arizona earlier this week: Lawmakers in Arizona unanimously passed SB1494 through the state’s House and Senate, the bill requiring mandatory lab testing for medical cannabis products. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey is expected to sign the bill and has ten days to do so.
When Governor Ducey signs the bill into law it will mark the first time since the state legalized medical cannabis in 2011 that a measure to protect patient safety via lab testing will be implemented. According to the bill, beginning November 1, 2020, all cannabis products shall be tested prior to sales “to determine unsafe levels of microbial contamination, heavy metals, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, growth regulators and residual solvents and confirm the potency of the marijuana to be dispensed,” (Page 6, Section 36-2803).
The bill requires dispensaries to provide test results to patients immediately upon request. Dispensaries need to display a sign notifying patients of their right to see “certified independent third-party laboratory test results for marijuana and marijuana products for medical use,” according to the text of the bill (Page 7, Section 36-2803.01).“There will have to be some serious planning, but other states have achieved this and we can too.”
Under the new bill, the Arizona Department of Health Services will adopt rules to certify and regulate labs, establishing requirements like health and safety protocols, mandatory quality assurance program and standards, chain of custody and sampling policies, adequate records, accreditation, proficiency testing, among other requirements (Page 6-7, Section 36-2803).
Ryan Treacy, co-founder of the Arizona Cannabis Laboratory Association (ACLA) and CEO/Founder of C4 Laboratories, says this is a major turning point for Arizona’s cannabis industry. “We have been devoid of regulations with regard to testing the entirety of the program since it was legalized; This will be a significant change,” says Treacy. “Now patients can make sure they are getting a safe and clean product and getting exactly what they paid for.”
For those in the know when it comes to cannabis testing in the United States, the new requirements will look very similar to other states with testing requirements. One particularly unique aspect of the new program, however, is the establishment of a “Medical Marijuana Testing Advisory Council,” made up of stakeholders representing different interests in Arizona’s cannabis industry. Members of the council will include representatives from dispensaries, labs, cultivators, concentrate producers, edibles producers, as well as registered patients, caregivers, a representative from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, a licensed health care provider and “any other members deemed necessary by the director,” reads the text of the bill (page 16, Section 36-2821).
“Other states like California have complained about detection limits, while Arizona is taking a unique approach with an advisory council with stakeholders in the cannabis industry,” says Treacy. “So that when the Department of Health Services promulgates rules, they are taking into account the challenges in the cannabis industry specifically. We have a chance to do this right and avoid pitfalls we’ve seen in other states.”
One problem worth mentioning for Arizona’s cannabis industry: Dispensaries have not been required to test products for patients since medical cannabis was legalized back in 2011. That means many producers could be very used to operating procedures that don’t account for lab testing. With mandatory lab testing, some producers may be behind the curve when it comes to mitigating contamination.
According to Treacy, this could disrupt the supply chain a little bit. “When testing becomes mandatory in November 2020, dispensaries will need a full panel of tests performed on their samples,” says Treacy. “With the entire market now required to complete a full panel in depth analysis on each product, product testing will become a more time-consuming stop in the supply chain. So companies will need to work that into their plan to meet regulation requirements to prevent a bottleneck and maintain patients’ access to their cannabis medicine.”
Arizona has a chance to prevent that type of bottleneck seen in states that implemented testing requirements, like California for example. “When you have a habitual history of not testing products, it can be very hard to change, which adds to Arizona’s challenges,” says Treacy. “We need to make sure this does not affect access for patients and the ability of the industry to continue to flourish and grow.”
While Treacy thinks the transition will be difficult for some, it’s absolutely necessary for Arizona’s patients to access clean and safe medicine. “There will have to be some serious planning, but other states have achieved this and we can too.”
Last weekend, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker announced the introduction of a bill that would legalize adult-use cannabis, allowing medical dispensaries to begin sales for anyone over the age of 21. According to the Chicago Sun Times, the major focus for Governor Pritzker on legalizing cannabis is on things like social equity and criminal justice.
Rather than touting the tax dollars that could be raised, like other state governments are often eager to highlight, Governor Pritzker’s announcement was about racial equality and helping those disproportionately affected by the drug war. “We are taking a major step forward to legalize adult use cannabis and to celebrate the fact that Illinois is going to have the most equity-centric law in the nation,” Governor Pritzker told members of the media during a press conference. “For the many individuals and families whose lives have been changed, indeed hurt, because the nation’s war on drugs discriminated against people of color, this day belongs to you, too.”
The legislation includes a provision for automatically expunging about 80,000 convictions related to cannabis, allowing those with convictions to work in the newly-legal Illinois cannabis industry. It also includes a provision for license applicants to be designated as social equity applicants, where lawmakers are hoping to encourage minority-owned business growth. They plan on waiving fees as well as helping social equity applicants get better access to capital and business loans.
During the press conference, Sen. Steans mentioned they want to make sure revenue from the new market will benefit residents of Illinois. According to the Chicago Sun Times, the bill allows for 25% of tax revenue would go to helping those disproportionately affected by the drug war and 20% would go to mental health and substance abuse treatment.
That revenue, an estimated $170 million, will mainly come from licensing fees in 2020. Cannabis products with less than 35% THC content would be taxed at a fixed 10% rate, while products with more than 35% THC would be taxed at 20%. The bill would also allow people in Illinois to grow up to five plants at home.
On Wednesday, April 17, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed HB 324 into law, closing a loophole that has been around for years, which prevented the cultivation of cannabis in-state. Before the signing of this bill, possession of medical cannabis was technically legal, but the cultivation of it was still illegal under state law, preventing legal patient access entirely.
Back in 2015, Georgia’s legislature legalized medical cannabis with less than 5% THC, as well as CBD oil for a number of qualifying conditions. Since then, the state has added more qualifying conditions such as chronic pain and PTSD, bringing the total to sixteen types of illnesses that would qualify patients for medical cannabis.
Governor Kemp signing HB 324 into law sets in motion the process to establish a regulatory framework for six growing licenses in the state. According to WSB-TV Atlanta, the new law goes into effect on July 1, but it could take up to two years to establish legitimate cultivation operations in the state. The law gives a state commission the authority to investigate and establish the regulations further.
That state commission will give priority to pharmacies for distributing cannabis, but reserves the right to establish licenses for independent retail locations as well. According to ABCNews, “The commission can also attempt to legally obtain the oil from other states. Two universities will be allowed to seek federal approval to research and produce the oil.”
Across the country, a handful of states are expected to move forward with a number of bills making their way each state’s legislature. Here is a quick recap on some of the more newsworthy bills from this week.
When Arizona legalized medical cannabis use, there was no provision in the legislation that required laboratory testing to insure the safety of cannabis products. To this day, Arizona is one of the few states left that has legalized medical cannabis, but does not require lab testing. A bill, SB 1494, that just passed through the state’s Senate could very well change that. According to azmarijuana.com, the bill passed unanimously through the Arizona Senate and would require the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS) to implement regulations for laboratories to test for contaminates like pesticides.
They need at least 75% of the House to vote in favor in order for it to pass. If that happens, testing could be required as soon as June 1, 2020.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 10-9 to recommend HB 481, which would legalize recreational cannabis, including growing up to 12 plants, imposing a tax of $30 per ounce on cannabis sold through retail. It would also set up a regulatory agency in charge of licensing and regulating the industry.
Governor Phil Murphy met with lawmakers earlier this week to discuss the legalization of recreational cannabis. According to CBS New York, the Governor reached a deal with Senate President Steve Sweeney, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Sen. Nicholas Scutari and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano to introduce a bill that he would sign into law.
Back in February, the Vermont Senate passed a bill to regulate and tax recreational cannabis with a veto-proof majority. SB 54 is now in committee review in the House, where it is expected to see more hurdles, according to Burlington Free Press.
Another bill was introduced in the Vermont Senate, SB 117,which would reportedly open up more access to the medical cannabis program, including increasing possession limits, allowing patients to grow more plants at a time and set up a lab testing program as well.
President Trump signed the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (the Farm Bill) into law late in December of 2018, which removed hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) from the Controlled Substances Act in states that choose to regulate it. Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon signing HB0171 means that the state intends to regulate the cultivation and sales of hemp-derived CBD.
Scott McDonald with the Wyoming Department of Agriculture told Wyoming Public Media that once the bill is signed, the state has 30 days to show their plans for regulation to the federal government. “We were kind of hoping to get something in place this spring for this growing season,” McDonald told Wyoming Public Media. “But we’re not sure that’s going to happen or not. There’s some uncertainty there, so it might be next year.”
McDonald also discussed the next steps that the WY Department of Agriculture needs to take to follow through on the bill’s promises, including figuring out a way to distribute licenses to hemp farmers, licensing laboratories to test hemp, insuring it has less than 0.3% THC and implementing a remediation plan for when crops test above that threshold.
According to Charlotte Peyton, a consultant with 30 years of experience in FDA regulations and experience working in the hemp industry, it is important to keep in mind that as soon as products containing hemp-derived CBD are sold across state lines, the FDA maintains regulatory authority. “If you manufacture and sell hemp products inside of a state with a state mandated hemp program, you are legal and protected under state laws, but the minute you sell across state lines, it becomes the jurisdiction of the federal government and, more specifically, the FDA,” says Peyton.
It is not news that Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker favors recreational cannabis legalization. But State Senator Heather Steans (Chicago-D) and State Representative Kelly Cassidy (Chicago-D) introducing a formal bill to legalize recreational cannabis is certainly news. With what they hope will be bipartisan support in the legislature and a Governor on their side, Illinois seems poised to pass legislation legalizing recreational cannabis for adults.
According to the Herald & Register, State Sen. Steans says that public opinion polls show that roughly two-thirds of voters in Illinois favor recreational legalization. “We have a huge opportunity in Illinois to do this right and carefully,” Steans told an audience at a town hall meeting in Springfield, IL yesterday. From what the lawmakers told the public during that town hall meeting, the legislation sounds like it mirrors programs in other states.
The bill “would allow Illinoisans 21 and older to purchase and possess up to 30 grams, or about 1 ounce, of marijuana,” Steans and Cassidy said. “Nonresidents would be able to buy and possess half that amount. Use of the drug in public wouldn’t be allowed.” The bill would expunge previous criminal records with respect to cannabis, make it harder for minors to access it and raise an estimated $350 million to $750 million, providing funding for “community development of impoverished neighborhoods,” says Cassidy. “If we don’t address the social-justice issues of this, if we don’t address the collateral consequences of the ‘war on drugs,’ we will have failed,” Cassidy added. The bill would also allow people to grow up to five plants at home, would not allow for public or social consumption, and municipalities, employers and landlords would be able to prohibit possession and use, according to the lawmakers.
In 2015, the state legalized medical cannabis and there are roughly 42,000 patients currently in the medical cannabis program, with roughly 40 qualifying conditions approved for use. Some critics have argued, according to the Chicago Tribune, that before the state legalizes recreational use for adults, they should first expand the list of qualifying conditions for patients. This would provide greater access to those in need while the state implements a regulatory framework for recreational use, which could take upwards of a year to establish the program.
On Monday, January 22nd, Vermont made history becoming the first state to legalize adult use cannabis via the legislature. Governor Phil Scott signed the bill, H. 511, into law, which legalizes adult possession and cultivation of cannabis, eliminating penalties for possessing one ounce or less and up to two mature marijuana plants and up to four immature plants for people 21 and older, beginning on July 1.
According to the Marijuana Policy Project, they have been lobbying Vermont’s legislature since 2003 and they plan on working with the Vermont Coalition to Regulate Marijuana and the state task force to implement sensible and effective regulations for the state’s new industry. This makes Vermont the ninth state to legalize cannabis.
On Thursday, January 4th, the Vermont House passed this bill, sending it to the Senate for concurrence. On January 10th. The state’s Senate also passed the vote, sending it to Gov. Phil Scott’s desk to sign. Now that he signed the bill into law, Vermont is officially the first state to legalize cannabis through their legislature.
“After more than 15 years of hard work by MPP and our allies in the state, adults in Vermont no longer need to fear being fined or criminalized for low-level marijuana possession and cultivation,” says Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project. “This is a great step forward for the state and the whole region. Responsible adults will soon have the freedom to enjoy a safer option legally, and law enforcement will be free to concentrate on serious crimes with actual victims. We are looking forward to working with lawmakers and state leaders to continue improving marijuana laws in the Green Mountain State.”
Back in November, New Jersey elected Democrat Phil Murphy for governor, who ran on a campaign of legalizing adult use cannabis and using tax revenue from that for important government programs like education and pensions. According to CNN Money, NJ State Senate President Stephen Sweeney says he wants to vote on draft legislation and have it approved within 100 days of Gov. Murphy’s inauguration.
That bill, sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari back in May (the same Senator that sponsored the state’s now-implemented medical cannabis law), would legalize cannabis use, growing and sales, for those over the age of 21, while tacking on a hefty tax. The legislation, if it passes the vote and signed into law this spring, would also create a licensing framework and a “Division of Marijuana Enforcement,” the government body that would be tasked with regulating the industry.
Election victories throughout the state for Democrats means they now control the executive and legislative branches of the state’s government, opening the door for possibly legalizing cannabis within a year. This is a massive about-face for the state, previously controlled by Republican and Trump-supporter Chris Christie, a less-than-cannabis-friendly Governor who once called tax revenue from cannabis “blood money.”
But the newly revived fervor over legalizing cannabis in New Jersey comes with its own hang-ups. For one, Governor Phil Murphy claimed this could bring up to $300 million in tax revenue, which is a bit of a pipedream in the short term. The state would need total cannabis sales to hit $1.2 billion to reach that amount of tax revenue, something New Frontier Data doesn’t expect would happen until maybe 2025.
Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, wrote an op-ed addressing Murphy’s campaign promises. Sinha says that Gov.-elect Murphy ran on legalizing cannabis “as a social and racial justice priority.” He argues that in order for New Jersey to legalize cannabis equitably, the legislation needs to have automatic expungement of previous cannabis-related criminal convictions, a provision for growing at home, fair regulations and community reinvestment of the tax revenue. On the surface, Sen. Nicholas Scutari’s bill introduced back in May of 2017 seems to have provisions in place to meet all of these requirements.
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