How to Approach Cannabis Regulation From Industry Experts

August 04, 2022 by Peter Friesen

How to Approach Cannabis Regulation From Industry Experts

Over the last decade, legalizing and regulating cannabis has turned from a trickle to a flood. Nineteen states have now fully legalized the drug for recreational use, while another 18 allow medical marijuana use. When these laws passed, governments often had less than a year to establish regulations, staff agencies, and prepare to issue permits for a whole new economic sector in their states.

In response to the flood of legalization efforts, the Cannabis Regulators Association (CANNRA) formed in 2020 to share knowledge and resources between states. Below, CANNRA President Andrew Brisbo, who also heads Michigan’s Cannabis Regulatory Agency; and Executive Director Gillian Schauer, also an affiliate researcher at the University of Washington, outlined several key issues facing states that have legalized, or may soon legalize, cannabis, and their solutions:

Embracing a Fluid Industry

The minute voters approve marijuana initiatives, a countdown starts, and states spring into action. In New Jersey, for example, voters approved an initiative legalizing recreational marijuana in November 2020. By February 2021, the state legislature approved three bills covering regulation, taxation and equity, and enforcement.

The governor signed those bills immediately, and had a five-person regulatory commission in place three days later. By August, the commission had established rules for adult-use cannabis, and by December they’d approved the first recreational licenses, while navigating the overlap with existing medical marijuana licenses. In April 2022, the first stores opened in the state. Much of this work was done with the aid of an industry-leading licensing platform that was able to be configured and deployed on a rapid timeline.

Brisbo was intrigued by the burgeoning industry the moment he volunteered to run Michigan’s medical marijuana implementation almost 15 years ago. The post offered opportunities for innovation and leadership in a new regulatory area, and other state agencies were eager to share resources.

“It's such a dynamic space to be in, both from policy and procedure and business,” Brisbo says. “If you ask me tomorrow, I can explain to you how it's evolved since today.”

Navigating New Waters Together

Historically, the federal government has issued guidelines and best practices for state regulatory agencies, Brisbo says. Since states are leading the way on marijuana, however, this leaves them to write and adopt their own standards. By sharing knowledge there can be some semblance of cohesiveness between many states.

When new challenges crop up, in the form of hemp or novel cannabinoids, Brisbo says CANNRA brings state leaders together to tackle the issue and offer federal agencies a guideline, if, or when, marijuana is legalized at a national level.

After nearly a century of prosecuting marijuana possession and distribution, many states are also realizing they are responsible for leading industry equity. Consider if agencies are approving permits equally across different demographic areas. Are there restrictive requirements (like having a physical address) for obtaining a license? Where are the tax revenues being redistributed?

“We were staring down a new policy pathway that no one else had been through before,” Brisbo says. “One of the most valuable insights we can share with newer states coming in is make sure you're considering [equity] in every aspect of programming from the beginning.”

The Benefits of Open Data

While there’s a deluge of important data for states to collect, many agencies don’t have the time or personnel to analyze it. There’s also a nationwide push for open data; from government, the private sector, and constituents.

The right digital solution is not only going to automate much of the collection process, but it will ensure the most helpful data is being gathered.

“There’s so many different sources of data, from industry sources to regulatory sources, to public health and prevention sources, and social sources,” Schauer said. “And if you’re able to look at all of those, I think you have a much broader picture.”

Many digital solutions come pre-packaged with the ability to build a public-facing website to organize and share data, in a simple, easily searchable format. Many researchers or industry professionals are interested in this data, and have begun analyzing it themselves, easing the burden on governments.

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