With 4/20 upon us, it's a new year for cannabis. While you make merry this weed holiday, it's a good time to reflect on the last momentous 12 months for the Arizona pot scene and to peer through the haze to anticipate more changes in the year to come.
The 4/20 celebration lands at a time when market disruption is imminent and a year where several cannabis-related bills in Congress would seem to make federal legalization closer to reality than ever before.
The party begins days after the Arizona Department of Health Services doled out the last remaining dispensary licenses. Voters created these social equity licenses to right some of the wrongs of excessive enforcement during the war on drugs. The state granted 26 of them on Friday after a widely criticized process.
Around two-thirds of the licenses went to applicants who had the backing of some of the state's biggest cannabis companies, as predicted. Our initial analysis found that 18 winning applicants worked with big cannabis companies like Mohave Cannabis Co., Copperstate Farms, or major investors. Five were backed jointly by two shell companies registered in Wyoming, whose true owners are unknown.
This year's 4/20 also arrives when access to cannabis is as important to consumers as the quality of their product, and where cannabis events have shifted from fringe occurrences to mainstream yearly celebrations.
With upcoming events like Buds-A-Palooza and Cannaval this month, the Phoenix Cannabis Awards Music Festival in May, and the much-celebrated Errl Camp in September, marijuana enthusiasts have much to look forward to this year.
It's all part of the mainstreaming of pot in Arizona. So too is expunging the criminal records of low-level offenders. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office reported that it so far has expunged around 10,000 minor pot convictions. But many thousands more await.
While expungements are on the rise, prosecutions are down. In 2019, Maricopa County prosecutors filed 2,700 marijuana possession charges. Last year, they filed such charges in 57 cases, according to MCAO's data dashboard.
And even while possession is now legal, some law enforcement agencies are getting creative about finding legal loopholes. Courts in Mohave and Pinal counties heard cases about commercial drivers being pulled over on federal highways and busted for possession. Because pot remains illegal federally, local prosecutors tried to pin the drivers with violations of U.S. transportation laws.
Tom Dean, the self-styled "Attorney for Cannabis" who represented the defendants, says these cases show how Arizona pot users have "a false sense of confidence that what they're doing is either legal" or that "law enforcement isn't going to bother anybody." And, he quickly adds, "That's a problem."
On the tech side, the game is shifting. There's new cutting-edge technology that upends the extraction process, along with new synthetically processed cannabis blowing the minds of politicians and cannabis cultivators that debate them. That doesn't even include pot-lovers who consume the product.
Nano-emulsification technology has taken over the edibles market by force, reducing the size of the THC molecules, getting consumers higher faster, and working to create the best-tasting edibles the cannabis community has ever sampled.
Companies like Sweet Dreams Vinyards in Phoenix are using nanotechnology to make nonalcoholic pot-laced wine and margaritas. They, along with a number of other cannabis beverage makers, have jumped on the growing trend of cannabis-infused beverages fueled by consumer demand for wellness drinks and alternative ways to consume cannabis.
The global cannabis beverage market size was valued at $901.8 million in 2018 and is expected to expand to a whopping $2.48 billion in 2025.
As these new brands enter the Arizona market in droves, many are finding ways to differentiate themselves.
Arizona-based companies like Aeriz use aeroponics, which suspend plants in the air and spray their roots with precise amounts of nutrients and water to produce healthier growth and reduce soil and nutrient waste.
With demand for vegan-friendly products at an all-time high, more brands are taking notice. Companies like Good Things Coming, Haze & Main, and RR Brothers have focused attention on creating quality vegan products that not only taste good but are also eco-friendly.
Companies like Grön, which makes THC-infused gummies and chocolates, are marketing to Arizona consumers who prefer top-shelf cannabis. Using hand-harvested, fair trade cacao beans, the ingredients are organic, local, and sustainably sourced whenever possible.
Other brands are focusing on consistency, like Oklahoma's Country Cannabis. It is gearing up to enter the Arizona cannabis market with a Starbucks mentality. Consumers know they'll get essentially the same product every time in every state, as long as it's legal there.
With all these incoming brands, Arizona managed to generate $1.9 billion in overall cannabis sales last year, higher than the $1.2 billion estimate and second only to California in the size of the market.
Arizona experienced the most demand for cannabis than any other state in the first year of recreational adult-use legislation, and the fastest recreational adult-use rollout of any state where recreational weed is legal.
Despite these successes, many obstacles still stand in the way of the future of the Arizona cannabis industry.
Take, for example, the notion of helping our stressed-out kids with a bit of nature's love.
"We're still hesitant to advise or suggest that CBD should be used in children," says Dr. Andrew Carroll, a family practice physician who runs a medical behavioral clinic in Chandler. Over the last few years, he has seen a rise in COVID-related mental health concerns in children.
"When they're forced to stay at home due to illness or forced to stay at home due to school shutdowns, it obviously disrupts that social part of growing up," says Carroll.
Overall, his top recommendation for children showing these types of behavior is cognitive behavioral therapy. "We know that cognitive behavioral therapy has a big role to play in children, especially in conditions like ADD, or ADHD," says Carroll. "Cognitive behavioral therapy is first and foremost the No. 1 treatment study across study."
He says natural substances like CBD often work to help calm people mentally, but consulting with a physician about its benefits, side effects, and dosage is the best practice before trying these things on your own.
"When you knee-jerk and start using any type of substance whether it be homeopathic, naturopathic, CBD, or even prescribed medications, you have to be careful," he says.
Careful, indeed. Since adult recreational use became legal in Arizona, kids are winding up in emergency rooms in unsettling numbers. On a national level, edibles account for nearly half of all child poisoning cases related to pot, according to a study published in Pediatrics.
Currently, the only FDA-approved prescription medicine containing CBD is Epidiolex, an oral solution that has been shown to significantly reduce the frequency of seizures in patients.
Despite the fact that the weed stash is too easy for kids to find, pets have been wagging their tails in gratitude for helping their joint pain, inflammation, and firework anxiety, as researchers predict pet CBD sales to reach $910 million in 2026.
Lack of knowledge and data about marijuana and hemp are critical concerns in Arizona and across the nation, but another issue facing the cannabis industry is the lack of regulation on quality and product testing.
"This is the only industry I've ever seen where the consumer doesn't dictate the business," says Jim Morrison, co-founder of the Errl Cup in Arizona.
As a consumer himself, Morrison created a secret shopper program that visits local dispensaries to submit their cannabis to rigorous laboratory testing for quality, potency, and dangerous substances like pesticides and mold.
Americans for Safe Access (ASA) awarded Arizona a grade of C-minus this year on its medical cannabis report card, citing an overemphasis on recreational over medical cannabis, rising cost to consumers, and low accessibility, especially for residents in rural areas.
ASA recommends Arizona policymakers seek third-party patient-focused certification programs to meet regulatory standards for cannabis, and ensure the recreational cannabis program doesn't stifle the needs of medical marijuana patients.
The push for access to quality cannabis is in part due to the lack of testing regulation in Arizona and federal law. But that may change after the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. A Senate vote still remains a major hurdle before it would legalize marijuana in the U.S. and decriminalize marijuana as a Schedule I substance.
"There's probably about 15,000 people who are employed by the industry in Arizona, and they have a hard time renting, buying a house, and doing all sorts of things because of the industry's inability to use proper banks," Raul Molina, co-founder and chief operating officer at Mint Cannabis, told Phoenix New Times.
In a similar fashion, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York proposed a draft legislation last summer to tax, regulate, and remove marijuana from the list of controlled substances.
Last November, Republican U.S. Representative Nancy Mace of South Carolina introduced her own bill to federally decriminalize marijuana and let states choose whether to legalize marijuana.
"Between the previously passed MORE Act, the recent Senate proposal by Leader Schumer, and this new bill, it is truly a race to the top for the best ideas and smartest approaches to responsible reform," former NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said in a November blog post.
It's hard to argue with Strekal. Working through and presenting multiple iterations of the process of legalization will only result in a more precise and thorough outcome.
A 2019 study by The British Medical Journal showed that to develop a better approach to decision-making, researchers taking an iterative approach by involving stakeholders, collecting data, and drawing on past information is important to solve any problem.
Musicians, fashion designers, and software developers alike use this method to move from conception to production. Now cannabis policymakers are using it to find the best possible outcome for cannabis' future.
"The federal classification of marijuana has gotten in the way of people doing legitimate and really necessary research on marijuana," says Sarah J. Clark, a research scientist in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital.
Clark believes the lack of data is stifling industry innovation, saying, "We're behind because people have been prohibited from studying it."
Right on cue, last month Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley, Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz, and California Senator Dianne Feinstein worked together to pass new legislation to expand scientific and medical research on marijuana and its compounds, including CBD.
"The medical community agrees that we need more research to learn about marijuana's potential health benefits, but our federal laws today are standing in the way of us finding those answers," Schatz said in a press release.
Some bills have fallen flat, like Arizona Speaker of the House Russell "Rusty" Bowers' attempt to create a new department of marijuana regulation. It stalled without a hearing, raising questions about why it was even introduced.
Another bill, sponsored by Republican State Representative Joanne Osborne, is attempting to curtail marijuana advertising near schools, among other provisions. This is the second time the bill has been proposed in the legislature after receiving only 18 of the necessary 23 votes in the 30-member Senate last year.
The newest version of the bill would require three-quarters of the House and Senate's approval to become law, which is an unlikely outcome.
Last Friday, 26 social equity license holder names were called to fulfill an opportunity of a lifetime. These determined few represent the future of an industry with growing pains, eager for improvement and opportunity.
"For Arizona, I would like us to have one thousand manufacturers and one thousand cultivators employing one hundred thousand people, producing all kinds of products across the state," says Downing, founder of the Marijuana Industry Trade Association. He believes that growth is accomplished when everyone who cares about the future of cannabis tries to make a difference in their own circles and communities.
"Is it functioning? Absolutely," Downing says, "but there's so much more to be done."