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Coming Out Of The Cannabis Closet

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Big cannabis is, as its name implies, pretty big –- billions in sales, hundreds of thousands of employees, and oodles of tax revenue. Its explosive growth over the last several years is the direct result of a few baseline factors: legalization, of course (because it facilitates access and reduces risk), reduction of stigma (mostly due to national retailers doing the “hard yards” and padding their marketing budgets), and the growth of eCommerce (both as an educational tool and as an efficient way for newbies to peruse products in the comfort of their own homes).

More than anything else, though, the primary accelerant of this space has been the proliferation of discrete methods of consumption.

The Cannabis Closet

Based on anonymous surveys, about one in seven American adults uses cannabis in a given year. That’s a ton. But it’s quite apparent to industry participants that less than one in seven American adults would publicly admit their cannabis use. Unfortunately, there’s still a stubborn stigma that still drifts around cannabis and those who use it — and that makes sense.

As a society, we have endured nearly a century of misinformation and scapegoating related to cannabis and the people who indulge in the plant. A benign helper cast as a malignant tumor. Rarely is a false perception as inextricably linked to a single source; cannabis users are lazy, and violent, and bad. Save for pockets of reasonable people, that’s the only message we have heard for decades.

As a result, U.S. policy, pop culture and politics have spawned two subsets of cannabis users: those who openly flaunt their love for the plant, and those who find much the same value, but indulge more discretely. In other words, some people are still in the cannabis closet.

Embracing Discretion

About two decades ago, only a few trailblazing states had embarked on their cannabis legalization adventures, via medical marijuana programs. Dispensaries were a thing then, though they would be unrecognizable if you were only accustomed to today’s sleek and expertly-merchandised shops. But these dispensaries had far fewer products. Here’s what you’d find: flower (in jars, selected with chopsticks), maybe a few pre-rolls, and, well, that’s it.

There was less competition then. There were fewer licenses and the collective / cooperative setup made it less likely for patients to shop around. Less competition means less incentive to innovate. Less innovation means flower and pre-rolls and, again, that’s it.

Back then, if you were a cannabis user, you purchased flower and smoked it or cooked it into really gross brownies. Back then, you had no choice but to live out of the cannabis closet.

The relatively recent phenomenon of adult-use legalization (for recreational purposes) exploded the competitive landscape. Suddenly, there were retail professionals vying for leases, and lawyers, and well-funded money men competing for a piece of the action. Competition resulted in innovation and a race to capture more of a growing pie.

Slicing A Bigger Pie

There are two primary ways for a producer of consumer goods to grow its business. First, convince existing customers to buy more. Or, second, acquire new customers. With a variety of new product (specifically, variety in form factors for consumption) helps in with both areas.

The result has been a whole bunch of things: mints, tinctures, vape oil, gourmet chocolates, pet food, rosin, resin, transdermal patches … the list goes on. This potpourri of product, coupled with increasingly efficient and discrete online purchasing platforms, has permitted brands to inspire more consumption by existing customers who value their privacy, and to capture new users who had previously been hesitant to defy the enduring stigma.

Yes, the stigma persists, but its potency is dwindling — thanks largely to the cornucopia of cannabis consumption options.

With the expansion of marijuana products available, the stigma about users and the industry as a whole is dwindling.

The Cannabis Closet

This article first appeared in Cannabis Now Magazine.

“Coming out of the closet” is a figure of speech long associated with the gay community but the expression has been used to describe many situations in which admission of some societal anomaly is involved. Deviating from the norm, even when one is certain their path is correct, can be a nerve wracking experience. And while it may seem that medical cannabis is completely “out of the closet” these days the fact remains that for many, especially healthcare professionals, there is still a strong degree of paranoia and confusion when it comes to the topic.

A recent essay on Linkedin provides an example of this. Entitled, “A Nurse Discovers a Little Known Side Effect of Cannabis Medicine,” it was written by a Massachusetts nurse who four years ago was asked to work in a medical cannabis dispensary. The nurse agreed, even though she had no experience with the substance (either medically or recreationally), because she supports “broad latitude when it comes to the use of anything prescribed/recommended by a physician, even this federally illegal plant; if it improves the quality of patient’s lives and eases suffering.”

Like any good nurse she began the process of educating herself. She was astonished at what she learned and, by her own admission, “quickly became an activist.” At one conference she described herself as “slack jawed” at the possible therapeutic applications of cannabis and wondered aloud to a friend, “Why isn’t this plant available to everyone?” But when she “came out” and expressed her support for medical cannabis to her colleagues, sharing the knowledge that she had gleaned through hard work and intellectual curiosity, she found little enthusiasm or interest. “More than one friend has grown quiet now,” she wrote, “and I wonder why they don’t investigate current research with an open mind.”

Another nurse, on a different coast, encountered a a rather unusual problem. She has been a full-time medical cannabis practitioner in California for a number of years. Her two children were well aware that she is a “cannabis nurse,” cannabis was often discussed around them and they seemed undisturbed by it until the youngest, 11 years old, discovered that “cannabis” is the same as “marijuana.” What followed was a mother’s nightmare. Her child was hysterical, convinced that mom was leading others to addiction or worse. That’s what they had taught her in school and it raised a huge dilemma for the child. Who to believe, your parents or your teachers?

These two stories illustrate problems that cannabis reformers can and will encounter. Activists sometimes fail to realize that changing the law is not the end of prohibition. Substances can be banned but so can thinking. Eighty years of Reefer-Madness-thinking has poisoned the well and it takes hard work to clean up the mess that has been created by the likes of Harry Anslinger, Richard Nixon, and more. The misinformation and outright lies has seeped into every corner of this country and, indeed, the world. In the Philippines a president was recently elected on a platform of vigilante justice and much of his ire is aimed at drug users. His War on Drugs is literally killing 15 people a day!

Discoveries of the past twenty years, specifically the endocannabinoid system and its role in human physiology, will go a long way toward filtering the lies and distortions of the marijuana prohibition. But there is no switch to make things instantly okay. Reforming cannabis laws is, like civil rights and LGBT rights reform, an ongoing process that will require the perseverance of many. There are a lot of closet doors that need to be opened.

"Coming out of the closet" is a figure of speech long associated with the gay community but the expression has been used to describe many situations in w…