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by Jill Ellsworth, MS, RDN, CEO and founder of Willow Industries
In 1991, professors Harry G. Levine and Craig Reinarman published an article in the healthcare journal The Milbank Quarterly titled, “From Prohibition to Regulation: Lessons from Alcohol Policy for Drug Policy.”
In their study, they note the quiet effectiveness of an industry that has regulated itself without issue since 1934.
“The leaders of the major alcohol industries, just like other members of the economic establishment, have a strong investment in maintaining order and obedience to law. Now, many decades after national alcohol prohibition ended, it is easy to forget that all this was the outcome of self-conscious public policy and not the ‘natural’ result of market forces or national zeitgeist.”
As recreational cannabis laws continue to evolve, our industry—everyone from cultivators to regulators to entrepreneurs—continues to navigate uncharted territory. As we do, we would be wise to lean on the lessons of history and those responsible for managing and maintaining the alcohol industry in guiding our future. Here’s what my study of history leads me to believe:
Regulation Standards Must Do More to Protect the Consumer
I once had an English teacher who doled out chapter quizzes rather than assigning a culminating test or paper after we’d finished the book. Cram for the quiz by reading a CliffsNotes synopsis, or interrogate your more well-read friends on chapter highlights and chances were you’d pass the quiz.
It’s not unlike today’s state testing policies in which cultivators can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that if they simply do what’s needed to ensure the sample they have submitted for testing passes, their entire strain is in the clear.
The result of these kinds of regulations is a frenzy of activity focused on what’s needed to pass, rather than a shift in behavior focused on producing an altogether better product that is cleaner and safer for the consumer. A similar story goes for process validation. Submit batches for testing over a series of weeks and a passing grade ensures that your cultivation process can be considered “contaminant free.”
If our ultimate concern is public health, regulators should consider avenues that result in testing more product, more often. While there are certainly roadblocks that make this far from easy—namely the cost to cultivators and availability of labs for testing—steps in this direction would signal to consumers that shortcuts and workarounds won’t be tolerated.
An FDA-like approach to health and safety are needed to reshape our industry
Levine and Reinarman note that at the time of the prohibition repeal, producers of alcohol, “had to be regulated to ensure that products were safe and of a uniform alcohol content.” These regulatory efforts, “directly reshape[d] both an entire industry and the conditions under which its product are consumed.”
Sounds familiar. While state laws are slowly shifting to allow for greater medical and recreational use, the laws that shape the conditions under which cannabis can be cultivated, sold and consumed are still in flux. Not only do we have to add our voice to the conversation as those laws are being shaped, in doing so we have to advocate for both the industry and the consumer—with lawmakers and in public forums—showing our commitment to safety and uniformity.
That means instituting strict yet sensible FDA-like requirements that center on production, procurement and handling, as well as manufacturing, distribution and consumption of the finished product. It also means implementing common-sense standards like wearing protective gear in our grows, conducting regular analysis of critical control points like storage, packaging and distribution areas, and instituting a contamination kill-step before cannabis extraction is complete.
Reshaping the conditions in which we operate and aligning them with standards already in place for like-minded industries will do for us what it once did for alcohol: move us from an industry continuing its uphill battle for legitimacy to, “something routine and manageable, a little-noticed thread in the fabric of American life.”
We must recognize our responsibility and be conscious of the impact of our choices
Our industry is overflowing with individuals who treat cannabis not as a career, but a lifestyle. It isn’t just about the plant itself. We embrace it for what it represents and how it reflects our core attitudes towards humanity and our planet. Now it is also affording us the opportunity to make a profit in a legal and legitimate way.
As tempting as it is to be swayed by potential profitability, we can’t afford to lose ourselves in the process. Like the leaders of the alcohol industry, we have to be self-conscious about the precedent we are setting. If we can balance passion with profit, we can take pride in being pioneers who reshaped our country’s attitudes on cannabis.
If we take this moment for granted, if we fail to responsibly grow and sell our product, we do more than just damage our businesses; we lose the ability to influence lawmakers and further sway public opinion. Rather than driving cultural change, we will be at fault for failing to take advantage of a moment ripe for change. Now is our time to create our legacy and set the standard for years to come; to evolve our industry from legal to legitimate by being its leaders.
If we play our cards right today, our country may look back at this moment, as Levine and Reinarman suggest, and judge our previous attitudes towards cannabis prohibition much like alcohol prohibition, “repressive, unjust, expensive and ineffective.” With history as our guide, we have a chance to shape our future. Let’s take advantage of it.
Jill Ellsworth is CEO and founder of Willow Industries, which uses ozone-based technology to clean and purify flower and trim while maintaining a plant’s medicinal properties.
Jill is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) with a Master of Science in nutrition, dietetics, and food science.