At no point in American history has marijuana been this popular.
More states are legalizing it outright or launching medical marijuana programs like the nascent one currently underway in Pennsylvania.
Against this backdrop, the World Medical Cannabis Conference & Expo returned to Pittsburgh on Thursday for the first time since sales of medical marijuana began across the Commonwealth. The conference is part pharmaceutical trade show and part pow-wow for patient advocates and the industry’s legal advocates, as well. There are lab coats and Big Pharma-esque logos and brightly-lit booths and speeches touting the homeopathic benefits of what has long been considered a party drug.
But this is not a party, per se. Despite the inroads being made nationwide, the industry remains anxious, both because public perceptions, while trending more positive, remain far from universally favorable, and because an existing federal prohibition on marijuana remains a massive obstacle in a number of ways.
Here’s what we learned at Day One of the WMCC & Expo about those growing pains and why the industry says it’s encouraged by the movement underway but far from satisfied.
No cottage industry
It’s hard to convey just how multi-faceted and large the medical marijuana industry is.
There were dozens of booths at this year’s WMCC & Expo inside the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, each staffed by a team of super-eager company representatives from some of Pennsylvania’s officially licensed medical marijuana growers, processors and dispensaries, but many more from the seemingly endless network of companies there to support those enterprises.
This includes labs that test the purity of the medical marijuana products produced here, employment services specializing in medical marijuana industry job placement, the makers of medical marijuana processing equipment, analytics software and systems, electrical systems and everything from CBD-infused water to a marijuana-butter maker. Here’s a complete list of vendors.
“It’s absolutely massive,” Drew Heinle with Act Labs, one of two labs that test the purity of medical marijuana product produced here, said of the supporting cast of companies like his working with or alongside Pennsylvania’s MMJ operators.
As Heinle pointed out, Pennsylvania’s medical marijuana program is expected to become one of the biggest in the country.
The medical marijuana program here covers a relatively large group of 17 medical conditions and, considering the size of the state’s population, could reach 100,000 to 200,000 patients once the market matures.
The state’s licensed medical marijuana dispensaries could see sales in excess $100 million annually within a matter of years. And that means more companies and businesses drawn into the fold. In short, this is big business, and it’s about to get bigger.
Nationwide, legal cannabis sales hit $10 billion in 2017.
‘Marijuana Public Enemy No. 1’ is from Altoona
Harry J. Anslinger was an Altoona native who served as the Treasury Department’s Commissioner of Narcotics until his retirement in 1962, the New York Times reported.
Anslinger hated pot and waged a relentless campaign against it at the federal level.
He racialized the drug, claiming that black people and Latinos were the primary users of marijuana, and that it made them forget their place in the fabric of American society. He even argued that jazz musicians were creating “Satanic” music as a result of having consumed the drug, said Patrick Nightingale, a criminal defense attorney, founder of Cannabis Legal Solutions and a member of the Pittsburgh Chapter of NORML.
Nightingale, a keynote speaker at the WMCC & Expo on Thursday, said Anslinger, who believed marijuana and morphine to be equally dangerous and who advocated harsh laws against the sale, possession and use of all habit‐forming drugs, was responsible for the mainstreaming of the term marijuana in an effort to stoke racial fears around the drug. Prior to that, it had been referred to popularly as cannabis.
Per his obituary in the New York Times, “Harry Jacob Anslinger was born on May 20, 1892, in Altoona, Pa., the son of John Anslinger Sr. and the former Christina Fladtt. He attended Altoona schools and then Pennsylvania State College from 1913 to 1915. Years later, while working in the nation’s capital, he attended Washington College of Law, which awarded him a degree in 1930.”
While Anslinger died in Hollidaysburg in 1975, advocates like Nightingale argue that his legacy lives on in the marijuana-averse politicians of today, namely Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who last year rescinded an Obama-era directive that eased federal enforcement of federal marijuana laws.
“Two top law enforcement officers in this country [Sessions and former DEA head Chuck Rosenberg, who dismissed the notion of marijuana as medicine] think what we are doing, they think our medicine is a joke,” Nightingale said.
“Veterans who found relief, know that your federal leaders think your medicine is a joke.”
Like most industries, public perceptions are crucial to the cannabis industry’s long term success and acceptance, and some in the medical marijuana industry still believe that as Washington, D.C., goes, so goes the nation — but the inverse can also be true.
For those reasons, much of the conference’s work thus far has focused on challenging perceptions of marijuana users as couch-ridden — this year’s conference kicked off with an athletic event — and portraying marijuana as a component of a healthy and active lifestyle, not an impediment to such a lifestyle.
The cryptocurrency dilemma
Because of the federal prohibition mentioned above, banks have largely shunned the legal cannabis industry. In response, some legal cannabis companies have turned to cryptocurrencies as a way of moving away from cash alone.
But there are questions about the viability of this.
“Let’s say you run a dispensary, you want to get a client in and out as quickly as possible,” attorney Steve Schain with the Hoban Law Group said during a WMCC & Expo workshop on Thursday.
“One of the problems with cryptocurrency is there’s a degree of volatility in the value,” Schain said citing “enormous” fluctuations and also the added steps needed to convert cryptocurrency into usable currency for tax purposes and payroll expenses.
Some in the industry worry that a turn toward cryptocurrencies works against attempts to legitimize and mainstream the legal cannabis industry, as Business Insider reported in December of 2017, while others argue that cryptocurrency use is growing and *slowly* becoming more mainstream itself.
There’s also a chicken-or-the-egg theory that the cannabis industry’s adoption of cryptocurrency could be a big enough shift to speed up that mainstreaming.
Marijuana as medicine is nothing new
Nightingale said cannabis was considered an effective medical treatment for more than 100 medical conditions between 1850 and 1937, at which point Anslinger’s Marihuana Tax Act was adopted, effectively banning use and sale of the drug.
Almost a century later, marijuana is again being viewed as medicine — the World Medical Cannabis Conference & Expo confirms that.
The conference continues through Saturday at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
Speakers include former NFL athletes advocating for marijuana as an alternative to traditional opioid painkillers and urging the league to reconsider its marijuana stance. Freeway Rick Ross will also make an appearance.