RefWork:Past, Present, and Future of Cannabis Laboratory Testing and Regulation in the United States/Future of cannabis regulation, testing, and market trends

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What good would be a guide to the rapidly changing cannabis testing and regulation climate without some analysis of what the future may hold? This fourth chapter looks at the future of cannabis regulation and the associated market, as well as the future of lab testing and production. It also touches on fears of "Big Marijuana" and examines non-U.S. policy and how it may affect U.S. regulation in the future.

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5. Future of cannabis regulation, testing, and market trends

5.1 Regulation, market, and research

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Until effective and demonstrable policy change takes place in the U.S. federal government concerning marijuana, the country's researchers, doctors, patients, laboratory personnel, and entrepreneurs will have to keep fighting uncertainty and a convoluted patchwork of state and federal regulations. More certain is mounting evidence that a growing majority of U.S. voters believe the federal government should not be enforcing its laws in states where cannabis is legal: 64 percent agreed on this in 2012[1], rising to 71 percent in 2017.[2] As for legal marijuana in general, a record high 68 percent of Americans believed it should be legal at the national level in November 2021.[3] Despite such support, it remains up to interest groups and the states to twist the arm of the federal government. Legal representatives at Thompson Coburn expressed this idea well in a blog post in November 2016[4]:

The cannabis industry may have to consider forcing the federal hand by providing credible data on the safety of cannabis as it was invited to do in the DEA decision, in addition to the continuing to support the groundswell of approval at the state level. At some point, in the near future, the state regulatory position and the federal position will have to be reconciled. The industry can and should prompt that reconciliation by a clear united message to federal lawmakers. Without that, it remains unlikely that agencies, such as the FDA, will change its position on cannabis. A lack of change will inhibit market growth and prevent the cannabis industry from reaching its potential.

The obvious issue of expanding research and testing on cannabis and addressing its safety is acquiring the product within a legal framework and a reasonable time frame. As mentioned previously, the DEA has recognized the need for more federally approved growers than the NIDA center at the University of Mississippi (which came under fire in March 2017 for not testing its provided samples for mold and other contaminants in any standardized fashion[5]), and in 2016 they began accepting applications for additional entities looking to grow marijuana for researchers.[6]

In January 2020, the topic of needing more legitimate cannabis sources for cannabis research was brought up yet again, this time in the context of an official hearing exclusively on cannabis by the House Health Subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, titled "Cannabis Policies for the New Decade." The hearing provided an opportunity for legislators to discuss the "catch-22" of regulation and medical research: "Research is restricted because cannabis is currently considered a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substance Act, yet more research would better determine if marijuana should be rescheduled or descheduled."[7] Lawmakers and witnesses both agreed that another limiter was having the University of Mississippi as the sole DEA-approved supplier of research-quality cannabis.

Ever slow to act, the U.S. government's Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) finally, on December 18, 2020, finalized its amended "21 Code of Federal Regulations 1318 to facilitate the cultivation of marihuana for research purpose and other licit purposes to ensure compliance with the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) and treaty obligations."[8] This added an additional five grow-ops to support researchers.[8][9]

Optimistically, this will mean researchers will have more options for acquiring research-quality cannabis in the future. This should in turn allow researchers a shot at more focused studies that provide efficacy and safety data related to the medical use of cannabis.[4] In fact, this has been a goal of Dr. Susan Weiss, Division Director of Extramural Research at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) for some time. In July 2016 testimony to the U.S. Judiciary Committee[10] and in an April 2017 research paper published in The International Journal of Drug Policy[11], Weiss cautiously recognized and promoted the need for further evidence-based cannabis research, emphasizing both the healthy and detrimental effects evident so far in the plant and its constituents[10]:

Multiple agencies (NIH, ONDCP, DEA, and FDA) are working together to find ways to streamline the process to facilitate research while meeting international and legislative obligations under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and the Controlled Substances Act. In addition to actions taken by the Department of Health and Humans Services to eliminate the Public Health Services (PHS) committee review for non-federally funded marijuana research, the DEA recently streamlined the administrative process for CBD research to allow researchers to obtain a waiver of the requirement for review of changes to an approved protocol in their DEA research registrations, and is attempting to address the marijuana diversity and product development concern by licensing additional manufacturers.

Other entities have put subtle pressure on the federal government to better recognize and accommodate the need for further research. In January 2017, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine published a massive cannabis literature review. This 440-page report detailed the National Academies' findings after reviewing more than 10,700 abstracts related to cannabis. Among its final recommendations, the authors called for[12]:

  • public and private entities to fund and support a national cannabis research initiative that looks to fill key knowledge gaps;
  • government agencies to develop research methods and standards that may act as a guide towards higher-quality cannabis research;
  • government agencies, non-profit associations, and state and local health departments to fund and support efforts to improve federal, state, and local public health surveillance systems and efforts; and
  • government, non-government, and industry entities to work together towards developing a report on existing regulatory barriers to research and how to overcome them.

As of August 2022, it's unclear what effects this report has had. Regarding the first recommendation of a national cannabis research initiative, no such entity has fully taken up the charge. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) has arguably filled these shoes the most, having since produced numerous reports[13][14] and re-emphasized its role as both an intermediary supplier of cannabis for researchers and a major funder of research on the misuse and negative effects of cannabis.[15][16] However, as Daniel Mallinson, a cannabis policy researcher at Pennsylvania State University, notes in August 2020, the funding and reporting of NIDA, as a government entity, is a reflection of the government's budget, and thus "is a political statement about what we value as a society," adding that "the fact that most of the cannabis money is going to drug abuse and probably to cannabis use disorder versus medical purposes ... says something."[16] A national cannabis research initiative that focuses more on therapeutic qualities than strictly the detrimental would be more welcome.

Regarding the rest of the recommendations, some progress has been made. As discussed in the second chapter, progress continues to be made on formal testing and accreditation standards for cannabis testing labs. However, this progress has been made almost exclusively by those outside the federal government. If government agencies were to rubber-stamp such standard methods and accreditation processes, it would arguably lend more weight to those methods and processes. Some states like Colorado continue to fund public health research and surveillance data collection[16][17], and in October 2020, the American Public Health Association (APHA) published a policy statement calling for "an evidence-based public health approach to regulating and controlling the legal commerce of cannabis products."[18] However, a more concerted effort by other states' health departments would potentially have a greater impact. Finally, the call for a multi-pronged "report on existing regulatory barriers to research" and how to overcome those barriers has yet to be heeded. Numerous articles have been published in journals in recent years[19][20][21][22], but it will likely take a larger think-tank of groups to make a more impactful proposal to legalization holdouts.

While the growing discussion on enabling research is encouraging, some researchers such as Mayo Clinic psychiatrist and researcher Michael Bostwick have historically been less convinced that the barriers will fall—claiming federal entities shift too much focus on the detrimental effects and not enough on the potential benefits—and aren't optimistic about the direction the government will take.[23] Despite this pessimism, predictions—and reports—of substantial revenues in states where recreational marijuana is legalized or could be legalized persist.[24][25][26] A 2017 estimate by market research and analytics company New Frontier Data put the U.S. marijuana industry at $24 billion by 2025[27], and a 2022 study by Grand View Research put it at $40 billion by 2030.[28] Yet entities such as the Denver-based Marijuana Policy Group and cannabis law firm Vicente Sederberg LLC have in the past preached caution when dealing with tax revenue estimates and economic projections in the U.S. cannabis market[27], pointing to CIBC World Markets' grossly inflated tax revenue estimate of $142 CAD ($106 USD) per resident in January 2016, an overshot of about 300 percent.[29] "This is a fast-paced, changing market with varying different dynamics that have more to do based on governmental and regulatory dynamics than they do on consumer dynamics," said Vicente Sederberg's director of economics and research Andrew Livingston.[27]

Indeed, current and future regulatory dynamics seem to be the biggest wildcards in making market-based predictions, with predicted tax and associated revenue estimates capable of both being significantly too high (by inadequately taking into account local and regional cultural and economic statuses) or too low (by not anticipating new states legalization efforts, research breakthroughs, or ties to other mainstream but related industries).[27][29] Additionally, too much regulation can put a stranglehold on a state's cannabis program development—as it has done in Minnesota[30]—causing related grow-ops and laboratories to take significant losses or even go out of business.

Finally, on a social level, the push by many to legalize marijuana and, by extension, push for beneficial changes in federal marijuana policy, has been driven even further by dramatic increase in use of and health consequences surrounding opioids in the United States.[31] [32][33][34][35] What's not clear is how effective a replacement cannabis would be. Dr. Weiss again provides context, this time in the February 2018 workshop Cannabis and the opioid crisis: A multidisciplinary review[31]:

I think we need to be very circumspect in what we are expecting from cannabis with respect to the opioid epidemic. There is no doubt that there are many patients suffering from pain, and we do not have a lot of options to treat it, especially chronic pain. Moreover, the cannabinoid system has a lot of promise regarding analgesic potential and alternative medication approaches. Whether it is the plant, components of the plant, or other strategies to modify endocannabinoid function—these are all possibilities that we need to explore to both help abate the opioid crisis and treat patients with pain who continue to suffer.

From that same workshop, several additional insights were revealed[31]:

  • The National Academies' 2017 research recognizes "the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I substance [as something] that impedes the advancement of cannabis and cannabinoid research." Getting past that will require the federal government living up to its 2016 promise to expand approved grow-ops.
  • Getting marijuana rescheduled is further challenged by the fact that an entire plant and its constituents are scheduled. Difficulties arise because when we talk about rescheduling marijuana, the question has to be asked: "Are you talking about a plant that is mostly THC, that is mostly CBD (cannabidiol), that has unspecified different components in it?"
  • A major question remains concerning "whether cannabinoids and opioids interact at a pharmacological level." To further study this, not only do well organized studies need to be designed, but also, as previously mentioned, access to quality samples and a willingness to see the benefit in such research is still required.

As of August 2022, the Marijuana Data Collection Act is still making its way through the legal quagmire, stuck in the Senate's Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.[36] Citing many of the previously mentioned issues and more, the proposed bill asks for the National Academy of Sciences "to conduct and update biennially a study on the effects of State legalized marijuana programs," among other tasks. Specifically the research would look at revenue impacts, medicinal use and safety, correlation with opioid abuse, criminal justice impacts, and employment impacts.>[36][37] Whether or not this bill passes, one may argue that its intent is inline with the sentiment of representatives at Thompson Coburn: "forcing the federal hand by providing credible data on the safety of cannabis."[4]

5.2 Lab testing

A January 2021 report by Global Market Insights (GMI) found the U.S. cannabis testing market to be valued at about $2 billion in 2020, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.4 percent through 2027.[38] At a global level, GMI's October 2021 report found the total market value to be somewhere around $3 billion in 2020, with a CAGR of 21.1 percent through 2027, affected positively by medical application growth, growth in research institution investment, and cultivator and laboratory growth, negatively by a lack of uniform regulations and testing standards.[39] A more conservative number was offered by Coherent Market Insights in July 2022, indicating a global market valued at $1.66 billion in 2022, potentially growing to $4.5 billion by 2030.[40]

As for advances in cannabis lab testing, Kuzdzal et al. of Shimadzu envision a future where improvements in standardization, quality control, and research will shift what is tested and how it's tested[41]:

The cannabis industry and cannabis testing are in their infancies. As the need for better quality control continues and standardization is introduced, it is likely that lower limits for the various cannabis contaminants will be established and regulations will be introduced. Mass spectrometry will likely play a greater role in quantitation as detection levels are lowered and confirmatory tests are required. The health benefits of terpenes present in cannabis will also provide a fertile area of scientific research. CBD, CBG and other compounds appear to have a synergistic relationship with each other as well as with various THC forms and terpenes. This field needs much more investigation to determine mechanisms of action, bioavailability and health benefits.

Lab testing of cannabis should continue to provide more exact and useful results as methods and standards continue to evolve. Disparity of results between two labs for the same sample are continuing to narrow as states increasingly add testing requirements to their cannabis legislature.[42] Those testing requirements are increasingly based off a growing body of recommendations, guidance, and standards developed by the likes of the Americans for Safe Access Foundation (ASAF), American Herbal Pharmacopoeia (AHP), American Herbal Products Association (AHPA), Association of Official Agricultural Chemists (AOAC), American Oil Chemists' Society (AOCS), and the Association of Public Health Laboratories.[43][44][45][46][47][48][49] Already, the groundwork for standard methods is being created by the AOAC and ASTM International, which continue to work on standardizing the determination and quantitation of cannabinoid concentrations, residual solvents, and pesticide amounts.[50][51] Proficiency tests such as the Emerald Test[52], which allows multiple labs to test an anonymous sample and compare results, should also continue to drive improved performance from cannabis testing labs.[42]

Finally, the role automation can play in cannabis testing labs is increasingly being discussed.[53][54][55][56] This includes the implementation of environmental data loggers, direct-capture balances, sample preparation automation, and inventory tracking tools. Of course, software tools like the laboratory information management system (LIMS) also play a role in smoothing out workflows and reducing errors. However, automation solutions may move from something that is casually worth investing in to something that is critical to maintaining competitive strength[57], particularly if the U.S. government makes cannabis legal at the federal level. As more competitors enter the market, having automation to ensure quality and performance could be vital to labs who may have been around early on without automation.[56][57][58]

5.2.1 Consolidation

Another potential trend to keep an eye on with these testing laboratories: consolidation. Currently there's not a lot of data on the extent consolidation has affected the number of cannabis testing labs or how they operate; the industry is arguably still in its infancy. Regardless, mentions in press and practical examples demonstrate that consolidation is a real concern for the industry, if not now in the future. Suggestion of such came from Steep Hill Halent's CEO David Lampach in late 2013, anticipating "huge consolidation in general and fewer companies as a result."[59] GreenWave Advisors, CannaSafe Analytics, and Kramer Holcomb Sheik have also lent their voices to this idea.[60][61][62]

In the fall of 2019, some discussion of California's laboratory testing market suggested consolidation could still occur. However, at the time a majority of the state's labs were not anywhere close to full capacity, a potential indicator of California's market not reaching fully saturated potential. Additionally, the likelihood of new labs opening up will be low due to the lack of saturation.[63] This doesn't necessarily preclude lab consolidation, but it may be possible that labs with buying power could still consider purchasing other labs in order to gain a bigger piece of the pie. In some cases—where it's actually legal—licensed producers are acquiring laboratories. In Canada, for example, several producers have acquired licensed cannabis testing and research laboratories to bring them in-house, citing greater flexibility and more security for proprietary testing and research.[64] Even in the U.S., consolidation among not just labs but also growers and distributors is not uncommon[65] and may continue as the industry further continues to evolve.

5.3 Production

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Outside the lab, on the production side, resides a glimpse of technology that ties several of the previously mentioned ideas together: growing cannabis as an environmentally modified organism (EMO). A June 2016 article published in Motherboard referenced the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF) in Canada and its effort to apply innovations in growing plants in closed environments (such as on spaceships) to cannabis production.[66] Specifically, the researchers see promise in being able to precisely control grow conditions to produce a plant with a particular ratio of active chemicals. As such, the previously mentioned synergistic relationship of cannabis' chemicals can be more carefully studied, and the end product, once studied and methodically tested, could potentially "achieve the status of a conventional pharmaceutical commodity that a doctor can rely on and prescribe."[66] CESRF isn't alone in developing grow technology that can tailor the necessary conditions for a particular strain. Over the years, Israeli-linked start-ups (see the last section "Non-U.S. policy" for more) like Corsica Innovations (LEAF), Flux Farm (Eddy), and Eroll Grow Tech (Seedo) have developed similar grow technology that may transform future research.[67][68][69][70] And Front Range Biosciences continues with its Clean Stock program, which "uses tissue culture to help clean up, store, mass-produce and certify plants, ensuring they are disease-free and true to type."[71][72]

With better research, more definitive fact-based decisions can be made in the regulatory sphere, better guiding medical and recreational marijuana policy. That said, keep an eye on developments in controllable production methods; advances in this area stand to improve many of the other facets of research and testing discussed.

5.3.1 Safety

As production facilities (as well as testing laboratories) become more prominent throughout the U.S., another concern is beginning to emerge in the cannabis market: workplace safety. An August 2018 report by Chemistry World brought up several chemical accidents at cultivation facilities in Arizona that raised eyebrows in chemical safety groups. A commercial greenhouse cleaner at one cannabis facility ended with 16 employees being treated, and another involving "improperly stored hazardous materials" caused significant property damage.[73] Safety groups[73] and researchers[74][75] remain concerned that as the cannabis industry rapidly expands, safety concerns may not get taken seriously by operators. As for workers themselves, a Colorado State University study says they may be taking safety more seriously, but nearly 50 percent of them complain of not receiving adequate training on "biological, chemical and physical hazards" inherent to their work.[76] In addition to training, grow-ops, laboratories, and governments need to be more proactive in establishing guidelines and protocols in safety, including the specific equipment to use with various handling activities. Safety and manufacturing companies like 3M have increasingly become aware of this need, recommending procedures and personal protective equipment for cannabis handling tasks.[77][78] And Colorado's Department of Public Health & Environment have created their own guidance called Guide to Worker Safety and Health in the Marijuana Industry.[79] However, whether or not handling of cannabis requires special occupational safety rules has been debated before by various states, with California in 2017 stating existing rules cover the industry adequately.[80] It remains to be seen if states will eventually create their own occupational rules as the industry expands further.

5.4 Big Marijuana

Both U.S. states and the federal government have a long, sometimes torturous history with regulating and controlling the production and sale of drug-containing products such as pharmaceuticals, tobacco, beer, wine, and spirits. As such, it seems intuitive to examine the successes and failures of those past efforts when considering what to do with cannabis. One aspect of that examination that raises concern among some is the likelihood of a narrow group of commercial interests taking over all aspects of cannabis production, testing, distribution, and sales. Taking from "Big Pharma," "Big Tobacco," and "Big Alcohol," some fear a similar "Big Marijuana" industry will develop.[81][82] These fears can be found among small private growers at the hyper-local level[83], all the way up to the state government level.[84]

In fact, in a 2015 Pathways Report, the state of California—including its Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom—expressed this very concern in regards to how best to regulate marijuana in the state. When considering the marijuana industry structure, they found that controls should be put in place to better incentivize smaller industry players, stating "[t]he goal should be to prevent the growth of a large, corporate marijuana industry dominated by a small number of players, as we see with Big Tobacco or the alcohol industry."[84] Despite that advice, major California-based industry players such as Steve DeAngelo—who owns one of the largest medical marijuana dispensaries in the world and co-founded Steep Hill Labs—remain concerned that mandates for distribution, which mirror alcohol regulations, will only undermine small cannabis businesses in the state.[83]

Anti-marijuana alliances such as Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM) and corporation-friendly pro-cannabis Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) act as opposing special interest groups, one fighting against Big Marijuana, the other borrowing from a libertarian approach proposing regulation of marijuana in a way similar to alcohol.[83][85][86] These and other special interest groups inevitably bring about the perception that, as the Brookings Institution puts it, "the marijuana industry is as self-serving as any other commercial lobby," further propelling worries of Big Marijuana.[85]

If worries of large corporations taking over significant portions of cannabis production, testing, distribution, and sales markets actually come to fruition, how will they potentially manifest? The previously mentioned concern of increased consolidation of testing labs is arguably one sign, as is DeAngelo's concern of forced distribution contracts taking away from smaller businesses. Brookings also points out concerns of large firms gaining hold over the evolving regulatory status as well as upward trends in antisocial marketing, though they also argue against undue alarmism of commercialization at the same time.[81] David Boaz of the Cato Institute also speaks of regulatory status, though from the standpoint of regulations being "more burdensome on newer and smaller companies than on large, established companies," furthering the idea of Big Marijuana being able to weather the storm better than small, independent operations.[87]

5.4.1 Patenting

Another manifestation of how Big Marijuana may be taking hold is through the patenting of cannabis strains and methods. PBS' Nova reported in October 2016 that a group of California growers were granted a patent for "compositions and methods for the breeding, production, processing and use of specialty cannabis,"[88] raising concerns about how Big Pharma could capitalize. Mowgli Holmes—founder of Phylos Biosciences, a genetics testing laboratory for cannabis—says as much: "Everyone is terrified of some big corporation with deep pockets coming in and taking over ... and they should be." To fight against the misappropriation of patents for "public domain" cannabis strains, he and others have developed Phylos Galaxy to better track relations between existing cannabis strains and the creation of new strains. From a lab testing perspective, a small but increasing number of qualified labs could test not only for potency, terpenes, and pesticides but also genetically verify in a standardized format that a unique strain is actually what it is claimed to be, providing slight competitive advantage.[88] Similar efforts were being spearheaded by the Open Cannabis Project, which had been encouraging others to store genetic data for natural and previously available varieties in efforts to make them unpatentable.[89] However, the Open Cannabis Project dissolved in May 2019 due to controversy surrounding its association with Phylos Bioscience and Phylos' perceived abuse of the provided open data.[90]

Despite the protests against patenting cannabis strains, overall cannabis patenting continues to trend upwards in the U.S. According to Reuters, approved patents containing the word "cannabis" numbered 14 in 2016, 29 in 2017, and 39 as of late November 2018.[91] Of course, many more applied, with 767 U.S. patent filings occurring between 2016 and 2018 (reportedly 1.5 times more than files from 2013 to 2015).[92] In 2019, this showed no signs of stopping.[93][94] In particular, approved patent filings for cannabis extraction technologies alone numbered 30 by early December, with "many others related to distillation of cannabinoid components and techniques for obtaining active compounds from marijuana and hemp."[94]

Also notable is the first real patent infringement case related to cannabis, a case that could have particularly negative ramifications for the future of the cannabis industry.[95][96] United Cannabis Corporation v. Pure Hemp Collective, Inc. was filed in 2018 as a patent infringement case on United Cannabis' liquid cannabinoid formulations. A new wrinkle arose in early 2019, when Pure Hemp Collective filed a counterclaim for prior art, a claim that attorney Jihee Ahn finds interesting[96]:

Of course, it remains to be seen exactly what Pure Hemp plans to offer in support of its prior art argument. Typically, defendants in patent litigation produce years, sometimes decades, of scientific articles and other writings to demonstrate a given industry’s preexisting research and knowledge. It’s clear this wealth of evidence likely doesn’t exist for Pure Hemp given the general illegality of marijuana to date. This means the prior art could definitely be out there, but hard to definitively prove given that it was driven underground.

Yet some legal experts question the validity of United Cannabis' initial patent, with IP watchdog Steve Brachmann going so far as to say "I don’t understand how that could be considered patentable."[95] Brachmann also spoke about the issues of prior art, noting "you don't really find prior art outside of High Times magazine[95]," painting a similar veneer of doubt on Pure Hemp's counterclaim. With others such as Molson Coors Brewing and Coca-Cola stepping foot into or considering attempting to get into CBD formulations, this case deserves further watching as it may very well have a dampening affect on further cannabis-based patenting. As this and other intellectual property wars over strains, methods, and formulas get more heated, it remains to be seen how the laboratory testing, research and development, and production environments in the cannabis industry will further take shape.

5.5 Non-U.S. policy

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Aside from a few mentions of Canada and European regulation, this guide has focused solely on the state of cannabis and related lab testing in the United States. However, it would be remiss to not look at how policy elsewhere may potentially impact the U.S. cannabis market, if nothing else at least indirectly. Broadly speaking, other countries like the Netherlands and Portugal have put more emphasis on decriminalization and recreational legalization of marijuana than on researching and providing marijuana for medical purposes.[97] Israel has been one of the major exceptions to this generalization, arguably "up to 10 years ahead of other countries in innovation in the cannabis industry."[69] The country has been involved with cannabis research since the 1960s, and today it has its hands in many medical research-based initiatives (though recreational marijuana is still illegal), including[69][98]:

  • The Green Book, a set of written protocols and policy detailing how doctors should work with medical marijuana as well as how it would be commercialized across the country; includes training and certification of 100 doctors for prescribing it[99][100][101]
  • the creation of the Medical Cannabis Unit, a government agency that regulates medical cannabis research and use
  • the development of significant investment and infrastructure for clinical trials involving medical cannabis
  • the development of a national institute for medical marijuana research
  • the discussion of potentially exporting cannabis and/or cannabis-related extracts and derivatives
  • several higher education facilities offering courses and research opportunities on cannabis
  • several start-ups developing improved cultivation, pharmaceutical, and medical device technology

Another major country challenging traditional cannabis regulation is Uruguay, which in December 2013 adopted the first stages of regulatory legislation that would ultimately make the cultivation, sale, and use (recreational and medical) of cannabis in the country legal and government-controlled. In part due to concerns regarding gang-related violence and a tentative but not proven connection to black-market cannabis, the country has since carefully and methodically implemented the laws and regulations with the goal of keeping in mind evidence-based research and the potential social impact.[102][103] In fact, a late February 2017 press release from Canadian company Emblem Corp. stated it and Uruguayan ICC International Cannabis Corporation would, pending finalization of regulatory processes between the two countries, begin a partnership that would have Emblem import CBD (cannabidiol) from ICC "to help fulfill the demand in the Canadian market."[104] The end result has been a growing body of evidence that the cannabis policies are working intended and that they can provide guidance to other countries seeking to legalize some aspects of cannabis, or even begin exporting it as a crop.[105][106][107]

The reality of all this—combined with the legalization momentum in the U.S. and other neighboring countries like Canada (the first G-7 nation to end marijuana prohibition)[108][109] and Mexico[110]—means that new pressures are being applied to organizers of international treaties and policy, and any future changes to those treaties and policy may inversely apply pressure back on the U.S. government to update its stance on cannabis. An October 2014 Brookings Institution interview revealed some of the issues "straining the limits of an international drug control regime that most participants, including the United States, have long understood to be quite strict."[111] Drug treaties such as the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961), Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971), and United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (1988) represent hard policy that the U.S. government (as well as other federal governments) has followed steadfastly for years. However, a dichotomy begins to form when federal governments bend those treaties either through outright legalization or, as is the case in the U.S., by allowing the states power to determine their own laws.[111]

As a result of these stresses, policy experts around the world have been shining light on the need for not only federal governments but also international agencies such as the United Nations' World Health Organisation (WHO) to move forward with critical reviews of existing cannabis research in the social and medical domains and determine if revising cannabis' scheduling is appropriate. Additionally, policy experts have urged United Nations members to discuss and amend existing treaties, even if such amendments only provide greater flexibility in regards to marijuana.[111][112] That applied pressure has seemingly turned into action by the WHO and the European Union. In February 2019, the WHO recommended the rescheduling of cannabis under international drug treaties, removing cannabis and THC from Schedule IV (the most restrictive classification of drugs) of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and kept at Schedule I, with extracts and tinctures being removed entirely from scheduling. The WHO also recommended CBD to be removed from the list of schedules.[113] The European Union encouraged its members to vote in favor of the WHO recommendations, [114] and members of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) ended up voting in favor of WHO Recommendation 5.1 to delete cannabis and cannabis resin from Schedule IV of the 1961 Convention.[115] Optimistically, that action could be enough to "encourage countries to reevaluate how cannabis is classified on their own lists of narcotic drugs, potentially paving the way for more research into medical marijuana and its use as a treatment for a variety of ailments and conditions,"[115] further shaping how international cannabis businesses conduct business.

Whether or not the decriminalization, rescheduling, and legalization efforts of Israel, the Netherlands, Uruguay, and other global entities such as the WHO has a noticeable impact on international and U.S. federal law remains to be seen. However, it would be foolish to entirely ignore foreign policy when considering the future of cannabis in the United States.


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Citation information for this chapter

Chapter: 5. Future of cannabis regulation, testing, and market trends

Title: Past, Present, and Future of Cannabis Laboratory Testing and Regulation in the United States

Edition: Fourth edition

Author for citation: Shawn E. Douglas

License for content: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International

Publication date: August 2022