Photo Credit: Robert A. Bouvatte Jr. Esq.
Robert A. Bouvatte Jr. Esq.

From June 12-14, I attended the National Cannabis Industry Association’s (NCIA) fourth annual Cannabis Business Summit & Expo in Oakland, CA. And what an experience it was! Even when I first arrived for the welcoming reception on Monday evening, the expo floor was already abuzz with the sounds of industry – the fastest growing industry in the United States, to be precise.

The conventional wisdom holds that innovation outpaces regulation in nearly every market sector, and it is clear to me that cannabis is no exception. From one end of the expo to the other, one could behold evidence simply in the type and number of ancillary enterprises that have sprung up, beyond the strict distribution and sale of whole-plant marijuana. From high-yield grow lamps, to sophisticated extraction equipment and child-proof packaging options, to more traditional industries like accountants, insurance carriers and consultants, it was plain to see that the black market of yore is on the fast track out. It was also encouraging that so many representatives are embracing best practices, strict compliance, and the regulatory oversight without which their businesses could not exist.

But yet, even in a state like California whose legislative framework is much further along than in Florida, obstacles remain and the details are still being debated. What some on the East Coast may not know is that although California has permitted medical cannabis for over two decades already, the industry has previously been almost entirely unregulated, except at the municipal and county level. This has led to a confusing patchwork of ordinances and regulations matched in complexity only by our state-federal cannabis framework. Hence, much like Florida, California is currently undergoing a seismic shift in the legislation governing cannabis in its state, as it seeks to merge the new recreational market with the expansive, existing grey market network of medical providers and patient collectives. Undoubtedly, this transition will be bittersweet for some. As in Washington (where recreational cannabis has been legal for less than five years), even those generally law-abiding cooperatives and patient collectives see their days being numbered, as everyone is forced to get with the program. One can only hope that all interested stakeholders are being given a fair voice in the process, and that those whose work helped bring the industry to this point will not be drowned out.

Of course, the “elephant” in the room throughout this 3-day event was the remaining uncertainty where federal policy will be headed, under the guidance of President Trump and, more specifically, Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The keynote speaker, former President of Mexico Vicente Fox, was not short on things to say concerning this. In sincere and passionate language, he railed against what may be the looming reinvigoration of federal marijuana enforcement by the current administration, and delivered a forceful defense of cannabis from a free-trade perspective. For it is not only the United States that sees the damaging effects of its War on Drugs, Vicente noted – youth throughout Mexico and the Americas are also drawn into a dangerous, illicit business when the wages in that business are so much higher than in legal ones! This is just one more reason why those advocating for legal, regulated cannabis feel it is so important to take this money out of the black market and direct it to beneficial uses by responsible business owners and state coffers. President Fox noted that Canada and Mexico are coming to see the folly of their previous practices, but this experiment of our important trade partners can only work if the United States is on board. Otherwise, Americans’ massive demand for cannabis, combined with their government’s strict laws, will continue to foster the international smuggling operations that everyone can agree should meet the dustbin of history. On the flip side of the coin, Fox raised the exciting potential for cannabis to be the subject of international stipulations under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), if and when United States law permits.

In so doing, President Fox captured one of the themes that was on full display in Oakland. Namely, the legalization and regulation of cannabis is no longer (if it ever was) a partisan issue. Instead, the movement has something to offer those from across the political and demographic spectrum, whether they support it for reasons related to medicine, revenue, criminal justice reform, the free market, job creation or simply the individual liberties that we as American citizens enjoy. The founders, for better or worse, designed our system of government so that only things with a broad consensus of support can get done. Call me optimistic, but for cannabis, it seems to be only a matter of time.

Bob Bouvatte is an attorney with Conroy Simberg, P.A. in Hollywood, FL. His practice centers on commercial & real estate litigation, intellectual property and cannabis law.