When it comes to cannabis, 2017 was a much better year than anyone was expecting. Back in January, stoners and pot moguls alike were super paranoid about incoming Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his plans to shut down legal weed businesses from coast to coast. After a decade of steady progress on marijuana legalization – with about 90 percent of the country now supporting medical use and eight states having legalized recreational use – was the entire movement going to come crashing down?
A year later, almost no one believes there will be a federal crackdown on the entire cannabis industry. State-legal pot markets seem poised to match or exceed the value of black market pot by 2020. Sessions has admitted that marijuana is not as dangerous as heroin, and his tension with Trump is common knowledge. With the biggest state in the country about to begin recreational sales, and more and more politicians enviously eyeing the tax revenue coming out of places like Colorado and Oregon, legal pot is clearly here to stay. So what kinds of developments can we expect in the weed world for 2018?
The first legal marijuana lounges
Let's start with some great news: there are totally going to be legal marijuana lounges in the United States before the end of 2018! The biggest question is which city will get one open first: Las Vegas, West Hollywood, Boston or Denver. Considering nothing in Massachusetts is quite final yet, the smart money is on Denver, which actually passed a ballot initiative allowing licensed consumption spaces for marijuana back in 2016 but has had a fair amount of trouble implementing the law. You won't be allowed to smoke, you have to bring your own cannabis, and you have to sign a document saying you won't drive yourself home, but there's a good chance the country's first legal weed lounge will be in the capital of Colorado. Right now the front-runners for who might open first are a café called The Coffee Joint and a vape bar with an arcade called… wait for it… Vape and Play.
If you're looking a pot hotspot where you can actually, you know, smoke pot, you might want to hold out for Vegas. "I think we'll have an ordinance voted on and approved by late March or early April," says former Nevada legalization campaign manager and current weed lobbyist Scot Rutledge. "I don't know that they'll be open by 4/20, but they should be open by the one year anniversary of recreational sales" – meaning by July. Sadly, the first Vegas pot lounges won't be on the Strip, which is technically not in the city of Las Vegas, but they'll be a short Lyft ride away and you'll be able to smoke. Huzzah!
A few hours to the west, several cities in California have expressed interest in allowing cannabis social spaces, including West Hollywood, Palm Springs, San Francisco and Oakland. Advocate and aspiring lounge owner Jackie Subeck says the first ones will likely open their doors in West Hollywood this fall – including some spots where you will be allowed to buy pot on site and then smoke or vape it, just like a bar. "There's also going to be standalone lounges where you can't smoke or vape but you can buy infused products, like a bakery, or a spa with cannabis treatments," Subeck says.
Confusion and a "bloodbath" in California
Even though California will finally begin allowing the sale of recreational marijuana on January 1st, 2018, a lot of people are very nervous about how that is going to go. The state has had a largely unsupervised medical cannabis program in place since 1996 and now is trying to impose a strict regulatory regime on an enormous population of entrepreneurs and criminals, many of whom have never followed rules before.
"Look at what happened here for the last 20 years. It was anarchy," says Lord Jones founder and CEO Rob Rosenheck, whose posh weed-infused chocolates and lotions have become a celebrity favorite. "I think it will be a sloppy, chaotic, rough-and-tumble transition that will take 12 to 24 months to work itself out."
Multiple people who I spoke with used the term "bloodbath" to describe the number of weed businesses they believe will fail.
"You can't afford to suck," says Jeremy Plumb, director of production science at the marijuana growing company Prūf Cultivar and the co-founder of Farma, one of Portland, Oregon's most successful dispensaries. "There will be a massive oversupply in California, and the only people that will survive are either the ones that are super affluent and able to take every blow, or the ones that are really doing something with care and an unbelievable depth of skill."
Of course, there is another option for California weed businesses that can't cut it in the legal market: stay underground and ship their products out of state.
"The key word in 2018 is enforcement," says Jason Pinsky, the cannabis producer on Viceland's Bong Appetit and the chief cannabis advisor at marijuana delivery app Eaze. "In California, 90 percent of the brands that are out there are either going to disappear, or they're going to operate illegally. It's almost like the California weed industry is like an avalanche: to some degree, it's unstoppable. You're going to need to hire a lot more people in the policing business if you want to make it so all of these companies are going to stop doing business."
The end of "indica" and "sativa"
Pot snobs have been complaining about how meaningless the terms "indica" and "sativa" are for years, but I'm starting to think that 2018 will finally be the year when this concept hits the public. According to stoner lore, indica weed produces a sedating "body" high and comes from a plant with shorter, fatter leaves, while sativa weed creates a more uplifting "mind" high and comes from a plant with longer, thinner leaves.
But Plumb, the Portland dispensary co-founder, has been growing cannabis for decades, and finds these terms "absolutely offensive to any intelligent soul. There is no scientific basis where we can parse indica and sativa. You cannot connect morphology, a broad or narrow leaf, to the experience of a chemical phenotype. That's just a fucking massive disconnect."
So what, pray tell, will replace this false classification? How will we describe marijuana strains in the future? Most likely we will begin focusing more on the entire chemical mix of what's in our weed – what's known as the cannabinoid and terpene profile. THC is the most famous cannabinoid, as it's the one that gets you high, but there are several other relevant compounds that can affect how a pot product makes you feel, including the physically relaxing CBD, the sleep-inducing myrcene and the lavender-smelling linalool.
"If you think about weed as a vehicle, THC would be the gas pedal, and the terpenes are your steering wheel," says Pinsky, who has overseen quite a bit of public education regarding the variety of compounds found in cannabis on Bong Appetit.
A few of the people I spoke with suggested that in 2018, more weed businesses will talk about the effects of various compound formulations in tinctures and vape pens, even if the indica/sativa distinction remains part of how dispensaries sell actual pot for another couple of years. Already, well-informed budtenders at high-end pot shops are helping customers make smarter choices that have nothing to do with the false dichotomy of body high versus mind high.
"The tiniest bit of education results in consumers being able to access these distinctive chemotypes, which open the door to novel effects," Plumb says.
Canada takes over the world
In these times of tumult and prohibition, our kindly neighbors to the north are looking more and more savvy. While the federal government in the United States continues to insist that marijuana has absolutely no medical benefit, making commerce exceedingly difficult for anyone working with state-legal weed, Canada began the process of making pot available to all adults as soon as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office in 2015. Now, with millions of marijuana dollars flowing through Canadian stock exchanges and recreational sales set to begin in 2018, the Canadian cannabis industry seems poised to dominate the globe.
"These Canadian companies have access to money that no one in the U.S. has, and they're going to kill us," says Kris Krane, the president and co-founder of cannabis operations and consulting firm 4Front Ventures. "We're ceding the future of the industry to Canada. They're going to buy everybody."
There is a truly mind-boggling amount of weed money flying around up there. The Wall Street Journal reported in September that about half of the trading activity on the Canadian Securities Exchange involved marijuana businesses. That's right: half of all of the trading on the entire exchange was related to pot. Meanwhile, down in the U.S., there's pretty much no chance in hell that a dispensary or grow operation could even get listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
At the same time, Canadian pot companies are starting to acquire pieces of pot companies in other countries, as well as export their product to places like Germany, Brazil and Australia. Then again, not every investor is afraid of Canada.
"Once the U.S. opens up, well, Canadians are nice people, but the U.S. will still dominate," says Evan Eneman, the managing director of Snoop Dogg's weed-focused venture capital fund, Casa Verde Capital. "The top line revenue of a licensed producer in Canada is probably still smaller than a single retail location in Los Angeles."
Economic concerns replace philanthropy
For a long time, marijuana legalization has been funded by progressive billionaires hoping to improve our criminal justice system – people like tech mogul Sean Parker, investor George Soros and the late Peter Lewis, who started Progressive Insurance. But heading into the elections 2018, fundraisers and political operatives say that the way we've been legalizing is changing. Not only are we running out of states that allow the billionaire-funded ballot initiatives that have been the primary driver of legalization, but the billionaires themselves are starting to move on.
"There's definitely a shift. The social justice folks who had funded legalization up to now seem to have moved on to other issues," says David Kaufman, a cannabis consultant who served as director of outreach and statewide partnerships for Proposition 64, the 2016 ballot initiative that legalized recreational use of marijuana in California. "The funders behind Proposition 64 are not necessarily going to be the folks that legalize in any other states."
In the past few years, the political motivations behind marijuana legalization have become increasingly economic, whether it's politicians hoping to rake in the tax revenue or businessmen paying to lobby for an industry worth over $40 billion. In 2015, a group of investors – including former 98 Degrees lead singer Nick Lachey – attempted to legalize marijuana in Ohio such that all legal cannabis would need to be grown on property owned by the people who paid for the ballot initiative.
While that initiative failed, it may have signaled the beginning of the end of legalizing weed with the goal of keeping people out of prison. In the past year, several prominent cannabis activists either retired or left the movement. Now, many are saying that legislative change will need to rely more on money from the pot industry itself, which could tip the nature of legalization toward helping the rich get richer, rather than accounting for the injustices of prohibition.
Possible legalization in New Jersey will mean mounting pressure on New York
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is not about that weed life. He somehow still thinks that pot is a gateway drug, and wouldn't even allow the state's medical marijuana program to include actual bud. But by the end of 2018, he may be rethinking his position.
With recreational marijuana sales set to begin in Massachusetts over the summer and incoming New Jersey governor Phil Murphy poised to legalize pot as quickly as possible, there's a good chance that hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers will soon be doing a sort of reverse commute – driving or hopping a train out to the suburbs to pick up legal weed. Even Connecticut seems close to legalizing, with some predicting the state will turn in the next two years.
"If Jersey and Connecticut both do it through the legislature, New York is surrounded. New York City is surrounded. You could take a PATH train from Manhattan and be in New Jersey in 15 minutes," says Krane, the president of 4Front Ventures. "When sales figures start rolling out from dispensaries in Hoboken and Jersey City, elected officials in New York City are going to throw a fit."
Of course, most insiders say that there is no way New Jersey will begin recreational sales in 2018. The state could expand their existing medical program significantly, but it will likely take another year or two to write and implement a full legalization bill.