THE CANNABIS INDUSTRY: CRITICAL TASKS ON THE ROAD TO LEGALIZATION

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While marijuana is currently prohibited in Texas, it is only a matter of time before medical and recreational use is legalized, as the last Viewpoint series produced by the Baker Institute Drug Policy Program argued. When this happens, it will make the cannabis industry open for business in Texas. As we can see from the experiences of states that have legalized recreational and/or medical cannabis, the industry has strong potential for growth. It also faces significant challenges. The future direction for the marijuana industry is important to consider for entrepreneurs, investors, policymakers and the public. In this Baker Institute Viewpoints series, which runs through Friday, five experts on the marijuana industry examine the question, “What does the future hold for the cannabis industry, in Texas and beyond?” The third commentary follows. Previous entries covered growing pains and challenges in Texas.

The marijuana industry has grown considerably in the last year, facing challenges from the public, legislators and federal prosecutors along the way. However, the industry has many more critical tasks it must overcome on the road to national legalization. The most important issues it must solve are in the following areas: 1) quality assurance, 2) quality control, 3) public safety, 4) public awareness, and 5) regulatory testing standards. Two principles of quality assurance are “fit for purpose” and “right the first time.” “Fit for purpose” means that any product should be suitable for its intended purpose and “right the first time” indicates that mistakes should be eliminated. The industry as it stands has a complete lack of quality assurance. For example, in the case of the exploding cannabis bottles in Washington, while the manufacturers accurately cited yeast by-products as the source of the problem, the public perception could be that these products are not safe, or — even worse — that the industry doesn’t know what it’s doing after all. Quality assurance is key, not only in developing a quality product, but also in developing public confidence in the safety of said products.

While quality assurance attempts to minimize and avoid issues that can lead to product defects, quality control focuses on the testing of products in order to uncover defects. At the current time, the industry lacks proper quality control. Several marijuana businesses are currently facing litigation from the sale of compromised cannabis products. If the marijuana industry doesn’t embrace proper quality control procedures, it could find itself paying huge fines like those paid by large pharmaceutical companies. By adopting basic quality control processes, the industry will be able to examine the quality of all factors involved in the fabrication of cannabis products. Public safety is also essential for developing public confidence in the cannabis industry. Adequate public safety action would ensure that the health of the marijuana industry’s patients and recreational users are protected. For example, patients utilizing medical marijuana in all its various forms must be able to adequately measure their dosage in order to correctly self-medicate. Currently, there is no base standard of dosage within the medical marijuana industry that accounts for variables such as the patient’s height, weight, ethnicity or genetic predisposition. In order for national legalization to occur these public safety issues must be addressed.

Public awareness is also important. It sets the stage for attitudes, behaviors, opinions and activities that characterize the relations between the general public and the marijuana industry. While there are a few strong public awareness campaigns and organizations within the industry, efforts must be increased. The industry cannot expect national legalization to happen when so much of the population’s understanding of the industry is equal to that of the “reefer madness” era and may be easily influenced by opponents of marijuana legalization.

Finally, this young industry lacks a comprehensive regulatory testing standard. This is critical because it allows the industry to function under a consolidated and harmonized set of compliance controls. By adopting these measures the industry will be able to manage compliance effectively. In addition, appropriate regulatory compliance measures will aid in protecting this fledgling industry from future risks such as regulatory scrutiny and unrealistic stakeholder expectations.

The greatest attribute of the cannabis industry is its compassion for its users who are suffering from medical conditions. From cancer to PTSD, this industry strives to promote “quality of life” for the ill. For example, medical marijuana is given to patients daily for the treatment of their diseases, and medical marijuana practitioners, who integrate standard medical care or a homeopathic care approach, argue that their documented and successful treatment of these patients proves medical marijuana’s value and validity. Unfortunately, it is not enough for the members within the industry to proclaim the medicinal benefits of marijuana. Instead, it should be coupled with credible research carried out by independent, reputable research institutions and scientists. Only then can the proven value of medical marijuana withstand the scrutiny of opponents of national legalization.

The lack of appropriate quality assurance, quality control, and regulatory compliance measures that could ensure public safety make the emerging industry — its growers, product manufacturers and dispensaries — vulnerable to litigation and negative public opinion. Multiple lawsuits targeting a new industry are accepted as “growing pains.” However, these lawsuits could severely damage public perceptions. The number of lawsuits against individuals and companies is increasing, as some people have decided to take advantage of the lack of regulation in order to make a quick buck. As the lawsuits pile up, it may become harder to argue for national legalization.

As we move toward national legalization of the marijuana industry it is important to note that this industry — from its growers and dispensaries to its product manufacturers — has the utmost compassion for its patients and recreational users. However, the industry must adopt these measures in order to overcome future challenges. Doing so will not only protect patients and recreational users, but the industry as well.

Dr. Elias Jackson is the co-founder and president of Vyripharm Biopharmaceuticals, a biotechnology firm that develops drugs to target cancer, PTSD, drug addiction and other metabolic diseases. He was previously a professor and research faculty member at the Cardiovascular Research Center at the Yale University School of Medicine, and is a graduate of The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.