Amid the 4/20 hoopla, state’s pot businesses still face challenging future

Washington’s cannabis industry is celebrating several victorious moments this legislative session, benefiting from the changing political landscape nationwide as more states have voted in legalization, making the market more competitive state-to-state.

But as various bills addressing regulatory issues are headed toward ultimate approval, other measures that focused on industry expansion have failed so far to take hold.

The Washington CannaBusiness Association, representing the state’s licensed and regulated cannabis businesses, late last year brought attention to several issues for legislators to consider. Those that won legislative support included reforming criminal penalties to reduce the punishment of unintended sales to minors by budtenders from a felony to a misdemeanor. An intentional sale to a minor would still be a felony.

“This will be helpful in recruiting and retaining good talent,” Vicki Christophersen, the association’s executive director, said Friday in a phone interview with The News Tribune.

“A lot of retailers were telling us that people were afraid to work at their stores,” with the possibility of a felony conviction over a misread ID, Christophersen said.

Other bills that won support included protecting intellectual property of brands, including royalty and licensing agreements. A lot of work also was done to help businesses comply with the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board instead of being issued immediate fines for lesser violations, along with improved education for industry participants.

“We still believe someone who chooses to be regulated and open their books should be treated as a legitimate business, and when they make a mistake, be held accountable,” Christophersen said.

The new framework sets up a consultation program “to help licensees learn how to be in business,” she said, “and to learn what they need to correct.”

Another victory was changes regarding product information and labeling in terms of medical information in line with FDA regulations.

Two issues that didn’t gain traction this year were broader merchandise and CBD sales in state-regulated stores and opening the market for out-of-state investors. Both are viewed by the association as key factors in expanding the industry and allowing it to compete with the growing CBD market that has included new entrants such as Rite Aid.

The merchandise measure might have gotten lost in the shuffle amid the race to get new state hemp regulatory systems in line with Congress’ passage of last year’s farm bill legalizing regulated hemp production.

With changes in the hemp market, Christophersen said, “that presents a challenge to retailers who have invested a lot in their stores. To not be in that market is problematic.”

On the investment piece, “We’ve been working three years trying to modernize this law to access capital,” she said. “We’re not giving up.”

Industry pay comparisons, a spinoff from the investment issue, have become more notable for the disparities among markets.

A recent review of cannabis job pay scales as reported in Marijuana Business Magazine showed differences nationwide and between states.

The report noted that East Coast cannabis companies were drawing workers “from West Coast rivals” with better pay and perks.

Compensation also varied within and between states.

In one of the findings, according to the report, “An experienced trimmer in Colorado can earn about $2,000 more than a trimmer in Washington state over the course of three months.”

By 4/20 next year, as Christophersen pointed out, the cannabis world could look very different for everyone, as Congress grapples with the bipartisan STATES Act, which calls for an end to federal prohibition and allowing states to decide their own policies. Congressional committees are looking at banking reform, medical clinical trials and social justice reform.

Next month, the FDA is holding a public hearing on CBD regulations.

“I’d like to see access to capital and be able to compete in the CBD market, but there’s a lot happening,” she said. “With every year we see this industry and regulations are working. Every year we get more confidence from lawmakers that they can trust us.”

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