The rapidly growing cannabis industry has a complicated relationship with the competing retail sector often described with a loaded term: the Black Market.
“Black Market” is a reference to exchanges where seller and buyer deal in illegal goods and/or avoid taxes and regulations by conducting their business “in the shadows,” hence “black.” It’s also an example where “black” is used to denigrate the subject (black sheep, black mark) by applying negative attributes, as well as an example of subtle racism. The preferred term is the “unregulated marketplace” (UM).
Due to the ongoing situation with vaping-related lung illnesses and deaths, the UM is under intense scrutiny. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced, the vast majority of the vape cartridges that caused health issues for users came from the UM. Lack of testing and producers driven by profit over safety are an ugly truth of purchasing outside the regulated system.
There are some unpleasant aspects to the UM, but they were present long before regulated programs. And they’ll continue to exist and, in some markets, thrive. In California, for every dollar spent in the regulated market, three are spent in the UM. This isn’t welcome news to those who obtained their cannabis business licenses, pay exorbitant taxes, and deal with myriad challenges not imposed on any other industry in the world. So why are people still scoring their ’dro in the... shaddros? (Wait. Come back.)
Price: Without being burdened by the costs of licensing and operating a business, products are available for lower prices, and without taxes, which can be up to 30 or 40 percent. The exit bag is a Ziploc, testing means you smoked a joint with the grower, and the savings are yours!
Convenience: Cities and municipalities that have banned the production and sale of cannabis can create “dispensary deserts,” leaving residents with the sole legal option of travelling hundreds of miles to the nearest licensed dispensary. California has a mere 591 licensed dispensaries as of September 2019, which means over 70 percent of the state is such a desert.
Potency: For some edible consumers, a high tolerance level can make potency limits expensive when buying the dose needed to address the effects of chemotherapy or chronic pain management. Illicitly acquired cannabis butter allows far more affordable dosing.
Corporate Cannabis Chads Suck: I strongly suspect I don’t share the same values as the execs at MedMen and would rather my cannabis dollars go to a friend who grows weed than to those who advocated against allowing medical MJ patients to grow for themselves in New York. My weed-growing friend also believes that trying to hurt medical MJ patients sucks, so yeah—I’m gonna go ahead and buy their (superior) weed instead. I know exactly where my money is going: their pocket. It’s the essence of supporting small craft producers and shopping within the community.
People of Color and Green: In parts of Los Angeles, many of the unregulated dispensaries are in neighborhoods populated by people of color, a segment of the population disproportionately impacted by the War on Drugs. According to one report, only six of the nearly 200 medical dispensaries in LA are Black-owned, and the city’s Social Equity Program, meant to offer priority application processing for Black entrepreneurs looking to open a dispensary, has been beset by problems and long waiting lists. With all those hurdles in place, accessing cannabis through someone in the neighborhood starts to make more sense.
Respect the OGs: The adult use program is built upon the back of the medical program, and both programs are born from the suffering of the UM. This was the original “cannabis industry” and didn’t come with multi-million dollar golden parachutes that modern cannabis CEOs award themselves. It did come with the constant threat of arrest, jail time, or worse for the “crime” of something that is now enriching people like John Boehner. The people who smuggled, sweated, and struggled deserve as much enrichment as he does, to say the least.
There are far more benefits than drawbacks to purchasing tested products from a licensed dispensary, but doing otherwise shouldn’t be viewed as a failing. The best way to reduce or eliminate the UM is to welcome its members into the fold with amnesty, licensing support, and other programs. There’s room for us all.