The United States could be one step closer to ending the federal prohibition of cannabis. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer unveiled a draft bill that would remove the plant from the federal list of controlled substances and expunge some federal cannabis-related criminal records. However, a big part of the bill is regulation. And that could resonate for Angelenos as the Board of Supervisors moves towards lifting the local ban on cannabis in unincorporated LA County.
Leafly Senior Editor David Downs talks about cannabis regulation and what consumers can gain if the ban on cannabis is removed.
KCRW: The new federal bill closely resembles the MORE Act, which passed the House but failed to go far in the Senate. What’s the likelihood of it passing this time around?
David Downs: “I'd say it's slim if the Democrats hold on to the House in , and none if the Republicans retake it. You have to remember that legalization is like tipping over a soda machine. You [have] to rock it back and forth a few times before it goes over.”
How would the bill create regulations around cannabis?
“The big regulation is taxation. They're talking about a 10% federal tax on marijuana on top of the local taxes, and then that would step up to 25% over time.
They're talking about descheduling marijuana, which is a big deal. In the words of Joe Biden, it's been a controlled substance since the 70s. In addition to descheduling, we would take away marijuana enforcement from the Drug Enforcement Administration … and put it into the hands of the FDA and a couple other groups like that.
There are a lot of concerns about the heavy-handed nature of enforcement by the FDA and regulation by groups like HHS, especially in states that have already made a lot of progress with regard to regulating marijuana on the local level.”
Following a massive growth in illegal cannabis farms in the high desert, LA County shifted its policy on commercial marijuana production. What could that mean?
“It would mean catching up with the rest of California. … Voters in 2016 in Los Angeles County approved Proposition 64 by a higher margin than the overall state — 59%. They told their leaders through that vote to tax and regulate cannabis and they did not get it.
In 2017, the county officials received a report, saying it's time to tax and regulate and license cannabis in the unincorporated county. The county has not done that, so it's no surprise that they are where they are with lack of access to safe legal products and an unfettered illicit market that cannot be quashed with the tax dollars that comes from that legal market.”
What financial benefits do you think LA County could see from lifting the ban?
“It's in the range of tens of millions of dollars to hundreds of millions of dollars a year, and we've already seen it in neighboring localities. Then you can use that money to do satellite enforcement combined with civil abatement to go after those illegal grows in a way that drug teams never could.
We're seeing that happen in Sonoma County and parts further north. They can use satellite imagery and civil notices saying, ‘Hey, you're out of compliance with water law and zoning law.’ And the fines start at $1,000 or $5,000 a day, and they go every day [until] there's no compliance. Basically the county can seize that property and shut that farm down without having to do a big raid or throw a bunch of people in jail.”
What kind of impact could it have on consumer health?
“We've seen the voters go to the polls and say, ‘We want cannabis that's free of pesticides, we want those labels to be accurate, we want the edibles to be low dose,’ and so on. And that’s for the most part what they're getting with the legal regime. We have testing that is stronger than food in California with regard to cannabis. Your cannabis is cleaner in terms of pesticides than the sort of food you eat. So that has been a success story.
But as the legal market has gotten cleaner, the illicit market has gotten dirtier. What we saw in 2019 and going forward is a variety of actors putting a variety of ingredients in vaporizers that are being inhaled into people's lungs and applied to lung tissue.”
What are some of those negative ingredients that are popping up in unregulated products?
“People really need to stay away from these untested street vapes. California, unfortunately, is awash in them, whether it's from these illegal stores that still operate in some of these areas or from the internet.
We've discovered at Leafly that phytol, which is a cutting agent that's used in vape pens specifically in the illicit market, is probably toxic to human lung health. This group called Canopy in Canada conducted an inhalation toxicology study on rats in 2020 that a Freedom of Information Act request recently disclosed in June of this year. What they found is that phytol — this colorless clear liquid that runs about $100 an ounce that anybody can buy on the internet and start filling vape pens with — causes acute toxicity in the lungs. It causes hemorrhaging or bleeding as well as necrosis, which is when your skin is dying off inside your nasal tract.
Phytol is still legal to put in California vape products as well as in Oregon and the other states because these legal states are just playing catch-up to the kind of innovation and chicanery that is happening in the streets with regard to these disposable vaporizer cartridges. Again, that can be filled with any substance if you're buying it untested.”
Is California moving to regulate phytol?
“We're seeing regulators keep an eye on additives. Right now, you're supposed to disclose the use of phytol in a vape pen. The issue is that the disclosures are weak, and no one's testing for it. It would show up on a label as natural ingredients, artificial ingredients or terpenes. They wouldn't delineate that it's particularly phytol.
The one thing that manufacturers say is keeping the California legal consumer safe, is that consumers want really strong potent vape pens. They want a THC vape cart that tests in the 90s or the 80s [percent]. If they see something in the 70s or the 60s because it's heavily diluted or cut with some other substance, they won't purchase it. That is one protective thing that is ensuring Calfornians’ safety.
But in general, the regulators and consumers are on the backfoot while these vape manufacturers engage in a massive, uncontrolled field trial of cosmetics, food and dietary ingredients.”