The mothers room at PharmaCann's Dwight, Illinois cultivation facility. Credit: Mike Fourcher / Grown In

Passage of the Illinois Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act two years ago was a wake up call for many Midwesterners.

Canna-curious professionals like me got the green light from a state with a global metropolis to dive into one of the fastest-growing and most interesting industries to emerge in the 21st Century. 

What started as a legally precarious and shadowy industry in Colorado, California and the Pacific Northwest decades earlier is now firmly manifesting eastward.  

Earlier, in the spring of 2019, marijuana consumption was becoming mainstream for medical card Michiganders began growing and purchasing the plant from licensed retailers a decade earlier. The state opened up adult-use sales later that year.

The Illinois medical market was five years old, with a small group of operators controlling what was poised to become a multibillion dollar program. 

Embryonic medical marijuana markets in Missouri, Ohio, Minnesota, and other Midwest states signaled wider legal and social acceptance of cannabis consumption and commerce in America’s heartland. 

All Pot Politics Remain Local

While 2021 began with hopes for federal banking and industry normalization, today plant-touching operators are beholden to state and municipal regulations. Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri have completely different regulatory frameworks, licensing restrictions, and economic incentives for operators. 

While it’s easier to obtain licensure to operate a cannabis company in Michigan than in most Midwest states, it’s harder to make lots of money. Uncapped competition has spooked most multistate operators from entering the market. The state’s licensing laws allow cities like Detroit and Grand Rapids to create their own problematic licensing systems.

Missouri’s still months-old medical program sometimes doesn’t have enough supply to fill the demand of over 100,000 medical patients. While it takes time for all new markets to produce adequate supply, capital-intensive cultivation build-outs are constrained by local ownership requirements. Meanwhile, nextdoor neighbor Oklahoma is on the verge of becoming a one billion dollar market with thousands of licensed retailers. 

The biggest regional industry story of the year may transpire in Illinois in the coming months, as the state’s expansion of social equity licenses to sell cannabis finally appears to be imminent. While a KPMG-managed scoring process for social equity dispensary applications in 2020 was fraught with inattention and inconsistencies, the progressive legislature’s intentions are getting another shot at fruition. We shall see.  

Industry Inequities 

As of late 2020, less than two percent of Illinois dispensary ownership was Black or Latino, according to a State of Illinois report leaked earlier this year. 

The national industry remains owned, directed, and led by mostly white men.

Social equity licensees in Illinois and elsewhere will enter markets dominated by incumbents who helped write the rules.

Lawmakers who fail to address these economic inequities will have some explaining to do come election season. 

Grass goes “online” 

There are many parallels between today’s cannabis industry and what transpired during the onset of the Internet Era a generation ago. In the Nineties, consumer and business activities shifted from analog or closed-network systems to open and online platforms. 

With cannabis, going “online” means transitioning from what were illegal business practices throughout most of our lifetimes to a regulated industry where compliance is king. 

Humans have imbibed on buds for thousands of years. Locking people up for medical or recreational discovery was not only a failure in policy, but also bad for business.

Although today multiple U.S. states have created billion dollar legal cannabis economies, this pales to hundreds of billions in pent up and potential demand that the spirits, tobacco, and pharmaceutical industries are chomping at the bit to fulfill once the feds prioritize banking normalization. 

Professionalization in the industry coming along slowly

As pot’s stinky stigma dissipates, more professionals who would not have fathomed a career in the industry a decade ago now want in. 

I regularly come across individuals who are making lateral transitions to cannabis-focused professions. These shifts require patience, creativity and a high-tolerance of ambiguity.

For those just beginning to plan their careers, higher education institutions from the Ivy League to community colleges are creating cannabis curricula for everything from the nuances of the 280E tax code to entry-level jobs growing weed in licensed facilities.

Opportunities for women and minorities to advance to leadership positions with most companies in the industry are scarce. This is not only socially lamentable but also bad for business.

Women are the fastest growing consumer demographic of the plant, and no doubt bring that insight into selling the product at scale. Cultural appropriation practiced by many white-owned cannabis companies would benefit greatly from more Black and brown visionaries making decisions in C-suites and boardrooms. 

Socialization returns this summer 

As we reacquaint ourselves with the great unwashed at festivals, rooftop parties, and real-person industry events, most of us who only know each other through Zoom meetings and email newsletters have a lot of real world catching up to do. 

Unsurprisingly, cannabis is a very social industry that brings together folks from all walks of life. Outside the confines of a screen, we can do the real work of standing up an industry for all by getting to know each other more meaningfully and serendipitously. While online learning and networking programs like this Wednesday’s Grown In Cannabis & Capital Summit will persist (limited seats remain for afternoon workshops), there is no replacement for in-person interaction. This is particularly true for industries like cannabis, while in its adolescent stage remains an ever-growing field.

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.