The cannabis market in the U.S. is well-established, and Cannabiz Media is now tracking cannabis programs in 42 states. However, each state has its own rules for their programs, which means all states are not equal in terms of the success and growth of those programs.

The reality is that some states’ marijuana programs are lagging behind. This is true in states that have legalized both medical and adult-use cannabis as well as those that have only legalized medical marijuana. The question many people are asking is why is this happening?

One of the biggest obstacles that causes states’ cannabis programs to lag behind is state regulations, which have far-reaching effects. Let’s take a closer look at some of the ways that regulations directly affect product accessibility, which directly contributes to the success (or failure) of a state’s legal marijuana program.

Six Key State Cannabis Program Growth Limitation Factors

Using data from the Cannabiz Media License Database, several primary factors can be attributed to the growth, breadth, and depth of a state’s cannabis program. If a state is lagging in one of these areas, accessibility will be negatively affected and the growth potential of the program will be limited:

1. Age of Program

The longer legal cannabis (medical and/or recreational) has been available in a state, the larger the legal market in that state is likely to be. This is common sense. A program that has been around for a short time hasn’t had time to grow and mature. For example, the programs in Minnesota and New York are newer than the programs in Washington and Colorado.

Ideally, as a state’s program matures, regulations should allow the program to grow — more licenses will be granted, more conditions will be qualified for medical cannabis, prices will stabilize, accessibility will improve, and the program will have a chance to be successful.

2. Medical Conditions Covered

In Cannabiz Media’s research, four key medical conditions were identified as needing to be covered in order for a state’s cannabis program to have a chance for significant growth. If a state covers all of these conditions, its medical cannabis program has a much greater chance of thriving than a program in a state that covers one, two, three, or none of these conditions.

These four conditions are chronic pain, muscle spasticity, spinal cord injuries, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, the most important condition that must be covered for a state’s medical cannabis program to grow is chronic pain.

3. Taxes

High taxes can make or break a state’s legal cannabis program. This includes taxes that businesses and consumers are required to pay, such as cultivation taxes, excise taxes, sales tax, and more.

California provides one of the best examples of how taxes can significantly limit the success of a state’s legal cannabis program by reducing product accessibility. The problem in the state is so bad that in November 2019, California cannabis industry professionals sent an “SOS” to the state’s leaders urging them to make regulatory changes that would help the legal industry and hurt the illegal industry that continues to thrive in the state. Together, an informal coalition of more than a dozen leading cannabis companies and associations are lobbying the state to make changes that would address three key obstacles: taxes, onerous regulations, and too few licensed cannabis businesses.

4. Local Rules

Rules set by counties, cities, and even neighborhoods can affect the potential growth of a state’s cannabis program. In many states, municipalities are allowed to ban legally licensed cannabis businesses from operating within their borders. For example, fewer than 40% of California’s municipalities have regulations in place to allow legal medical cannabis businesses to operate within their borders and far fewer allow adult-use sales. When this happens, patients and consumers have to travel further to get marijuana products making it less accessible to them.

As a result, consumers might choose to purchase through the black market rather than through the state’s legal cannabis market. Some states have considered allowing statewide marijuana delivery to bypass local rules that limit medical cannabis accessibility to patients who need it, but the fact remains that in many states, local rules can hurt the success of a state’s medical and/or adult-use cannabis program.

5. Program and License Structure

Some states have extreme restrictions related to marijuana business licenses for growing, manufacturing, and dispensing. For example, some states require vertical integration of cannabis operations so a single license holder controls the cannabis from seed to sale. Cannabiz Media refers to these as “stacked licenses” – where a single license holder must control cultivation, processing, and dispensing.

Stacked license structures make it much easier for states to monitor activity in the industry, but the structure also limits competition and market growth. This license structure has caused controversy in multiple states. For example, a Florida court ruled that the state’s requirement for vertical integration is unconstitutional in 2019.

6. Physician Registrations and Dispensary and Retailer Licenses

People need to have access to a product in order to buy it. If they can’t buy it, the market can’t grow. In some states, there are far fewer doctors registered to recommend medical cannabis then in others making it can be difficult for patients to find and visit participating doctors.

Furthermore, some states have licensed very few medical cannabis dispensaries or adult-use retailers, which means patients and consumers might have to drive hours to purchase marijuana products.

To put these numbers into perspective, think of it this way: Minnesota is 87,000 square miles, and the state originally capped the number of medical marijuana dispensary licenses to eight. That meant there was one license for every 10,000+ square miles (if the licenses were evenly spread across the state, which they were not). Fortunately, Minnesota regulators announced in December 2019 that the number of dispensaries would double to 16, but in many other states, the number and locations of dispensaries continues to hinder accessibility.

Bottom-line, in many states, patients and consumers need to travel very far distances to access legal cannabis products. There is no doubt that this reduces sales overall, limits the success of state’s legal programs, and bolsters the black market.

Not All States are Alike

While the six factors discussed in this article directly affect the growth of cannabis industries in many states, they’re not the only factors in play, nor are they impacting every state. This is an industry filled with state-by-state nuances, and it is absolutely safe to say that no two states are alike.

To stay up-to-date on all of these nuances, subscribe to the Cannabiz Media newsletter.

Originally published 9/9/16. Updated 1/3/20.

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