Many praise marijuana legalization as the most effective way to wrest from criminals the well-entrenched illegal market they have created over the past few decades. Many praise the regulations that come with legalization for helping to ensure control and transparency over marijuana businesses and their products. Of course not everyone approves of marijuana regulation, especially those who make their money on unregulated marijuana markets. Marijuana cups and competitions thrive on an unregulated cannabis industry and regulations are starting to cause them hard times. As the Seattle PI puts it, new marijuana regulations in Washington have claimed their first “victim,” the Seattle High Times Cannabis Cup.
The High Times Cannabis Cup, and others like it, revolve around events that assess the cannabis and cannabis products submitted to them by local competitors. At their core, these cups are actually big commercial boons for the sponsors who use them to increase their brand recognition and especially for the local marijuana businesses that perform well and can use their good performances to tout their products for months and years down the road. Having the right to label your cannabis products as a “High Times Best In (fill in the blank)” is not an honor to be taken lightly in the marijuana industry where consumers truly do pay attention to such accolades.
So, why no more High Times Cannabis Cups in Seattle? Washington’s passage of SB 5052 prohibits “sampling,” such as that done by Cannabis Cup judges. Even “Bringing Your Own Green” to such an event is also off the table unless you have a license from the state to transfer cannabis to anyone else, either for medical or for adult use.
Medical cannabis in Washington was previously controlled by RCW 69.51A, which allowed qualifying patients to form collective gardens to cultivate and share cannabis among themselves. RCW 69.51A was used for years as a legally dubious vehicle for the commercial cultivating and distributing of cannabis for medical use through collective garden “access points.” Seattle, alone, had over 200 medical cannabis dispensaries at one point. Washington’s old MMJ laws were also used for things like cannabis cups and competitions because nothing in RCW 69.51A prohibited a slew of collective garden members from getting together to “share” and “sample” their cannabis in the context of a competition. This particular loophole allowed for events like the Cannabis Cup to thrive.
Those days are now over under the new era of SB 5052. Sampling of any product for medical or adult use by consumers is illegal and a registered business entity must hold a state-marijuana license to distribute any cannabis whatsoever, making cannabis competitions essentially illegal.
And Washington will most assuredly not be the last state to enact laws that put the brakes on such events.
Laws like RCW 69.51A are quickly going to fall away as states formulate stricter cannabis regulations so as to come within the federal strictures set out in the Cole Memo. The concept of a cannabis cup in states like Nevada, New York, and Illinois is probably not possible under existing medical marijuana laws. Just like Washington, those states maintain strict controls on cannabis for medical use and they want to know at every turn whether those distributing cannabis have a state-issued license to do so. Though states like Oregon and California still maintain little to no state oversight over their medical marijuana programs, it is only a matter of time (probably 2016 for Oregon and 2017 for California) before those two states enact their own strict cannabis regulations that will likely eliminate robust cannabis competitions.
It is unfortunate that cannabis competitions are in danger of extinction. The alcohol industry has all kinds of contests for the best cocktail, beer, and/or spirit and there is no good reason for treating the cannabis industry any differently. Banning cannabis competitions does an immense disservice to cannabis entrepreneurs struggling to forge superior brands and gain recognition for that. It also deprives cannabis consumers of their right to enjoy freely the brands they like at private events.
We hope that states enact specific regulations to carve out exceptions for cannabis competitions. But until that happens the party’s likely over.