Twenty years ago, only four states passed laws legalizing cannabis for medical use, but today over half the country has some form of legalized weed.
The United States has a fraught history with cannabis. It was legal, then it wasn’t, then it was legal but with a high tax, then it became of the most illegal drugs in the nation. Despite all that, its use has remained relatively common amongst disparate groups of people. For the most part, people used cannabis for fun, but some used it medicinally. In fact, the 1937 tax on cannabis acknowledged a medical use. It was the Nixon-era law that made it fully illegal. Yet, that started to roll back in the late 1990s, when California passed the first medical marijuana law by voter referendum. Now, 20 years later, over half the country has either medical or fully-legal weed.
The official count of states who’ve legalized medicinal marijuana stands at 33, while a full ten states have legalized it for recreational use. While it remains illegal at the federal level, it seems only a matter of time before the Legislature, the Executive branch, or both recognize that the winds have changed in the United States. The one thing that seems most likely to convince them, however, is that legal marijuana is big business. In 2016, the legal marijuana industry made $6.7 billion in sales. In Colorado, the government made so much tax revenue they offered $66 million of it as a refund to taxpayers. (They rejected it, allowing the government to spend the surplus.) With all of this growth (pun slightly intended), it’s only natural that Big Tech started sniffing around these companies.
Cannabis on the Blockchain
At this year’s Marijuana Business Daily Conference, the flowery future of legal weed was on full display. Experts believe that this year’s $13 billion legal cannabis market will more than double to $32 billion over the next five. As this market expands, especially one in a legally gray area, it might be difficult to establish authenticity. Thus, a startup called CannVerify introduced labels for marijuana strains. Growers can scan the label, entering it in the blockchain. Then, when people purchase the product, the label can be verified. Meant to stop counterfeiting marijuana strains, it may just create a black market for labels. The blockchain is best for digital materials and is less secure with items in the real-world. Still, as the market expands and creates room for “luxury” pot, this could be a useful system.
Robo-Trimming the Harvest
When growers harvest cannabis, they have to trim the leaves without harming the flowery buds. These buds are fragile, thus human workers are often employed to ensure they aren’t destroyed. Yet, Bloom Automation believes it successfully employed machine learning to develop an artificial intelligence that can identify leaves from buds. This AI controls a robot to do the trimming. The engineers behind this robot believe that if they continue to “train” the AI running the robot, their machines could trim marijuana three times faster than a human. Another company also developed a machine that will identify which crops are ready for harvest. It will even offer suggestions after analyzing data as the plants to grow to improve the yield.
Digital Dosage and the Science of Medical Marijuana
Thanks to its classification as a Schedule I illegal substance, study of marijuana is limited. When it comes to thinks like dosage and gauging the effects of treatments, it can be very case-specific. Still, this is where Big Tech can really help. For example, one company known as InDose is in an early pilot program of a disposable vaporizer for cannabis distillates. The vape pen, as it’s called, contains sensors that detect precise amounts of THC and/or CBD patients get with each individual use. If this technology proves to work as hoped, it could help patients better control their treatments. A startup called Resolve Digital Health developed an even more meticulous sensor system in its inhaler product. The data is uploaded to their servers in order to develop some kind of information pool about these treatments.
Big Tech is the future, and their attention to the legal marijuana industry is just another reason to expect the days of prohibition to be over soon.
All the signs point to an eventual federal decriminalization or even full legalization in the near future. It will be a case-study in how a black-market business goes legit in a digital age. Like the days of alcohol prohibition a century ago, marijuana legalization may provide a laboratory for other solutions to deal with other illegal drugs. Some states maintain a monopoly on alcohol, which leads to reduced usage among adults and teenagers.
The same could be done for legal marijuana market in some states, giving them tight control over the supply and demand. A version of this approach might even be taken with drugs that pose public health risks. Ultimately, the only way to marginalize the black-market is to make the free market more appealing. As the restrictions on this product lighten or tighten as governments see fit, its an industry that will need the help of Big Tech to work within their defined spaces.
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