The cannabis industry in the U.S. made serious progress in 2019, which isn’t too shabby considering the feds still consider it illegal. Hemp and CBD regulation was a huge topic this year. Along with additional states legalizing medical and recreational cannabis and the SAFE Banking Act, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released interim hemp regulations, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) held the very first public hearing on CBD.
Here’s a look at six key cannabis industry moments of 2019.
1. Hemp standardized
Once the 2018 Farm Bill officially legalized hemp, the rules surrounding it were still vague. Massive development in 2019 was the standardization of hemp through the USDA’s draft of interim regulations for the hemp industry. This movement gave industry stakeholders a reason to look ahead to additional business opportunities.
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) shared a public statement on USDA and FDA regulations in late October 2019: “I’ve long said that if you can make and sell hemp products in America, you should be able to grow hemp in America. Congress passed my bipartisan Hemp Farming Act, and now federal regulations must be updated to reflect hemp’s legal status. The USDA interim rule is an important first step to ending the uncertainty for farmers, and I now look forward to reviewing the rule and working with the USDA and FDA to ensure farmers in Oregon and nationwide can fully realize this crop’s economic job-creating potential.”
2. States legalize
Cannabis legalization continued at a fast clip in 2019, for both medical and recreational use.
Illinois: While sales launch January 1, 2020, Illinois legalized adult-use recreational cannabis officially in 2019 through the Cannabis Regulation and Tax Act (CRTA), a comprehensive measure that Governor J.B. Pritzker signed into law on June 25.
Michigan: While supply is limited and the industry is just kicking off legalization at the tail end of 2019, the turnaround time from signed legislation to sales was swift. Michigan regulators announced in November that retail sales would start December 1, despite a small number of licenses issued. Look for the industry to find its footing in 2020 as supplies build-up and more retailers open for business.
Louisiana: The state entered the legal, medical marijuana marketplace in August with nine licensed pharmacies available to patients. Patients with a qualifying medical condition get a recommendation for medical marijuana from a certified physician. Patients then purchase their medical marijuana products from a licensed pharmacy, where cannabis-containing products are treated and dispensed the same way as Schedule II narcotics (like OxyContin).
Ohio: Patients eagerly awaited the launch of the state’s medical marijuana program, huddling together in lines in front of dispensaries before the first day of business on January 16. The fact that only flower was available to patients didn’t diminish their enthusiasm or appreciation for the advent of legal, medical marijuana.
3. FDA involvement
The FDA held the first-ever public hearing on CBD over ten hours in late May to draft guidelines on industry standards and to regulate claims in marketing and on product labels. The FDA received public commentary on CBD from more than 100 speakers who provided testimony on experiences and developments in the industry over the past few years.
4. Banking on it
Congress addressed critical policy reform legislation in 2019, with the House passing the Secure and Fair Enforcement Banking Act (SAFE) in September. The SAFE Banking Act provides security to financial institutions that work with cannabis businesses, shoring up the lack of banking access and services in what is consistently cited as a barrier to business in the industry. Banking regulation marked the first significant floor vote in our nation’s capital on comprehensive cannabis reform legislation, but more work is needed. The Senate will prove to be a more challenging landscape to navigate as it relates to cannabis legislation, and the SAFE Banking Act has yet to reach the Senate floor for a vote. Stay tuned on this one.
5. Health crisis
As summer made its way to fall, reports of vape-related lung illnesses and deaths dominated headlines and rattled the entire cannabis industry. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) studied the incidents and concluded in November that vitamin E acetate in black market vape cartridges was the likely culprit. Meanwhile, in states where cannabis is legal, cartridge sales stalled, and flower sales picked up while federal health officials continued to look at other potential causes of the public health crisis, resulting in patients’ lung injuries.
6. Social equity
Cannabis and social equity was a hot topic in 2019. States where cannabis is legal — including California, Illinois, and Massachusetts — all included social equity provisions as critical components of their respective marijuana legalization parameters.
The House Judiciary Committee approved the Marijuana Opportunity, Reinvestment, and Expungement Act (known as the MORE Act) in November. This historic vote marked the first time a congressional committee approved a piece of legislation meant to end federal marijuana prohibition and ultimately decriminalize cannabis on a national level by striking it from the Controlled Substances Act.