The Future of Cannabis in America

Lessons learned, what to know, and unintended consequences we are learning about in the legal states.

by Todd Mitchem

Is your state contemplating the legalization of cannabis, either medically, recreationally or both?  Perhaps your state has already pushed ahead with this effort and is now ready to build a regulatory framework to allow for businesses that will bring products to consumers?  You may even live in one of the 24 states where medical cannabis is now legal or one of the four (and the District of Columbia) that allow for some form of recreational use.  If you are like most Americans (57% at last poll) you believe that cannabis should be legal, at least medically.  But, like most Americans, you might still be confused about what a country with legalized cannabis will mean to your daily life.  Your concerns about teenage consumption, your own consumption, your co-workers, etc. could be going unanswered.  No doubt you hear a constant barrage of all the good that cannabis does, both to the body and to tax revenue, but who is answering your questions about the long-term societal impact?  Until now, not many people.  What will it change and how will you be impacted?  Will it be the cure-all we hear about or a path to a nation of burnouts?  The answers are as complicated as the plant itself.

A little over ten years ago the main way you bought marijuana was from a “guy” or “gal” that you, or someone you know, knew.  It was a shady deal at best and in the end you ended up with a “bag of weed” that hopefully was good.  Sometimes it was and sometimes that bag was filled with a slew of seed-filled garbage.  Most people were not thinking of cannabis as a form of pain relief or elixir at all.  Instead it was used as a smokable or an edible that you made at home.  It was a drug to most Americans and we fought it hard. We even had a “war” declared against it, just like the alcohol prohibition of the 20’s and 30’s.  The war on weed brought huge budgets for the DEA and massive profits for the many illegal operators, mafia, and cartels.  That is all changing, but we are foolish if we put our heads in the sand and think it’s all good with cannabis. While there are certainly many benefits to the plant on a medical level, we need to now, more than ever, focus on all the moving parts that depict what life for America would look like if we made weed legal nationally.

Over the last ten years we have learned a few things about this plant.  Now in states like Colorado, you can simply walk into a nice dispensary and purchase all sorts of extracts, edibles, flower (the smokable kind) and even coconut infused “weed-lube.”  Celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Woody Harrelson, and Willie Nelson are getting in on the act by investing their money and brands into the space.  Yes times are changing.  We are also seeing more and more doctors, professionals, athletes and even government officials speaking out about the potential benefits of legal cannabis, at least in medical form.  My own mother has been utilizing this plant as an edible for nearly seven years and her cancer (diagnosed as terminal with only 6 months to live) has been completely eradicated.  So we have learned that cannabis does have enormous potential for the relief of many medical conditions.  That is a good thing, especially for people like my mother, but with this success has also come controversy. 

Todd Mitchem joins other regulators from western states and the Attorney General of Rhode Island in a forum discussing unintended consequences of a legal cannabis industry.

Todd Mitchem joins other regulators from western states and the Attorney General of Rhode Island in a forum discussing unintended consequences of a legal cannabis industry.

What we are seeing in the many western states where cannabis is legal is a wide variety of cannabis companies.  Some are working hard to raise the bar, create child-resistant packaging, and even educate consumers.  Others are working just as hard fighting with municipalities, arguing for less and less regulations, and even spraying plants with dangerous pesticides—and then playing victim when caught.  The result is that in the last ten years—even with all the hard work of the industry, consumers, and government officials—the cannabis industry still has much work to do.  We are starting down the path of a world with legal cannabis and yet the cannabis industry remains, in large part a fragmented industry where the best operators, the ones I introduce to top government officials, are often drowned out by the ones that want to break the rules in the name of profit.   Much of the industry is deaf when it comes to listening to consumers—that’s you.  There is much work to be done if this industry is to grow with legalization so that you, the consumer, can be given a dependable and safe product.  As a consumer, a cannabis industry professional, and someone who has worked inside some of the top non-cannabis brands in the world, I see potential with the cannabis industry.  I see and interact with some amazing companies that want to set the bar to a new height.  It is my firmly held belief that as marijuana is made more legal around the US and Canada, we will see more and more of these positive influencing players emerge. 

However this article is not about the advocacy of legal cannabis.  While I believe that cannabis will be made legal or at least de-scheduled on a national level in the next 12-24 months, this article is not about that.  What I wanted to talk about are the same things I have been speaking to the nation’s regulators, Attorneys General and industry about for nearly three years.  I want you, the current or potential future cannabis consumer, to understand that while cannabis may be made legal all over the US, we need to be careful about the speed, the education, and the unintended consequences of allowing the entire adult population access to this plant all at once.  We need to hand the research over to real scientists so that we can fully understand what this plant can and cannot do, how to consume it safely, what it actually does to us and our bodies, how it affects us at work and more.  While I firmly believe cannabis can do amazing things for us all, I as a consumer want the research, the quality standards and the best products available.

Discussing raising standards across the industry with Attorney General Harris from California.

Discussing raising standards across the industry with Attorney General Harris from California.

I have been in this industry for nearly four years now.  I have worked with or built some of the top brands in the space.  So I don’t want you to think I am some naysayer on the sidelines poking at the potential of this amazing plant.  I also don’t want you to think I am so biased that I demand its legality at all costs.  Instead, see me as a resource for reason.  Before I came into the cannabis industry, I worked with major brands all over the world.  What I can tell you is that companies like Starbucks, UPS, FedEx, and others are not prepared for a world with legal weed.  Your family is not prepared.  You are not prepared.  You need to understand the points in this article so that you understand what will change in your personal world when this plant becomes legal.  The irony in the emerging cannabis industry is that it is moving and growing at blinding speed, impacting millions and millions of consumers, yet no one is talking about all the changes it will bring to the consumers on a personal level.  What you mainly hear is that “it is all good.” 

Granted, much of the news is good news.  As an example, in states where cannabis is legal, opiate overdose is down nearly 25%. I am here to initiate intelligent caution and deeper conversation as we all embark on this journey.  To put things in perspective: a single city can spend over a year contemplating building one overpass that will only impact a small number of people. However, cannabis legalization is moving at a breakneck speed and not at all addressing the impact to science, HR, teens, new consumers, and the overall societal impact on a nation. This is why we need to address these issues now so we can forge a path on which all consumers can safely embark.

As I go out and speak to groups of businesses, HR professionals, government officials and the countless mainstream companies looking to enter the new world of cannabis, I am the bridge between mainstream logic and a new industry that could give us one of the most important new movements around this plant. From the conversations I have had with mainstream brands that will enter into this industry when the time is right, they are ready to implement standards, follow FDA protocols, and raise the bar.

Below are some of the unintended concerns and consequences we all need to seriously consider, as cannabis is made legal all around the United States.

When a cannabis company in your state is stopped for the use of pesticides and/or fungicides, you should speak up so that you can advocate for strict use of these pesticides until science can back up the claims that they are “safe.”

1)    Pesticides – In 2015, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington states fought tough battles against local cannabis companies to stop the use of pesticides and fungicides.  In Colorado, 40 recalls, due to some form of pesticide abuse, were issued that stopped companies in their tracks.  Of course, some companies complied with the laws and worked to change their use of these harmful unproven chemicals, but others fought against the testing and implementation of an important consumer protection concern.  Two companies actually sued or threatened to sue the City of Denver over the issue.  What we did not hear in large part, that concerned me the most, was the voice of the consumer.  I sat in on many city meetings where the industry argued and argued with no real solutions.  As a consumer, it was upsetting to watch.  But what you need to know is that this is not really any one company or government agency’s fault.  This pesticide problem is a national problem.  Why?  Since cannabis is still a Schedule 1 drug according to the federal government, the FDA, EPA, OSHA and other federal government departments, cannot for the most part, give advice or issue guidance that is uniform across the nation.  So each state is left to its own devices with regard to chemicals.  Colorado and Oregon made a zero tolerance policy, which I believe was prudent.  If we don’t know the safety threshold for something, we should stop using it until we do know.

What you need to know: Pesticides in small quantities can be found on most foods you buy every day.  That means you are constantly ingesting them.  However, until now, we have not really discussed or researched what these chemicals will do to your body when extracted and concentrated (as in the case of cannabis oil) over the long term.  We also do not know what they will do to your body when consumed by smoking, in edibles, or other consumption methods. 

Why you need to know about pesticides: When a cannabis company in your state is stopped for the use of pesticides and/or fungicides, you should speak up so that you can advocate for strict use of these pesticides until science can back up the claims that they are “safe.” As a consumer, you have a voice in this debate for your own protection, because no one else can protect your personal health but you.

I am sure this article will be met with criticism from the industry I love. I’m ok with that.

2)    Talking to kids – I am a dad.  My fiancé and I have three amazing kids aged 12, 10, and 8.  They are curious about everything and they are around their dad, who has been involved in the cannabis industry for nearly four years.  Because I have talked to them and explained about this plant, they know more than most cannabis consuming adults.  They understand what cannabis is, what it does to your body, why people use it and what consumable forms it comes in. In 2014, I even implemented a policy:  if they are at someone else’s house, our kids are required to ask an adult if the cookie, brownie or candy they have just been given is “medicated.”  That is the new reality when you live in a state like Colorado where cannabis is legal.  Many people who are moving legalization forward will tell you confidently, “Cannabis won’t kill your kids even if accidentally ingested.”  While I believe this to be true, I don’t want our kids to ingest cannabis accidentally, and as a parent I have taken every precaution to make sure that it doesn’t happen. 

Small Kids: For starters, accidental ingestion is real.  In 2014, the Denver Post reported that accidental ingestion among kids was up and that most of the children admitted were between 3 and 7 years old. What is most concerning as a parent is that, if your child accidentally consumes cannabis, they will become disoriented and scared.  After all they are being unknowingly altered against their will.  If this happens when they are alone or playing, they could fall, wander into the street or endanger themselves in some other way.  Now, I am not saying we all need to freak out and panic.  Instead we need a real dialogue with kids about cannabis.  What it is, how it works and what it does to your body.  For the most part, cannabis is for adults.  The one exception is medically under the supervision of a doctor.  However, for the most part and for the purposes of your discussions, it is for adults only. 

Teens - Cannabis is certainly less harmful than other things teens can do to or put in their bodies.  In fact, while I don’t want them doing either, if I had to choose between my teen kids someday drinking alcohol or consuming cannabis on the weekends, I would choose cannabis every time.  That doesn’t mean, however, I want them to consume it before school, during school, at homework time or all the time.  This is where, as a parent, you must open a dialogue about the plant.  “Is it safer than booze? YES. Is it safer than heroin? YES. Should you consume it every day, all day or before class? NO. Should you consume for fun before you are 21? NO.”  Science is still working on the real data about how cannabis impacts young minds with frequent use so we should not be guessing either.  If your teen consumes weed before school in mass quantity they won’t perform well.  That goes for all of us.  There is a reason why cannabis companies do not allow weed consumption during work hours in large quantity.  They would not be very productive.1

What you need to know: The bottom line, and one consequence I feel could be good for us all, is that with national legalization of cannabis you, as a parent, get a chance to educate yourself and to educate your child about it.  You get to talk to your kids openly about drugs, all substances and how to consume in a smart way.

3)    Unintended consequences for HR policy – We have a huge problem with impairment in our society, and not just related to marijuana.  For example, earlier this year a German train conductor, who was controlling two trains when they collided and killed 11 people, was distracted by a game he was playing on his mobile phone shortly before the crash.  A study from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention worked out the economic impact of excessive drinking in the US, finding that it costs $249B when alcohol-related crime and healthcare are factored in.  This is a staggering number for any country to look at, but alcohol and distracted phone use are only the beginning of a much larger debate looming for the HR world. 

We can’t just wait for the media to educate us, we need the industry to also prepare for consumer safety.

With increased use of prescription medication, sleeping aids and the like, we are becoming more and more distracted at work in all types of careers.  And now we are adding another element, marijuana.  I am in no way suggesting that booze compares to cannabis.  In fact, I would argue that if someone consumed a large amount of cannabis the night before work, and avoided alcohol, they would perform well the next day, unlike if they had been drunk the prior evening.  What I am suggesting is that cannabis is new to the majority of Americans and it is naive to think that an entire workforce could start to use a substance new to them and hope to understand how to moderate consumption and when to properly use it.

As a person who spent over ten years working to develop leaders in many of the world’s top companies, I can tell you that HR concerns over the use of cannabis are real.  When will people be allowed to consume?  How much? When can a UPS driver consume?  Who is liable if a worker consumes cannabis for medical reasons and then crashes a company vehicle? 

The more important issue around any type of impairment is when and how to test for it.  I have written other blogs about this topic and feel we need to rethink the way we evaluate all employees for impairment.  But as cannabis becomes legal around the US, a new, honest and open dialogue will need to occur with senior leaders, doctors, HR professionals, and the like.  We can’t ignore that the legal framework for cannabis will spark a long debate about impairment.  If you are an employee, leader or you work as an HR professional, you will be dealing with this issue.

What you need to know: At the end of the day, cannabis will be legal.  This means we, as professionals, need to become educated on consumption, tolerance, levels for THC and more.  I envision that large companies who enter the arena of cannabis suppliers, such as Pfizer, RJ Reynolds and the like, will be very good at educating the public and no doubt will address these issues in their own companies.  The current cannabis industry, in my opinion, has done a poor job of this.  Luckily I also see some new up and coming companies led by very responsible business owners who feel the same as I do.  They see the industry evolving beyond awards shows and pats on the backs from product awards and envision a new industry being born that will work more like many other large industries today.  Again, you as the consumer need to speak up.  Voice your concerns and demand that companies in the cannabis industry educate you.

4)    What you need to know about consumption - Chances are if you are an adult above the age of 21, you have experienced your fair share of hangovers and drinking experiences.  The older you get the more you are able to understand what different types of alcohol will do to you and your body.  More importantly, you hopefully begin to understand when you should and should not drive.  Well, now imagine if we suddenly reset the entire US adult population and the majority of adults had never attempted to utilize alcohol.  What would happen that first day, week, month and year?

As we begin the steps toward a national legal cannabis reality, we must take our time when it comes to consumption.  Just this past 4/20 celebration, there were multiple reports of singers, rappers and comedians simply not showing up for their scheduled performances because they had over-consumed.  What was upsetting to me was not that these incidences happened, but rather that they signaled a larger, looming issue around consumption.  It’s funny to some if a comedian (or twin comedians) don’t show up for a performance.  NO ONE gets hurt and we all have a laugh.  However, some people who took time off from their normal daily lives (and maybe their job), got a baby sitter in many cases, planned for the performance, paid their fee and built anticipation around it, did not think it was at all funny.  They were angry. 

Now imagine if we all have access to the most potent forms of cannabis available.  What if, for her first cannabis experience, a mother of four eats a seemingly harmless edible an hour before school pickup?  Since edibles enter the body through the stomach and then the liver, the effects can take over an hour to be felt.  That means she could be driving her children just as her “high” kicks in.  Is this safe?  Did she know this could happen?  Is it her fault?  The answers are no.  In fact, it could be terribly dangerous.  She most likely had no idea it could happen, and the industry should get better at education, labeling, and overall advocacy for consumer safety.

Let’s say (as in the case of a rapper who recently completely missed his concert because he was too high) that you, as a leader of your company, decide to consume cannabis prior to a critical work meeting.  You don’t realize that the form of extract you just vaped was as strong as it was.  You consume and you head into your meeting.  Within a few minutes you are high, really high, and now you either sit somewhere missing your meeting or, at the very least, perform horribly.  We can’t just wait for the media to educate us, we need the industry to also prepare for consumer safety.

Todd's mother consumed cannabis nightly in the form of a muffin she made at home.  She was careful about how much she consumed each time.

Todd's mother consumed cannabis nightly in the form of a muffin she made at home.  She was careful about how much she consumed each time.

The good news is that we CAN consume cannabis and do so with informed intelligence.  You can have a wonderful weekend of proper consumption.  You can mitigate your pain from a backache with the proper delivery method and dose.  You can relieve your PTSD symptoms with the right dose of cannabis and still function in society.  The attention then needs to turn from “neat, weed is becoming legal,” to a more responsible, “Ok.  How do we do this?” approach.  This mindset needs to come from the industry, consumers and the myriad of large companies coming into the space.  Together, with the added clarity of science, we can find new and positive ways to interact with cannabis as a culture.

Onward! 

I am sure this article will be met with criticism from the industry I love.  I’m ok with that.  I wrote this because as I work with certain companies inside the industry to elevate the cannabis game, I see their potential to work with consumers.  I also wrote this because of the companies I am now talking to who are entering the cannabis industry shortly after federal legalization.  They understand safety and consumer protection.  But I also wrote this because I am a dad, son, consumer and believer in this plant's potential.  I don’t want to see the possibilities of its medical benefit be destroyed by the few who don’t think about long-term impact to people like you and me:  the consumers.

About Todd Mitchem:

You can read Todd's personal journey here and learn why he does this work: LIFE DISRUPTED

Todd Mitchem is an entrepreneur, leader, and disruptor, known for his ability to structure, re-structure, and build companies as well as his talent for leading. For more than 16 years, Todd has coached executives on dynamic leadership, structural excellence and strategic business applications for some of the top brands in the world, including Microsoft, Apple, Starbucks, Anheuser-Busch, H&R Block, Purina and Yum Brands.

He has also aided or founded companies in the cannabis space, with successes such as O.penVAPE, CannaSearch, Mindful, ION and High There!.  Also, Todd has worked with top lawmakers in every state to ensure the industry operates with the highest of standards.

Todd has delivered more than 2,000 presentations globally, and has been featured on every major news outlet in the world.  While being covered on CNN, CNBC, NBC, FOX News, The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Fast Company, and Forbes, Todd has leveraged his unique ability to deliver a message in a way that that is inspiring and life changing. Whether you are the top leader of an industry or attend one of Todd’s presentations for your own motivation, be assured that you will leave with lessons that you can immediately apply to your life.