California Pumps the Brakes on Banning Flavored Cannabis

Should California crack down on flavored cannabis products? Despite passionate arguments that such products should be banned to protect young people, an advisory committee to the state’s cannabis regulators has voted against recommending such a ban. 

On Oct. 30, the California Bureau of Cannabis Control’s advisory committee gathered virtually to discuss the possible ban on flavored inhalable and combustible cannabis products, as well as to assess the state’s track and trace system and to weigh the appointment of a science panel to review the available research on highly potent cannabis.

The hotly debated agenda item regarding flavored cannabis was brought forward by committee member Timmen Cermak, who has written guidelines on how to address and tackle youth substance abuse for the California Society of Addiction Medicine. And while the debate was civil, both sides expressed strong convictions. 

One sticking point was whether flavored cannabis products are on a par with flavored  tobacco vaping products, which have been widely characterized by researchers and experts as fueling a health crisis among children, who are disproportionately drawn to them. The controversy over flavored tobacco resulted in California banning such products from being sold and advertised in August of last year.

Cermak authored his motion with the flavored tobacco debate in mind. It is time, he said, “for us to take seriously whether or not we’re going to provide the same level of protection and caution regarding cannabis that we provide to tobacco.” He added, “To ignore the tobacco data is really to participate in a willful ignorance.”

Others at the meeting agreed.

“Youth vaping doubled between 2017 and 2018 in lockstep for both tobacco and THC, thanks to the same massively successful flavoring and marketing strategies, which were also in lockstep,” said Lynn Silver of the Public Health Institute, which collaborated with Cermak in bringing forth the motion to recommend regulating flavored cannabis, during a public comments section. “We can no longer close our eyes to this.”

However, critics of the motion argue that a false equivalence was being drawn between tobacco and cannabis. “Cannabis is not tobacco. Cannabis is not alcohol. Cannabis does not have the decades of demonstrated harms that both those products have,” argued Max Mikalonis, a cannabis industry consultant and advocate. “And the consumption of cannabis is not inherently bad.” He also argued that young people “are not acquiring these products in the legal market or can’t buy them legally. They can’t enter a licensed retailer and they can’t afford them with the high taxes.”

Committee member Matt Rahn wasn’t convinced there is enough data to justify a ban, which he said is “a last resort in many cases.”

A continuous theme during the debate was the illicit market. Opponents of the proposal contend that new regulation on flavored products would push consumers to the black market—a serious dilemma, if it were to occur, they argued, considering a majority of the cannabis in the state is already circulating in the illicit market.

“Public health needs to stop with the bans and the Reefer Madness,” said Jackie Subeck, a cannabis business owner based in West Hollywood. “We all know bans don’t work.”

Notably, a research scientist from the Public Health Institute turned the illicit market argument on its head by claiming that outlawing flavored inhalable and combustible cannabis would actually help the regulated market compete against the black market. Alisa Padon, the researcher, said if such products were banned, cities and counties in California who haven’t permitted cannabis sales may be open to it if they feel a regulated market has been made safer for children.

Despite some passionate defense of the motion, it failed to pass. The committee voted No, eight to three, with one abstention.

Meanwhile the committee decided that two other major items on the agenda—high potency cannabis, and the state of California’s system for monitoring cannabis products from seed to sale—deserved further study.

On the subject of highly potent cannabis, the question on the table was whether the committee should recommend that California’s Department of Public Health request that the University of California President’s Office form an expert panel to review the scientific literature examining highly potent cannabis and its health effects. After its review, the panel would present its findings and its policy recommendations to “cannabis regulatory agencies and to the public.”

Opponents of the motion argued that US literature on the topic is limited, flawed, and even negatively biased towards high-THC products.

Rand Martin, a representative for a cannabis dispensary, made clear that his organization did not oppose research itself but stood against reviewing literature he characterized as scant. Martin said during public comments that he feared that policy would be formed based on the inadequate literature.

Mikalonis, the cannabis industry consultant, while not against the motion, warned against going down a path of ill-informed regulations that would set caps on high-THC products and unintentionally bolster the illicit market.

But in defense of the motion, committee member Kristin Lynch said, “This motion is very clear, which is, we should be guided by science, the same way we are with climate change, or with vaccines.” 

When introducing the motion, Cermak referred to an open letter signed by forty experts who warned of the potential harm of highly potent cannabis, which they said included psychosis, addiction, chronic vomiting, and depression. The signatories, a range of academia experts from public health and psychology, endorsed the motion.

Despite the insistence by proponents that the science is to be trusted, Avis Bulbulyan, a member of the committee, was skeptical. The literature already out there is biased, he argued, and has contributed to the war on drugs and cannabis prohibition. Defenders of the motion argued that international literature, which they say is more reliable, would also be examined by the task force.

Despite his grievance, Bulbulyan joined a unanimous vote to approve the motion.

The committee determined that another item on the agenda needed further study—the state’s partnership with Metrc, which serves as  California’s cannabis track-and-trace system that monitors cannabis products from seed to sale. A focal point of the discussion was the functionality of the system’s application programming interface, which allows it to be compatible with third party track-and-trace systems.

Lewis Koski, the Chief Operating Officer of Metrc, outlined improvements and updates of the system, including bug fixes, user manual updates, YouTube tutorial videos, and other improvements.

Using the analogy of toilet paper, Koski pointed out how consumer purchase of cannabis skyrocketed early on during the pandemic. That, plus the summertime and holidays like 420, contributed to a spike in traffic on Metrc. Such traffic led to an uptick in system issues like lags. He expressed confidence that Metrc was fixing its problems, saying that there were “zero performance related calls from licensees” as of the morning of his presentation.

Despite Koski’s optimism, not all the participants in the meeting were persuaded. 

“Metrc has a long way to go to scale,” said Cole Johnson of Blackbird, a cannabis services and software corporation. “And the measures that are being taken right now are solely putting duct tape on a much larger problem that needs to be addressed at the core of the issue, not per bug that’s reported.”

At the conclusion of the discussion, the committee made the impromptu decision to form a subcommittee dedicated to studying the tracking system and how to improve it, which passed unanimously, drawing approval from several audience members. The new subcommittee will likely have its first meeting in 2021.

More California Pumps the Brakes on Banning Flavored Cannabis