Will Big Marijuana Crowd Out the Little Guy?

As more states move to legalize marijuana and seek tax and other economic benefits from the drug, artisanal marijuana growers are being squeezed out. Welcome to the days of Big Marijuana. 

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As more states move to legalize marijuana and seek tax and other economic benefits from the drug, small-scale artisanal marijuana growers are being squeezed out. Welcome to the days of Big Marijuana.

In Washington, where recreational weed sellers will (legally) open up shop later this year, some medical marijuana dispensers fear they'll be driven out of business. The New York Times reports that it has been legal to sell marijuana for medical reasons for several years in the state, but that the market has not been regulated, making it difficult for the state to figure out how to bring them into the fold. The Times  explains:

In the 16 years since medical marijuana became legal [in Washington] an entire ecosystem of neighborhood businesses and cooperative gardens took root, with employees who could direct medical users to just the right strain; there are now hundreds of varieties with names like Blue Healer, Purple Urkle and L.A. Confidential, each with a variety of purported medicinal benefits. Medical users could also start gardens in their backyards and keep large amounts of marijuana at home. It was all very folksy — and virtually unregulated, which the authorities say led to widespread abuses.

EUTERS/Jason Redmond

Hilary Bricken, a Seattle attorney who deals in the marijuana business, told the Times she is telling her medical marijuana dispenser clients to "prepare for the end." Muraco Kyashna-tocha, who runs the Green Buddha dispensary in Seattle, said the legalization of recreational weed will be "disastrous" for her business. Kyashna-tocha, who grew pot for several years before it was legal to do so, is a trusted medical marijuana connoisseur, offering guidance to clients. The New Yorker's Patrick Radden Keefe describes her treatment of weed as akin to a sommelier's treatment of wine:

Thirty cannabis plants stood beneath a canopy of fans and lights. “I can pull twelve pounds a year out of this room,” Kyashna-Tocha said. She pointed at the bristly plants: “That’s an Alaskan Thunderfuck. That’s Lemon Haze. Feels like espresso. Really big buzz.” Talking to boutique cannabis growers can resemble an encounter with an earnest sommelier. There are two subspecies of cannabis, she explained: indica, which mellows you out, and sativa, which boosts your energy and gives you a buzz. She added, “I used a little sativa before you arrived.”

And as mom-and-pop pot stores are being forced out in Washington, other states are making it difficult for poor pot growers to break into the business. In Illinois, a state Department of Agriculture proposal would make it so that aspiring medical marijuana sellers would need roughly $500,000 just to get started, including:

- $5,000 for an application (nonrefundable)

- $30,000 for a permit

- $25,000 per year to renew the permit

- Proof of $400,000 in assets.

AP Photo/Brennan Linsley

Those seeking entry into the cultivation market will have to pay even more. That high cost could mean more expensive marijuana for customers. Even in Colorado, where medical marijuana dispensers have been able to transition into recreational sales, tough regulations are prohibitive. According to CBS, the retail locations must grow at least 70 percent of the pot they sell. And while most small businesses are encouraged with access to national bank loans, marijuana sellers are barred access to a number of financial benefits, because the drug is still federally illegal.

But that doesn't mean small businesses are giving up hope entirely. The Huffington Post's Hunter Stuart spent a day with local, law-breaking recreational weed sellers in New York City. The Secret Fleet owners tell Stuart they want to remove the stigma around selling weed, adding that "we have patients we deliver to who have undergone chemo and who specifically want indica strains for their body pain." As the medical marijuana debate comes to New York, it might not be a bad idea for the entrepreneurs to start saving up and get a head start on an inevitable fight with the man.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.