An Essential Year for the Cannabis Industry

Does it require superpowers to remember what happened in January?

As 2020 draws to a close, trying to think back to the world as it stood at the top of the year is a uniquely challenging prospect. Over the course of 2020, time has inexplicably felt both frozen and rushed, be it measured in headlines, death tolls, or endless days spent inside and away from the world.

Regardless of how the seconds added together for each of us, their cumulative total is one that tells the tale of a pandemic. When looking back at the year experienced by the Bay Area’s cannabis industry, COVID-19 is also the headline. But that doesn’t mean it’s the full story.

In addition to the highs and lows of legal cannabis operators being deemed “essential” businesses while still remaining illegal at the federal level, there were also devastating wildfires across California, the establishment of cannabis appellations in California, and the departure of longtime state cannabis czar Lori Ajax.

To help consolidate this exceptionally chaotic timeline, here’s a brief look at a few of the most notable things to happen in local cannabis news this year.

Cannabis is ‘Essential’

Imagine if there wasn’t any weed. For a moment there, when the idea of a “shelter-in-place” order was first being discussed, there was no initial exception made to ensure the legal cannabis industry would be permitted to operate. That changed quickly, with San Francisco and then California both declaring such businesses as “essential” under the new rules. These extraordinary circumstances also required some flexibility on the part of the rule makers, who allowed for concepts like curbside pick-up to be implemented despite the fact that such a transaction does not technically take place inside a dispensary.

Consumers have responded to having access to cannabis by buying quite a lot of it. In December, Nicole Elliot — Gov. Gavin Newsom’s senior adviser on cannabis business – told attendees of a virtual conference that California’s legal cannabis industry was on track to “generate [close] to $1 billion” in 2020. After California first introduced the recreational market at the start of 2018, it took roughly two years for the state to collect its first $1 billion in taxes. For the industry to see that time cut in half, during a pandemic, is a statement of deafening clarity when it comes to questions of whether Californians feel cannabis is essential too.

Historic Wildfires

When the sky turns a nightmarish orange for a full day, that’s bad. This year, the devastation of what’s tragically become an annual occurrence for residents of California reached a new level of awful as wildfires burned nearly 4 million acres across the state. As of October, the state’s 2020 fire season had already claimed 30 lives, forced almost 100,000 to evacuate from their homes, and visited havoc on a number of industries and livelihoods. Among them: California’s outdoor cannabis growers.

One grower, identified only as Sean, spoke with Leafly about how his Alameda County farm was destroyed as part of August’s SCU Lightning Complex Fire. Another August blaze, the Walbridge Fire, left Sweet Creek Farms in Sonoma County with building damage and substantial crop losses. Underscoring the severity of the situation are the insurance problems facing many growers. And none of that even factors in how these wildfires change the ways in which cannabis grows, though the subject is one primed to expand in popularity as skylines that appear designed by Vincent Price continue to become a more common sight.

Cannabis Appellations

Thanks to 2020, there’s one less thing to whine about when it comes to giving cannabis cultivators some respect. That’s because, with the signature of Gov. Newsom, California is now set to be the first state in the U.S. to recognize cannabis appellations of origin. This is a big win for craft cultivators who’d like to see cultivars and terroir in cannabis labeled and vetted just as grapes (and the wine produced from them) are associated with the region in which they are grown. Now you’ll know that Humboldt-grown was indeed grown in Humboldt.

It was the end of an era when California’s first cannabis czar, Lori Ajax, announced her departure after nearly five years in the role. For now, her sizable shoes will be filled by Tamara Colson, the Bureau of Cannabis Control’s (BCC) current assistant chief counsel, under the title of acting bureau chief. As for Ajax, her retirement didn’t last long. Following her departure from the BCC on Dec. 2, the California Craft Brewers Association quickly named Ajax as its new executive director on Dec. 4.


Zack Ruskin’s weekly column, Pacific Highs, covers cannabis. Twitter: @zackruskin

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