The state of California is not wanting in world fame. Reasons for its notoriety include being the mecca of pop culture, the breadbasket of the United States, claiming the fifth spot as the largest economy in the world, and housing the cradle of innovation: Silicon Valley.
Earlier this month the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CFDA) unveiled the OCal plan that once again will propel the state to a leadership role. According to CFDA, OCal is a set of proposed regulations for a statewide program that will establish and enforce consistent, uniform standards for cannabis comparable to the National Organic Program. The proposed regulations are open for public comment until July 7.
What does this mean?
Essentially California, home to the largest legal cannabis market in the world and a state that shares a border with Mexico, wants to establish organic standards for cannabis similar to the ones that ensure that the tomatoes you get at the grocery store use approved fertilizers and pesticides among following other standards.
This is not just a fad accompanying California’s appetite for avocado toast and soy chai lattes (this millennial will have one of each, thank you). Given that cannabis remains a Schedule I substance and illegal according to the federal government, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) cannot certify cannabis as it does with your tomatoes. True to form, California is capitalizing (dissenters would say milking) the federal system by implementing its own regulations.
Why does this matter?
First, as Alyson Martin, co-founder of Cannabis Wire, reported, given that California has the largest cultivation footprint, this program will likely “set the national standard, and lead the way for states that choose to follow”. Therefore, adding to the list of California’s popularity.
South of the border, California’s cannabis market and proposed organic certification, offers lessons and brings up complex policy questions that are relevant as Mexico struggles to meet its deadline for legalization.
While in the 1960’s, Acapulco Gold was a much-coveted cannabis strain smuggled from Mexico to the United States, it is likely that certified organic cannabis will become a luxury product smuggled from the United States to Mexico. To be sure, there is already a demand for “blood-free” cannabis in the country and a demand for strains grown in California.
As evidence of consumption in Mexico of US-produced cannabis grows, researchers, journalists, and policymakers need to reconsider traditional notions that conceive drug flows exclusively going from Mexico to the United States. Even if California cannabis, organic or not, only serves a high-end consumer market, drug flows exist in both directions and that matters for how policymakers frame conversations about border security.
More importantly, California’s cannabis market offers important lessons on the winners and losers of legalization that ought to be included in serious debates in Mexico while legislation remains in limbo. The Drug Policy Alliance, a large coalition working on promoting policies that reduce the harms of drugs and drug prohibition, has extensively documented the disproportionate effects of the war on drugs. According to their research, nearly 80% of people in federal prison and almost 60% of people in state prison for drug offenses are black or Latino. These rates, however, are not reflective of drug use but law enforcement’s focus on lower income communities and communities of color.
Aware of these disparities, in 2018 California passed the Cannabis Equity Act which establishes financial assistance programs for minorities and economically disadvantaged individuals. The goal was to level the playing field by providing opportunities to participate in the cannabis legal industry in areas that had previously suffered the disproportionate effects of the war on drugs.
However, despite the good intentions, implementation continues to face problems derived from the structural inequality that prohibition worsened. For example, even with equity programs in place, communities of color have challenges obtaining permits for their business because of zoning regulations in certain districts that requires them to operate within a certain distance of homes, daycares, and places deemed “sensitive”.
As California prepares to take yet another step in regulating its cannabis market and setting the standards as industry leaders with certified organic strains, Mexico needs to take note. First, the framework of drug flows going from Mexico to the US is obsolete. Even if we are discussing products for high-end consumer markets, drug flows move in both directions and this matters in conversations about what border enforcement looks like and where it is cost-efficient to spend resources. Second, even a step in the right direction (legalization) can generate unintended consequences that further exacerbate disparities created by the war on drugs. Legalization alone will not undo the economic harm cause by decades of prohibition.
* Cecilia Farfán Méndez is head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Twitter: @farfan_cc