"Big Marijuana" may not be such a big deal after all

"Big Marijuana" is a concept that sprouts over and over again in current discussions about legal weed. The idea that several large marijuana producers will soon dominate America's newest and most profitable industry, leaving a trail of bankrupt mom-and-pop outfits in their wake, is continuously alluded to by cannabis advocates, opponents, and third-party analysts alike.

The immense value of the cannabis industry and our nation's long history of commodifying nature makes "Big Marijuana" a compelling concept. But in an upcoming book based on a swath of recent research, Concordia University law professor Ryan Stoa provides equally compelling evidence that not only is a "Big Marijuana" situation unlikely, but states and the federal government have viable options to prevent a corporate takeover of the cannabis industry. Stoa's Craft WeedFamily Farming and the Future of the Marijuana Industry (MIT Press) is slated for release later this year.

Craft Weed, an upcoming MIT Press book, suggests
that "Big Marijuana" may not pan out the way many
observers think.
"The fear is that with federal legalization, you'll have any number of players - Big Ag, Big Pharma, Silicon Valley - someone will come in and build these giant warehouses or plant these enormous crops of marijuana," Stoa said.

But Stoa argues that this fear rests on problematic assumptions about both the plant itself and the current makeup of the legal cannabis industry.

First, Stoa says that the specter of Big Weed "depends on there being one marijuana, one generic marijuana" that a company could patent and then mass-produce.

But under prohibition, clandestine breeding and experimentation has so far produced nearly 800 - and likely more - different varieties of marijuana, making it by far the most genetically diverse crop in modern American agriculture. As a result, today's marijuana consumer is used to a tailor-made experience: walking into their local dispensary and selecting from an array of different strains that have their own distinct flavor or effects.

From a legal perspective, this means that it will be very difficult for a giant cannabis company to patent any specific strain.

"When you attempt to acquire intellectual property rights, you can't do so if [a strain] has been in the public domain," Stoa said. "Because all these strains are already out there, it will be hard for people to go out and claim that, for instance, Sour Diesel was their invention. It would be hard for a company to step in and buy all the patents on the genetic aspect of marijuana."

A second major obstacle to "Big Marijuana" is the current landscape of cannabis production, which is dominated by small-scale producers who currently possess a great deal of social and political clout. Unlike large, bureaucracy-laden corporations, smaller outfits are able to quickly adapt to consumer demand and grow the latest popular strain.

"The challenge for a lot of these really big operations is that they're not as nimble as these smaller farms," Stoa said.

States and the federal government could also call on a familiar regulatory apparatus to protect smaller cannabis operations. The appellation system, in which an agricultural product is given a specific designation of origin, has protected small winemakers for generations, Stoa argues.

Law professor and cannabis scholar Ryan Stoa.
Winemakers in California's Napa Valley or France's Rhone Valley enjoy a unique set of conditions that produce a distinct type of grape and wine. To help them retain this brand identity, the California and French governments have a set of product standards and other rules in place so that producers elsewhere cannot claim their wines are "Napa" or "Rhone" quality. In the United States, these protected regions are called "American Viticultural Areas," or AVAs.

Similarly, Stoa suggests that marijuana appellations be called "American Cannabicultural Areas," or ACAs - regions where a distinct kind of bud is grown, and where its producers are protected from having a larger company co-opt their brand. In northern California, long a hotbed of cannabis cultivation, Humboldt County might be among the most obvious beneficiaries of an appellation model for cannabis. Colorado, where high altitude and large temperature swings make for potent greenhouse marijuana, may be another potential ACA.

Of course, Stoa admits that there will still be demand for mass-produced, low-quality cannabis, just as there is demand for cheap, mass-produced wine or beer. But under the protection of appellations, Napa wines survive alongside giant companies like E&J Gallo. Stoa says there's no reason why large cannabis producers could not coexist with smaller, more local and craft-type cannabis.

"Increasingly, people are willing to pay more for beer that doesn't suck," Stoa said. "A lot of people who are into marijuana want it to be good. They want it to be as positive of an experience as possible, and that comes from the artisan model."

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