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Illustration by Wenzdai Figueroa

Last week, I bought cannabis.

I whipped out my phone and pulled up the menus of 6 dispensaries within a 2-mile radius of my apartment in Oakland, California.

After scrolling through pages of edibles, oils, concentrates — even suppositories — I find exactly what I’m looking for: a mellow, sungrown strain containing less than 10 percent THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis.

For years, I’ve used cannabis to manage symptoms of anxiety and premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a hormone-related mood disorder.

Low doses of THC, along with other cannabinoids, help me feel somewhat “normal” on my worst days. Potent, high-THC cannabis, however, has the opposite effect — even on my best days.

I hit “add to cart” and get a message telling me my order will be ready for pickup in 30 minutes at the dispensary down the street.

When I arrive, I show my ID to the security guard at the door. He recognizes me, and we make the kind of small talk you might have with the barista at your neighborhood coffee shop.

I walk up to the counter, pick up a small paper bag, and head back home.

From pulling up the menu to walking back through my front door, the whole thing took an hour — and that’s only because I opted for pickup, not delivery.

Let’s rewind the tape

Just 10 years ago, this same process meant enduring an awkward text exchange with a friend of a friend. We’d arrange a place to meet and I’d slide into the passenger seat of his Honda Civic.

I’d usually just ask for the cheapest thing because I was both frugal and eager to get out of the car — which smelled like Axe body spray, Del Taco, and stale cigarette smoke — as soon as possible. I’d walk away with a Ziploc baggie of something I’d hope wasn’t too strong (or full of stems).

I was eligible for a medical card, but I was too worried that having my name in some kind of official database would permanently taint my professional reputation. (The irony that I’m now writing about that experience for my job — at a well-respected health website, no less — isn’t lost on me).

To be honest, I’m still not over the novelty of being able to get exactly what I want — without having to sit in a malodorous car or weigh the option of potentially ruining my future career choices.

Things are better, but they aren’t great

While legalization certainly has its benefits, it’s failed to address many of the ethical issues that have plagued cannabis for decades.

For one, an estimated 40,000 people are currently incarcerated on cannabis-related charges in the United States, according to The Last Prisoner Project.

And according to a recent report from the ACLU, Black people are still 3.64 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people, despite equal rates of use.

I could go on and on, but in the interest of time, I’ll highlight a story that offers a peek at the current state of the cannabis industry.

The rise of ‘Big Cannabis’

Acreage Holdings is an investment firm turned cannabis giant that owns The Botanist (a chain of Instagram-ready dispensaries with locations in 5 states) and a portfolio of other cannabis brands, including Live Resin Project.

Its board of directors includes John Boehner. Yes, that John Boehner, former Speaker of the House and vocal opponent of legalization.

Evolving one’s opinions is an understandable — even noble — thing to do. But when asked in 2019 about his previous opposition to legalization, he claimed to have no regrets.

As for the 400,000 people who were incarcerated for selling or trafficking cannabis during his tenure as Speaker?

“Frankly, it never crossed my mind,” he replied.

At the time, he stood to make up to $20 million from the sale of Acreage Holdings to Canopy Growth, which owns Martha Stewart’s line of CBD products and counts Constellation Brands, distributor of Corona beer, as one of its major stakeholders.

But there’s a catch. In order for the deal to go through (and Boehner to make millions), the United States must legalize cannabis at the federal level within 10 years. This might explain his sudden interest in the issue.

This is just one example of why some fear that cannabis is poised to join the ranks of Big Tobacco and Big Pharma as a bloated industry driven by a blind desire for profit, often at the expense of human health.

A light in the dark

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t ignore the problems we see in the world around us — whether that’s police brutality, lack of access to quality healthcare, or the climate crisis.

Cannabis’ troubled history and questionable path forward are no exception. But there’s some good news.

The legal cannabis industry is still young. Maybe — just maybe — there’s still a chance to save it from becoming something that’s broken beyond repair, to create an industry that’s as ethical as it can be in a capitalistic country.

And because of the industry’s intersection with issues of race, health, and sustainability, doing so might even uncover some unexpected solutions to the other problems we’ve been forced to reckon with this year.

Doing so will require tackling some of the industry’s blind spots head on, which is why we’re introducing a new series called Ethical Cannabis that explores not just the ethical issues of cannabis, but also how consumers can take action to create a brighter future.

We’re kicking things off with 3 pieces touching on issues of equity, sustainability, and conscious activism.

Whether you use cannabis to manage a chronic health condition, swear by CBD as part of your wellness routine, or simply enjoy the effects of cannabis, I hope these stories empower you to be a conscious consumer.

Read now

Kelly Morrell is an editor at Healthline, where she covers everything from psychedelics to period farts. She lives in Oakland, California, with her partner and cats. Find her lurking in the shadows on Twitter.