The Haymaker is Leafly Senior Editor Bruce Barcott’s opinion column about cannabis politics and culture.
Yesterday’s weird Amazon marijuana news sent the cannabis world into a flurry of conflicted feelings.
Amazon’s support for cannabis legalization is a big deal. The company employs nearly 1.3 million people worldwide, and this announcement knocks the legs out of the prohibitionist fable that people who enjoy weed on their own time can’t be healthy, happy, and productive workers.
But it also raises the specter of Amazon, post-legalization, eating the cannabis industry’s lunch. The idea of Amazon Prime drones dropping weed on America’s front porches doesn’t just scare old-time prohibitionists. It sends shivers through cannabis retailers, too.
It shouldn’t. I’ll tell you why in a minute.
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‘Earth’s Best Employer’ has been drug testing?
First, let’s unpack the announcement itself. In a blog post sent to Amazon’s hundreds of thousands of US-based employees, Dave Clark, CEO of the company’s Worldwide Consumer division, revealed that in its quest to become Earth’s Best Employer and Earth’s Safest Place to Work (his words and capitalization choices, not mine), wrote:
Amazon has been drug testing employees for cannabis use? Hang on. This is a company so embedded in its hometown of Seattle that it insists on being sued, if you must litigate, on its home turf of King County, Washington. That’s a district in which cannabis has been legal for all adults for more than eight years. Clark apparently just got the memo last month.
Clark also revealed that, “because we know that this issue is bigger than Amazon,” the company’s public policy team would be supporting the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act (the MORE Act), the Congressional bill that would end federal prohibition.
Leafly’s guide to marijuana legalization
The MORE Act, and Schumer’s forthcoming bill
The MORE Act passed the House last year but died in the Senate. It was recently re-introduced in the House, where it is expected to pass again. But many cannabis pros on Capitol Hill are kind of over the MORE Act. Their eyes are instead anxiously watching for New York Senator Chuck Schumer’s long-promised all-encompassing legalization bill to drop.
Schumer, as Senate majority leader, has the upper hand in all this, and his bill is expected to supersede the MORE Act. The MORE Act was originally co-sponsored by then-Sen. Kamala Harris, and some Republican senators balk at the idea of giving the Democratic Vice President “a win.” (Yes, politics can be even more petty and small than you imagine.) A Schumer bill, if he finds a Republican co-sponsor in the Senate, may have a better chance of passing.
If it passes, will Amazon start selling weed? Of course Amazon will start selling weed. Or at least it will try.
Will Amazon put your local dispensary out of business? Probably not.
The House passed the MORE Act. Is weed legal now?
Think booze, not books
When people think of Amazon crushing an industry, they commonly think of Uncle Jeff putting America’s bookstores out of business. But bookstores are the wrong analogy. Cheap pre-rolls and top-shelf eighths are not bestsellers or Itty Bitty Book Lights.
The more appropriate analogy is booze. The alcohol industry experienced these same fears four years ago. When Amazon bought Whole Foods in 2017, trade publication Drync ran an article headlined, Did Amazon just kill liquor retail as we know it?
They wrote: “Overnight, Amazon gained more than 330 new liquor licenses across 41 US states. This will undoubtedly shift the way consumers acquire and engage with beverage alcohol.”
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Did you know Amazon delivers alcohol?
It’s 2021. Amazon has not killed liquor retail as we know it. Consumers have not shifted their alcohol purchasing habits. Amazon’s entry into the alcohol game is still so creaky, in fact, that I’ve spent part of the past hour trying to figure out if I can get Amazon alcohol delivered to my home in Seattle. I still don’t know if it’s possible.
Bottles of alcohol aren’t pool floaties or water balloons (two of Amazon’s top sellers this week). Selling booze requires compliance with 50 different sets of complex alcohol regulations across 50 states. Beyond the 50 sets of state regs are further sets of county and city regs. It ain’t easy. That’s why Amazon has tried it in only 12 cities. The liquor merchants in those cities aren’t closing down because of Jeff Bezos. Most liquor buyers in those cities don’t even know Amazon sells whiskey, and this one can’t figure out how to order Brown Sugar Bourbon in Seattle. (Forget it. I’m heading to Trader Joe’s.)
The devil is in the details—of the legalization bill
National legalization, via the MORE Act or Chuck Schumer’s Very Secret Forthcoming Bill, is unlikely to create an open-market free-for-all. Marijuana will remain tightly regulated, state by state, just like alcohol, unless the language in those bills changes—to something, say, much friendlier to an Amazon delivery model.
This is where things get tricky. It’s much easier to influence the language of a bill you’re supporting than one you oppose. Perhaps Amazon has learned from its alcohol experience. Perhaps its lobbyists are working to bend Schumer’s forthcoming bill into something that would allow the company to move with greater ease in the weed industry.
Perhaps it’s up to those of us who want a fair, equitable, and diverse cannabis industry to step up and make our voices heard on Capitol Hill and in our own state legislatures. That’s where the industry’s national and state frameworks will be constructed. Amazon’s lobbyists are already shaking hands and forming relationships. If you can be there—go. Talk to your local member of Congress. Book time with your state representative. Tell them about your cannabis job, your medicine, your patients, your place in the community.
If you can’t be there, support the organizations that amplify your values. Because Amazon is already walking the halls amplifying theirs.