Weekly Weed News Roundup: South Korea Legalizes Medical Cannabis
South Korea becomes the first East Asian country to allow medical marijuana, while back in the U.S., northeastern states push forward on legal pot.
Published on November 27, 2018

As people continue to learn about the benefits of medical cannabis, countries are increasingly being compelled to follow suit. Earlier this year, the United Kingdom was forced by public protests to allow access to marijuana-based medications, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the first cannabis-derived pharmaceutical for legal use nationwide. Now nation-states with even stricter drug laws are changing their tune: South Korea’s lawmakers voted this week to allow limited use of medical marijuana for conditions including cancer, HIV/AIDS, and epilepsy.

Back in the U.S., legal weed sales have been going strong on the West Coast, but 2019 may be the year that the green rush finally spreads to the Northeast. The East Coast's first two pot shops just opened in Massachusetts, and popular demand shows no sign of slacking. This week, a New Jersey legislative committee advanced an adult-use legalization bill along with two other cannabis reform measures, while Gov. Phil Murphy approved a bill to legalize hemp. New York lawmakers are also drafting a legalization bill, and not to be outdone, Connecticut's new governor said he would support legislative efforts to bring legal pot to the Nutmeg State.

Yet controversy over the plant (and how to best legalize it) remains challenging. In Ohio, a judge ruled that reserving medical marijuana business licenses for minorities is unconstitutional, while national pot firms are trying to buy their way into Maryland's medical cannabis industry despite state law banning such activity. Canada's decision to legalize pot is still causing friction with its southern neighbor, and one Canadian investor found himself permanently banned from the U.S. for trying to attend a cannabis industry conference. 

Marijuana also found its way into science headlines last week, as researchers were finally able to identify the genes responsible for producing THC and CBD, while Elon Musk's recent on-camera pot use has put SpaceX in hot water with NASA.

South Korea Becomes First East Asian Country to Allow Medical Marijuana

After reports earlier this year that South Korean lawmakers were considering a medical cannabis bill, legislators followed through on Monday and voted to “approve amending the Act on the Management of Narcotic Drugs to allow non-hallucinogenic doses of medical cannabis prescriptions,” Marijuana Business Daily reports. This is a sea change for a country that retains the power to give pot smokers a death sentence, but where demand for medical marijuana products is steadily rising regardless.

Lawmakers were reportedly considering previous legislation that would have only allowed marijuana medications approved in the U.K. or U.S., but the new amendment allegedly “provides a legal basis… for production,” as well, raising questions of if there will soon be cannabis farms in South Korea, in addition to how neighboring counties may respond. Vijay Sappani, a venture capitalist in the cannabis space, told Marijuana Business Daily that the move represents “a significant breakthrough”: “The importance of Korea being the first country in East Asia to allow medical cannabis at a federal level should not be understated. Now it’s a matter of when other Asian countries follow South Korea, not if.”

New Jersey Advances Several Comprehensive Cannabis Reform Bills, Legalizes Hemp

After months of debate, New Jersey legislators just took the first step towards fulfilling Governor Phil Murphy's promise to bring legal weed to the Garden State this year. A joint committee of the state Legislature convened this week to approve three cannabis-related bills, the most notable of which would create a taxed and regulated legal pot program. The legislation allows on-site pot consumption at licensed stores as well as weed delivery, and also includes provisions to exclude out-of-state investors from dominating the market.

The committee also approved a bill to expand the state's medical marijuana program by increasing patients' monthly cap on cannabis purchases from 2 to 3 ounces; legalizing pot-infused edibles; and expanding the licensing process for additional businesses. A third bill would ease the process of expungement for former drug offenders, making it easier for them to clear their records for good. However, each bill must be approved by both chambers of the Legislature before moving to Murphy's desk for a signature, which may still present a challenge. Leading senators from both parties still oppose the measures, and Murphy himself has been at odds with lawmakers over the proposed sales tax rate for legal sales.

While legislators debate the merits of recreational cannabis, the Garden State will soon be growing marijuana's non-psychoactive cousin. Last week, Gov. Murphy signed a bill that creates a pilot program allowing institutions of higher education to grow and research industrial hemp. The 2014 Farm Bill legalized the production of hemp under state-approved pilot programs, and New Jersey is now the 38th state to launch such an initiative. "This pilot program is a win for local farmers who need a diversity of opportunities to compete in the global agriculture market," state Sen. Declan O'Scanlon said in a statement.

Connecticut Wants in on Legal Weed as Massachusetts Starts Selling Marijuana

Legal weed has finally come to the East Coast, and Connecticut's new governor wants to make sure that the Nutmeg State doesn't lose business to its newly legal neighbor. Last week, Governor-elect Ned Lamont told reporters that legalization is “something I would support, and I don’t want the black market controlling marijuana distribution in our state. I think that’s a lousy way to go.” Lamont said that he expects legislators to begin debating a legalization bill next year, and a recent report by the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management advised that the state “could also access additional revenue from any newly authorized activities such as… recreational marijuana sales,” according to Marijuana Moment.

Pot has only been legally sold at two stores on opposite ends of Massachusetts, but demand has already been incredible. On the first day of sales, customers drove from as far as New Hampshire to line up hours before stores opened their doors. Around 3,000 customers visited the two stores throughout the day, ultimately spending over $440,000 on more than 10,000 individual pot products. At the current tax rate of 17%, the state made nearly $75,000 in tax revenue on day one alone. Excitement remained high throughout the week, with both stores still wrangling long lines of customers

The groundswell of support for legal pot has convinced some former opponents, including Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy, to rethink their opposition. “One thing is clear to me: Our federal policy on marijuana is badly broken, benefiting neither the elderly man suffering from cancer whom marijuana may help nor the young woman prone to substance use disorder whom it may harm,” Kennedy wrote in a recent op-ed for STAT. The lawmaker added that the federal government needs to step in and “thoughtfully regulate marijuana” in order to end the confusion created by the current “patchwork of inconsistent state [cannabis] laws.” 

Ohio Court Finds Social Equity Quota for Cannabis Licenses Unconstitutional

Although several states and cities have created programs to promote social equity in their legal pot industries, some of these initiatives have been struggling to meet their goals. In Oakland and San Francisco, two of the first cities to launch such programs, observers are finding that equity applicants are still fighting to complete their applications, while larger businesses are thriving. Ohio’s attempt at supporting equality in its medical marijuana industry is now facing a similar challenge, as a local judge has ruled that the state's social equity program is unconstitutional.

Franklin County Common Pleas Judge Charles A. Schneider just ruled against a state regulation requiring 15% of the state's medical cannabis licenses to be reserved for businesses owned by “economically disadvantaged” individuals. Under this law, state regulators granted two of the twelve available licenses to minority-owned businesses, even though they scored lower on their applications than other, white-owned applicants.

Greenleaf Gardens LLC, a company that lost its application bid to a lower-scoring minority-owned business, sued the state over its denial. Schneider sided with Greenleaf in the case, ruling that minority quotas are only appropriate when there is a history of discrimination within an industry, and that there is no such history within the cannabis industry because it is so new. While state attorneys raised the fact of disproportionate prosecution of African Americans and Latinos for marijuana crimes, Schneider insisted such evidence doesn’t demonstrate discrimination in the new industry. It’s currently unknown whether Greenleaf will be awarded an additional license, or whether the state will decide to revoke one of permits granted under the equity program.

National Cannabis Firms Are Trying To Buy Up Maryland's Medical Cannabis Industry, Contrary to State Law

After years of struggling with legal battles and regulatory issues, Maryland's medical marijuana industry is finally growing, and this hotly-tipped new market has lately been attracting the interest of national cannabis conglomerates eager to get a piece of the pie. State regulations specifically prohibit local MMJ businesses from consolidating with out-of-state corporate interests, but despite this rule, several national cannabis companies, including Curaleaf and MedMen, have been telling their investors that they are finalizing deals to move in on the state's local industry. 

“I don’t know how the [Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission] is allowing this to happen,” state Del. Cheryl Glenn said to the Baltimore Sun. “We are adamantly opposed to large out-of-state companies coming in and buying up licenses.” Glenn also noted that a new law, just passed in May, specifically “prohibits the flipping of any of the licenses… This needs to cease and desist.” State lawmakers told the press that they intend to address the issue when next year's legislative session reconvenes in January. “We will clearly look at it again,” said Del. Sandy Rosenberg. “This is an ongoing process. We need to respond to what people are doing in a way that furthers our policy goals.”

Canadian Cannabis Investors Banned from the U.S. for Attending Marijuana Business Conference

Cannabis has been entirely legal in Canada for over a month now, but U.S. border officials are redoubling their efforts to ensure that anyone even tangentially involved in this burgeoning new industry stays off American soil. In the months before legalization, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced that any Canadian who admitted to smoking weed, or working in any job related to the industry, could be banned from the U.S. for life.

Shortly after adult-use sales began on October 17th, the CBP released another statement explaining that they would still allow Canadian cannabis employees to enter the country, as long as they were doing so for personal reasons, not business. Earlier this month, several Canadian investors traveling to the Marijuana Business Conference & Expo in Las Vegas found that border police were actively enforcing the latter aspect of that policy. One investor who was traveling from Vancouver to Las Vegas found himself permanently banned from the U.S., and at least 12 others found themselves detained for hours while en route to the same convention. 

Regardless of the CBP's recent assurances, immigration lawyers have reported that the number of clients seeking advice over lifetime bans for cannabis has been growing. "Despite all the warnings I've been giving for months and months and years and years and years, it's still happening and this will continue to happen until there is a harmonization of federal and state laws in this country," Washington-based immigration lawyer Len Saunders told the Canadian Press. "Otherwise, you're going to see it happening forever — and the only one who benefits is me."

Even at home on Canadian soil, the country's road to legalization is causing some headaches. Many legal weed retailers are still facing supply shortages, and Health Canada is in the process of revoking the business license of a Vancouver company for manufacturing vape pens using concentrated cannabis oils that are prohibited under Canadian law.

Scientists Discover Cannabis Genes Responsible for Producing CBD and THC

A collaborative effort between Canadian and American scientists has at last uncovered the specific genes involved in the production of THC and CBD. Researchers originally sequenced the 10-chromosome genome of the cannabis plant back in 2011, but it still took seven years to separate cannabinoid-producing genes from “junk DNA” — genetic material that viruses have inserted into the DNA of cannabis over centuries of evolution. This viral DNA comprises between 70 to 75% of the plant's genome, making it difficult for researchers to isolate the genes that are responsible for producing cannabinoids.

“You can only manipulate a gene when you know where it is located,” Harm van Bakel, genomic expert at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and lead researcher of the study, told The Toronto Star. “And you also need to know something about the rest of the sequencing in the genome so that you can uniquely target the gene of interest and not be sidetracked by… other things that look similar.” This discovery could make it easier for marijuana cultivators to grow specific strains that contain certain levels of THC or CBD, or a blend of the two.

NASA to Review SpaceX Program After Elon Musk Smoked Pot on Camera

America's first manned space flights in years may be put on hold, thanks to a single puff of pot smoke. Back in September, Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk took one hit off a blunt during a three-hour appearance on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, making global headlines and leading Tesla stocks to drop by six percent. Musk's behavior also reportedly shocked NASA officials so much that they’ve decided to formally review programs at SpaceX and Boeing, two companies hired to develop the nation's first new manned space vehicles since the space shuttle was retired in 2011.

In a recent statement, the agency announced that they would be reviewing the two firms “to ensure the companies are meeting NASA’s requirements for workplace safety, including the adherence to a drug-free environment,” The Atlantic reports. Both companies have asserted that they strictly maintain drug- and alcohol-free workplace policies, but NASA intends to move ahead regardless. The review could take months, however, possibly delaying the program's first test flights, which are scheduled to begin next summer. 

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Chris Moore
Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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