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For the analysts, investors, consumers and others closely monitoring the cannabis industry, 2015 appears to be a year when the marijuana sector is consolidating its historic gains while preparing for the next big push, ahead of the 2016 national elections.
 
2014 was, of course, a landmark year for cannabis, as legalized recreational marijuana went on sale to adults in Colorado and Washington. And, later in the year, voters Alaska and Oregon also legalized adult use of marijuana in their states.
 
In the recently-released, third edition of its State of the Legal Marijuana Markets report, the ArcView Group noted America’s legal cannabis industry grew by 74 percent in 2014, compared to a year earlier, reaching $2.7 billion in combined retail and wholesale sales. 
 
“This is a market that already exists; there’s already a very, very wide demand for cannabis in the country,” says Troy Dayton, the ArcView Group’s CEO and co-founder. “So the real question is which states are going to implement which laws -- which regulations -- and then how will that market compete with the other ways that people are gaining access to cannabis.”
 
One of the big challenges currently facing the marijuana sector is that cannabis access issue. In each state where cannabis has been legalized there are what Dayton describes as “unique microeconomic climates;” the particular, self-developed set of regulations, as well as political and cultural factors, that influence how that state’s cannabis industry operates.
 
“On the ground (the cannabis industry is) still so atomized and fragmented,” notes Bruce Barcott, the Seattle-based author of Weed the People, The Future of Legal Marijuana in America, which is scheduled for publication by Time Books in April. “It’s completely state-by-state. Some states like Washington are set up specifically to deter big money from coming in. They want to keep it local, they want to keep it small; they want to keep it mom-and-pop.”
 
But Barcott notes that the current emphasis on localization, while potentially benefitting Washington-based businesses and consumers, has also created a lot of hurdles for the establishment of an efficient, organized cannabis sector in his home state. 
 
Licenses for retail legal recreational cannabis stores in Washington State were determined by a lottery, which Dayton says can give a wider economic cross-section of people the opportunity to enter the legal cannabis sector.
 
But at the same time there can be drawbacks – especially, according to Barcott, when the lottery-winners with the licenses “don’t necessarily have the retail experience or even the marijuana experience to know how to set up a distribution network or how to work with vendors, how to get financing to get a shop, how to find the real estate for a shop.”
 
Barcott recalls that, following the lottery, many marijuana licenses were then issued to people who had no retail experience, and little to-no-chance of getting financing. 
 
“And so what we have right now in Washington State are dozens of ‘ghost licenses’ floating out there,” he says, “owned by people who really have no means of turning that license into an actual shop.”
 
But in comparison, he says, while Washington State has allowed legalized recreational marijuana, “Colorado is embracing legal pot.”
 
And in some ways Colorado had a big advantage over Washington State, thanks to Colorado’s existing medical marijuana (mmj) regulation system, which was formalized years earlier with state-established requirements and procedures.
 
Colorado’s mmj statutes, says ArcView’s Dayton, established “a for-profit, medical cannabis regulated system that was working very well and had six years of tweaking and adjusting to get it just right,” ahead of the advent of legal recreational cannabis. It also allowed the mmj community to cement their relationship with the regulators, while generating support from the general public.
 
The passage of Colorado’s Amendment 64 in 2012, which legalized recreational cannabis for adults, was built on the successful mmj regulations, enabling a smooth transition for the new adult “rec” market. 
 
“It really made regulators and the industry and the public work together in a way that is pretty unheard of, not just with cannabis but with almost anything, anywhere,” laughs Dayton. “It’s a remarkable success story. Of course it’s not without its bumps and bruises along the way. It hasn’t been perfect but, as a general rule, no one has done this before.”
 

Next: The state-by-state nature of marijuana regulation, and what 2016 might bring

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