With recreational legalizations in 18 states in the US, dispensaries are popping up like the weed they sell. However, even with strict regulation in place in each of these states, many of these seemingly legal dispensaries, are nothing more than extensions of the black market. While this might not always be a problem for a consumer, an illegal dispensary can mean not getting the products you want. Here’s how to know if your dispensary legit, and why it matters anyway.
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Are there really a lot of illegal dispensaries?
It might seem like the world of dispensaries represents the legal side of the cannabis market, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Despite the fact that dispensaries can be found in well-trafficked areas, like the Las Vegas strip, for example, this doesn’t mean they’re legit, even if their outright appearance would imply otherwise. While getting into how this happens, who rules cannabis black markets, or if something is being done between these powers that be, and law enforcement and government officials, is a whole article in and of itself. For our purposes, it suffices to say that a large part of what seems like a legal market, is actually quite the opposite.
It is said that California’s black market is over three times the size of the legal one, with much of that black market being dispensaries. How much of it? According to Politico, California actually has a low number of dispensaries with approximately 2 per each 100,000 residents. States like Washington and Colorado are higher, with more like 17-18% per the same number. California’s strict regulations are often blamed for this. What this means, is that though the state has about 823 licensed dispensaries, it has around 3,000 retail locations and delivery services which operate illegally, as of a February 2020 market report by Marijuana Business Daily.
Illegal dispensaries also mean illegal providers, and California boasts as many as 50,000 illegal cultivation operations. These operations, as they are following absolutely no regulation, may or may not be using harmful and banned pesticides, although realistically, regulation in this department is already lacking even for legal operations. Even so, it makes clear that such sites may be more problematic in terms of providing clean products. Though everything just mentioned relates to California, the appearance of illegal dispensaries in places like the Las Vegas strip, and reports from other states of illegal dispensaries and grow operations, indicate that this problem is extremely widespread.
So what’s the problem for consumers if illegal dispensaries masquerade as legal ones? Well, it means the consumer may very well not be getting what they think they are, and this can even lead to danger depending on what is being put in products. Here are a few ways you can know if your dispensary is legit, and why it matters.
Checking your ID
The first thing to consider when trying to ascertain if your dispensary is legit, is simply whether they check your ID. This is the first thing that should happen when walking into a dispensary, and one of the key ways to know if something is amiss. Sure, we don’t all want to flash our ID, or have our information recorded, but it’s also standard policy, pretty much everywhere. If you walk into a dispensary in any legalized state, and your ID is not checked first, it’s unlikely to be real. The age requirement for adult-use is in every state, and no legalized location will allow shopping in their establishment without an ID check first.
For most places it goes past that. Not only will your ID be checked, but it will also be recorded before any shopping can be done. This is, of course, particular to state regulation, and prospective shoppers can easily understand by looking at their own state’s policies, whether this step should be included in their dispensary experience. Again, it might not be wanted by buyers, but if it’s a part of regulation, then not having it is a clear indication that the establishment is not legit.
Does it matter? Less than other factors in my opinion. For those who are die-hard that an under 21-year-old would be hurt by the use of cannabis (plenty are still caught in this trap), then this requirement holds more importance. For the rest of us that conceptually understand from our own experiences, and history in general, that this isn’t the biggest issue, whether our IDs are checked or not will have very little to do with anything. It stands, therefore, as a way to weed out operations, if nothing else (no pun intended).
The amount of THC in products
This is another dead giveaway, although it does require knowing state regulation, or it can easily be missed. Every state has a tight set of regulations about how much THC can be allowed in a product, and in an entire package. These laws vary by state, but if you do a quick internet search for “how much THC allowed in products in California”, or “how much THC allowed in products in Nevada”, the answer will almost always come up without having to click a site. California, for example, allows up to 10mg of THC per edible product, and 100 mg for an entire package. Nevada is exactly the same. Oregon, which has only been allowing 5 mg per edible and 50 mg per package, is set to raise its per package mount to 100 mg in January 2022.
What this means is, if you’re in one of these states, and you go into a dispensary, and you see a package of gummies claiming 40 mg per gummy, this is an illegal location. This goes for any state where products are being sold outside of the regulation limit, as a legit dispensary will not do this. This is one of the easiest ways to clarify if a location is being run legally or not.
Does it matter? In this case, yes it does. For one thing, the idea of cramming a single gummy with 40 mg of THC can mean disaster, as we already know the issue edibles can cause with the overconsumption of THC. That idea is not a scare tactic (no one’s saying you’ll die), but it is an uncomfortable reality of dealing with edibles, and having that smaller amount is actually a decent safety measure to ensure going slow with them and avoiding overconsumption.
But the bigger issue, is that it becomes unlikely that THC is being used at all. After all, if it was, there would almost certainly be so many more cases of THC sickness. What this implies, is that the same HHC-like synthetic which is known to be rampant in illegal operations, is likely the actual ingredient. Using a synthetic is cheaper, and as most are like HHC, a pared down version of THC, which isn’t as strong as standard THC, more can be used without causing sickness. I personally know this from years of sucking on synthetic vapes, and the lack of a real high from them. Chances are, if you’re buying gummies marked as having 40 mg of THC, you’re only getting a synthetic. This doesn’t have to be dangerous, per say, but it does mean getting a subpar product. It’s not a 100% statement, but something to consider. This can apply to CBD products as well.
Piggybacking on the last point, vapes are a great way of telling if a dispensary is selling real products, or fake products. Synthetic vapes are sold extensively by illegal locations, which from my personal research, do not seem to offer any legit options. How to know? An illegal dispensary will have nothing like live resin, or anything full flower where the cannabis can be tasted in the oil. The reason for this, is that synthetics have no taste and must be flavored, just like distillates and isolates.
If you buy a distillate cartridge from a real dispensary, it will taste like fake flavoring, but it should be real. If you buy a distillate from an illegal dispensary, it’ll likely be a synthetic with the same flavoring, masquerading as a real cartridge. A synthetic can never be passed off as full flower because of the taste, so an illegal dispensary will generally not have any options other than distillates. A real dispensary will have tons of options, with live resins being particularly popular right now. If you’re only being offered distillates, you can make a pretty decent bet that the dispensary is illegal.
Does it matter? Yes! Fundamentally on this one. There are two huge issues with the vape industry. The first is that, even when it’s the real deal, so little is understood about what happens to cannabis components when degraded by heat, that even what is considered safe, isn’t necessarily. Better than smoking? You bet! But not necessarily without long term issues. On top of this, there’s literally no regulation in place for heavy metal testing, and this on the legal side.
So these unknowns already exist. Add to this, chemicals that can be dangerous, like low quality fillers, stabilizers, thickeners, flavorings, etc., and real problems can, and do, occur. The synthetics themselves might be a downer in that they don’t produce the same high, but are of lesser concern to the agents that they’re cut with. When dealing with an illegal dispensary, there are absolutely no regulations abided by for this. And, considering that the products are sub-par compared to real distillates, these vapes can be seen as a general waste of money, on top of offering actual danger to consumers. Having said this, illegal vapes abound, and very few issues of acute illness have been reported per the number of people using them.
The last factor to consider when trying to ascertain if your dispensary is legit, is price. When it comes to vapes, for example, its pretty standard to get a 1 gram cartridge on the black market for about $30. In a legit dispensary, 1 gram will be close to $100 dollars, and far as I’ve seen, no less than $80. The legal industry is heavily taxed, and this raises prices. Especially for products like vapes, this can be seen.
It can be seen in other places too though. If your packet of 40 mg per gummy gummies is half the price of 10 mg gummies in other dispensaries, they’re probably not real. And while flower prices seem a bit more stable, if you’re buying from an illegal dispensary, you won’t necessarily know what conditions it was grown in, or if you’re actually getting the strain you’re paying for.
Does it matter? It might. Depends what you buy, I guess, and how happy you are with the products. Personally, I’d rather pay more to get the right thing, but I certainly can’t speak for everyone here.
As the industry gets bigger and wider, the black market does as well, often masquerading as the legit market. These days, the black market isn’t just about a guy selling weed out of his car, but the seemingly legal establishment with bright lights, and an array of packaged products. The best thing anyone can do for themselves is to be an informed buyer, so check your local regulations if you want to know if your dispensary is legit, and pay attention to the factors above.
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Disclaimer: Hi, I’m a researcher and writer. I’m not a doctor, lawyer, or businessperson. All information in my articles is sourced and referenced, and all opinions stated are mine. I am not giving anyone advise, and though I am more than happy to discuss topics, should someone have a further question or concern, they should seek guidance from a relevant professional.