Ask a Cannabis Attorney: Should I Buy From My Dealer or My Dispensary?
By Kyle Sosebee
Your dealer is not licensed and is, instead, a participant in the illicit market, aka the unregulated market, black market, gray market, legacy market, or the free market.
Recreational sales started six years ago in Colorado and significant numbers of Americans now have access to a diverse range of high-quality cannabis products. The illicit market has kept pace and stayed competitive.
Gone are the days of dime bags of ditch weed. Dealers often carry an assortment of branded and tested products. So there is no reason not to be a sophisticated and discriminating shopper with cannabis, just as you would with any other product or service. This column is not intended to make judgments or recommendations (although we do not recommend violating the laws of your state). Rather, we aim to provide a lens to view your choices.
So let us compare and contrast our dealer and dispensary on a few issues:
Can I Get In Trouble?
Let’s be clear: even if cannabis is legal in your state, it is only legal to buy it from licensed operators.
It is illegal to exchange money for cannabis with an unlicensed dealer. But will you get in trouble? Anecdotally, there is little evidence that law enforcement or prosecutors are making individual illicit transactions a priority. In legal states, the penalties are too small and enforcement is too difficult to provide a meaningful return on investment for the cops. Additionally, since today’s illicit dealer may be tomorrow’s licensed, tax-paying, law-abiding retailer, states have an incentive to induce compliance in other ways than criminal prosecution.
Even if getting arrested is highly unlikely, many cannabis-consuming adults have no interest in breaking the rules. This is a valid concern if you have a professional career and a family. Why break the law if you don’t have to?
Depending on where you live, the dealer may be your only option, or the significantly more convenient one. Dealers often offer home delivery in cities and states that are still debating how, or even whether, to permit delivery.
On the other hand, you can Google the hours and menu of your local dispensary. It’s easy to find a dispensary when traveling, and you can expect a greater variety of products at a retail store.
It can be difficult to buy cannabis from a dispensary with complete privacy and anonymity. Security cameras record you, and your ID scanned into the computer system. Home delivery is not always a better option. In Massachusetts, delivery will be done by someone wearing body cameras to document your weed purchase. If you have an interest in privacy and discretion when it comes to your cannabis, you might see this as a reason to call the dealer.
If privacy is an issue you’re concerned about, you can follow up with your local dispensary regarding their privacy policies, what they do with your info, and how they protect against data breaches.
Your dealer may offer a greater sense of privacy. But it’s a more informal type of privacy. Although dealers tend to operate in a culture of discretion, don’t expect a copy of your dealer’s written data security plan. If you have privacy concerns about going to a dispensary, consider whether you would have a problem if it became known that you buy cannabis from the illicit market.
The dealer is just cheaper. In some places, a lot cheaper. This is the deciding factor for many consumers. But sophisticated consumers will not simply buy cheaper products without further comparison.
So why does the dispensary cost more? Taxes and compliance costs.
Cannabis is taxed at exorbitant rates. Combinations of excise, sales, and local taxes add up to effective tax rates of 20-40%. But taxes aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Taxes pay for our schools, roads, emergency services, and countless other public goods. Many states have earmarked cannabis tax money to pay for education, public safety, drug abuse prevention and treatment, and health care. Do you agree with how your state is spending its cannabis tax revenue?
The dealer doesn’t have the same tax burden, but maybe its worth pondering what forms the basis for the dealer’s price? How much of that money is going back into your community?
The legal cannabis industry must comply with a variety of environmental regulations, particularly on the cultivation side. Illicit growers may not always follow the same standards. Do you know how your weed was grown?
On the retail side, the industry has received significant criticism regarding packaging requirements that result in massive amounts of waste. An eco-conscious dealer may use more sustainable packaging.
If you value spending your money in your local community, how does cannabis fit into this? Members of the community own and operate some dispensaries. Others are part of large multi-state operations. Thanks to federal law, you can at least be sure that the cannabis was grown within the state you purchased it. Find out who grew it and where.
If you buy from a dealer, where is the weed coming from? You might be buying direct from the grower, or your flower might have been driven half-way across the country.
Safety and Testing
Safety is a big factor in the push for legalization. Regulations on pesticides, mandatory laboratory testing, labeling requirements, and child-resistant packaging give consumers confidence that products are safe. This confidence is part of what you are paying for at the dispensary.
A legacy market operator can, and many do, send their flower, concentrates and edibles to a lab for testing. Does your dealer have a certificate of analysis for their product? Are they only testing for THC potency and terpenes? What about pesticides, microbial contaminants and heavy metals? Remember the vaping scare?
Cannabis legalization is about more than providing access to a consumer good. It’s about social justice and repairing the harms of prohibition. Many states are trying out equity and economic empowerment programs for companies run by and located in communities impacted by the war on drugs. Spending your money at the right dispensary might be a way to demonstrate your support for those endeavors.
The War on Drugs may have harmed your local dealer. However, does patronizing your dealer help redress some of those wrongs? Or does it frustrate your state’s efforts to provide equity and opportunity?
The Wrap Up
There are more questions than answers here, but I urge you to ask your own questions. Ask your dispensary, your dealer, yourself—how much do you value safety, quality, and justice? Use your money to vote for the values you care about.
Do you have a question about cannabis and the law? Ask us!
Disclaimer: The information in this column is not legal advice, is not a substitute for the advice of a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction, should not be relied upon as such, and does not create an attorney-client relationship with anybody.