When a product or service is illegal, innovation is a tricky process to measure. For most places, this has been the state of the cannabis industry for decades.
But now that the laws of prohibition are tumbling down, we’re seeing new spaces open up for people to develop technologies that are helping more people participate in the cannabis industry and that are shaping its future in exciting ways.
The cannabis industry is a brand new frontier of opportunity for many, but we would be remiss to ignore the pain and social injustice of its legacy.
The industry is swiftly constructing itself around a plant that has been banned, stigmatized, and demonized for more than 80 years. And in the United States at least, no one seems to have a good solution for the fact that in recent years, 820,000 marijuana arrests have been estimated per year, and 50,000 of those have been estimated to lead to felony convictions. This means that while tech has brought on an exciting field of innovation, discoveries, and progress, it’s important to take a critical look at who this new industry-darling is benefiting and rewarding following the waves of legalization, and who it continues to penalize
Regardless, technology remains the best lever for growth in transforming how we relate to cannabis as a society, and what we’re seeing is changing everything from how the product is grown to how it’s being manufactured, purchased, delivered, customized—and, of course, consumed.
Curious about the future of cannabis? Here’s a glimpse into how tech is shaping the emerging global cannabis industry.
Home-grows are one telling example. Imagine personal grow boxes equipped with fully automated grow technology for optimized yields where you discreetly cultivate a plant or two in the corner of your living room. With new technology on the market, every step of the process is now guided and automated, so you get the personal satisfaction of growing your own cannabis without the extreme learning curve it usually takes to reach a quality harvest, even if you don’t have access to a garden or outdoor space.
Perhaps taking cues from the deluge of customizable fitness or dieting apps, we also are seeing cannabis technology that allows you to enter your geographical location, desired outcome, and level of cultivation experience, and then gives you a step-by-step personalized plan that includes genetics, optimal growing conditions, and other helpful tips.
On the industry side of the cultivation spectrum, you’ve got cannabis innovation happening in big ag as well. Technology-driven advances in genetics and breeding are a key focus in cannabis cultivation right now, using technology to sequence cannabis DNA to create cultivars that have unusual or distinct flavors or that are more resistant to pests.
Innovation is also at play in the hemp world, where producers are breeding seeds that allow growers to optimize for end-use products including textiles, seeds, or cannabinoids.
Essentially, technology in genetic mapping is enabling producers to develop entirely new applications for how these plants are grown, which will allow us to have many more options and far greater control over the kinds of products appearing on the market.
Retail, e-commerce, and delivery
In the age of Postmates, Seamless, and an array of Uber delivery and courier services, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine opening an app on your phone where you can select whatever cannabis product you desire, and then have it delivered straight to your door. In legal cannabis states, this is already happening, of course.
Inside cannabis dispensaries, you have developers working on tech such as augmented reality apps that help educate consumers on their different options.
This is quite a contrast from the typical—until now, at least—weed transactions during prohibition, where even before you procure the product, finding a supplier can be extremely difficult, reliant on word-of-mouth, and dangerous.
One of the biggest challenges that cannabis companies have today is training staff on the myriad of products in the dispensary, the nuts and bolts of how cannabis actually works, and the complexities of compliance and regulation. To answer this, a host of educational programs and platforms has sprung up, offering a myriad of courses covering everything from how cannabis works in the body, to dosing protocols for different types of consumers, to deep dives into the nuances of different cannabis delivery method.
For transparency, my own company Green Flower is one such learning platform, which allows cannabis industry employees to access crash courses from their smartphones.
Vaping devices, transdermal patches, dosed inhalers—these types of cannabis products are no doubt the sexiest and most obvious ways in which technology and cannabis are colliding.
But tech is taking it all a step further. Picture a scenario where your physician uses a saliva test not to detect for drug use as a disciplinary measure, but to determine the best cannabis combination and strain for your treatment, which you can then ingest through something as easily consumable as a gel capsule
For cannabis lovers and patients, this is the ultimate scenario. It’s also another example of technology that will allow the industry to scale, making products more practical for new cannabis consumers, as the practice becomes more common.
The bottom line with cannabis and tech
We’ve barely scratched the surface here, and the amount of opportunities for technologists to contribute to the cannabis industry are far and wide.
However, it needs to be said that outsiders looking into the cannabis world must be humble and open to understanding the unique needs and culture of the industry.
Beyond the civil injustice of a failed war on cannabis, most people have a lot of misconceptions and fears that need to be replaced with updated facts and reliable information.
You don’t have wine consumers coming into a store asking: “But how will this wine make me feel?” or, “Will drinking this cause me to turn into a lazy, unproductive person?” While most industries simply have to educate consumers about the quality of a product, the cannabis industry also has to take steps to convince people that this product is not nearly as harmful or destructive as the mythology has led many to believe—but it does need to be used wisely and correctly, and that depends a great deal on the individual physiology of a given consumer.
That means that no matter how far we go with the industry and the tech that supports it, the most dangerous knowledge gap of all is still the outstanding belief that cannabis is bad for you
Until we can overcome that with facts, science, measurable actions toward political and civil de-stigmatization, and properly educating consumers and professionals alike, the cannabis industry is destined to continue to hit roadblocks and policy failures. Without important social progress and political reform, the tech can only do so much.