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Cannabis & blockchain: Bad romance or a perfect match?

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Gowling WLG | Shaela W. Rae | October 17 2018

Black market. Dark web. Illicit. Underground market. Illegitimate. Illegal. Organized crime. All words used to describe the illegal cannabis industry, until October 17, 2018 that is. Once it is legal to buy, possess or use cannabis for recreational purposes the discussion around the use of cannabis and how to procure it changes from hushed words in a corner to an open conversation in public. But is the public ready to embrace a substance that has been seen as illegitimate and "bad" for so long? If the experience in the US can be relied upon, the answer is "yes".

According to investment bank Cowen & Co., the cannabis industry is expected to reach sales of approximately US$75-billion by 2030, up from US$6-billion in 2016, as the drug is more socially accepted. In the US today cannabis is illegal on a federal level as it is classified as a Schedule 1 narcotic, but cannabis is legal in 30 states for medicinal purposes, and in 9 states and Washington, DC, for recreational use for adults over the age of 21.

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Some Canadians' views on cannabis seem to be similar to the views on alcohol during the prohibition era in the United States. For example, in the prohibition era people used slang terminology to describe alcohol, similarly how the terms, "weed", "pot" and "dope" have been used to describe cannabis. Alcohol was attributed as a cause of moral decay and criminal activity. Academics have debated whether alcohol caused an increased criminal activity during that era, as well as whether there actually was an increase in crime or rather just a perception of an increase in crime. Some cannabis anti-legalization protestors believe that the cannabis industry is surrounded by crime since they view cannabis as a gateway drug that will lead to illegal drug use and illegal activities.

The question is, how can the cannabis industry gain more transparency and legitimacy? While legislation and regulation is turning an illegal industry into a legitimate one, blockchain technology may be able to help. Health Canada's tracking system is designed to track the plant from where it is grown to where it is sold to prevent legal cannabis from being diverted to the illegal market. While the tracking system is not based on blockchain technology, blockchain may be one technology that could help cannabis companies comply with the legislative reporting requirements.

Like cannabis, the blockchain industry has also suffered from a stigma, often arising from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the technology works, paired with a conflation of concepts and terminology such as blockchain, cryptocurrency and Bitcoin. Cryptocurrencies and anonymous buyers are often found in the same sentence as dark-web markets and illicit activity. Given this narrative, the natural inclination is to assume that partnerships between the cannabis and crypto worlds are a recipe for bad news in a domain that requires more transparency, not less. But there is a major flaw in this line of thinking, and here it is in simple terms: crypto ≠ blockchain ≠ Bitcoin. Just because some bad guys use cryptocurrency to do bad things, doesn't mean it is inherently evil. If that were case, we would have to conclude that money in general is inherently evil.

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Blockchain, a general term for the distributed ledger technology upon which cryptocurrencies such as the popular Bitcoin (one type of cryptocurrency out of hundreds) are built, is completely legal, completely legitimate, and in fact, may be considered one of the most important technological innovations of the past decade. Blockchain offers a new way to store and record data in such a way that its accuracy is constantly confirmed by all stakeholders, and transactions are able to take place automatically and instantly. In theory, what makes blockchain so valuable is that its inherent design structure makes it an immutable, accurate record of transactions that is virtually tamper-proof.

What does this mean for the cannabis sector? Despite the legalization of recreational-use marijuana on the horizon in Canada, many major financial institutions still won't touch the cannabis industry, leaving players in that world to rely mostly on untraceable cash transactions. What better way to introduce security and transparency into the cannabis sector than by integrating payment platforms based on blockchain technology?

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