Could Whole Foods Really Sell Cannabis? Here’s What It Would Take

Published on March 5, 2019 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Last week, almost out of nowhere, the CEO of Whole Foods Market indicated he’s keeping a close eye on cannabis regulation—and suggested cannabis products could one day show up on the grocery chain’s shelves.

“If cannabis is ever passed in Texas,” he said at a Texas Tribune–hosted event, “chances are good that grocery stores will be selling that, too.”

Mackey wasn’t talking about just hemp-derived CBD, either. When the moderator followed up by asking whether Mackey thought Whole Foods would stock edible insects or pot brownies first, Mackey answered: “Let’s see what happens with the market and the government regulations over time.”

The 65-year-old Whole Foods co-founder is hardly bashful about supporting legalization. He’s on the record supporting it at least as far back as 2013. But if you’re a Whole Foods shopper and can’t wait to tuck some THC-infused coconut oil into your reusable canvas tote bag, don’t get your hopes up just yet.

Reality Self-Checkout

Could Whole Foods one day stock cannabis products? Sure. But a lot would have to happen between now and then to allow it.

First, let’s look at Texas, the state where Whole Foods is headquartered and which Mackey himself referenced in last week’s discussion. Right now, the only cannabis products legal in that state are low-THC, high-CBD concentrates for use by registered medical patients with intractable epilepsy. Everything else—including hemp-derived CBD, despite its widespread availability—is technically forbidden.

Yes, that could change. In fact, chances are good that it will. But even in the best of scenarios, most observers in Texas agree that adult-use legalization is at least two years away, likely more. The state Legislature meets only every other year, and full legalization isn’t on the docket for this session. The state also lacks the voter initiative process that’s been behind nearly all other states’ successful legalization efforts.

But OK, zoom out from Texas. There are, after all, 10 legal states plus Washington, DC, that allow adult-use cannabis. But even there, markets are so tightly regulated that a splashy entry by Whole Foods seems like a stretch for now. Three of those states—Maine, Vermont, and Michigan—as well as DC don’t yet permit legal sales. And in the others, state regulators have strict limits on everything from advertising to ID checks to in-store security. Are kids allowed in Whole Foods? That could be a problem.

It’s also worth noting that a majority of US states still ban liquor sales in grocery stores. And while cannabis is generally considered far less dangerous than alcohol, it remains far less socially acceptable in most circles.

Change Is Coming

Despite the obstacles, Mackey’s projections may be prescient. While no legal state currently allows grocery stores to sell cannabis, some are considering comparable arrangements. In New York, for example, where the Legislature could legalize as soon as this year, bodega owners are actively working to capture a piece of cannabis sales in an arrangement that could eventually put pre-rolls on corner-store shelves.

The Latest Cannabis Bill in Congress Would Do More Than Just Legalize

And the cannabis industry’s greatest albatross, federal prohibition, may finally be coming to an end. There are multiple bills in Congress this session that would remove cannabis from the Controlled Substances Act, at least in states that have legalized the drug. Such a move would likely open the industry door to new actors—including, potentially, high-end grocery stores.

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Is cannabis actually coming to Whole Foods? Maybe. But likely not before the next superfood has come and gone.

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Ben Adlin
Ben Adlin
Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor who specializes in cannabis politics and law. He was a news editor for Leafly from 2015-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin
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