Want to Grow Your Own Cannabis? Get Ready to Fight ‘Big Marijuana’

Published on June 19, 2019 · Last updated February 23, 2021
(erhui1979, BerZerKer/iStock)

Illinois is about to make history as the first state to legalize recreational cannabis and allow commercial sales through the state legislature instead of via a voter initiative, pending the governor’s signature. But this historic piece of legislation almost died along the way over the increasingly contentious issue of homegrow.

Eventually, lawmakers compromised by allowing only medical cannabis patients to cultivate for themselves; recreational consumers can’t grow at all. This may sound like politics as usual, but it actually represents a worrying trend for those who believe that the right to grow your own cannabis is an essential part of a truly equitable legalization plan.

Want to learn more about growing marijuana? Check out Leafly’s Growing Guide to get tips and advice from expert growers.

Currently, every state—except for Washington—that allows recreational cannabis dispensaries also allows homegrow. So far, none of these states have seriously considered rescinding the policy, and in Washington, there’s a growing push to add homegrow to the mix.

So what gives? Why has growing six plants at home become so controversial?

Illinois lawmakers actually passed an admirably equity-centered legalization bill, other than deciding that non-medical-patient adults can’t grow their own. And now lawmakers in New York and New Jersey appear poised to make the same mistake when considering their own legalization bills.

To find out why, let’s follow the money a bit.

It’s Like Home Brewing, But for Cannabis

In a recent interview with Cannabis Wire, New York State Senator Diane Savino described homegrow as a major sticking point in trying to pass legalization.

“The truth is, if you’re going to have a legal, regulated market, it’s hard to manage homegrow. I don’t know how you really do that. And every state that has it, has said to us, ‘Don’t do it,’” said Savino.

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Savino’s office did not reply to several inquiries from Leafly seeking clarification on which states advised against homegrow and for what specific reasons. But apparently she hasn’t spoken with Shaleen Title—one of five members of the Cannabis Control Commission in Massachusetts—because Title put “Allow Homegrow” at #1 in her widely disseminated list, “10 Must-Haves in Any Cannabis Legalization Bill.”

“The truth is, if you’re going to have a legal, regulated market, it’s hard to manage homegrow. I don’t know how you really do that. And every state that has it, has said to us, 'Don’t do it'”

Meanwhile, we do know that some of the biggest players in New York’s nascent cannabis industry have been aggressively lobbying against allowing individuals to cultivate their own cannabis for personal use.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, the advocacy website Marijuana Moment gained access to a 29-page document that was sent to Governor Andrew Cuomo by the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association (NYMCIA) roughly a month before he announced a legalization plan that specifically excluded homegrow.

The NYMCIA represents a who’s who of Big Marijuana in the state, including Acreage NY (featuring John Boehner), and MedMen (yup, those guys). The industry group’s policy statement featured an entire chapter titled “The Fallacy of Home Grow” that cited five reasons why allowing at-home personal cultivation poses a supposed risk to public safety.

Here are those five reasons, and my response to each:

1. Homegrow will make it impossible for the state to eliminate the black market.

An adult growing six plants securely in their backyard or basement no more represents a dangerous black market in cannabis than someone who brews small batches of beer at home.

2. Homegrow will make it impossible for law enforcement to distinguish between legal and illegal products, thus frustrating enforcement efforts.

Homegrow typically allows an adult to grow only six plants—does the NYMCIA really want the cops arresting people for such small amounts? Are the authorities not able to distinguish between a dangerous criminal operation and a six-plant homegrow? Big Marijuana is basically saying that if the only weed that’s legal is the stuff they package and sell, then it’ll be much easier for the police to bust anyone operating outside that system.

3. Homegrow will undermine the state’s harm-reduction goal of ensuring that cannabis sold in New York State is grown without noxious pesticides or other contaminants.

People who cultivate their own cannabis have total control over how it’s grown, harvested, and processed, same as people who grow their own tomatoes.

4. Homegrow will undermine the state’s public health interest in ensuring that cannabis sold in New York State is tested, packaged, and labeled correctly.

Yes, it’s a legitimate benefit to have your cannabis lab tested, but cannabis can be grown organically at home for a fraction of what dispensaries charge, thus making it available to those who can’t otherwise afford it, including medical cannabis patients and those seeking an alternative to alcohol or opioids.

5. Homegrow will cost the state tax revenue, thus hindering the state’s ability to fund priorities such as drug abuse treatment and community investment.

The government spent the last one hundred or so years wasting trillions of dollars on arresting cannabis consumers and tearing apart people’s lives and families, and now I can’t grow six plants of Bubba Kush on my back patio because it’s gonna deprive them of a tiny trickle of tax revenue?

5 Reasons Why You Should Consider Growing Your Own Cannabis

My High Five

Naturally, the NYMCIA letter never mentions that homegrow might hurt their bottom line. But that’s clearly the reason Big Marijuana joined forces to push homegrow out of New York. And every state that legalizes from now on will face the same pressure, since the increasingly corporatized and capitalized Wall Street wing of the cannabis industry will no doubt continue to lobby to protect its own interests above those of consumers and patients.

Not that the entire industry shares this view.

The National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), a far older, larger, and more representative industry association, says it doesn’t oppose homegrow, and even believes personal cultivation can help spark an interest in craft cannabis the same way home brewing has helped spur the market in craft beer.

But mostly it will be up to medical cannabis patients and activists to push back against Big Marijuana’s brazen attempts to roll back our inalienable rights in this regard. In New Jersey, there’s already been public protests to make lawmakers understand the many benefits of allowing homegrow.

And in that spirit, here are my top five reasons for allowing homegrow, which we all need to use when pushing back against the brazen attempts to curtail our freedoms.

Five Reasons to Allow At-Home Personal Cannabis Cultivation:

1. Provides a check on high prices at dispensaries, giving people an affordable option
2. Maintains cannabis plant biodiversity
3. Patients can access specific strains that work best for their conditions
4. Growing your own is a fun, life-affirming process
5. It’s pot, not plutonium

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David Bienenstock
David Bienenstock
Veteran cannabis journalist David Bienenstock is the author of "How to Smoke Pot (Properly): A Highbrow Guide to Getting High" (2016 - Penguin/Random House), and the co-host and co-creator of the podcast "Great Moments in Weed History with Abdullah and Bean." Follow him on Twitter @pot_handbook.
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