[Canniseur: This is a fabulous article about a fabulous photographer. Personally, I never get tired of looking at beautiful photographs of anything. And the artistry and technical precision that Mr. Christiansen brings to photographs of cannabis is nothing less than astonishing.]
[Canniseur: This might look like a growing story, but it is most assuredly, not. This is a story about states and the mentality that’s taking the small cultivators out of the market for legal cannabis. MIsguided regulators, legislators, and lobbyists are killing the small grower. The lobbyists are hired by those with deep pockets and small growers don’t have deep pockets. It shouldn’t matter, but it does. Something needs to be done about this.]
Nobody likes to hear “I told you so” ringing in their ears. But today, as California’s small cannabis farmers face increasing challenges in the legal industry, the sneering refrain practically echoes down the redwood canyons of the Emerald Triangle, its four cutting syllables carried in each morning with the fog.
For Casey O’Neill, who has one of the most public and outspoken advocates for a small-farm-friendly version of cannabis legalization since 2014, the “I told you so” carries a particular punch. He is a native son of Mendocino County, raised on a homestead north of Laytonville where he still lives, farming vegetables and cannabis on the land with his partner Amber and their family. He’s seen the harsh nature of the government. Law enforcement stormed his parents’ house before his third birthday over a few cannabis plants, and when he was older and working as a cannabis grower, he was swept up in a raid and served two months in county jail.
But by the time California started to seriously consider cannabis legalization in the 2010s, O’Neill believed it was a good idea. Legal pot, he thought, was a great way to support small farmers and California’s rural economies and keep people out of prison. He still trusts in this vision. Where he thinks he might have been wrong, in retrospect, is in judging the government’s ability to actually execute those policies.
“I went in with this possibly naïve idea that we were going to construct a regulatory paradigm that was built around small businesses — and we came f*cking close, that’s the devastating part,” O’Neill says. “I invested significant time, energy and faith in a governmental process and then had that faith shattered. And now, all of the old hippies are like, ‘I f*cking told you so. You f*cking thought they were going to play fair?’ It’s really disenchanting.”
[Canniseur: The proposed tiered tax seems fair enough. Especially since Illinois has left medical cannabis tax at 2%, the same as pharmaceuticals. Let’s see if other states follow their lead.]
Most states tax cannabis products based on weight, but one state has recently decided to tax cannabis products based on how much THC they contain. This will have big ramifications for potent concentrates — and other states might follow along.
Stick around the cannabis industry long enough and you’ll hear someone say “states are the laboratories of democracy.” It’s an idea that was first published by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis in 1932, when Brandeis wrote that states have the ability to “try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country,” and it’s a political idea that the cannabis industry has certainly embodied.
Since California broke with the federal government in 1996 to legalize medical marijuana, every state in the union except Idaho has experimented with a different way to regulate cannabis, with varying levels of success. But today, one particularly interesting economic experiment is playing out in Illinois. The state is going to tax cannabis products based upon their THC percentage, not upon their weight, as most states with adult-use cannabis do today.
Cannabis products with less than 35% THC will face a 10% excise tax. Cannabis products with more than 35% THC will face a 25% excise tax. Meanwhile, cannabis-infused products, such as edibles, will be taxed at 20%, regardless of their THC percentage. The vast majority of cannabis flower on the market today falls below that 35% THC line, while cannabis concentrates usually test at above 50% THC.
This means that a cannabis consumer in Illinois looking to purchase some artisan ice-water hash, a delicious terp sauce or a vape cartridge will pay 15% more in excise tax (not including any state or city sales taxes) than someone purchasing flower.
“We don’t have any examples of other places that have tried this, but it’s certainly not an unusual idea — you pay more for top shelf,” says Chris Lindsey, the senior legislative council for the Marijuana Policy Project. Lindsey worked on drafting the adult-use cannabis legislation that passed in Illinois, in collaboration with lawmakers and special interest groups.
Lindsey told Cannabis Now that the THC tax structure was proposed by one of the groups that “wasn’t explicitly opposed to legalization, but wanted to make sure that they were near the heart of the conversation, especially about issues of public health.”
“They came in to the discussion with an idea that the state should cap the amount of THC in raw cannabis, and of course, that wasn’t workable. We want to displace the underground market, and that’s setting yourself up for failure,” Lindsey says. “But then — and I don’t remember exactly who had the specific idea — the idea was just sort of floated the idea that we could do something similar to alcohol and tax it at higher rates for those who want to
purchase higher amounts.”
Should Cannabis Be Regulated Like Alcohol?
Today, Illinois levies an excise tax of 23 cents per gallon on beer (or any alcohol between 0.5 and 7% alcohol), $1.39 per gallon on wine (or any alcohol between 7 and 20% alcohol), and $8.55 per gallon on liquor (or anything with more than 20% alcohol).
That means that a similar tier system for cannabis based on THC percentages should be nothing new to consumers.
But while Oklahoma-based cannabis attorney Sarah Lee Gossett Parrish says that she does think cannabis should be taxed similarly to alcohol, she cautioned that it might place too much of a burden on a state’s testing technology.
Labs in states such as Oregon and Washington have been plagued with problems in their lab testing industries, though it does appear that determining the 35% THC barrier will be a less intensive testing requirement than the full pesticide and heavy metal contaminants tests that states are struggling with today.
Another key detail that separates cannabis from alcohol is the complexity of the plant’s cannabinoids and the way they interact with the human body. By focusing only on the THC percentage (like the ethanol percentage in alcohol) in creating the tax, Illinois regulators could be creating a loophole for concentrate consumers to start purchasing products to get high that aren’t THC, like delta-8 extracts.
But Lindsey says the Illinois tax structure is written to be flexible, and the state is planning and prepared to alter as the industry matures.
“Right now, no one’s talking about other cannabinoids, except CBD,” Lindsey says. “The way it would happen is there’s another popular cannabinoid that comes along, and we hear about it constantly, or we hear about another cannabinoid that causes intoxication, and that’s where we’d see a quick response. They’d fill that gap. Right now, there’s no conversation around delta-8 in Illinois.”
What Does the THC Tax Mean for Medical Marijuana Patients?
While Parrish expressed concern that taxing cannabis based upon THC percentages could put an undue burden on medical marijuana patients who turn to high-potency products for things like relief from
chemotherapy-induced nausea, Lindsey says that Illinois’s THC tax applied only to the recreational cannabis market.
“Patients are not going to pay any additional tax,” Lindsey says. “Medical marijuana products fall into the same bucket as pharmaceuticals, which is taxed at 2%, so that won’t change. This [THC tax] is only for the adult non-medical market — though, of course, some of those people are using the adult-use cannabis market for medical reasons.”
Lindsey says that if the THC tax model takes off, the Marijuana Policy Project would lobby other states to make sure they weren’t using it as an excuse to price gouge patients.
Will the THC Tax Catch On Elsewhere?
Since Illinois passed its adult-use cannabis law, there’s been very little focus on this new tax structure. Most of the attention has been on the promise of the state’s equity program and the hundreds of thousands of people who stand to have their cannabis possession records expunged.
“I thought this new tax structure was going to make a big splash, but that was before everyone got excited about expungement and we did the math about how many people’s records would be impacted,” says Lindsey. “At the time, I predicted this was something we’d see in other places. But now, it’s too early to know if that’s really going to happen.”
For now, the only other jurisdiction with a similar tax structure is Canada. In Canada, edibles, extracts and topicals face an excise tax at a rate of one cent per milligram of THC.
Lindsey says that it’s too early to tell if other jurisdictions will think that the THC tax structure for Illinois is a good idea and follow along, but that he thinks it’s important to note the program was built with so much flexibility because the lawmakers were not beholden to a voter initiative that legalized cannabis, like every other state has been while setting up a legal cannabis market (except Vermont, which has yet to do so).
“The way the Illinois bill was structured was to set a baseline for regulations, but there’s tons of running room beyond that, so that the legislators can get the program up and running without public comment and deliberation,” says Lindsey. “At the end of every section of the law, it ends by saying ‘and you can change the rules.’ Talk about the laboratory of democracy!”
Editor’s Note: If you like cannabis and you like photography, you will love Erik Christiansen’s work. His work is simply amazing.
Eleven years after Dr. Raphael Mechoulam identified the THC molecule, a man named Steven Sasson built the first digital camera. It weighed eight pounds and, when it took its first picture in December 1975, the camera needed 23 seconds to transfer the photo onto a cassette tape.
In the decades since these two trailblazing scientific discoveries, both cannabis research and digital photography have developed into massive industries (albeit at different levels of mainstream integration). In the process, both industries have often sashayed along the arbitrary line between science and art, making room for passionate individuals — both amateur and professional — to push the field forward. Backyard growers discovered how to breed for different desirable plant characteristics. Family photographers developed new lighting techniques. And, with increasing regularity, these individuals have helped the two fields of scientific research and cannabis documentation intersect.
Erik Christiansen is perhaps the best example of such an individual who sits at the crossroads of cannabis research and digital photography, science and art. The 30-year-old founded the popular cannabis photography company Nugshots in 2009, released a book called “Green: A Field Guide to Marijuana” in 2015 and has since become one of the most renowned cannabis photographers in the industry. While there are plenty of excellent cannabis photographers working today, Christiansen’s photos are uniquely technical and motivated by a special scientific curiosity.
For example, he’s photographed a single cannabis seed through a lens that magnified the seed’s surface 20 times, revealing an ethereal opal surface of canyons and ridges. He’s stacked 45 macro photographs on top of each other to show a pair of conjoined trichome heads. And perhaps most importantly, he’s figured out how to stack photographs into videos that zoom around and into a bud with near-frightening clarity.
For one recent “hyperzoom” video, Christiansen photographed a single Wedding Cake cola 2,160 times. The process involved photographing the cola at five different levels of zoom. For the first four levels, Christiansen took 360 photos — a photo for each degree around the plant. On the most zoomed-in level, he took 720 photos. Then, over a process of months he experimented with how to stitch the photos together into a video that zooms 1400 percent into the cola, while it rotates in empty space. Imagine: a video that zips from a full branch, to a few nugs and leaves, to a handful of glistening trichomes, and back out again, in 10 smooth seconds.
When I catch Christiansen on the phone one afternoon, he’s on the road. He’s visiting his family and friends in San Diego, where he used to live before he moved last year with his girlfriend and business partner Beacon Nesbitt to Bend, Oregon.
“We’d lived in San Diego our whole lives, so the mountains and rivers and trees were calling to us, plus there’s more work up there anyway,” Christiansen says. “Living in Bend, we’re three hours from Portland, a couple hours from Seattle, and six to eight hours from northern California. It just makes sense, and we love it up there.”
Christiansen captured this tiny section of a Tenzin Kush leaf by clipping it off the plant in order to photograph it from the top down.
He travels a good deal for work, visiting clients — usually dispensaries and breeders — across the hubs of the adult-use legal cannabis world. But it wasn’t always like this. When Christiansen first started photographing cannabis in 2009, he says “no one wanted to pay to have pictures.”
“Legalization made companies need marketing,” says Christiansen. “In 2010 and 2011, I would go into dispensaries I would ask them if they needed a photographer and they would say, ‘We’re good because we have a guy in the back with a camera.’ I used to go in and purchase the dry bud to photograph myself — when I’d ask them for specific photogenic buds, most of the time they’d say no — and now people are bringing me into the back on a perfect day of harvest and thanking me for being there.”
But while the regulated market is the driving force behind his cannabis photography business today, Christiansen credits prohibition for creating such a high demand for cannabis photography.
“Prohibition has prevented it from being normal to see a plant,” says Christiansen. “Major growers have to protect their plants, they can’t just bring people into their grow rooms because you run a risk of bringing microscopic things into the grow room such as bugs and mold.”
A bud of Moonstone Black, photographed by Christiansen.
Through his photographs, Christiansen makes the cannabis plant accessible to the average viewer. In fact, most cannabis photography does this, but what sets Christiansen apart, is the extra depth he brings to each image, providing the unique perspective on the bud that allows cannabis consumers to consider the plant in a more scientific way.
Exploring the Cannabis Galaxy
Some of the earliest digital photographs (so early, in fact, that they don’t technically fall into the category of what we consider a digital photography) were taken by NASA’s Mariner 4 spacecraft. As the Mariner 4 flew past Mars, it took 21 grainy, black and white photographs of the planet’s surface and beamed them back to Earth on July 15, 1965. These photographs brought an unexplored planet into the public reality, allowing Americans to explore a foreign object through a collection of captured light. Christiansen’s photography does the same today.
In reality, Christiansen’s photography is an inversion of space photography, focusing inward to the microscopic level rather than out into the cosmos. But the experience of perceiving an object move through space and light is similar, no matter the distance covered.
A company’s logo is reflected through the trichome heads of a Moonstruck White plant.
Watching a collection of 360 macro photographs of a single trichome, stitched together to rotate on an axis, feels galactic. A hyperzoom video gets so close to a trichome head that colors and focus warp through its translucent head. Through Christiansen’s creations, the cannabis plant — foreign to so many of its devoted consumers — becomes explored.
Of course, Christiansen recognizes that he’s not a scientist, just an amateur with a passion for understanding more about cannabis. But his photographs still provide viewers with the opportunity to observe and study the plant. For example, Christiansen once took a video through a microscope that shows what happens when a pin pops a trichome head, releasing the resin, which led to a discussion of the sturdiness of trichomes present in different strains.
“Just yesterday I was talking with someone about how some trichomes aren’t that fragile,” Christiansen said. “Some feel super gritty and they won’t pop when you touch them. And I didn’t even realize that.”
Grapefruit Diesel, photographed by Christiansen.
Today, as countless companies dedicate themselves to researching the cannabis in an attempt to monetize its secrets and profit from their discoveries, Christiansen’s photography is a welcome, democratic endeavor.
“I want to give people a better sense of education on what’s actually going on around the plant — really understanding what’s going on and how the plant is forming,” says Christiansen. “There’s always new things to discover.”