Marijuana continues to gain ground in state after state as a legal commodity. Acceptance is spreading with two-thirds of the U.S. in support of recreational cannabis. Yet, legal marijuana has failed to sink the black market sale of the same substance.

The seedy underbelly that was once the drug’s only distribution source is still going strong. The black market still has a product to sell and customers to sell it to.

So in this time of legal weed sold in an illegal manner, where customers can choose to buy what they like, what separates black market marijuana from the legal stuff?

Quality control

Any marijuana that comes from a legal seller has to be tested by a state-accredited lab. Each state sets standards for marijuana to pass through to deem it safe for consumers. Those lab results are available to every customer that buys them.

These independent labs look for contamination in cannabis. That means things like residues from pesticides, being screened for fungus, mold, and mildew, and verifying that the crop doesn’t contain heavy metals. Each product is tested multiple times along the supply line, looking for potential hazards that would make it unsafe for buyers.

With marijuana off the street, there aren’t those guarantees. Unless you know the specific grower, and you watched them cultivate, harvest, and process it, it’s impossible to know what possible contaminants are in that particular batch.

The same state regulations that mandate testing also dictate exactly how marijuana can be grown. Producers can only use pesticides that are approved by the Department of Agriculture and have to keep records of exactly what they use. The entire growing process is strictly regulated from the temperature, lighting, humidity, water supply, and ventilation of every plant in an operation.

With illegal marijuana, you can’t guarantee that it’s dirty, but you can’t be certain that it’s clean either. All you have to go on is how much you trust your dealer and the people they work with.

With legal cannabis, you can be 100% certain that what you are getting is pure marijuana. Lacing other drugs into bags of weed has always been a problem with the black market. The problem used to me with drug dealers lacing their marijuana with drugs like angel dust or PCP. Now, the problem is with hardcore narcotics like fentanyl, which is a synthetic opiate 50 times stronger than heroin. Or they are adding in formaldehyde for a cheap way to supercharge their product.

Competing Costs

The cost of the final plant is where illegal products finally have an edge. Legal businesses have more costs to consider in their price including fees, taxes, and testing. A company can boast the best quality, but if its product is more expensive it will lose customers. In California, an eighth of weed is $20 on the black market, but $50 in a dispensary.

Advertising costs aren’t something that someone has to deal with who relies on word of mouth. Legal companies not only have to pay advertising costs but their hands are tied as well. Regulations keep them from being able to develop the most effective brand. Stores aren’t allowed to have cartoon characters or anything too cute in their adverts for fear that it would appeal to children.

Cannabinoid profile

Another large part of testing for legal marijuana is looking at the cannabinoid contents and potency of the strain. Every strain and in fact every crop has its own profile that will have different effects on you when you use it. Lab-tested marijuana has hard figures to tell you exactly what percentage of cannabinoids are there. The number is usually given as a percentage which is the proportion by dry weight.

The exact ratio of cannabinoids in your cannabis is an important figure. Knowing how much THC, CBD, and other cannabinoids are present will help to tell you how the marijuana behaves in your system. THC is the cannabinoid that gets you high, binding to the natural cannabinoid receptors in your brain.

CBD binds to similar receptors, but not in the same way.  If a strain is more evenly balanced, it won’t have as sharp of a high. These two molecules tug and pull on your system, balancing each other out.

This balancing act is downright essential if marijuana is medicinal. For the prescription stuff, it is specifically formulated to help with your particular ailment. The script that gets written for you will be different depending on whether you suffer from anxiety, PTSD, or glaucoma.

Illegal cannabis won’t have any figures attached. Any guess as to the potency or balance of a certain strain will be given in vague subjective terms. They may tell you that something is ‘good…stuff’, but what does ‘good’ mean?

The problem of availability

The strict hoops that legal producers have to jump through make them sluggish to react to consumer demand. The process to obtain a license slows the pace for store openings, keeping the opportunity alive for illegal activity.

Even within states that are legalized, municipalities can have separate rules that determine if dispensaries are allowed to operate in them. In California, almost 80% of municipalities don’t allow commercial marijuana activity.

Once the stores open, keeping them properly stocked is just as difficult. Canada saw monumental shortages in its supply chain for stores selling government marijuana. The country was also inundated with applications for cannabis-based businesses from cultivation, to processing, to sales.

The lack of red tape and agility of illegal growers has allowed them to step in and fulfill consumer demand. In California, the problem is so prevalent that the illegal weed market has eclipsed the legal one.

The pros and cons of legality

The sharp advantage that legal marijuana has over its illegal counterpart is that it is just that, legal. Being legal means that it’s being sold out in the open. Regulations are in place to watch over companies to be sure they have their customer’s best interests in mind. The entire infrastructure that surrounds the final product is transparent and accountable.

That lack of accountability is where black market drugs have an issue. People are quick to cut corners if it means making themselves a profit. Legal entities aren’t immune to this problem.

The recent vaping scandal shows exactly what neglect looks like on a supplier’s part. With vaping cartridges, the marijuana extracts weren’t the issue, it was the illegal additives. These adulterants, like vitamin E oil which is known to be harmful if inhaled, were added to extracts to make them more profitable. Companies looking to make better margins were adding products like Honey Cut into their cartridges to water down the marijuana. These products were undetectable to the end consumer because they had the same viscosity as THC oil. All it took was the ignorance or neglect of a single company to endanger the lives of consumers.

Having a high degree of accountability and oversight leads to higher quality and safer products. Had vaping cartridges been illegal, this scam might still be taking place.

Black market marijuana has the advantage of being illegal in certain instances too. Dealers are able to cut costs by avoiding taxes and other fees.  Illegal cannabis slingers are able to sell to minors.

Organized crime can move in and take over a territory. When the product is already illegal, breaking anti-trust or competition laws isn’t an issue.

When it comes to marijuana, problems exist on both sides of the law. The marijuana that legal companies bring to the market is well-vetted and certifiably pure. Consumers know exactly what they are getting and where it came from. But slow governments have led to huge gaps in consumer demand that illegal dealers are happy to take advantage of. Compound that with the issue of a higher price for the legal goods, and the black market is far from dead.

As legal actions catch up to intentions, these problems may subside, but for now, both legal and black-market marijuana are here to stay.