THE BLOG

The Common Ground Between Advocacy and Business in the Cannabis Industry

03/11/2015 12:17 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2015

The growth of the medical marijuana movement presents a unique opportunity for advocacy groups to work hand-in-hand with the business community in order to bring about positive social change. Historically, advocates for important social reforms like the 40-hour week and safer working conditions had an understandably anti-business orientation. But when we're talking about providing greater access to medical marijuana, such an attitude is less than helpful. In fact, it's counter-productive. I believe if that fact were merely recognized and accepted by both medical marijuana activists and the business community, we would be much closer to establishing national acceptance than we are today.

Changing state law to allow access to medical marijuana always starts with advocacy. Most likely groups like NORML will have been agitating for years, and individual patients' rights groups will have formed around specific issues like access for children with epilepsy or veterans with PTSD. Eventually the Marijuana Policy Project, the largest organization working solely on marijuana policy reform, will start backing the local movements by injecting capital and other resources as part of an organized push for either a statewide initiative or legislative action. Although that is an oversimplification, it paints a picture of the landscape.

Usually, once a state law has been enacted to allow for access, the advocates quiet down and business rules the day. Licensees, who are above all businesspeople thrilled at this newfound opportunity, plow full steam ahead. They raise money, build infrastructure, create jobs, and serve the community.

Although they have common interests, the link between businesspeople and advocacy groups is never formally cemented and no long-term commitments are ever made. It seems like every other big (or growing) industry understands the need for advocacy at the local and federal level. This is true across the board, not only for industries like ours which reside in a controversial space. This is reflected in the effectiveness of groups like the National Restaurant Association or the American Medical Association.

Our industry has failed to create an effective symbiosis and I lay the blame on both groups. I will start with the business element; since I am part of that contingency, I am more comfortable calling out my closest colleagues. Far too many of us fail to acknowledge that, although it may be legal to run a cannabis business in your state today, it wasn't yesterday and it may not be tomorrow. State rules can change, and even in instances where access expands, that doesn't mean those in the business will have a seat at the table. California is the greatest example of this. Those currently operating dispensaries in California are doing so without state licensure (as none exists). The fact that millions of dollars from the current industry participants are not pouring into advocacy and lobbying efforts to ensure California eventually does standardize licensing, and when they do, to maintain a window of opportunity for those previously operating, is mind-boggling.

All you have to do is look at the online gaming fiasco to see what could happen. Online poker sites were previously licensed offshore but doing business in the United States. When the U.S. finally accepted the reality of online gambling and allowed licensing, one of the first regulations was to ban participation by companies who had previously operated without a license. The result was the domestic closure of all the major online poker sites and a huge advertisement at the Las Vegas airport promoting real money online poker now available at WSOP.com (owned by Harrah's). Why did this happen? Because the "big business" folks understood the link between advocacy/lobbying and business, and at the end of the day the Las Vegas casino corporations were the primary supporters of the new landscape, and of course they helped influence it being set up in their favor.

In addition to the possibility of being shut out of their current marketplaces, the cannabis business community must understand that success in their state is partially reliant on the growth of the overall marketplace and success in other states. The best thing for a licensee in Illinois is to have Missouri legalize medical cannabis. The ideal situation would be for the operators in Illinois to somehow leverage their experience in that state to access licenses in their neighboring state. The only way this has a chance of happening is for the advocacy side to be successful. For that to occur, they need money and a commitment of resources.

To be fair, the advocacy groups have not done any better in forging lasting alliances. In fact, my biggest gripe with this community is their widespread distancing of their agenda from capitalism. Most, if not all, of the prominent drivers of social change on this issue have some part of their platform addressing the fact that this is about patients first. A downward spiral then ensues where, because it's patients first, it must mean business second... or third or last or somehow altogether evil. Without successful businesses, patients will have nowhere to access the medicine that they fought so hard to get. Without successful businesses, there is no money to be poured into advocacy to open access in new states and hopefully once and for all, federally, which is the core mission of groups like the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA). There is absolutely no arguing this point. If that is the case, why is business so evil? It would be like a group that is fighting for family rights having part of their platform be anti-sex. Without sex you make no babies, and without successful business, patients have no cannabis.

Advocates and cannabis business owners have considerable common ground, but until they are willing to combine their efforts and wage a unified campaign, it's going to continue to be a much harder fight than it should be.