Cannabis presents a plethora of challenges for entrepreneurs not seen in more traditional industries. Akin to the dot-com boom of the early 2000s, the cannabis industry has seen an astonishing flurry of business over the past decade. Within this dynamic landscape, new cannabis companies come and go on a near-daily basis.
To capitalize on novel markets’ potential, hopeful entrepreneurs from all walks of life have “jumped headfirst” into the cannabis space. This new breed of entrepreneurs must not only be smart, but they must also be challenging. Yet, as the cannabis industry evolves under the forces of legalization and innovation, our understanding of what defines cannabis entrepreneurs continues to change.
Cannabis businesses are shaped by the regulations, challenges and opportunities of specific market niches. As such, cannabis entrepreneurs have evolved with the environments in which they do business.
California & Proposition 215
California paved the way for the industry of today by legalizing medical cannabis in 1995. Since the passage of historic Proposition 215, cannabis has continued to gain momentum across the globe. This progress has happened through the visions and hard work of small business owners.
The early days of legal cannabis in California are now criticized for their lack of regulation. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, all you needed to start a cultivation business in California was a place to grow a garden. While early dispensaries did need local business licenses, they could legally purchase and sell untested products from unlicensed growers.
The genealogy of the modern cannabis industry can be traced directly back to the days of California’s Prop 215. During this era, the first cannabis dispensaries were founded – this model has since been replicated thousands of times. Also, the Prop 215 model gave rise to America’s first legal, commercial cannabis farms.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in California’s medical space focused primarily on developing the blueprints for a brand-new industry. To this end, they did not have the time or luxury to finetune the businesses for such things as operational efficiency and brand awareness. Even more, these people did not have to deal with such complexities as employee screening, product testing and seed-to-sale tracking.
Medical Cannabis Entrepreneurs
New medical markets stand in stark contrast to those seen in the early days of California. To this end, today’s medical markets operate within a web of stringent government regulations. For entrepreneurs, these rules set forth major emphases on both compliance and technology.
The Pennsylvania medical cannabis industry provides an excellent platform for understanding how the regulatory system of a market shapes entrepreneurial paths. For instance, medical cannabis cards are only issued to patients that meet the minimum criteria of 23 qualifying conditions, including severe conditions like aids, cancer and epilepsy. Beyond that, cannabis dispensaries in Pennsylvania must meet a slew of challenging criteria to operate and pay large sums of money in licensing fees.
To handle the regulatory requirements in places like Pennsylvania and remain profitable, medical cannabis entrepreneurs are incredibly dependent on technology. To this end, dispensaries utilize point-of-sale (POS) and seed-to-sale software to track inventory and stay compliant carefully. Even more, they use state-of-the-art security systems to safeguard their operations.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in medical markets must be able to run compliant operations and support their businesses with requisite technology. These elements stand in stark contradiction to the “wild west” mentality that pervaded the early industry. As such, it’s safe to assume that the rules of today’s markets force entrepreneurs to be more professional than in the days of CA Prop 215.
Adult-Use Cannabis Entrepreneurs
The most considerable difference between medical and adult-use cannabis companies has to do with their available customer base. Importantly, adult-use cannabis companies are only bound by minimum age requirements and state borders. Furthermore, limited restrictions on licensing create highly competitive markets that require sophisticated sales and marketing operations.
As there are no limits on potential customers, and limited regulations on license counts, business opportunities in adult-use markets are primarily directed by supply and demand rules. Because competition is the driving force in adult-use markets, entrepreneurs in this vertical have a good deal in common with peers outside the cannabis industry.
Perhaps the most defining characteristic of adult-use entrepreneurs is an emphasis on branding and marketing. As adult-use markets mature in places like Colorado, a phenomenon known as “brand concentration” occurs when a few companies come to dominate a majority of the market. As smaller companies fight for market share, they must develop professional brands that appeal to a broad customer base.
Cannabis entrepreneurs in adult-use markets must master the skills required in medical cannabis while also expanding their knowledge base in modern business dealings. Of these, the development of professional brands is one of the most defining characteristics of adult-use entrepreneurs.
It’s astonishing to see how much the cannabis industry has grown and matured looking back just a few short years. As business opportunities come about with new legalization efforts, entrepreneurs quickly rise to take advantage of untapped markets. As the cannabis business continues to evolve with the times, entrepreneurs must pivot to stay compliant, relevant and successful.
While the early Prop 215 market in California barely resembles today’s industry, it’s important to remember where we came from. Namely, our understanding of the contemporary cannabis business results from everyone who came before us. As the industry progresses, we will continue to complement established best practices with the requisite innovations that come with new opportunities.
The drug war has harmed communities of color since its inception. For decades and decades, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) have been nearly six times more likely to be arrested for drug use than White Americans, despite similar rates of use.
Over the years that legalized cannabis has proliferated across the country, the same trends of market consolidation have emerged in every state that has legalized the plant. BIPOC communities already impacted by the drug war have less access to capital and therefore less access to the cannabis industry. Cannabis market consolidation has always led to white people taking a greater market share while BIPOC communities are left behind.
The legal cannabis industry currently lacks representation of BIPOC executives, business owners, and professionals. Ernest Toney, former global marketing and partnerships manager at Marijuana Business Daily, wants to change that. He founded the BIPOC Cannabis Business Network – a membership community that is working to make the cannabis industry more accessible and profitable for BIPOC professionals and business owners.
BIPOCANN is a place to meet cannabis industry leaders, a place to exchange goods, services and ideas that promote BIPOC economic growth in cannabis, an innovation hub for unique voices and perspectives, and it’s all BIPOC-owned and managed.
In this interview, we sit down with Ernest Toney to hear about BIPOCANN and ask him some questions about what the future of the cannabis industry could look like.
Cannabis Industry Journal: Tell me about your background- how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
Ernest Toney: I grew up in Virginia and went to James Madison University where I studied kinesiology, and sports management in graduate school. That led me to pursue a career in sports administration, beginning as a sales and marketing director for a large YMCA in the southwest, followed by a stint as a sales consultant for the Arizona Diamondbacks in Major League Baseball. Immediately prior to joining the cannabis industry, I worked at USA Ultimate – the national governing body for the niche sport of ultimate (frisbee) in the United States. During that time, I managed and scaled adult programs and events across the country. A big part of my job required collaborating with national stakeholders and creating and enforcing policies to grow the sport by making it more accessible to diverse demographics. We also worked hard to increase the commercial visibility of the sport through mainstream media, including ESPN, with gender equity being a major focus area. It was cool because looking back, I learned a lot of things during that five-year period that is directly applicable to the work I’m doing to support the cannabis industry.
But my interest in the cannabis industry became strong when I moved to Denver in 2011, a year before Amendment 64 passed. When Colorado became the first adult use cannabis market in the USA, it was an exciting time. I have always been curious about economics and how policies can impact people’s lives. I was interested in what was going to happen when the new market opened.
Early on, I followed the industry trends very closely. Living in downtown Denver, I saw firsthand the effects the cannabis industry was having on day-to-day life, like increased tourism, a housing market boom, a lot of new start-ups, dispensaries opening everywhere. It was just something I knew I wanted to learn more about.
Around 2016, I started making industry connections, but didn’t pursue opportunities until a few years later. Eventually, I was hired in 2018 by MJBizDaily to focus on new business initiatives. Some of my past successes with scaling programs, national and international event management, and community-building aligned with what they were looking for.
I started as the company’s first international marketing manager. In that role, I was responsible for driving marketing campaigns to increase the company’s global readership, event registrations, and business conference presence in foreign markets. After the first year, I transitioned to identify and manage marketing partnerships for the company – which included international and domestic media, event, and affiliate partnerships within and outside of cannabis.
I felt compelled to make a change amidst the social unrest this summer. I was doing my own protesting and volunteer advocacy in Denver, but started to see more broadly, in the cannabis industry, that cannabis executives and companies were bringing attention to the fact that the War On Drugs has been problematic for minorities and communities of color. There was greater talk about social equity programs and how they are not as effective as they should be. There was greater attention to the fact that over 40,000 people are still incarcerated for the plant that others are profiting from – and that the people behind bars are predominantly coming from communities of color. I was in a position that afforded me the opportunity to see what the composition of the global cannabis industry looked like, and I could see minority representation was lacking in business ownership, leadership positions, and more.
I thought – what is the best way for me to use my talents, insights, and knowledge to affect and change this narrative? Ultimately, I decided to start my own business. Not only was this an opportunity for me to “walk the walk,” being a black man starting a business in this industry where there is a lack of black ownership, but more importantly I was uniquely positioned to be able to educate and let people know about the opportunities to be a part of the booming industry. So, I did some brainstorming and came up with a company, which is called BIPOCANN and it stands for connecting BIPOC communities to the cannabis industry.
The work I have been doing for the last quarter includes directly recruiting people into the industry. If you are curious and want to learn more about the industry, then BIPOCANN can be the entry point. We figure out what your goals are and use the network and our resources to get you connected and figure out where you want to go. Likewise, if you are a service provider, like a graphic designer, accountant, marketer or business owner for example, that sees opportunities for your business to play a role and support it from an ancillary standpoint, BIPOCANN can be an entry point for you too.
The other component to it is working with existing businesses who are trying to make the industry more accessible. I work with existing companies and brands to create platforms that amplify voices and make BIPOC folks more visible, seen and heard within the cannabis industry. We are also helping businesses increase their profitability through diversification tactics and marketing tactics that contribute to their bottom line.
CIJ: Tell me about BIPOCANN- what is it, what are your goals with this project and how has it been received so far?
Ernest: The prohibition of cannabis has disproportionately impacted communities of color in the Americas. I alluded to this earlier, but there are more than 40,000 people behind bars in the U.S. for cannabis possession and use. There’s evidence suggesting that Black Americans are up to six times more likely to get arrested for cannabis use than White Americans despite use rates being the same. And when you look at the makeup of the professional industry, there is poor representation of business ownership by people of color. The Cannabis Impact Fund references that only 4.3% of dispensaries are Black or Latinx-owned. These problems intersect in a lot of ways.
BIPOCANN is a small business working to make the cannabis industry more accessible and profitable for BIPOC professionals and business owners. Now, I know that one company cannot change 100 years of cannabis prohibition and how policy works. But if you want to make this industry more accessible, inclusive, and profitable for those who do not have the access then there are a lot of levers to pull. Policy is one. But BIPOCANN is using more direct strategies. We actively recruit people to come in and be a part of this industry, through employment, entrepreneurship, consulting, and collaborations.
We have also created the BIPOC Cannabis Business Network, a community where members can exchange services, network, and collaborate. It’s all about creating more opportunities for BIPOC professionals and business owners, and it’s a safe space to share your experiences and to ideate. Similar to your Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference, where there was a dedicated space for BIPOC folks to be seen and heard and tell their story through your virtual panels, we use our resources and network to help advocates for equity and access be seen, heard, and find opportunities to thrive as a business owner or professional.
CIJ: How do you hope BIPOCANN will be embraced by the cannabis community?
Ernest: I think it has been received well in its first quarter of business. We have had opportunities to share our story across a lot of platforms, including multiple cannabis industry conferences, podcasts, and interviews with varied media outlets. We are in startup mode, so currently we are about building a brand, being seen, and helping people understand what we are trying to achieve. We are working towards that right now. We have had some success and folks are supporting our vision and goals.
I am hoping the cannabis industry will look at BIPOCANN as another important resource within the social equity, business development, and networking landscape. I don’t want to be seen as a competitor to the organizations and individuals who have been doing similar work in this space, for much longer, but as an ally. Some of our approaches to bring new people into the industry will include strategically aligning communities and markets where we have strong ties – such as state governments, national nonprofits, and global cannabis networks.
CIJ: Where do you see the cannabis industry making progress with respect to diversity and including people of color?
Ernest: When I look at the types of conversations and coverage the industry is having, even compared to last year, it seems like more conferences, media entities, brands, and individual leaders are tuned in and trying to figure out how they can contribute to making this industry better, more equitable and more accessible. I am seeing a lot of more attention, attempts to understand where the gaps are and what to do about it.
When I take a step back to think of all the virtual conferences that have made dedicated conference tracks or even entire programs – like the National Association of Cannabis Business’ Social Equity Conference, the Emerge Canna Conference, the Cannabis Sustainability Symposium, and the Cannabis Industry Journal’s post-election social justice panel – or weekly segments from Black leaders like Dasheeda Dawson (She Blaze) and Tahir Johnson (The Cannabis Diversity Report) — those are good signs. They are creating opportunities for voices representing underserved communities in cannabis to share their perspectives and be advocates for change.
But there is still much to do and that includes greater education about the realities, histories, and challenges BIPOC and other minority communities are facing. Going back to the NACB, they recently drafted a social equity standard for state legislatures to use as a baseline for crafting policies and provisions for social equity programs. That and resources from organizations like the Minority Cannabis Business Association, Supernova Women, Cannaclusive, Minorities for Medical Marijuana, and the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council, for example are some useful resources for the industry.
Wana Brands is also continuing to do good work, and it was exciting to see them become the first sponsor of the inaugural Black CannaConference by the Black CannaBusiness Magazine. That was a great example of an industry leader using their dollars, marketing resources, and company values to support an event specifically dedicated to creating, developing, and enhancing Black entrepreneurs and businesses in the cannabis industry.
“It is hard to know what even a year from now will look like.”On the policy front, we just saw on election day cannabis having a ton of success at the polls, passing in every single state where there was a ballot measure.
Arizona did a good job with having social equity provisions directly included in the language on their ballot measure. I think for the states that have yet to draft a social equity program, they can look at what has worked well in some other states and also look at what has not worked well, like loopholes that invite predatory behaviors.
I’m excited to see that Governor Ralph Northam and the Virginia Marijuana Legalization Working Group are already identifying the best ways to make a recreational market a beneficial and sustainable one, and tackling how to incorporate social equity, racial equity, and economic equity into a future legalization bill. I am looking forward to learning more after an upcoming meeting with a Working Group member. Eventually, I hope to contribute towards any social equity efforts that will benefit my home state and hometown (a high poverty community that has been at the crossroads of America’s major civil rights movements, with a correctional facility that houses an inmate population equivalent to nearly 10% of the town population).
CIJ: Where do you see the industry moving in the next five years?
Ernest: Ha-ha! It is hard to know what even a year from now will look like.
Just this week the United Nations rescheduled cannabis, which is a big deal! We also saw the U.S. House of Representatives pass the MORE Act. We are inching closer towards federal legalization in the US and I think it will happen within that five-year timeframe, and it will be contentious. There will be compromises on things some folks don’t want compromises on, there will be more big money influencing the outcomes of the industry, and there will be unforeseen or unintended consequences to whatever the federal legislation looks like. I recently moderated a panel of social equity license holders, who felt that federal legalization would harm the disproportionately impacted areas (by the War on Drugs) even more! Their preference was to see cannabis de-scheduled and remain under state control.
I think federal legalization will bring another wave of major mergers and acquisitions, similar to what the Canadian market experienced in 2019, benefiting big business over small business.“We need folks who are educated and informed about these matters to be at the policymaking level to have a fighting chance.”
CIJ: Do you think we can change that?
Ernest: There are so many things at play. The legislators need to have diverse perspectives and representation from the folks in the industry, especially people of color who can speak to the impact that a century of prohibition policies have had on their communities. Those voices and stories need to be heard, but that type of representation is grossly lacking on Capitol Hill…which is all the more reason we need leaders from the aforementioned communities to have a seat at the table when decisions are made.
I say that because a lot of time there are unforeseen consequences when policies are created, so decision makers at the federal level can learn from those of us already doing the work on the local level. I recently had a conversation with a former journalist and colleague who is currently in a cannabis regulatory role. We were talking about how policy and operations intersect with social equity. He made the points that “many markets implement license caps, which are intended to prevent oversaturation of cannabis business (the idea being that density of outlets impacts use rates, and particularly youth use rates); in theory, that’s a good policy – but it comes with very real consequences for social equity applicants (because those licenses often go to the wealthiest applicants). License caps also artificially inflate the cost of those licenses (for a transfer of ownership), which also harms social equity applicants. Lotteries are also generally the result of policy and usually have disastrous results for the social equity applicant.”
So yeah – the rare opportunity to define a new industry that doesn’t just do business as usual, that can right its historical wrongs, and that will reward the communities that have been most harmed by cannabis enforcement, is now. And we need folks who are educated and informed about these matters to be at the policymaking level to have a fighting chance. The optimist in me says “we can do it!” The pessimist in me reminds me that it is 2020 and people still believe the Earth is flat. I’ll keep pushing for change, but I also won’t be surprised if this perfect opportunity to get it right goes wrong.
CIJ: How can people get involved in BIPOCANN?
Ernest: The best way to get involved is to visit www.bipocann.com and support our efforts by becoming an individual member or business member. Not only does that give you the opportunity to connect directly with other members in our business network, but it gives you the chance to be the first to be notified about the latest projects, events, and opportunities we’re working on to change the industry, how we can. By joining, you also directly support BIPOCANN’s goals, contribute to the operating budget of a black-owned business in cannabis, and support the nonprofit partners who we allocate a percentage of monthly sales towards.
You can also get involved by subscribing to our monthly newsletter through the website or by following our social media accounts @bipocann. We are also available for speaking, media, or consulting projects that support social equity, diversity, and inclusion in cannabis. For those types of inquiries, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), a co-sponsor for the bill and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, donned a cannabis leaf mask as he presided over the floor debate in the House of Representatives on the morning of December 4. After the debate on the floor, the House of Representatives voted 228 to 164 to pass the MORE Act.
While this vote is historic and should certainly be celebrated, it is unfortunately a mostly symbolic win. During the Post-Election Analysis episode of the Cannabis Quality Virtual Conference, Andrew Kline, director of public policy at the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), told attendees that this bill always had strong support in the House, but not enough support in the Senate. “You know I think there is pretty much a 100% chance of it passing the House,” Kline said back in early November. “I don’t think they would’ve scheduled the vote if they didn’t have the votes.”
Kline told attendees that Republican priorities are most likely to blame when the MORE Act fails to get enough support in the Senate. “The bigger question is what happens when it reaches the Senate and I think it is all but dead when it gets there,” says Kline. “Mitch McConnell has been reluctant to move any legislation over the past four years. He’s really ignored most legislation and particularly any legislation he doesn’t like. He doesn’t like cannabis and it appears to me he barely even likes hemp. He’s really not even fighting for the hemp industry.”
While the MORE Act likely doesn’t have a chance in the Senate, it passing the House is still a monumental moment in cannabis legalization history. This marks the first time in 50 years that Congress has revisited cannabis prohibition, according to Justin Strekal, political director of NORML. “This is a historic day for marijuana policy in the United States,” says Strekal. “By establishing this new trajectory for federal policy, we expect that more states will revisit and amend the archaic criminalization of cannabis, establish regulated consumer marketplaces, and direct law enforcement to cease the practice of arresting over half a million Americans annually for marijuana-related violations – arrests which disproportionately fall upon those on people of color and those on the lower end of the economic spectrum.”
Along with all of the success that cannabis had on Election Day, including five states legalizing it, the House passing this legislation is a symbol of shifting attitudes toward cannabis and serious progress on the federal legalization front.
The real question that should be asked is what will the 117th Congress do? If Democrats gain control in the Senate following the runoff elections in Georgia, it could reinvigorate the momentum behind this bill and offer a renewed breath of life.
While the 2020 Presidential election didn’t exactly end up in a clear landslide victory for the Democrats, there is one group that did well: the cannabis industry.
The results clearly show that the expansion of cannabis is a recognizable part of today’s society across the United States. States like New Jersey, for example, partly thanks to New York and Pennsylvania—which already allow the use of medical cannabis—traffic will start to force the state of New York’s hand and that’s a big chunk of the population of the Northeast.
If the question of legalization was on the ballot, it was an issue that overwhelmingly succeeded in delivering a clear mandate. Adult use of cannabis passed handily in Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and as mentioned above, New Jersey, and was approved for medical use in Mississippi and South Dakota.
With only 15 states remaining in the union that still outlaw the use of cannabis in any form, the new reality for the industry is here. All of these outcomes show promise as the industry’s recognition is growing.
Election outcomes and the position of the average American on cannabis
Americans are definitely understanding, appreciating and using cannabis more and more. It is becoming a part of everyday life and this election’s results could be the tipping point that normalizes the adult use of cannabis. It is becoming more widely understood as an effective and acceptable means to help manage stress and anxiety, aid in sleep and general overall wellbeing.
This image of cannabis is aided by the many different forms of consumption that exist now: edibles, transdermal, nano tech, etc. No longer does a consumer have to smoke—which isn’t accepted in many circles—to get the beneficial effects of cannabis.
Knowledge expansion is going to move these products across state lines and eventually, the federal government will have to take notice.
Do Democrats and Republicans view cannabis through the same lens?
Cannabis is and will always be state specific. Republicans in general tend to be a little bit more cautious and there are a lot of pundits who believe that as long as the Republicans control the senate, there isn’t much of a chance for federal legalization.
There is some hope, however, that the industry will get support from the Biden administration. While President-Elect Biden has been on record as being against legalization of cannabis at a federal level, even he will eventually see that the train has left the station and momentum continues to build. In fact, Biden’s tone has changed considerably while he running for president, adding cannabis decriminalization to the Biden-Harris campaign platform.
Ultimately, how cannabis is viewed from each side of the aisle matters less than how it is viewed at the state level.
Cannabis reform under Biden
Biden had an opportunity to legalize cannabis federally in the U.S. during the Obama administration and it didn’t happen. It’s clear that the mandates of the Biden-Harris administration are going to be overwhelmed by current issues, at least in the beginning: COVID-19, the economy and climate change, to name but three.
What will be interesting is if the Biden-Harris administration goes to greater lengths to decriminalize cannabis. For example, cannabis is still a Schedule 1 drug on the books, which puts it in the same class as heroin. Biden couldn’t unilaterally remove cannabis from all scheduling, but his government could reschedule it to reduce the implications of its use.
This could, however, create more problems than it solves:
“It’s generally understood, then, that rescheduling weed would blow up the marijuana industry’s existing model, of state-licensed businesses that are not pharmacies selling cannabis products, that are not Food and Drug Administration-reviewed and approved, to customers who are not medical patients.
Biden rescheduling cannabis “would only continue the state-federal conflict, and force both state regulators and businesses to completely reconfigure themselves, putting many people out of business and costing states significant time and money,” as Morgan Fox, chief spokesperson for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said in an email on Monday.” (Source)
In reality however, there is little chance that Biden will spend any political capital that he has, particularly if the Senate remains in Republican control, dealing with the legalization of adult use cannabis.
What needs to happen for legalization to become a reality
Outside of the law, if Trump suddenly decided to legalize adult use cannabis before leaving the White House, the states would still need to agree on issues such as possession, transportation, shipment and taxation.
It’s clear that further normalization of cannabis use is required—which will likely take a good couple of years—in order for it to become as understood and as simple as wine, liquor or cigarettes.
Beyond that, it’s Congress that dictated that cannabis be illegal at the federal level and it will have to be Congress that makes the decision to change that. Even the Supreme Court has been reluctant to get involved in the question, believing this to be an issue that should be dealt within the House.
What does all of this mean for investment in the cannabis industry?
Cannabis should be part of most long-term investors’ portfolios. Like a group of stocks in a healthy market with the right balance sheets, cannabis is an expanding industry and growth is there.
Whether or not this is specifically the right time to invest, it’s always important to evaluate each stock or each company individually, from the point of view of the merits of the investment and investment objectives, as well as risk tolerance perspectives.
There isn’t any unique or special place to buy into the cannabis industry, unless it is connected to some new real estate or other opportunity that is COVID-19 related. This moment in time isn’t really any different from any other when it comes to the opportunity to own some cannabis stocks. It’s always a good time.
The short term returns of this market shouldn’t be speculated upon. There are just way more factors than the fundamentals of a company that will affect the short-term play. The country is in a transition of power, in addition to much international change taking place that can also contribute to returns in the short term, making speculation unhelpful.
The cannabis market in 2021
The cannabis industry is likely to continue to expand and grow with the select companies acquiring more and more and getting back to their cash flow. Some companies will slowly be going out of business and/or will be acquired by others going into a certain consolidation period of time. Whatever the outcomes in specific tourism dominated markets, the industry as a whole can really go in one direction.
The cannabis marketplace is an ever changing one. The opportunities being generated in the UK space are immense. Yet despite the countless benefits cannabis can bring to the economy, patient care and supporting health and wellness for consumers, an image problem continues to persist.
Despite its expansive growth, there is still a lot of uncertainty and misinformation. Having worked with several cannabis businesses in recent years, I firmly believe there are a myriad of ways in which the industry can benefit from PR support. A strong PR strategy can not only drive media coverage, but help to reach customers, shorten sale cycles, bolster brand reputation and drive change within political and regulatory circles.
Whether you are a flourishing cannabis brand, a start-up or ancillary cannabis business, PR can help you stand out from the competition and become a credible voice in this competitive market.
Here are some key ways in which cannabis businesses can profit from PR:
Campaigning for progress
Each category of the cannabis sector faces its own reputational challenges. Medical cannabis is perhaps the most significant of these, yet it still goes largely misunderstood by the general public. This, along with regulatory restrictions and a lack of education in the clinical community means cannabis stigma continues to exist.
For the thousands of patients suffering with the likes of multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, still struggling to access this fully legal drug, this is a tragic, pressing issue. There are several families and individuals across the UK who campaign for medical cannabis access to be improved, by leveraging their story via the press and lobbying Parliament. Some of these high-profile families have been supported through strategic communications at The PHA Group, most notably Hannah Deacon, the mother who successfully campaigned for the first NHS cannabis license for her son, as well as the parents of toddler Charlie Hughes, who are currently seeking Judicial Review against NICE.
Both cases offer strong proof of the powerful role PR can play in supporting those in need of medical cannabis. Through speaking to media and generating coverage of the stories of both families, the complex issue of medical cannabis access has been thrust into the public eye, this in turn putting fresh pressure on the Government to address this through much-needed change. For cannabis leaders and professionals looking to invest in PR, it is critical that your PR partner understands the key issues, culture and complexities of the industry to create credible stories and campaigns to gain cut through in the media.
CBD is the most established sector of the UK cannabis industry, having become firmly attached to the lifestyle scene in recent years with its broad spectrum of health and wellness products. With approximately 7.3 million people in the UK using CBD products each year through a market already worth an estimated £300 million, the industry is predicted to grow at a rapid rate, with experts claiming this figure will more than triple in the next five years.
Despite its impressive growth, the industry has faced its own stumbling blocks. Until this year, CBD had been in a period of regulatory uncertainty and the industry faced understandable criticism when high profile cannabis probes found over half of the most popular CBD oils did not contain the amount of CBD promised on the label. This did nothing to help the already precarious public perception of CBD in the UK, meaning firms have had to work extremely hard to heal their reputations and ensure their brands are deemed trustworthy by consumers going forward.
With hundreds of brands claiming to be the best option, establishing credibility and becoming a trusted voice is key. Educating your audience by positioning company experts will help to keep your audience up to speed on the most current information and allow your brand to achieve an authoritative voice within the cannabis space.
Driving awareness drives revenue. It doesn’t matter if your story and products are revolutionary if nobody knows they exist! PR can help build a narrative which conveys the purpose of your business, along with its vision and products, whilst promoting key insights to keep your company relevant. The power of public relations in this regard is very similar to that of positive word-of-mouth.
Strategic brand building
Cannabis companies can’t advertise like mainstream companies, so they must tread carefully in the marketing of their products. However, there are great possibilities within PR. Through case studies and careful product placement, PRs can work carefully with CBD companies to raise awareness of the benefits of their products and solidify their brand image, without risking trouble with the ASA. With CBD brands and manufacturers springing up left and right, there are opportunities aplenty for PR firms to lend support, whether that’s from a consumer perspective, across food and drink, beauty or general wellness, or from a strategic business view.
Stories sell. It’s vital for a brand that wants to develop a sustainable, long-term plan to build a story which resonates with its audience. Strategic PR can therefore increase brand value and coupled with a digital marketing and social media strategy, boost engagement and elevate the profile of the business.
A wealth of opportunities
The legal cannabis industry is gaining traction and is one to watch. In relation to medical cannabis, the industry has called for change to improve patient access and pressure has been exerted on the government and regulatory bodies to normalise cannabis as an effective treatment for a myriad of health conditions In parallel, the CBD sector is only set to grow and in recent years, there has been increasing interest and investment into hemp, a versatile variety of the cannabis plant hailed as the next big thing in sustainability.
Cannabis is a commonplace yet spectacularly complex plant. It therefore needs a PR strategy which can uncover key angles and opportunities across a multitude of avenues to position brands within the space for success and growth.
Whilst there is still much to learn and navigate in cannabis, PR has an important role to play in changing attitudes as the industry continues to expand and evolve. I am excited to see where it goes next.
If you have never heard of the terms social capital or social homophily, you are not alone. To many in the cannabis space, these terms are quite foreign to them, but as we’ll find out, also quite crucial to them.
That’s okay. You’re not a social scientist, human geographer, macro nor micro sociologist, so why would you? However, I can guarantee that your life has been influenced by these two sociological paradigms, and if you’re a working member of the cannabis industry, these are the two theories that could result in your business failing, you ending up in jail or even bankrupt.
Don’t like capitalism? Tough.Let’s talk in layman’s terms.
Social capital: this wonderful theory can, in its essence, be described as the science behind “street cred.” Social capital refers to the lived social networks and relationships that you are a member of. Examples include: family, friendship groups, work colleagues, et cetera.
Social homophily: this even more excellent theory decides your social groups before they solidify. Homophily is the ability of the individual to only associate, and subsequently bond with, those that have similar interests, passions…
Together, these two theories work together to first decide upon your social groups (homophily), and subsequently lead to the building of tighter social networks (capital).
So, how does this relate to cannabis?
Unfortunately, like any other billion-dollar industry, cannabis will eternally depend on politics, the economy and men in suits. For want of a more succinct phrase, the cannabis industry depends on capitalism. Why? Because it’s a business, just like any other, and businesses live and die by whom you’re friends with.
Don’t like capitalism? Tough.
Herein lies the issue with the big players leading the cannabis industry: you guys play horribly with the people that control your fate.
The easiest way to normalize a trend is to have all of the most important people in the world doing itCannabis is still federally illegal, and the general belief is that it has remained this way because the United States government does not yet have a big enough reason to legalize it. Ask any left-leaning sociologist, economist, or political scientist and they’ll tell you the honest truth: the people who run the cannabis industry do not have any influence over bankers, oil tycoons, major industry leaders, or any of the men in suits that you need to be friends with to get anything done in this country.
Think of it like this: the argument for the legalization of cannabis in Europe centers around alcohol. If you were walking home one night and you cut through an alleyway, who would you rather bump into: a drunk looking for a fight, or a stoner looking for a box of chocolate cookies? It’s a logical argument that plays to both the lowest common denominator, and the highest ranks of British government.
The thing is though; as we discussed in my last piece, cannabis is normalized across Western Europe, and so we don’t have the same issues as the United States.
In the United States, the sensible person wouldn’t walk down the alleyway in the first place. Therefore, we have to first normalize cannabis with normal Americans, and then look to legalize.
The easiest way to normalize a trend is to have all of the most important people in the world doing it. However, the cannabis industry is wrought with incompetence that consistently marginalizes the space from societal norms, which is precisely why cannabis is still illegal, and why you’re killing your future business endeavors before they’ve begun.
The End Goal
I was recently told that I didn’t know enough slang to write for a cannabis company. Firstly, I had actually taken all of the slang terms from another member of the company (which was just plain embarrassing for the wannabe industry leader, but I wasn’t surprised – I mean, this is what I do), and secondly, can we all please read the article I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how using slang is one of the most detrimental moves that the cannabis consistently makes that further reduces legalization efforts.
Put on a suit, talk to your local councilman, pay your taxesDo you see HSBC or Chase using slang in their advertising campaigns?
What major political leaders have you seen trying to create divisions between them and those not “cool” enough to be in their gang?
I have no evidence to back this up, but I’m fairly confident that the Koch brothers have never used a skateboard as a consistent mode of transportation to or from work.
As a macro and micro sociologist, I can’t stress this enough: if you want your business to become legitimate, then you have to stop being legit. Most folks in the cannabis industry don’t want to be friends with big bankers, oil tycoons and billionaire businessmen, but creating such an inherent divide between the cannabis business and the rest of the working world ensures that our children will still go to jail in more than half of US states just for smoking a joint.
Time to Swallow Your Pride?
If you are reading this, and are currently an active member or leader in the cannabis industry, then please put your version of ‘street cred’ to the side. Your actions are the reason that most of your businesses fail, the reason you get robbed and don’t have the law on your side, why we have such huge numbers of minority men in our prisons, and more importantly its the reason that the rest of the real world sees you as irresponsible potheads, and not the innovators you could be.
You have the tools to make one of the biggest political changes for two-thousand years, so why not grow up, take one for the team, and have you and your business’s legacy revolve around the good you did for your fellow man, not as the ‘cool kid.’
Social homophily: You and the big business world want the same thing- legalization. Even Monsanto is getting in on the cannabis game, and I’d rather work for them and see actual change than sit in a room full of men smoking at their desks while they sell cannabis from a dark, illegal dispensary.
Social capital: Unfortunately, the big business world wins here. Put on a suit, talk to your local councilman, pay your taxes, realize that the world doesn’t revolve around you, but it will if you play by their rules. You can still be a weekend hippy, but stop doing it in public. The world isn’t ready… yet.
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