As state legalization measures begin to legitimatize the US cannabis industry, stakeholders, both those currently in the industry and those who plan to join in the not-too-distant future, grapple with the best ways to right the wrongs from the decades-old War on Drugs. While some stakeholders support residency requirements and setting aside a percentage of a state’s cannabis licenses for social equity and economic empowerment applicants, others contend that these solutions are discriminatory. Reuters reports that lawsuits against social equity programs have been filed in Michigan, Illinois, Missouri and Maine, and some have received decisions that rule against existing social equity programs. While there is disagreement on the best way to create an equitable cannabis industry, few dispute that we’re dealing with an oppressive legacy against low-income individuals and people of color and the cannabis industry is in a unique position to shape a socially responsible industry that focuses not just on profits, but also on the greater good.
Challenges for Social Equity Applicants and Licensees
Currently, Black Americans make up 13% of the US national population, but own less than two percent of cannabis businesses owners, according to Leafly’s Jobs Report 2021. Why? There are five primary factors.
In most states, cannabis licenses are expensive and difficult to get. The application process requires a team of experienced individuals to work on everything from finding and negotiating real estate contracts; to vetting and hiring architects, safety, and security consultants; to working with community stakeholders to gain local approval.
After the pieces are in place, applicants have to write it all down, which is a challenge in itself. It is not uncommon for one state cannabis application to be over one hundred pages.
Since cannabis is still federally illegal and listed as a Schedule 1 drug, it’s nearly impossible to get a business loan to fund the application process or, if an individual is lucky enough to get a provisional license, to renovate or build out cannabis cultivation, processing and/or retail facilities.
Because of the low-income status of many social equity applicants, few have access to accredited investors or low interest loans.
Finally, if an individual or organization makes it through the application process and receives both a license and funding to operate, they face ongoing operational challenges including ever-changing laws, rules and regulations. Maintaining compliance is a process in and of itself.
If cannabis industry stakeholders don’t make honest efforts to provide real solutions to these challenges in the near future, inequalities will proliferate.
Current State of Social Equity in the US Cannabis Industry
To help mend the harms of the War on Drugs and reduce the institutional challenges faced by marginalized individuals, some states have instituted social equity programs that prioritize cannabis business licenses to those previously incarcerated on cannabis-related convictions and/or those who live in zip codes with high incarceration rates for drug crimes. Some states broaden the social equity lens and include women- and veteran-owned businesses in social equity programs.
The goal of social equity laws is to ensure that people from communities disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and discriminatory law enforcement are included in the new legal marijuana industry. Policymakers are working to address criticisms that outsiders are setting up legal cannabis businesses and profiting by doing the same things their less fortunate neighbors were arrested and given jail time for just a few years ago.
By prioritizing social equity applicants, our industry is starting to bridge the access gap and improve the odds that previously marginalized individuals will make it into the C-suite and other influential positions. But is it enough? Many argue that social equity programs won’t make a real difference until more programs include low-interest loans and/or provide access to capital sources and ongoing support after licensure.
Although social equity programs vary, many require applicants to live in a zip code with a high incarceration rate for drug crimes or have a state residency requirement, meaning that social equity applicants must have lived in the state for an established number of years before they can qualify for social equity status. In some states, municipalities are tasked with creating these programs as is the case in Los Angeles and Oakland, California.
While some states offer social equity applicants priority consideration for their licensing applications, others offer reduced application and licensing fees, technical assistance, entry into an incubator program specifically designed for social equity applicants and/or apprenticeship opportunities.
Although social equity programs focus on developing business leaders with marginalized racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, other components of these programs often include criminal justice reform, such as revising resentencing guidelines and expungement requirements for those with cannabis-related convictions. The MORE Act, for example, not only calls for federal legalization, but also for reassessing the legal status of cannabis-related convictions, arrests, and prison sentences.
US States with Cannabis Social Equity Programs
When Colorado and Washington voted in favor of adult-use cannabis legalization nearly a decade ago, lawmakers were tasked with drafting regulations for what a legal marketplace would look like in their respective states. Although legalization efforts focused on the inequities of prohibition, the War on Drugs, and the legal cannabis industry, social justice initiatives were not initially included.
Out of the 19 states with adult-use cannabis, 13 have developed social equity programs to help marginalized people become cannabis leaders in their markets. States that incorporated social equity programs into initial adult-use cannabis legislation include Massachusetts, California, New Jersey, New York, New Mexico, Michigan, Vermont, Illinois, Connecticut, Arizona and Virginia. Although Colorado and Washington’s laws initially did not include social equity programs, both states are now in the process of implementing them.
It’s important to note that not all US states with legal cannabis programs take the social equity approach. States with legal adult-use programs but without social equity programs include Montana, South Dakota, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Alaska.
After Social Equity Licensure
For those social equity applicants who receive operational licensure, there is the ongoing issue of compliance. As if there were not enough pressure on social equity applicants and license holders, maintaining state-compliant businesses and developing internal policies and procedures that drive brand awareness and loyalty can be a challenge. The hard reality is that admission into a social equity program and even obtaining licensure does not ensure a business leader’s success. Besides increased access to capital, expanding social equity programs to include post-licensure support, at least for the first year or two, would improve the odds of long-term success.
All in all, social equity programs in the US cannabis industry have begun to make a difference and right some of the wrongs of the War on Drugs, but there is still work to be done. To build an industry that improves lives not only with cannabis products but also with financial opportunity, we must continue to prioritize and expand current social equity programs and fight for new social equity programs in all legal cannabis states.
According to a press release published on February 8, a number of associations, advocacy organizations and cannabis businesses launched the U.S. Cannabis Council (USCC), which they claim is the largest coalition of its kind.
The 501(c)4 nonprofit organization goals are to advance social equity and racial justice, and end federal cannabis prohibition, according to their debut press release. The USCC says it will focus on federal reforms that achieve those goals above as well as promoting a safe and fair cannabis market on a national level.
The USCC’s Interim CEO is Steven Hawkins, who is also the executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, which is one of the founding members of the USCC. “USCC is a unified voice advocating for the descheduling and legalization of cannabis,” says Hawkins. “Legalization at both the state and federal level must include provisions ensuring social equity and redress for harms caused to communities impacted by cannabis prohibition.”
In the press release, Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) is quoted saying he is looking forward to working with the USCC on Capitol Hill. “As founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus, I’ve seen firsthand that our most successful cannabis wins have been secured by a team,” says Rep. Blumenauer. “That’s why I am glad to see this first-of-its-kind alliance. We have a unique opportunity in the 117th Congress to advance cannabis reform, but we must remain united to create the change we know is possible.”
Founding members of the USCC include Acreage Holdings, Akerna Corp, the American Trade Association of Cannabis and Hemp, Canopy Growth, the Cannabis Trade Federation, Cresco Labs, MedMen, Marijuana Policy Project, PharmaCann, Vireo, Wana and much more. For a full list of its founding members, visit their website here.
THC as of February of 2019, certainly in the recreational sense, was not much seen in either Switzerland or much of Europe. Even in Holland, the coffee shops were getting more regulated along with the supply chain for them. In Spain, the cannabis clubs thrived in a grey area. But outside of these two very narrow exceptions, the biggest, most valuable part of the cannabis market (medical and THC) was just as fraught with similar kinds of issues. And those were occurring not in Spain, Holland or even Switzerland, but just across the border, in Germany.
In fact, the real news on the industry side in Europe, as it had been for the past few years, was not the consumer CBD market, however intriguing and potentially valuable it was in the foreseeable future, but the medical, and “other” cannabinoid universe that included THC. And the real triggering event for the beginning of the European march towards reform was certainly influenced by what happened both in the United States and Canada as much as Israel. Where it landed first and most definitively was not Holland, circa 2014, or even Switzerland or Spain soon thereafter, but rather Deutschland.
The Canadian market without a doubt, also created an impetus for European reform to begin to roll right as German legislators changed the laws about medical cannabis in 2017. But even this was a cannabis industry looking to foreign markets that they presumably knew were developing (if not had a direct hand in doing so, including in Berlin, come tender-writing time).
Divorced from inside knowledge about moving international affairs, why did Germany – certainly as opposed to its certainly more “liberal” DACH trading partner Switzerland- suddenly turn up in the summer of 2016 as the “next” hot thing for Canadian cannabis companies?
The answer is in part political, certainly economic, and absolutely strategic.
Germany is in the EU, unlike Switzerland, and is a G7 country.6 It also was, by 2016, certainly much closer to legalizing federally authorized and insurer-reimbursed medical use cannabis. This was because sick patients had by this time successfully sued the government for access (including home grow). And the government, citing concerns about the black market and unregulated cannabis production (see Canada) wanted another option.
Not to mention was a market, certainly in 2016, helped with a little CETA inspired “juice.”
The international trade treaty between Canada and the EU (if not the other big treaty, the pharmaceutically focused Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) with the U.S.) has been in the back of the room throughout the entire cannabis discussion during the expansion of the Canadian industry across Europe. It is still unclear at this writing if the juxtaposition of CETA and the start of the Canadian cannabis trade had anything to do with lengthening the process of the German cultivation bid – but given how political the plant had also become, this was at this point more than a reasonable assumption to make.
As a result so far at least, since the beginning of the real German cannabis market in 2016 (namely the beginning of an import market from not just Holland but Canada) and Europe beyond that, Canadian companies have played an outsize role (starting with bankrolling operations in the first place). The growth of the Canadian market as well as developments within it absolutely spawned if not sparked the change if not beginning of the changeover within Europe by starting, of all places, with Germany.
But again, why Germany? And why the coalescence of the industry as well as other Euro hot spots outside its borders since then?
There are several explanations for this.
One is absolutely timing and strategic positioning.
Germany had, since 2015, begun the slow process of dealing with the medical cannabis issue on a federal basis, informed if not greatly influenced not only by what was happening in events abroad in Canada and the U.S. but also Israel. At home, there was also pressure to begin to address the issue. Albeit highly uncomfortably and at least in the eyes of the majority of centrist legislators, as far at a distance as possible.
Namely, patient lawsuits against insurers began to turn in favor of patients. Technically, between the turn of the century and 2016, patients could buy cannabis in pharmacies with a doctor’s prescription in Germany. But it was hugely expensive and beyond that a cumbersome process. Only 800 patients in fact, by 2017 had both managed to find doctors willing to prescribe the drug and could afford the €1,500 (about $1,700) a month to pay for it.
Everyone else, despite nobody’s willingness to admit it, found their supplies in the grey (non-profit patient collective) or black (street and largely criminally connected) market.
Günther Weiglein, a patient from Wurzburg, a small town in Bavaria, changed all of that.
In 2015, he won his court case against his insurer, claiming that even though he qualified as a patient, he could not afford the cannabis for sale in pharmacies. With that, he and a few patients temporarily won the right to grow their own (with permission).
Weiglein is the epitome of the German “everyman.” Blond, stocky and in his fifties, he has suffered chronic pain since a devastating motorcycle crash more than two decades ago. He has also taken to the cannabis cause with a dedication and singularity of purpose that sets him apart even from most other patient activists (in Germany or elsewhere). He is fiercely independent. And not afraid of expressing his desire for a “freedom” that has not yet come.
However, in 2015, there seemed to be several intriguing possibilities.
Indeed, at the time, it seemed possible, in fact, that Germany seemed poised to tilt in the direction of Canada – namely that patient home grow would be enshrined as a kind of constitutional right.
However, it did not turn out that way. Desperate to stem the pan European black market, which is far more directly connected to terrorism of the religious extremist and Mafia kind in these waters and to avoid a situation where Berlin became the next Amsterdam, the German parliament decided on a strange compromise.
On one level, it seems so predictably orderly and German. If cannabis is a medicine, then Germans should be able to access the same through national health insurance.
In fact, however, the process has been one that is tortured and has been ever since, not to mention compounded the difficulties of just about everyone connected to the market. From patients to producers.
“In practice it has so far not evolved quite so smoothly.”Here is why. The government decided that, as of passage of a new law which took effect in March 2017, the German government would regulate the industry via BfArM, the German equivalent of the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and issue formal federal cultivation licenses.
This makes sense from a regulatory perspective too. Cannabis can be used as a medical drug. Even if its definition as a “narcotic” – even on the medical side – leaves a lot to be desired.
This is especially true on the CBD part of the equation. It is even more particularly relevant for those who use THC regularly for not only chronic pain, but as an anti-convulsive or anti-inflammatory agent.
However unlike Canada, the German federal government also chose to revoke patient grow rights while mandating that insurers cover the cost of the drug if prescribed by a doctor. In practice also spawning a specialty distributor market that is still forming.
All very nice in theory. In this abstract world, these rules make sense for a pharmacized plant if not drug beyond that. This is the route all other medicines in Germany take to get into the market if not prescribed in the first place.
In practice it has so far not evolved quite so smoothly. Indeed, while understandable for many reasons from stemming the black market to setting standards, this rapid switch from patient or collective grown cannabis to requiring patients to interact with both a doctor and a pharmacy (beyond the insurer) with no other alternative also creates its own serious problems. For everyone along the supply chain. But most seriously and problematically for both patients and doctors.
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.
There is an ineffable logic to the pace of reform these days. Nowhere is that clearer in both the success of voter reform measures in the United States (along with timelines for implementation baked into the language of the same) and developments internationally. No matter that New Zealand decided to take a recent punt on the issue, there are other forces moving elsewhere that have the potential to be far more consequential – and in the short term.
Israel Announced Its Intent To Create A Recreational Market in 2021
There is little news anywhere as consequential as that of the oldest medical market finally succumbing to the inevitable. Namely, Israel has announced that it will allow an adult use market to begin operations probably by the third quarter of 2021. That said, don’t hold anyone to a deadline in the days of COVID-19, which will just as surely have not passed by then.
However, this development means that the entire conversation has moved up a notch – because the Israelis have so much research on the plant at this point.
For this reason, the tiny country is likely to have an outsized impact on the entire discussion – along with conveniently timed medical exports to the world.
Luxembourg Will Initiate Its Recreational Market Shortly Thereafter
It is likely not insignificant that the Israelis announced their intent to begin an adult use market just ahead of the long-announced Luxembourg flip – now on the agenda of the Green Party domestically for several years.
The strategic location of Luxembourg in both the European market as well as the much larger financial one now interested in the vertical cannot be understated. Indeed, the country has already played an outsized role in the development of the medical market here due to the contretemps over the clearing of stock trades in the German market as of 2018.
The double whammy of good news from both markets will also create a buzz internationally that is sure to drive other conversations forward – even if it is to study how both countries approach the issue. And, more to a point, how they differ from Canada, including regulation of their equity markets.
Combined with a more regulated market in Holland and presumably continued “experimentation” in Denmark, and by the end of next year, adult use reform will have hit the continent and in no small way.
Does This Mean The Sudden Potential of Adult Use Everywhere?
As 2020 has shown, in spades, just about anything can and frequently does happen. However, do not expect many more countries to move into the recreational column for the next several years.
Whatever the UN does or does not do about cannabis at the next meeting of the WHO, cannabis the plant remains a Schedule I drug internationally. This means that, for example, import and export of the same across borders, even in Europe, is likely to be problematic and for some time to come – let alone its international travel across say, the Atlantic.
Further from the law enforcement and financial security (namely money laundering) perspective, there are big issues that have to be dealt with finally, internationally, that so far have not – and under the guise of “medical reform.”
For that reason, in other words, do not expect Germany, much less France or even the UK to suddenly switch gears. And remember that both Luxembourg and Israel are small countries.
Bottom line? Adult use reform is here to stay, and will increasingly show up on the map. But the more “blanket” reform, still driving the entire discussion, is broadly, and globally, medical.
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.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include the presidential and congressional election results.
While the votes continue to come in for the presidential and congressional elections and we have some concrete results materializing, cannabis legalization has emerged as a clear winner across the board. Five states had initiatives on the ballot to legalize cannabis in one form or another and voters in all five states approved those measures by wide margins.
As of this writing, 15 states now have legalized adult use cannabis and 36 states have legalized medical cannabis. That is a significant portion of the United States with some form of legal cannabis, even without counting the emergent hemp markets across the country.
After a tight race and mail-in vote counts diminishing President Trump’s lead days following the election, Joe Biden has won the White House. Most cannabis industry stakeholders see this as a win for cannabis as both Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris have voiced support for federal decriminalization of cannabis. The vocal support is very much so tied to their campaign on ending racial injustices and systemic racism, citing the failed war on drugs for disproportionately harming communities of color.
While it is looking like the Democrats will retain control of the House of Representatives, it is still unclear which party will control the Senate. That question likely won’t be answered until January 2021, when voters in Georgia will decide on two Senate seats in runoff elections that will decide which party gets the majority. With a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, it is entirely possible that the Biden administration could decriminalize cannabis on a federal level within the next four years. Without that majority, however, it is possible reform could come at a much slower pace.
As more states legalize cannabis, their neighbors see the potential economic benefits and want to cash in on the movement. Just take a look at the West Coast.
Well, New Jersey legalized adult use cannabis. So now it appears we are in a waiting game to see which neighboring state will move forward before the other. Alyssa Jank, consulting services manager at Brightfield Group, predicts cannabis sales in New Jersey to reach about $460 million in 2021, up from about $94 million this year. She says the market could reach $1.5 billion by 2025.
Sam D’Arcangelo, director of the Cannabis Voter Project, a division of HeadCount, says the New Jersey measure is pretty bare-bones, so the legislature will need to pass enabling legislation that actually creates the adult-use program. “It’s tough to tell exactly what that legislation will look like or how long it will take to pass, but it’s possible it will be approved pretty quickly,” says D’Arcangelo. “Tonight’s results could set off a domino effect that inspires lawmakers to move forward with legalization in a number of states throughout the region.”
Let’s take a closer look at Arizona: Back in 2016, Arizona had a measure on the ballot to legalize adult use cannabis that failed to get enough votes. Things have clearly changed in the state in the last four years because Prop. 207 (the 2020 ballot initiative to legalize adult use cannabis) won 59.8% to 40.2%. Arizona now joins a massive West Coast bloc of states slowly creeping inland that have legalized adult use cannabis, including, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada and now Arizona, not to mention Montana. Drug Policy Alliance’s Emily Kaltenbach believes that New Mexico will follow suit as well, with three out of four voters in the state in favor of it.
Voters in Mississippi approved a medical cannabis program by a wide margin with almost 74% in favor. Even more encouraging, voters in the state rejected the legislature’s attempt to hijack the initiative with their own alternative measure that would have involved developing their own program as they see fit without any sort of deadline.
While Montana can tend to lean slightly Democrat, it is surrounded by heavily Republican-dominated states like Wyoming and Idaho. With both Montana and South Dakota voters approving adult use legalization measures, this presents a potential inroad for cannabis to reach far more conservative states in the Northern Rockies and beyond.
Greg Kaufman Partner at Eversheds Sutherland and frequent Cannabis Industry Journal contributor, says this election puts considerable pressure on Congress to take some action on one or more of the cannabis-related bills currently pending. “In several states, cannabis was more popular than the winning presidential candidate, regardless of the party of the winning candidate,” says Kaufman. “This suggests that cannabis is not a partisan issue, nor should it be.”
The 15 states that have legal adult use cannabis now represents about 34% of the population in our country. “During the most divisive election in modern U.S. history, Americans demonstrated unity around at least one issue – cannabis policy reform,” says Aaron Smith, co-founder and chief executive officer of the National Cannabis Industry Association. He says the victories we saw this week are commendable and will lead to a lot of new jobs, tax revenue and thousands of fewer arrests, but there is still a lot of work to be done. “We look forward to building on this progress as we continue to work with Congress to end the conflict between outdated federal laws and the growing number of states with regulated cannabis markets, and help undo the racially and economically disparate harms caused by prohibition.”
While we wait to hear who will control the Senate in 2021, which will have a massive impact on cannabis reform, we leave you with this great quote from Aaron Smith: “There is still a lot of work to do, but the wind is at our backs.”
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.
The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly impacted the cannabis industry, no matter where you are. However, the impact of a global virus outbreak and subsequent economic recession has had a mixed impact overall on the industry, and further against a backdrop where the entire conversation of reform is also now an international one.
While the big international decisions were slowed down deliberately, as a result of the pandemic, there is a clear indication almost everywhere that this might also have been taken to allow countries to catch up to the inevitable.
Even in the world of cannabis there is a level of diplomacy. The good news of course is that as a result, the topic of reform is now on official agendas, and those are now moving forward with an air of authority.
As a result, here is a look at some of the most significant events that will impact the discussion long after this fall.
The WHO Vote In December Is A Massive Global Benchmark
There is little indication that the global health organization will punt on their reclassification discussion in December. This starts with the fact that Germany, ever cognizant of things like health management leadership is moving ahead with its medical program, full steam ahead.
Further, there are indications all across Europe that the individual countries where cannabis reform has clearly landed are having an impact on their neighbors, if not a more global discussion. European countries like France are quietly announcing medical trials to begin before the end of the first quarter of next year. And Italy just added hemp to its official list of medical plants. Bureaucracies do not move unless they have to, and in this case, they are clearly in transit on the cannabis conversation well beyond the interdiction only phase.
The New Zealand Recreational Vote Is Also Highly Important
Whether the Kiwis actually take this ground-breaking recreational decision across the finish line is almost immaterial at this point. The ballot measure is being decided during a national election within a week and further set against another one (the U.S.) where it is clearly not on the agenda in the immediate future.
That said, of course if the measure does pass, and there is late breaking evidence to suggest that it might, the bar, beyond whatever the UN decides, will have clearly been set.
With recreational reform, New Zealand will also join the ranks of Canada and Uruguay when it comes to this issue. If not, Luxembourg will most likely take this spot at the end of next year if plans continue to unfold as so far promised in country.
Without it, the country will join the many who are implementing plans to integrate the drug into formal medical infrastructure, which is far from a “loss,” at any level. That said it is a sign that individual countries, rather than regional or international bodies, will lead on the issue of reform and will continue to, no matter what the WHO does.
Regional Reform Is Shaping Up In Europe
Beyond this, of course, there are also signs that the issue of cannabis access, no matter what bucket it is being lumped into, is headed for a showdown in Europe on a regional level that has never been seen before.
The state of the Spanish industry now has a date with the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg over basic access issues. If that is decided for the plaintiffs, it will mean that not only will Spain be forced to formalize its own cannabis laws, but so will countries across Europe.
What that will mean for nascent recreational reform is also unclear, but at minimum, it spells good news for those who want to participate in the industry in a new way, and with a non-profit model so far not given much official traction across Europe so far.
Despite the limitations and privations caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Germany’s market is “up” in terms of sales and overall insurance approvals. For all the victories however, there are still many kinks along the way. That is of course, not just on the medical front (where flower is yet again in short supply this summer), but also in the CBD space.
There is also clearly a drumbeat for more reform afoot in a country which has bested the COVID-19 pandemic like few others in the world. And like France as well as other countries in Europe, the conversation across the region has turned to including cannabis in recovery efforts, and in multiple ways. That includes not only relying on a new crop and industry for economic revitalization, but also of course, on the topic of further reform.
A Brief Overview Of The “Modern” German Cannabis Market Germany kicked off the entire cannabis discussion in a big way in Europe in the first quarter of 2017. The government got sued by patients and changed the law mandating that public insurers had to reimburse the drug. They also kicked off a cultivation tender bid which promptly became mired in several rounds of lawsuits and squabbles. The first German grown cannabis will hit pharmacies this fall, but it is not clear when, and the unofficial rumour is that the pandemic will delay distribution. The German distribution tender has been delayed three times so far this year.
In the meantime, the German market has developed into the world’s most lucrative target for global exporters, particularly (but not limited) to GMP and other certifiable high-grade cannabis (and in all its forms).
Other Issues, Problems and Wrinkles
Nothing about cannabis legalization is ever going to be easy, and Germany has been no exception.
The first problem on the ground is that the supply chain here has had several major hits, from the beginning. This is even though the supply has come from ostensibly otherwise reliable sources. Companies in Canada and in Holland have all had different kinds of problems with delivery (for different reasons) throughout this period.
Right now, there is a major reorganization afoot in Holland which may also be affecting the recent decision on the Dutch side to reorganize how the government picks (private) German narcotics distributors. Aurora also had product pulled last fall because of labelling and processing issues. But these, no matter how momentous momentarily, are also just waves in a cannabis ocean that is still choppy. Domestic sales continue to expand and foreign producers can still find a foothold in a still fairly open market.
As a result, even with a new dronabinol competitor, Israel, Australia and South Africa as well as multiple European countries now in advanced export schemes, the supply problem is still a thorny one, but not quite as thorny as it used to be.
However, On The CBD Front…
Things have gotten even more complicated since the repeated decisions on Novel Food at the EU level. Namely, last year’s decision that the only CBD extract that is not “Novel” is extracted from seeds, has thrown the entire industry into a major fluff. Especially when such decisions begin to filter down via a federal and regional approach. This has begun to happen. Indeed, the city of Cologne, in Germany’s most populous state just banned all CBD that is not labelled per an EU (although admittedly) non-binding resolution on the issue.
This in turn is leading to a renewed push for the obvious: recreational cannabis.
Where Is the Recreational Discussion Auf Deutschland? The recreational movement, generally, has been handed several black eyes for the last three years. Namely, that greater reform was not preserved in the first cannabis legalization that passed, albeit unanimously, in the German Parliament in 2017. However, as many recognized, the first, most important hurdle had just been broached. And indeed, that cautious strategy has created a steadily increasing, high quality (at least for the most part) medical market that is unmatched anywhere in the world except perhaps Israel.
Now, however, there are other issues in the room. The CBD discussion is mired in endless hypocrisy and meddling at both the state country level and the EU. There are many Germans who are keen to try cannabis beyond any idea of cannabis as therapy. Remember that Germany has largely managed to contain the outbreak, despite the emergence of several recent but isolated hotspots of late. In Frankfurt, for example, with the exception of more people on kurzarbeit (which is not visible), most street traffic proceeds apace these days with masks on, but with that exception or two, feels pretty much back to “normal.” And of course, economic development in the form of exports is one of Germany’s favorite pastimes.
Beyond that, the needle has absolutely moved across Europe. Several countries, including Greece and Portugal as well as the UK’s Channel Islands, have already jumped on the cannabis economic development bandwagon, and this is only going to encourage the Germans as well as other similar conversations across the region. It has even showed up in France.
And of course, it is not like the implications of Luxembourg and Switzerland as well as recent efforts in Holland to better regulate the recreational industry there, have not been blatantly obvious to those in Europe’s largest medical market.
Look for new shoots and leaves, in other words of the next stage of cannabis reform to take hold auf Deutschland. And soon. It is inevitable.
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