By Mike Bologna
Want to know the most important factor for being a respected professional in today’s legal cannabis industry? Reputation. This fledgling industry has a diverse range of market entrants and it is bringing together a unique mix of potential leaders, entering from unrelated sectors as well as the prohibition-era market. Regardless of a person’s background, everyone is coveting legitimacy and clout as the opportunities continue to expand.
If an individual leaves a paper trail of “stoner culture” and doesn’t give the impression of “legitimacy” to established industry outsiders, that individual will have a difficult time making meaningful connections. With that in mind, entrenched cannabis professionals or potential market entrants need to consider these five aspects of establishing and maintaining a pristine reputation in the commerce of cannabis.
Network with the Pros
Everybody needs to start somewhere. Some of you are splitting off from companies unrelated to the cannabis space because you see the opportunity and have the expertise and mentality to thrive. Some of you are sticking with existing companies and opening a new division that is more directly involved. And some of you are fresh-faced greenhorns bootstrapping startups in true American-dream fashion. Everyone can benefit from making strong and lasting connections with the industry’s leading businessmen and women; after all, they too had to start somewhere and will remember navigating the same gray areas and overcoming the same hurdles that you will face.
Attending local and regional conferences and events is an excellent maneuver, even for the veterans, but be intelligent about choosing them. While casting a wide net may bring you to events like HempFest in downtown Seattle, investing resources to attend an event like those hosted by MJIC have the potential to be significantly more fruitful for budding businesses, especially in terms of networking with entrepreneurs and investors.
In that vein, many have benefitted, inside and outside of the industry, by reaching out to people in their respective subsectors to get acquainted. This is the age of the social network—if college has taught us anything, it is how to comfortably send somebody a message on LinkedIn or join the cannabis-centric reputation management site LeafList to pick the brains of people who are positioned where you would like to be.
Complementary startups can create symbiotic relationships by trading services and connecting each other with new opportunities. We see it, and do it, all the time in what appears to be one of the most collaborative industries.
Understand Differences Between “Marijuana” and “Cannabis”
Fair or not, cannabis professionals are intensely scrutinized and outsiders are developing their opinions based upon potentially small sample sizes. In the public eye, few things can be as harmful to a burgeoning business as being tied to the culture of tie-dye shirts and smoke-filled basements—not that there’s anything wrong with that. When you blur the line between professional and partier, or even give the impression that the line may be blurred, potential business partners may not feel that you represent a positive influence on their business or the otherwise uninitiated may be left with a negative impression of the cannabis industry.
Word choice can be a major driver in blurring the line. The adoption of the word cannabis has acted to distance companies of the connotations that come with the word marijuana, which MTV and D.A.R.E. classes have soiled as a “gateway drug.” Get to know the terminology of the industry. If you’re talking to another cannabis professional and you aren’t speaking the same language, you may end up classified as an individual that isn’t ready to succeed in an industry that is so sensitively defined by image.
Understanding some hot-button topics like the difference between psychoactive THC and CBD or why it is important to differentiate between passing ballot initiatives and rulings through the legislature can also set you apart during conversations.
Embrace and Promote the Cannabis Industry’s Social Agenda
You probably have the cannabis legalization stump speech memorized by now: Drug law reform creates fewer nonviolent prisoners, increased capacity for medical research, higher tax revenue and reduced oppression of minorities. Hemp, and all of its environmental benefits, can replace tobacco and slow-growing crops. If you don’t have a stance, you should.
The momentum from recent statewide legalizations has the potential to bring a lot of positive changes to the world. Your reading this article is representative of that momentum. When people interact with you or your business, it affects their opinion of the cannabis movement as a whole. The positive social changes that can be brought upon by the industry moving forward are critical in this space because they unify individuals in pursuit of a common cause.
We all have a sense of stewardship over the sustainable formation of the legal cannabis industry. Bottom line: if you aren’t working in some way toward the social agenda of the cannabis industry, your business and personal involvement is incomplete.
Know the Ins and Outs of State-to-State Regulations
New bills are constantly introduced that affect the regulatory framework and future opportunities. In line with our last point, you need to understand which of these to support and why–you are in a position to contribute to the passing of progressive legislation and the blocking of regressive legislation.
It’s not always easy–take this past summer’s new Washington state ordinance of absorbing medical dispensaries into the recreational market. On the surface, it seems to open opportunities for dispensaries that match Colorado’s model, which is one of the best in the country. With a deeper dive, though, you see that it complicates life for patients and dispensary operators–suddenly, all dispensaries need to apply for a new license, and the number of licenses available is well below the number of functioning dispensaries in place. New changes affect how much cannabis patients can possess, how they cultivate their own medicine, and what taxes they pay when purchasing.
As a professional potentially working in Washington’s market, what are you to make of this? Some made a concerted effort to block or modify the legislation; it has since passed. Hypothetically, let’s say you make a cannabis-infused product that you distribute to recreational facilities and dispensaries: how does your opportunity change? Perhaps you’re better off, since patients are now exempt from the staggeringly high sales tax in Washington and you can increase your profit margins. Also, patients were historically allowed to possess 24 ounces of usable cannabis; they may now possess:
- 3 ounces of cannabis
- 48 ounces of infused product in solid form
- 216 ounces of infused product in liquid form
- 21 grams of cannabis concentrates
Suddenly, patients can possess more of your cannabis-infused product than ever before. This changes how you do business. It pays to pay attention.
Be a Public Proponent and Beacon of Legitimacy
Cannabis is mainstream now. Multi-billion-dollar companies are having meetings about how to profit from it. Startups are being venture-funded and/or bought out by well-funded investment groups. The old saying goes: “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” If you have a face-to-face with executives at General Electric, you need to know what you are talking about and dress to deliver. You need to know how they talk—Synergy! Leverage! Disruptive innovation!—and know how to present your pitch in a way that will resonate with them and demonstrate that cannabis professionals belong in the boardroom.
Some professionals are sheepish when talking about the industry because of cannabis’ connotations and the potential for outsiders to react negatively. Don’t let that be you. You need to own it. It is increasingly legal, a part of pop culture, an agent of social change and you should be proud to be in the vanguard of the cannabis industry. You aren’t afraid to have ties to cannabis when people Google your name; you may even have a website tying you directly to it—which, by the way, you should have if you want to become an influencer.
The industry is out of the shadows, and we should publicly discuss all that has been accomplished so far. Remember: your reputation precedes you, and having a strong reputation is good for you, your company, your industry partners and the cannabis industry as a whole.