Cannabis advocacy: Being an effective agent of change

Entrepreneurs clearly have the power to shape regulations

Thanks to the advocacy efforts of cannabis entrepreneurs in Massachusetts, businesses owned by women and minorities will now receive priority review of their licensing applications — a benefit previously reserved for “economic empowerment” applicants alone.

Prior to this change, most minority business enterprises (MBEs) and women’s business enterprises (WBEs), which are starkly under-represented in the Massachusetts cannabis industry, were subject to a slow application process that many could not afford to endure (and the application process for “economic empowerment” candidates was prematurely closed after just two weeks in April 2018). WBEs and MBEs are, unfortunately, frequently left out of traditional venture capital funding opportunities, presenting a chicken vs. egg scenario: It is far easier to raise capital with a license than with a license “in process.” But funding is first needed in order to secure a license and present a state-required operational timeline.

According to Shaleen Title, a commissioner of the Cannabis Control Commission, priority was given to WBEs and MBEs in response to “moving and memorable testimony” received by the Cannabis Control Commission during public hearings held in 2019. The testimony detailed the financial struggles of WBEs and MBEs, despite public policies supporting diversity and minority inclusion — policies intended to be central to Massachusetts’ adult-use cannabis program.

Among the businesses that offered this crucial testimony was The High End, LLC — a woman of color-controlled cannabis company based in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Explaining why she felt compelled to advocate on behalf of fellow MBEs and WBEs, The High End’s CEO, Helen Gomez Andrews, stated: “Self advocacy didn’t come naturally to me. However, knowing that this could benefit a community so much larger than just myself made the decision to ultimately speak up much easier. In this process I learned that holding someone accountable isn’t an attack, it’s a reminder! … It’s up to those of us actually in the weeds to tell those in charge when something isn’t working, to share our personal stories, and to offer suggestions and ideas on how to fix things.”

The takeaway from advocates’ recent success in Massachusetts is that industry regulations are not “set in stone.” Cannabis business operators clearly have the power to shape and influence regulations as they continue to evolve. And cannabis companies must continue to play a central role in shaping the regulations that directly impact current and prospective business operators. But doing so requires effective advocacy.

Here are four tips to effectuate meaningful change:

– Be visible: Your views on issues affecting this industry matter; make sure those with the power to create and enforce the law are aware of them. Attend public meetings, present testimony (in person and/or in writing), call local officials and representatives, submit written comments during regulatory comment periods, write letters to public officials and representatives and request meetings to speak one on one with important decision-makers. But not all communication methods are created equal. Whenever possible, in-person advocacy reigns supreme — there is no substitution for attaching a human face to your message.

– Be prepared: Decision-makers are asked to consider countless proposals and have a finite time in which to consider your arguments. Your message must be clear, concise and well-informed.

This means knowing your audience. For instance, if you need to convince a board or commission to take action on a financing issue, research which members have a background in finance and make your initial pitch to that person. Change often begins with just one person of influence.

And you must know your facts. Be able to articulate the details of your proposal (or the reasons you oppose one) and be able to back up your arguments with research and data. This information must be at your fingertips. Work with counsel to, among other things: identify the appropriate decision-makers; compile and submit all necessary documentation; perform all necessary legal research; develop a strategy and a cohesive message; and prepare and deliver persuasive written correspondence, testimony and/or presentations.

– Be persuasive: Execution is key. Make it human — explain how your proposals (or the regulations you’re challenging) would impact the people or businesses in the thick of it every day. And whenever criticizing a decision-maker’s actions, emphasize any positive goals or components of their actions and explain why your proposal would improve upon them — no one wants to listen to feedback drowning in negativity.

– Be committed: Rome was not built in a day, and your proposal will likely take more than a single email or presentation to be approved. Always follow up with appropriate decision-makers or their staff, multiple times if necessary, but do so respectfully.

If there are multiple hearings or meetings, show up for all of them to the best of your ability (or at the very least, submit additional written comments or testimony whenever permitted). Create working relationships by offering to assist however you can in making your proposal a reality.

And always remember to thank decision-makers who take the time to hear your proposal, meet with you in person and/or are otherwise an ally to your cause.

 

Fatima V. Afia is an associate at Hiller, PC (www.hillerpc.com), a boutique, full-service firm with a track record for success in various practice areas including cannabis law, land use and zoning, disability insurance law and business and corporate law.

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