By M. Scott Sotebeer
The 2015 Washington State legislative session is under way, and competition for headlines and priorities is already fierce. Health care, education, transportation, jobs, housing, human services, parks, public safety, new taxes — the themes never seem to change.
Beyond the state, these issues roll down to the local level from the counties to the smallest cities and villages. The recurring reality is too few dollars and resources for too many very important priorities.
So why should you care? This is the brave new industry bringing brand new money to the state’s dry well, creating local jobs and tax revenue. We simply want to discuss and fix our problems in this new and exciting world of medical and recreational cannabis — from taxes to banking, packaging, advertising, product transportation, consolidation and meaningful co-existence, revenue sharing for our local communities, home grows, safe access, boundary distances, edibles, moratoriums, confusing and ambiguous rules and regulations … and a few other items. Whoa. Equally complicated.
If you are a veteran of politics and the legislative and regulatory processes that impact business, you know what it all means, how the game is played and where you fit.
If this is all new to you as an entrepreneur and business owner, then the government landscape can be a mine field. Who we are and how we present ourselves to decision-makers affect our individual businesses and the industry as a whole. Likewise, being MIA, or otherwise disengaged, also speaks volumes to politicians and community leaders. Out of sight is truly out of mind, or worse.
The stakes are high in both Olympia and at your local zoning office. So how do you approach government as an individual business owner in the cannabis industry? Applying a little common sense is a great place to begin a political education and for building lasting relationships with the people and organizations in your community that may impact your future.
How is the industry viewed in your community? Assume there is a general fear of the unknown, and many unanswered questions for your elected officials, local agency heads and community leaders. You live with this business every day. However, you have to appreciate that very few in the government arena will be able to be on top of all the issues.
Every good lobbyist will tell you their first job is to be an expert source of reliable information. You may want to first establish yourself as an educator and source of credible knowledge at every level where you do business with the government. Simply asking if you can provide information or answer questions about the business is a basic yet effective and often appreciated gesture.
If you become a valuable, credible and reliable resource for everyone you need to do business with in government, you are more likely to be viewed as someone who deserves help. It is a simple premise.
Also, assume that there are many well-entrenched beliefs and stereotypical images of the industry that are now attached to you walking through the door. The risks are high from a political perspective. It is important to understand that political reality is measured in perceived risk and the potential for negative publicity.
What to do
Step 1: Start at home. If you have not done so, make sure you know who your local community representatives are, including key department heads who directly affect your canna-business. If you live in a city, do you have a strong mayor or a city manager? Do your city council members represent a specific area or are they at-large? Political geography matters to your business. You should also know your county elected representatives and key agencies as well. And do not forget the sheriff, fire officials and local police chiefs. They have a significant community stake in the industry. They are also likely to ask you what your neighbors have to say.
Step 2: Introduce yourself to your local representatives, and do it in person. It does not matter if you are in Bainbridge, Walla Walla or Spokane, you have something to offer by presenting yourself, your business and the industry in a positive light. Politics is a numbers game, so there is no substitute for face-to-face introductions and meetings. If you cannot go in person, make introductory phone calls and send emails to introduce yourself and your company. And it starts with being polite and respectful to administrative assistants, schedulers and staff members who are responsible for how things get done.
Here are some other things to consider:
- Depending on the size of the office, staff persons for elected officials are often responsible for keeping up to speed on specific issues for their bosses, including canna-business. Find out who has that responsibility and get to know them. Be an education and information source for them. That goes for zoning and planning offices, water districts, fire chiefs, etc.
- Do you know your elected representatives’ positions on the topic of legal cannabis? A way to probe with an agency employee is to ask if you can address any concerns they might have about the cannabis industry or your business in general. If they oppose legal cannabusiness, be respectful, and know why and what the objections are. Be credible and be real — even if you disagree. Your image is our image!
- Do you know what other issues are most important to your elected officials? What do they care about and what committees are they involved in? A child health or education committee member may have a vastly different view of the business than someone on the agriculture, employment or economic development committee.
- You live and do business in a state and federal legislative district, and they may even be different, depending on your business and home locations. Do you know the two state representatives and state senator who represent you? Make an appointment and go see them. Leave behind a one-page overview that introduces you and your business.
- Who is your congressional representative and do you know their district office staff? Also, Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell have regional offices around the state. Find yours and know who you can build a relationship with.
It sounds like a lot of time and work, and it is. However, most, if not all, of the information you need to get educated can be found on the websites of local, state and federal government, local agencies and individual elected officials. Building relationships and learning to actively work in our local government process is an important investment in your future success and that of the entire industry. Over time, we will all learn to do this together as our trade and professional associations mature. If you start now with a few basic steps, you can help your business and the entire industry to gain credibility, grow and prosper.
- Scott Sotebeer has a Ph.D. in applied management and decision sciences, specializing in leadership and organizational change. He is the CEO of Hempzen Enterprises, Ltd. and founder of USA Strategics, a management consulting firm.