As I look back at the last four years in our industry, it is easy to forget how far we have come. I have been to nearly every legal cannabis market in the country (plus Amsterdam last year) and I can say with great confidence that from a consumer standpoint, nobody does retail cannabis as well as Washington state. There is not even a distant second.
While the current oversupply makes things difficult on producers and processors, the natural byproduct of this — particularly in a system with no vertical integration — is an incredible variety of products for consumers to pick from. In a fight for space on a retailer’s shelves, you will invariably see quality go up and prices come down. Moreover, with so many cannabis stores fighting for a finite pool of customers, retailers need to focus on customer service and experience if they are to retain market share. All of this makes Washington a virtual utopia when it comes to shopping for cannabis (we are yet to solve the issue of where to consume the great cannabis people just purchased, but that is the subject for another article).
That being said, it is perplexing that Washington seems to get lost in the national conversation about the legal cannabis industry. With this in mind, I was excited by the opportunity to travel to Washington, D.C. in March as part of a joint lobbying effort organized by the Washington CannaBusiness Association (WACA) and attended by approximately 30 industry stakeholders, including members of WACA and CORE (the Cannabis Organization of Retail Establishments), tribal leaders, state Liquor and Cannabis Board leadership, cannabis regulators from Alaska, the CEO of Salal Credit Union and state Senator Ann Rivers. I also want to thank Vicki Christopherson, who put this trip together and has been working tirelessly on behalf of WACA for years.
The purpose of this trip, which was the second annual trip of this nature, was to meet with lawmakers to discuss issues that are important to the ongoing development of our industry. We were able to meet with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon (who has been a champion of legalizing cannabis since he took public office), Congressman Don Young of Alaska, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, and Senators Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray of Washington state.
Each of these lawmakers were very well versed in many of the challenges our industry faces. They were well aware that the business of cannabis is a driver of both tax revenue and employment, and all agreed that the “parade of horribles” described by detractors of retail or medical cannabis have never materialized in those states that have legalized.
One of the narratives shared by our group was the lack of conventional banking channels and the concern of stakeholders over the rescission of the Cole memorandum, which further muddied the waters of an already murky banking situation. While lawmakers were sympathetic to the instability created by the current administration, none were confident of any immediate clarity or relief. In fact, while we were in D.C. it was unclear whether or not the protections for medical cannabis afforded by the Rohrabacher Amendment would even be extended (they were, but without the addition of language that would have similarly protected retail cannabis from federal prosecution).
The most discouraging meeting was with Congressman Dave Reichert’s staff. Congressman Reichert (who is retiring) has been a critic of legal cannabis. From a policy standpoint, his office equated the argument that it creates tax revenue and jobs with the rejoinder that legalizing heroin would similarly create tax revenue. While it is extremely helpful to understand the mindset of an opponent, it is likewise difficult to envision a path forward with lawmakers who honestly share this opinion. Clearly cannabis is nothing like heroin, and it is incumbent upon us to educate those who believe it is.
On the whole, my experience in the “other Washington” was informative and inspiring. I like to tell my coworkers that we are each agents of change, and that the eyes of the world are upon us. Being able to take part in discussion with lawmakers about our industry, alongside other thought-leaders in this space was an honor that is not lost on me. Washington State has much to be proud of. We are the highest regulated, highest taxed, legal cannabis industry in the world, and at the same time consumers are afforded the best retail cannabis experience to be had. Washington has collected more than a billion dollars in tax revenue, violent crime is down and underage usage has not gone up (even dropping in some areas).
Those of us in this industry need to continue to galvanize around those issues that will help all of us: access to banking, the elimination of unfair tax treatment (IRC 280E), enhanced penalties for crimes committed against state-licensed cannabis businesses and the rescheduling of cannabis (just to name a few). What became clear to me in D.C. is that each of us needs to be a good steward of this industry for change to take place. As I met with lawmakers I could not avoid thinking about the old adage that when it comes to politics, “If you are not sitting at the table, you are probably on the menu.”
So get out there and get involved. We are all on this amazing journey together.