The clock is ticking in California as months dissolve into weeks leading up to the Jan. 1 launch of an adult-use cannabis market. While the state Bureau of Cannabis Control will impose regulations on the newly legal industry, many of California’s nearly 600 municipalities are scrambling to enact their own guidelines that could mean life or death for local businesses.
Rules adopted at the city and county level will, in many ways, shape the face of the state’s cannabis industry—and could make or break a would-be business. Not only do state regulators require local authorization to grant a cannabis business license, but beyond that, local ordinances often dictate crucial elements of business operations, such as zoning restrictions and additional tax requirements.
“We’re going from a culture of hiding to all of a sudden being a culture of inviting.”
That’s why legislative advocates, cannabis activists and consultants alike are encouraging everyone in the cannabis business to engage with their local governments.
“There’s no doubt about it,” said Gavin Kogan, an attorney and a co-founder of cannabis consortium Grupo Flor. “If you’re in the pot industry, you’re in politics.”
Leafly spoke with industry experts on how to best rally support of local officials as members of an industry that’s long carried social stigma. The first step? Don’t be intimidated.
1 Show Up! Be Visible!
If you’re struggling to find a good place to begin your political career, start small. Make a call to your representative or show up at City Council meeting. Speak up during the appropriate comment period, said Amy Jenkins, a longtime legislative advocate for cannabis in California, or request a meeting to speak one-on-one with the appropriate municipal official. Don’t forget to follow up!
Don’t stop there. Keep writing letters and meeting with community members—especially those who aren’t so sure about cannabis, said Kogan. Be available to share helpful, relatable information—tidbits, he said, like: For every dollar earned in the cannabis industry, ancillary businesses make $5.
Advocacy takes time and energy, so make sure you’re reaching out to the right local agency. If you’re operating in an unincorporated county area, you’ll want to focus efforts on the Board of Supervisors. If you’re in a city, it’ll be the City Council. (Most local governments have staffers who can help direct you to the appropriate departments.)
2. Build Relationships
Engagement means more than speaking your mind. It also entails doing your homework on politicians and supporting—financially or otherwise—those who favor cannabis causes. Reach out to those officials, community leaders, and others, Jenkins said, to allow them to ask questions and better familiarize themselves with the cannabis space and how you operate.
3. Know Your Audience
Most government officials will need a good reason to support cannabis-friendly policies. That’s why Jenkins suggests familiarizing yourself with your mayor, City Council members, and/or county supervisors. Learn what their interests are in order to better understand how to speak to their values. For example, a councilmember who puts a priority on public safety may respond more favorably if you’re able to explain how regulating cannabis businesses can reduce risks to the public.
“When you go in and understand what makes a policymaker tick, you’re going to get a lot more bang for your buck,” she said.
In Santa Ana, for example, the city is considering expanding commercial cannabis activity and has also prioritized securing funding for youth and afterschool programs, Jenkins explained. The situation could be an opportunity for cannabis advocates to bring up revenue opportunities presented by the legal cannabis industry, Jenkins said, and highlight its potential benefits to the greater community.
Get to know officials’ staff as well, encouraged Kogan. These behind-the-scenes personnel serve as gatekeepers to the higher ups, he explained, and in many instances will even outlast their bosses.
4. Care About More Than Cannabis
While attending cannabis-related meetings is a no-brainer, it’s important to demonstrate that you’re concerned with the community—not just with issues that impact you directly, said John Kabateck, executive director of Kabateck Strategies.
“The most important thing you can do is get to know the people and the organizations in your surrounding community.”
From City Council discussions on the success of small businesses to neighborhood hearings around public safety, events are an opportunity to make yourself visible as an advocate for the community. Get involved with groups like the local chamber of commerce, the Boys & Girls Club, or other philanthropic organizations—and do it with a “sincere heart,” said Kabateck.
“Even before getting to know your legislators, your council members … the most important thing you can do is get to know the people and the organizations in your surrounding community,” he said.
5. School Your Officials
You’ve probably been told that spiders are as afraid of you as you are of them. The same often goes for government officials. While members of cannabis industry may not always know how to navigate bureaucracy or approach local officials, Jenkins said, those officials themselves often don’t know much about marijuana businesses.
Jenkins said she met recently with a Northern California mayor, for example, who didn’t understand even the most fundamental aspects of the trade, from the different license categories to the range of products. “The level of understanding is really alarming,” she said.
And because many small governments have no incentive to educate themselves on the benefits of cannabis, it’s often up to the cannabis community to teach them. Invite your local representative to tour your grow or witness the extraction process, suggested Kogan, or have the fire department over to see firsthand the safety precautions you’ve put in place.
“We’re going from a culture of hiding,” he said, “to all of a sudden being a culture of inviting.”
6. Form a United Front
Put aside disagreements or business competition and join forces with others in your local cannabis community. Identify a few common goals and meet with lawmakers as a group, said Jenkins. “Don’t make policymakers have to choose amongst you.”
Jenkins said she saw the power of group advocacy firsthand when she formed the Cannabis Caucus, an organization of 13 lobbying firms with cannabis clients that came together to rally for change at the state level in California. Groups in other parts of the state have formed their own industry associations as well, from the Southern California Coalition to the Sonoma County Growers Alliance.
Even if you don’t form an official organization, there are plenty of other ways to work together. It can be as simple, Kabateck said, as inviting industry members to a roundtable or informal coffee meeting with community members and officials to share experiences and ideas.
While grassroots advocacy isn’t always the sexiest of endeavors, it’s key to securing good policy around legal cannabis. After all, local regulations will affect you whether or not you’re a part of the process. If you care about what the future of California cannabis looks like—or how the industry will impact you—now’s the time to get involved.