Aaron Justis: Winning Over Locals Can Be Matter of Life or Death for Cannabis Dispensaries

By Aaron Justis

Dispensaries that provide safe access to medical cannabis are still relatively new to the business world, creating some unique challenges for the MMJ industry as a whole.

Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to winning over locals and influencing the political process. Older, established industries have been regulated by federal, state and city governments for decades – and therefore know how important it is to have a positive reputation in the community, which can help them gain political influence and shape rules covering their operations.

Cannabis dispensaries, on the other hand, are still learning the ropes in these areas. They’re often unorganized and uninvolved, and sometimes it doesn’t even seem as if they care what their neighbors think of them.

This is a big problem: Not only can community involvement create a more stable business environment and a strong, unified political voice, in many cases it can be a matter of life or death.

Just look to Los Angeles, where community and political involvement by dispensaries played a critical role in the industry’s very survival.

In 2006, the Greater Los Angeles Collective Alliance (GLACA) launched as a trade association of like-minded dispensary owner/operators to tackle the important issues that the city and state did not.  The alliance established protocols, and member dispensaries agreed to follow the rules in a bid to become more appealing to the neighborhoods in which they operate and fit into the community at large.

The rules included limits on how much each patient can purchase daily (up to two ounces) and restrictions on operating hours (dispensaries must close by 8 p.m.). Members also agreed not to allow patients to medicate on-site, as neighbors might not appreciate people driving away in their cars after they’ve ingested marijuana. Additionally, the alliance encouraged members to become active politically by informing them about meetings at City Hall and educating them about how they might be affected by certain proposals.

The formation of this type of industry group years ago proved critical in the summer of 2012, when the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to implement an ordinance banning all dispensaries, and the mayor signed it into law.

The collective alliance teamed up with Americans for Safe Access and unionized dispensaries under the UFCW umbrella to fight the ban, raising more than a quarter of a million dollars and gathering more than 50,000 voter signatures. The result: We were able to force a referendum on the ban. Rather than go through the costly process of putting it on the ballot, the city rescinded its own ban.

This effort involved much more than the industry coming together. A key to success was the positive image that dispensaries had been able to create in many communities, which in turn made it easy to find residents willing to sign a petition to refute the ban. And it took the willingness of dispensary owners to get their hands dirty by helping spread the word about the plight of the MMJ industry and going out on the streets to collect signatures.

There were also meetings with neighborhood councils, which attracted local law enforcement officers and members of the community. Our neighborhood council in Studio City decided to form a medical cannabis advisory board, inviting the operators of all the local collectives. In the end, only three collectives participated – all of them GLACA members. It’s no surprise, given that GLACA had long encouraged us to get involved and present the right message. Dispensaries that were not part of such an organization stayed on the sidelines.

This is a prime example of the power of dispensaries when they go out of their way to develop a positive image in the community and then lean heavily on that to sway lawmakers and influence legislation.

Just as marketing is key to any business, public relations in the form of political participation is crucial to establishing and building acceptance within the community. If we had not been active and involved, all dispensaries in Los Angeles might now be shuttered, and the nation’s largest MMJ market would nothing more than an afterthought at this point.

Dispensaries in other cities can learn a lot from the LA example. If an organization like GLACA exists in your area, join it. If it doesn’t, try to get together with a group of your peers and start one. Work together as an industry to promote community involvement, political activism and best practices. In the end, the groundwork laid through these efforts could ultimately save your business in the long run.

Aaron Justis is president of Buds and Roses, a medical cannabis dispensary located in the Los Angeles area.