By Omar Sacirbey
Becky DeKeuster went from being a Catholic high school teacher to a cannabis pioneer who co-founded the Wellness Connection of Maine.
DeKeuster helped Wellness Connection earn a reputation for caring service and left her mark nationally on an industry trying to find its footing. She’s now switching gears again. DeKeuster left Wellness Connection partly because of philosophical differences with her leadership team as well as to start a consulting firm.
She spoke with Marijuana Business Daily about transitions, tensions between medical and recreational markets and bracing for a Trump administration.
Why did you leave Wellness Connection?
After six years, we had some strategic and philosophical differences.
The company is on a very good trajectory, but the industry is entering a period of instability and rapid transformation. And those kinds of situations are excellent for surfacing core values and identifying places where strategic visions differ.
As (Maine is) looking at impending legalization, the role that the medical program can and should play in that, that’s the transformation that I’m thinking of when I say these situations force you to look at what your core values are and what your vision is for the future of, not just the company, but the industry.
There were different visions, equally valuable, but it became clear it was time.
Tax money is rolling in, the sky hasn’t fallen with respect to social issues, and the general public is more behind us than they have ever been. That all bodes well.
If, however, that’s not the vision that pans out and we return to a more oppressive federal approach, if there’s a silver lining to that, it goes back to community cohesiveness.
Perhaps it’ll serve as a reminder that whether we’re medical or adult use, whether we’ve been in this industry 15 years or five, we’re all in it together. And unfortunately, shared adversity is a great teacher of that lesson. I’m hoping we don’t learn it that way, but if it happens, we need to be ready for it.
How does one get ready?
A lot of my friends say the toothpaste is too far out of the tube, no one is going to want or be able to roll back the jobs and the taxes that the medical and the adult-use industries have created.
But I’m also aware that we may be entering a landscape that looks a lot more like California in the mid-(2000s) than Colorado in 2015.
It worries me that new entries to this market might be missing some of the hard lessons that we learned in those days. How many companies that formed after the Cole Memorandum are doing raid preparedness, for their employees and for their clients, or even thinking about those things?
That’s a danger … for folks who have never had to seriously consider what would happen if the federal government decided to use a heavy hand again.
What are the lessons from that era of raids?
At its core, it’s awareness of your rights and how they fit into the existing legal reality of our industry. And understanding how and when to protect those rights when you’re having an encounter with law enforcement.
Another lesson in danger of being forgotten is that in that time (of raids), there seemed to be a lot more industry cohesiveness. If there was a raid, the alerts would go out and everybody would pull together.
How do you protect yourself?
There are a lot of groups doing great work, Americans for Safe Access, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, local ACLUs. Start making connections with those groups.
In Maine, no matter what goes on at the federal level, there is fear the medical program is in danger now that we have legalized adult use. Our governor has said he doesn’t see why the medical program should exist now that we have adult use, and that’s created a lot of uncertainty on the medical side.
And I do feel it’s vital for Maine to protect that medical program, particularly for people who are low income, pediatric patients, elders, hospice patients … those are the folks who are going to lose the most if Maine merges medical into recreational.
What lessons can we take from other states that have had to contend with this medical-versus-recreational issue?
Within the industry there’s an innate understanding of a medical market versus a recreational market.
For folks who are not in the industry or who might use only occasionally or never, they look for this industry to look like other industries they’re familiar with. They want to see it regulated.
When we’re looking at an Oregon, we had a medical program where there wasn’t a great deal of state-level oversight or regulation. And so when the adult-use program came along and was regulated, and you put those two side-by-side, to the non-cannabis industry person, regulation looks preferable to the Wild West.
In states like Colorado or even Maine, where you have a strong medical regulatory system in place and then adult use comes along, you have a much easier argument to make to continue that medical program on its own track.
There are people operating in the less-regulated part of the medical industry who are ready to make that jump into a more traditional business model, and there are some folks who are not as comfortable making that move.
And that’s a transition that we’re living through right now that is causing a lot of angst in the industry and the movement as a whole.
And I think regulation, although it can be tedious, offers a layer of protection for medical programs.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Omar Sacirbey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org