NCIA leader vows to move forward while ex-board members question group’s direction

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, NCIA leader vows to move forward while ex-board members question group’s direction

Aaron Smith is co-founder and executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association. (Photo by Matthew Staver)

(This is an abridged version of a story that appears in the April issue of Marijuana Business Magazine.)

The National Cannabis Industry Association and its executive director, Aaron Smith, are at a crossroads. The coming months could prove pivotal.

To be sure, NCIA has racked up many successes along the way and can now boast of having its highest membership total ever.

It posted record revenue last year, and the number of cannabis businesses joining Denver-based NCIA continues to grow.

But critics of Smith and NCIA – including a growing number of veteran industry leaders – say the organization needs fresh leadership and a new direction.

The industry veterans charge, for example, that NCIA has lost its focus as a lobbying organization and instead puts too much emphasis on networking rather than trying to change federal banking and tax laws that harm the cannabis industry.

Smith, who says he has no plans to leave NCIA, concedes he could have done some things differently since he co-founded the organization in 2010.

The NCIA board is too large, he noted. And Smith conceded he should have nurtured better relations with state MJ trade groups – versus the breakdown in communications and lost members that resulted from disagreements over trademarks and operational practices.

Public fallout

Since December, two board members have resigned from NCIA, the largest and longest running national trade association in the marijuana industry.

Another board member – legalization advocate Rob Kampia – was ousted after an ethics investigation into sexual misconduct allegations, and NCIA’s chief of staff was fired in December, less than six weeks after she was hired.

“There was a point about two years ago when we stopped being as effective as we should have,” said Kayvan Khalatbari, a former owner of a medical cannabis dispensary and an original NCIA member.

“We’ve been spinning our wheels since then.”

Former NCIA chief of staff Genifer Murray, who became a member in 2011 and at one time was friends with Smith, also blamed the executive director for dysfunction in the organization.

In a letter to the board after being fired at the end of 2017, Murray accused Smith of favoritism and a lack of leadership, adding that NCIA suffers from low morale and a lack of trust within the organization.

Growing pains

Where Smith stands isn’t uncommon for the marijuana industry in 2018.

Many executives, businesses and cannabis organizations – especially those that were founded at the industry’s birth like NCIA was – are in similar positions.

They are attempting to change and grow as the needs of the industry morph and more business-savvy people enter in droves.

That’s led a lot of executives like Smith to think about what they could have done differently, chart a new course forward and look in the mirror to determine if they’re the best fit to continue leading the entity they started.

“I am dedicated to continuously working to better the organization and our offerings to members,” Smith told Marijuana Business Magazine.

“I generally need to prioritize” potential improvements “based on how many members are positively impacted by the change.”

As for his own future, Smith doesn’t plan on going anywhere in the short term. But he might seek out greener pastures once he feels his work is done.

“I plan on staying with the association for the next few years,” he said. “Once cannabis is legal federally, or there’s some version of a states’ rights bill that allows states to flourish, that would probably be the time I would look to move on.”

Click here to learn more about:

  • How NCIA reacted to allegations of sexual misconduct by a board member.
  • The organization’s complicated history with smaller and state-run groups.
  • Taking a page from the playbook of other trade associations.
  • How size and friendships played a role in the group’s board.
  • Smith’s plans for NCIA.

Bart Schaneman can be reached at