Strategies for Success: How Cannabis Businesses Can Build Relationships With Lawmakers

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By Tony C. Dreibus

Marijuana business owners who want to take a bigger role in legislative matters concerning the cannabis industry should go out for a long lunch – and invite local city councilors to join.

With the industry expanding nationally at a rapid clip – 46% of the U.S. population resides in states that have operating or planned dispensaries, and new markets are set to come online soon – working with lawmakers is more critical than ever.

It isn’t an easy task, especially for those who haven’t worked on legislative issues in the past. But establishing relationships with city council members, mayors, state senators, regulators and even members of Congress can help business owners navigate rough legal and regulatory waters, shape rules and fees, and improve the cannabusiness climate in general.

And it could ultimately mean the difference between success and failure.

“People get intimidated by lawmakers – they need to get over that intimidation,” said Erik Briones, the president and founder of Minerva Canna Group in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “Call them up and take them to lunch and be prepared with questions and concerns and suggestions for them.”

Start Small and Reach Out to Opponents

Many legislators are unfamiliar with the cannabis industry. Meeting up for a drink or a meal is an opportunity to educate them on the industry, and it gives business owners a chance to put a positive face on the industry. Showing legislators that you’re like any other business out there – professional, serious and responsible – can go a long way.

For those who are a little more shy, sending an e-mail or a letter or making a phone call expressing your views also is helpful, said Taylor West, deputy director for the Denver-based National Cannabis Industry Association.

The key is to start small. Work on issues at the local level first, whether it’s through city council members or county commissioners, before moving up to the state and federal level.

Contact officials who represent the area in which your business is located, as lawmakers are always more apt to talk to someone who has the ability to vote for them or sway votes in their favor.

And don’t just focus on legislators who are in favor of legalized cannabis: business owners should reach out to every person who has a hand in drafting regulations that affect their companies, even opponents of cannabis.

They may not be in a business owner’s corner immediately, but they could come around if more of their constituents start lobbying for the industry. And one face-to-face meeting or phone call could help change perceptions of the cannabis business, particularly if the business puts a professional, responsible face on the industry, West said.

“All of these communications are valuable,” she said. “None are not worth doing.”

Make Connections Early

Some businesses wait until they’re up and running to start reaching out to lawmakers, seeing it as a secondary priority.

But early contact can be crucial.

When Rabbi Jeffrey Kahn, the owner of Takoma Wellness Center in Washington DC, began conceptualizing his dispensary four years ago, he reached out to local lawmakers after choosing a site for his business. In fact, the city’s medical marijuana law was still being drafted at the time.

Kahn looked online to find the city council member from that area, eventually arranging a sit-down meeting with a representative. That led to an actual meeting with the councilwoman, Muriel Bowser, who is now the mayor-elect of Washington DC.

Bowser’s biggest concern was that there would be a not-in-my-backyard reaction to a dispensary in her ward.

“She thought it would be challenging, but gave us names of folks to speak to in the ward” including community activists and members of a neighborhood advisory committee members, some for and some against the dispensary, Kahn said.

Reaching out paid off – two years later, in 2012, Kahn’s attempts to open his dispensary was faced with objections from a “small minority of people with no logical objections” and he faced losing the support of the neighborhood advisory committee, which was worth 50 points on the company’s application. Bowser attended a community meeting, sat in the front row with the police chief and spoke in favor of the dispensary. She “dispelled every myth neighbors mentioned,” he said.

Bowser even attended the dispensary’s grand opening and has since continued to support legalization.

With Bowser set to become mayor, Kahn now has an even stronger ally in the city.

Give Back to Politicians

Support isn’t a one-way street, however.

Remembering Bowser’s efforts to ensure his company was even allowed to open its doors, Kahn said he supported – publicly and financially – her run for mayor of Washington DC.

Minerva’s Briones suggests making donations to campaigns that help further cannabis business’s cause. The more legislators with whom a company owner has contact, the better, and they’re more apt to listen if they know the business will promote their campaigns if and when they run for election.

“You have to support these guys,” Briones said. “They’re always trying to get re-elected, so if you want them in your corner, you have to help them out.”

Tony Dreibus can be reached at