The Cannabis Industry Is Not the Tobacco Industry, and We'll Prove It

Recently, I had the honor of attending a two-day intensive meeting at Georgetown Law School. The participants were some of the top public health and policy researchers and practitioners in the world. The topic was best practice recommendations for the legalization of cannabis from a public health perspective. This process should be informed by the ways in which the globe has attempted to regulate other legal drugs, such as alcohol and tobacco, and these fields were rightly represented at this meeting. In some areas, such as taxation, public consumption, and youth, lessons, good and bad, from alcohol and tobacco make sense. We are talking about regulating an intoxicating, age restricted product that sometimes omits smoke, and while not intoxicating, tobacco seems to be a good comparison for some aspects of cannabis regulation.

However, the conversation then turned to whether the cannabis industry should be allowed to support their communities through activities such as event sponsorships and local philanthropy. Some said absolutely not, save for doing it anonymously, so that they get no credit for their actions. I was stunned. I have spent 10 years studying the cannabis industry and the better part of two years trying to develop a strategy for creating a culture of philanthropy within it, and here I was being told that their money is no good when it comes to trying to make a positive social impact. When I questioned this stance, the tobacco companies were immediately evoked, and the integrity of the entire cannabis industry was questioned as if they had emerged from the ashes of Big Tobacco past. And they are not the only ones. Last month at the Marijuana Business Summit in San Francisco, David Evans, prohibitionist and all around fun guy, flat-out accused those in attendance of embodying the 1950s tobacco industry and told them that if they developed a conscience they would get out of this industry.

That sounds like a challenge to me. A challenge for the cannabis industry to prove that they are not Big Tobacco. That their philanthropic efforts are authentic, strategic, and part of their mission as a businesses and community member. Ideally, we would be innocent until proven guilty. But Big Tobacco burned that bridge so, in an effort to highlight companies who are meeting that call, I will be writing about the participants in my project on social responsibility in the cannabis industry, supported by the Drug Policy Alliance. I am conducting three focus groups of such businesses to find out more about how and why they are engaging in community reinvestment, service provision and philanthropy, so that we can learn more about their efforts and their impetus for giving back.

The first focus group was held in my home city of Oakland, CA. Needless to say, the Bay Area is where the medical cannabis revolution happened in the late 1990’s, so it wasn’t hard to find those who had been engaged in two decades of social responsibility. As we sat down in the conference room at DPA’s Oakland office, the businesses represented were pillars, not just of the cannabis industry in the Bay Area, but the cannabis movement in general. Some of the oldest and most lauded dispensaries in the country were in attendance, Berkeley Patient’s Group, SPARC, Harborside Health Center, CBCB, Phytologie, and Magnolia Wellness. Also attending was longtime cultivator Dark Heart Nursery and manufacturer Bloom Farms. Finally, Bryan Rosenthal, who started the Cann I Dream Foundation, which facilitates philanthropy for non-profits that serve children and other vulnerable citizens, and is funded by the cannabis industry. The collective experience as providers of cannabis at this table was over a century, and the programs that many of them championed in the 1990s provide a foundation for how the industry can diverge from tobacco and stay on track with compassion.

Several of the businesses have formed Team Cannabis, which focuses on community support efforts. The group was the second highest fundraiser for the San Francisco AIDS Walk, outraising Google. The dispensaries in attendance all offer free services to patients, such as support groups, free meals and harm reduction services such as HIV testing. Bloom Farms donates a meal through the Marin Food Bank for every product sold, and when fires ravaged Northern California, they donated to the relief. They also sponsor a cannabis job fair in the Bay Area that placed 125 people in jobs last year and will be held again this year on April 10th. The Cann I Dream Foundation supports charities both locally, such as elementary schools, and nationally, such as the St. Jude Foundation. There is no doubt these companies are doing good and working to improve the public health of their communities. According to the tobacco-ists, they are only doing it to make themselves look good and attract customers. So, I asked them why they do it. The word that was repeated again and again, was stigma. Stigma against cannabis, against cannabis users, many of whom are stigmatized for other reasons, including disability, appearance and ideas. They felt that they had a responsibility to take care of those who have been marginalized because they themselves have been, and in many ways continue to be. Here is the divergence from tobacco and towards compassion, but it’s a road we have to forge. The easier we make it for others in the industry to go down this road, the more will follow our lead.

Another suggestion made at that meeting was that the media should not be able to report on the good things cannabis businesses do, that would, after all, frame them as those with good intentions, which of course, we know they are not, because tobacco companies were bad. So, this was part one of my three-part series on the good things cannabis businesses do for their communities. My next focus group is in Portland, stay tuned.

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