The American Bar Association hosted a roundtable discussion in Chicago on Thursday during which executives from some of the cannabis industry’s biggest companies debated current trends in the industry and weighed predictions about what’s next.
The event comes as Illinois gears up for adult use sales on January 1 and Congress appears poised to take its most significant steps toward cannabis reform to date. Yet despite the seemingly endless promise for future growth, there’s equally as much ambiguity.
“Some of the path forward is not by your own doing,” noted John Lord, CEO of Denver’s LivWell Enlightened Health. It’s bureaucracy that shapes business, he said, not what business owners think is best.
That bureaucracy takes the shape of state and local lawmakers. “The local politicians are some of the most important to know,” said Dean Heizer, LivWell’s chief legal strategist. He suggested companies focus efforts on municipalities that “aren’t there yet” on cannabis legalization. That’s where “you can buy real estate at a fair price, buy licenses at a fair price.”
John Sullivan, senior vice president of government affairs at Chicago-based Cresco Labs, said he’s zeroed in on states where only medical cannabis is legal, and then works with politicians to put regulations in place that are good for business. Laws drafted without careful consideration lead to legal challenges, Sullivan argued. Such is the case in Florida where the state Supreme Court is set to weigh in on the constitutionality of its medical cannabis law.
“That is the definition of legislative shitshow,” Heizer quipped, referring to Florida.
But with limited access to traditional capital, as many financial institutions still won’t work with state-legal cannabis during federal prohibition, are there options for new companies to grow? A few major players like MedMen, Curaleaf, and Harvest Health and Recreation have been gobbling up smaller operators, like Chicago-based Grassroots Cannabis.
“We’re at a phase where big teams are going to win,” said Travis Moyer, Grassroots’ legal counsel and director of special projects. “Capital is one of the things that will determine who are the winners and who are the losers.”
That’s why it’s important to focus on social equity now, argued Jeremy Unruh, director of regulatory and external affairs at PharmaCann, which is getting acquired by MedMen. Illinois’ adult use law earmarked millions of dollars in startup grants for minority communities disproportionately affected by drug law enforcement, and it’ll automatically expunge the records of people with minor drug charges.
Unruh sees social equity as the only way to push for cannabis reform. “When everybody wins, that’s when you move cannabis policy forward,” he said.