Every new movie needs a catchy title, but in this case, I am happy that this is not a biography of my personal life. My last five years in the modern day cannabis industry, however, have read like a bad Hollywood script. While I wish I could just turn the television off and walk away from this insanity, I am constantly reminded why I keep putting myself in these bad relationships: It has always been about the cannabis plant, its potential, and the lives it has already changed.
It was 1997 in California where I got my start in medical cannabis under the Compassionate Care Act or Prop 215. My best friend’s mom had multiple sclerosis. She was at the stage of her illness where her ability to inhale was severely minimized so we started making edibles for her. No medication she had ever tried had relieved her of her constant bodily pain and discomfort until ingesting cannabis.
To this day, though she is no longer with us, I can still hear her saying after eating a brownie, “I feel no pain” with a big smile on her face. This is why I got into the cannabis industry!
Outlaws and pioneers
The early years were a mix of having a hobby and being an ‘outlaw’ in the eyes of the federal government. No matter how many people I had in my Prop 215 collective or how many plants I could justify growing, I was at the mercy of never knowing what the next day held for me.
My partner and I spent countless hours setting up a protection grid to make sure we didn’t become another statistic among the uptick of unjust busts. My burgeoning network of industry friends was my best resource for protection and staying informed. This community-based approach was the foundation of our industry. Even today I remain friends with many of those early growers.
Like myself, I have also witnessed their challenges as the industry changed to a recreational model. With all of these new partnerships, new marriages, a blending of ethos, a few worked, but many more ended in divorce. It’s an unfortunate trend that has been manifesting regularly.
Re-entering with new energy
After taking a break from cultivation for a few years, I hit the reset button in the end of 2015 and got back into the industry on the sales and distribution side of things. My first relationship was like dating again when you have been on the side-lines for a while. It was exciting, nerve-racking and energizing.
Your whole outlook on life changes in those initial months until the early glow inevitably starts to fade. That’s about the time in most relationships where you see the real deal in front of you and no longer the facade. In this case, when money started disappearing and everyone started playing the blame game, the beginning of the end manifested. This one crashed and burned quickly and signaled my first divorce and the business’ consequential funeral.
From community to corporation
My next two relationships were akin to attending corporate boot camp. While I was excited to join well funded companies, it became evident fairly quickly that money doesn’t buy you success.
With a combination of mismanagement, exceptional and unnecessary expenditures, a complete lack of industry understanding along with a culture of mistrust and poor leadership, these companies were destined to become footnotes in the annals of what not to do when launching a business.
While these relationships ended amicably they were painful nonetheless. Ultimately these breakups left me disillusioned to find that the modern day cannabis industry had changed so dramatically from the community-based approach I had always known.
Balance through quality leadership
This isn’t to say the corporation itself is inherently bad. The trick is to find the balance between its organizational value and the passion that drove the early visionaries.
In my experience, the most effective strategy to achieve this balance is through quality leadership. Many executives who jumped into the cannabis industry were looking to replicate prior successes they’d had in other industries. Most were not equipped to deal with the ever-changing landscape and unpredictability of the new legal cannabis industry.
The default solution was to throw money around like it was free. Excess loomed large, coffers dried up, turnover was rampant and companies began dropping like flies. The rare few companies who did see the light and kept things tight and focused were the ones who didn’t have to go through the dreaded corporate restructuring.
This can be the soulless part of the realities of business life, but there are ways to do it with empathy or avoid it altogether in the first place.
Working together towards a common goal
As the stewards of our industry, it’s our job to take the best of what the corporate world has to offer, invest in people, build trust and effective communication, foster empathy and humility, and reward vision and perseverance.
Nobody has all the answers. There will be mistakes, but the value is in how quickly you can identify the problem, learn from it, find a solution, pivot and move on. When you have a team that at its core is always working together towards a common goal, you have the ingredients for a winning relationship and ultimate success.