As sales near, cannabis industry still lacks unified voice
More than 300 licenses spread among a landmass the size of Mexico is causing some organizational problems for an industry without income or central leadership.
Common theory in the Alaska cannabis industry says the industry needs more time to get onto the map than its sister states in the Lower 48. Colorado, Washington and Oregon each had an established medical marijuana industry for years prior to full recreational legalization. Medical suppliers only needed to switch gears.
This explains in part why Alaska hasn’t had a recreational sale just yet, but also presents an issue the industry is only now starting to recognize: it has little organization.
Left without leaders
“It’s a huge problem,” said Taylor Bickford.
Since leaving his involvement with the industry behind after Ballot Measure 2 passed, Bickford said he has concerns about the lack of unity the industry has now as a result of lobbying efforts.
Bickford worked as the spokesperson for the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol, which was mainly responsible for rustling up the 53 percent of Alaskans who voted in favor of Ballot Measure 2 in 2014.
Nearly $800,000 for the campaign came from the Marijuana Policy Project.
Bickford, a senior vice president at public relations firm Strategies 360 now representing the Bristol Bay Native Corp., managed the communications campaign while father Frank Bickford handled Juneau.
The elder Bickford oversees the accounts of Altria Client Services, a tobacco group affiliated with Philip Morris USA Inc., John Middleton Co., U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., and Nu Mark LLC; the Alaska Society of Eye Physicians and Surgeons; the American Academy of Ophthalmology; Oracle America, Inc.; and Alaska Hospitality Retailers.
“If you look at any major industry in the state, they all have representation in the state capital, particularly in an industry like marijuana that’s going to be heavily regulated,” Bickford said. “The danger for the industry is it’s hard for them to present a unified voice to the Legislature.”
Bickford said the marijuana industry suffers from a lack of centralized direction in a place where localities end up having more control than the state.
Ballot Measure 2 gave local authorities the ability to craft their own marijuana laws, up to and including banning commercial sale and production. Areas range from Southeast Alaska municipalities asking for more lenient buffer zones between cannabis businesses and schools to proposed borough-wide bans in the Kenai Peninsula and Matanuska-Susitna.
“What you have is a number of disparate voices that probably are mostly close to being on the same page, but in a lot of cases are not,” he said. “All these businesses are going to be just as, if not more, accountable to local governments than they are to the state. And in Alaska, that’s a pretty big patchwork.”
Karen O’Keefe, the Marijuana Policy Project’s director of state policy, said her organization did continue lobbying efforts into the 2015 session following the Ballot Measure 2 approval in 2014, but implementation efforts dropped after the law passed.
“There have been some lobbying efforts after the passage of Ballot Measure 2,” she said. “Last year in particular, there was a lot of legislation moving. There was a team of advocates working to make sure the will of the voters wasn’t being undermined.
“That included Frank Bickford, Taylor Bickford, his son, the campaign spokesperson at the local level, Tim Hinterberger, a lot of other people showed up at the local level and in the Legislature.”
In 2016, the tune changed.
Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, has been one of the cannabis industry’s major legislative supporters. She said she noticed a cannabis industry absence in the Juneau lobbies during the 2016 session, in part because the fiscal crisis-driven Legislature had no time for it.
This industry was fortunate, according to LeDoux, because it needs statehouse representation as much as any other industry.
“Even if it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be a lot going on in Juneau, you’ve got to be aware if you’re an industry player,” LeDoux said. “You’ve got to know when somebody proposes a bill that’s going to bite you. Unless you’ve got somebody down in Juneau, and that’s generally a lobbyist looking over the bills every day when they’re read across…you might find yourself someday with (a bill) that’s going to pass both houses and you didn’t know anything about it because you weren’t at the table to give your comment.”
LeDoux and other public officials say industry is understandably concerned given its history, but that fears have little basis in reality.
“It’s just like in fisheries,” she said. “People are always trying to second guess. ‘Why is this happening, why is that happening, is somebody trying to sandbag this, is somebody trying to sandbag that?’ It’s just like fisheries, or just about anything else in politics I should say.”
Regardless, the perception of large-scale antagonism against the industry spurs the conversation for better connections in the political world.
Recent events have shaken the cannabis industry, including the ousting of long-time advocate Bruce Schulte from the Marijuana Control Board and who Gov. Bill Walker will choose to replace him.
Board shakeups are standard for Walker, but industry views setbacks through a blood-colored lens. Though voted in by a 53 percent majority, Ballot Measure 2 was unpopular with most of Alaska’s movers and shakers.
A laundry list of power brokers across the state publicly opposed Ballot Measure 2, including the Alaska Republican Party, the Alaska Association of Police Chiefs, the Alaska Chamber, the Alaska Conference of Mayors, the Alaska Industry Support Alliance, the Anchorage Assembly, the Mat-Su Business Alliance, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, several boroughs and cities, Alaska Native corporation Doyon Ltd. and the Alaska Native Village CEO Association, among others.
From stakeholders’ perspective, regulators on the Marijuana Control Board and in high-density localities are drawing the first sale out too far.
Recent board events — including the firing of former chair Schulte and current chair and Soldotna Chief of Police Peter Mlynarik gathering signatures for a proposed Kenai Peninsula Borough commercial cannabis ban — make them even more suspicious.
And now one of the Anchorage Assembly’s most sympathetic voices, Mountain View’s Patrick Flynn, is not allowed to vote or discuss any issues of relevance to the cannabis industry.
Nick Miller is the president of the Anchorage Cannabis Business Association, a group of 30-odd dues-paying industry participants with plans to operate within the municipality.
Miller agrees with Bickford in that the industry doesn’t put up a united front in Juneau, to the public, or with each other.
“Between Anchorage and Fairbanks and Fairbanks and Kenai and Kenai and Mat-Su, there is a pretty large disconnect,” Miller said. “As an industry, I don’t feel we’re very unified. We don’t always send the same message. We all have our wants and needs, but we don’t really coordinate or align those very well.”
Miller isn’t unsympathetic to the challenges of having hundreds of localities with disparate rules. As of yet, bringing each unaffiliated group together under a united flag or even a widespread newsletter hasn’t happened.
“I feel like you need a group to lobby in your local area for your local regulations, but you think there’d be a time and place where members meet monthly and say, ‘ok, what are your top six issues statewide?’” he said. “For better or for worse there have been organizations that have tried that but it’s just not very well organized.”
Lobbying smells suspicious to some cannabis business people, Miller said, and ACBA members seem wary.
“I’m not sure what’s more important at this point,” one asked during an Aug. 10 meeting, “a lawyer or a lobbyist?”
Miller has had conversations with one lobbyist, Paul Fuchs, who mapped out strategies, detailing which legislators and power brokers he has relationships with and how he would approach each differently on issues relevant to the industry.
Miller learned more than he thought he did about the “very strange “ business of lobbying and wants to duplicate the experience for his members. Fuchs will speak and answer questions at the ACBA’s bi-weekly meeting on Aug. 24.
Lobbyist or executive director?
While ACBA vets possibilities for direct industry lobbyists, others think industry associations should fill the role in the absence of the money a lobbyist would demand.
The Alaska Marijuana Industry Association hired Cary Carrigan as executive director last month. Carrigan is a former weatherman for KIMO and KTUU, as well as the former host of a radio show on KUDO. He approached the AMIA board looking to put his 30 years in Alaska media to good use after watching his Alzheimer’s-stricken father in-law-pass away and wanting to get more involved with cannabis.
“There’s going to have to be someone from the mainstream who understands how the PR angle worked,” said Carrigan. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”
Carrigan agrees that the Alaska cannabis industry lacks organization, but the solution is not a lobbyist in his mind. It’s the AMIA.
“That’s a great thought, but I don’t know if the people need to buy the legislators more dinner,” he said. “I think what they need to do is let the legislators know that there’s an industry out here that wants to help support the state in a time of financial crisis.”
The AMIA has marketed itself as the premier industry association since 2015. Two of its board members, Schulte and Brandon Emmett, ended up on the Marijuana Control Board as well.
Other unaffiliated industry voices have criticized AMIA for being less an industry association than a board member organization. AMIA still has no dues-paying members, while other grassroots industry groups like Miller’s ACBA have dozens.
AMIA board members, Carrigan said, launched too quickly and with too much ambition. Each had his or her own license applications to file and businesses to build and couldn’t focus energies on the association activities it had planned.
With a volunteer executive director, the group will launch an aggressive campaign to build social media presence and organization activities for Alaska’s scattered industry, he said.
This could involve providing campaign assistance for boroughs with potential commercial marijuana bans like Mat-Su and Kenai Peninsula, as well as resources and speakers for education, community outreach and regulatory assistance.
“Our hope is to make the AMIA an umbrella organization just to give people a central focal point,” he said. “There’s going to be groups of people all over the place. There’s going to have to be some focal point because this where things tend to fall apart, because they get skewed and there’s too many people in too many different areas duplicating the same things.”
Alaska’s industry focus on organization, and the differing ideas to get there matches the national pattern, according to Kris Krane, president of cannabis business advising company 4Front Ventures.
Krane is the former associate director of the National Organization for Responsible Marijuana Legislation and now serves on the national board of directors for the National Cannabis Industry Association, Common Sense for Drug Policy and Marijuana Majority.
Krane wasn’t surprised to hear about the push for a lobbyist and the questions about a central industry group. MPP gets laws passed, but doesn’t directly lobby for industry needs. The establishment of trade groups and the hiring of lobbyists comes next.
“We’ve seen this happen in Arizona, we’ve seen this happen in Massachusetts, we saw it happen early in Colorado,” Krane said. “You have these industry associations that spring up that want to be the trade group and more often than not what ends up happening is a trade industry association eventually does arise, sometimes more than one, that is legitimate.
“But it never actually happens until the businesses are up and running and enough of them are generating revenue that they can financially support the activities of one of these organizations.”
In the meantime, trade groups vie for early traction, and he said tension between groups is the rule. Colorado’s early medical and adult use days had several trade groups that eventually whittled down to two competing associations with influence at the state level.
“Eventually, once these businesses are operational and generating revenue, the dust will settle,” Krane said. “Most people will get behind whatever trade organization it is.”
Krane said industry’s paranoia of state interference might sound fearful, but are a “totally valid concern.” Without money from sales, the kind of political firepower to address that concern is limited.
“Without business that have cash flow, you would need to have a small handful of extremely wealthy people who have these licenses be willing to front this money without support from other license holders or other industry players. That’s what’s generally proven difficult.”
In the meantime, he said nothing in Alaska looks anything less than normal.
“None of this is a red flag for the development of the industry,” Krane said. “These are just the normal growing pains of developing something from nothing: an entirely new industry.”
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].