The tone in the North American cannabis industry over the past several months has been one of harsh realities and unprecedented struggles for everyone from small local growers to large multistate operators. Meanwhile, hope for federal legalization seems to lessen with every passing year. Unsurprisingly, as the United States industry chugs along in limbo, other countries see progress almost overnight. If countries like Germany are the hare, the U.S. definitely is the tortoise.
Beyond the obvious challenges of banking, Internal Revenue Code Section 280E, and surplus flower in many markets, another enemy to the movement has emerged more recently: criticism within our own community. I’m an optimist who avoids negativity, but even I have found it difficult to ignore the tone that has settled over some quarters. True, bickering on grow forums and Reddit about the best nutrients, lights, or trimming machines is nothing new among passionate people disputing best practices or personal preferences. Recently, however, people have mentioned seeing and sensing negativity that is not beneficial to the movement. Some even say this is exactly what big corporations want as they wait in the wings to swoop in and commercialize an industry that traditionally has been community-first.
The legalization movement mostly was fueled by activists, passionate people who acted intentionally to bring about social and political change. Coming from Northern California, I am proud to say I grew up with many of these individuals in my own backyard. Dennis Peron, Brownie Mary, and Ed Rosenthal were at the epicenter of the local movement during my childhood, risking their freedom and rights for something they believed in. Peron was committed to legalizing medical use, while Rosenthal just wanted to see the plant no longer weaponized to suppress the populace. These are the people who paved the way to what now is a widely supported movement among all ages, ethnic groups, and even religions. The approval rate for federal legalization rose from 18 percent in 2002 to 88 percent in 2022 not by coincidence, but because people stood up against a failed war on drugs.
The number of advocates has grown substantially in recent years. What’s the difference between activists and advocates, you ask? Activists have a more radical way of getting their point across. Rallies and public displays of protest via open consumption or possession are not uncommon for the passionate activist. Advocates, on the other hand, lead with education, often speaking on behalf of another person or group. The approach is less disruptive but often gains more buy-in from those otherwise closed-minded to the benefits of this amazing plant. While I supported cannabis use for years, I didn’t become a vocal advocate until 2016. Due to my past relationship with the plant in the non-legal era, I was hesitant to share my position. I considered myself a lucky individual who never got caught consuming, let alone growing or selling.
Those I’ve heard receive the most criticism are the opportunists. I don’t mean the East Coast, Wolf of Wall Street, get-rich-quick types we saw swoop in around 2014 and bail by mid-2018. I’m referring to the individuals pouring in more recently from mainstream industries after seeing opportunity in ours. Some have been critical of these folks because they showed up to the party a little late, but the criticism may be unwarranted. Nowhere does it say one must be in love with the plant to participate in this space. While some of us have a history in the “traditional market” or grew up in the heart of the culture and craft, these qualities aren’t requisites listed on job descriptions.
We all have heard the expression “safety in numbers.” What about support in numbers? It must be the optimist in me, but I get excited to meet people who segue to cannabis from other industries. I’ve even mentored and guided folks to make the leap. One of my favorite stories involves an individual who messaged me on LinkedIn after reading a post I wrote about how there is room in our industry for experts of all kinds. It goes something like this:
In 2020, shortly after the world was knocked off its axis by COVID-19, an active-duty military man reached out and shared how much my post encouraged him. He said while he always had supported cannabis, his extensive military career prevented him from showing his support, let alone getting involved. I asked what he did for the military, and he replied his job related to security and logistics. Among the challenges he foresaw in pursuing a role in our field was finding a position for someone with his skills. I explained his military training and focus were a perfect fit for managing security at scaled operations. His logistics background could benefit our industry in transport or operations-related roles, I explained. I went on to describe other friends who brought military training to the cannabis community with great success.
He revealed he would be honorably discharged before the end of the year, but it would take some time for the Pentagon to absolve his security clearance. Once that was sorted, he would look into opportunities in his home state of Florida, he said.
Several months later, I was surprised to discover he tagged me in a very heartfelt LinkedIn post in which he called out me and a few others who encouraged him to pursue a new profession. He ended up joining one of the first dispensaries in Florida as head of operations, and he loved the job.
Why is this story relevant? Because I didn’t need confirmation of his experience growing, consuming, or trafficking cannabis. He didn’t come in claiming to be an “expert” like so many do. I didn’t check to see how many NORML events he attended or whether he ever got caught smoking in the bathroom between classes. His support for the movement and his belief in the plant’s potential were sufficient bona fides.
When I was sharing employment stats in a recent documentary I co-produced, I thought about this gentleman. He’s now among the more than 400,000 individuals working in the industry. Is he an activist or an advocate? No. He was an opportunist and an ally who knew he would be happy supporting something he believes in. That was enough for me, and it should be enough for anyone in our community. It’s going to take all of us to keep this industry community-first, so stay positive and continue supporting others with open hearts. These individuals may not be hipnecks from Humboldt or advocates from Indiana, but they are on the same team and can have just as big an impact for the cause.
Lance C. Lambert spent years cultivating brands and telling stories in the digital-media and marketing spaces prior to shifting his expertise to the legal cannabis industry in 2013. In 2022, he was named chief marketing officer at Grove Bags, where he’s tasked with growing the company’s footprint at home and abroad. A cancer survivor, he embraces and actively advocates for the plant.