I had the pleasure of speaking at the Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition in New York this past week; a major B2B Expo held at the Jacob Javits Center with hundreds of exhibitors displaying their products and services intended to appeal to those hoping to enter the new legal marijuana industry emerging around the country. It was an impressive display of the myriad of choices available for those willing to take the dive into the increasingly competitive marijuana industry.
It is clearly a positive development that so many entrepreneurs have surfaced to try to find a niche they can fill to provide a newer or better product or service, to distinguish themselves from others attempting to compete for the same space. There will be both winners and losers in this new market. As competition continues to grow, new products bring improvements over the previous versions, and a significant number of well-intentioned would-be business successes get sidelined by more creative newcomers with better technology or better funding or simply a better business model.
Estimates are that as high as 40% of all new marijuana-related businesses may fail within the first couple of years. Yes, the newly legal marijuana industry offers incredible opportunities for entrepreneurs and others with the capital to invest; but for every individual who succeeds in this new industry, another will fail. It is simply the nature of new industries, and as appealing as legal marijuana is to millions of Americans, that industry will experience the same economic pressures, including business failures, that other new industries experience.
For the next several years, the legal marijuana industry will remain one that involves impressive individual business successes, along with some failures; and some business consolidations. Because of the different state legalization laws and regulations, at least for the immediate future, that concentration will be significantly limited, and most big companies that want to extend to other states will have to establish separate companies in each state. All of this suggests the legal marijuana industry may well end up looking more like the wine industry in America, with room for small producers, rather than the tobacco or alcohol industry. And that is positive for consumers, and for the industry.
The True Believers and the Investors
The industry appears to be comprised of two distinct groups of people: those who were active in the marijuana legalization movement for years, and understand the enormous damage done by prohibition; and who have migrated to the business side of the issue. And those who have no background or interest in legalization movement, but who have resources and see the new market simply as an opportunity to get rich. Obviously, it is the latter group that worries many of us, because of their sole focus on profits, and their lack of understanding of the long struggle that led to this point, and the millions of Americans who paid dearly for the right to grow or sell or smoke marijuana.
We live in a free market economy in which Americans are encouraged to create jobs and make products that people want with the hope of building a successful business. So we cannot expect that the newly legal marijuana market will be immune from these basic economic rules.
Marijuana is Different
But marijuana is also different. For decades, it was popular primarily among an underground culture, and shunted and harshly punished by the dominant culture. Those of us who smoked marijuana had to be careful from whom we bought our marijuana, and with whom we chose to smoke marijuana. One bad decision could lead to a bust that would result in jail time and a criminal record that would forever limit one’s ability to get an education or a good job. A marijuana bust was sort of a life sentence, a handicap assuring one would never have the opportunity to maximize their potential fully. Once labeled as a criminal, many growers, smugglers, and dealers were left with few options other than staying in the illegal marijuana business.
So now that we have, as a culture, begun to come above ground, and at least in a handful of states (with many more to come), and we are no longer running from the police, most consumers want to maintain some control over who produces and sells marijuana, to keep the scale of production small and local, and to keep the multinational corporations out of the field – or at least keep their influence modest as the legal marijuana industry develops. What we don’t want is to see the tobacco companies, or other large industries, come in and control the marijuana markets. On that point, the legalizers are in agreement with our opponents – such as Kevin Sabet and Project SAM, who now claim they no longer support prohibition, but they oppose “big marijuana.” (One might reasonably see their change in position as recognizing the reality of current public polling, rather than reflecting a real change in values.)
The NORML Business Network
But there is also some common ground between the smokers and the industry. NORML is a consumer group – that is we represent the interest of smokers. And we have established a program called the NORML Business Network, that will become the equivalent of the Better Business Bureau, allowing responsible businesses to distinguish themselves from those businesses that are only interested in getting rich, with no concern for the welfare of their workers or the safety of the consumers. I am delighted to report that both Marijuana.com and it’s parent company, Weedmaps.com, are among our first NORML Business Network Preferred Business Partners.
Those marijuana businesses who qualify to become a NORML Preferred Business Partner are encouraged to display prominent seals of approval at their stores and on their websites indicating they have taken the high road and are using their business to build a community that respects workers and consumers, that tests their products to assure they contain no molds or pesticides, and that provide accurate labelling so the consumer knows the strength of the THC and the CBD, and the primary terpenoids.
And those of us who smoke should demand that businesses adhere to these standards, or we must shop in a store that does. As consumers we have the power to force marijuana businesses to follow the highest standards, to be socially responsible, and to protect the health of consumers, if they are to become a successful business. Now it is time that we begin to do that.
Marijuana companies that wish to apply for the NORML Preferred Business Partner can apply online, and if approved, will be provided with stickers for the store and signs that make it clear to consumers that your business meets these standards, and is a good corporate citizen that deserves to be frequented.
We have lots of work to do before we have totally ended prohibition in America, and stopped the senseless arrest of marijuana smokers. We continue to make significant progress, and this fall we expect to add several new states to the list of legalization states.
But it is never too early to begin to impose some ethical standards to this emerging industry, and to begin to distinguish between those that are simply interested in getting rich and those who want to develop a responsible business that is as concerned about being a good corporate citizen as they are about making money.
The NORML Business Network is our way of helping underscore that distinction for the consumer.