Defining “Doing Things Right”
Exploring how and why big brands contribute to equity efforts.
The Broccoli Report
Friday, December 17, 2021
Time to read: 5 minutes, 55 seconds. Contains 1186 words.
Is doing good the same as being good?
Last week, I described a lavish press trip put on by Michigan brand Common Citizen to launch a 100% give-back product. Today, I’m going to dig into the mixed feelings I walked away with after being wine-and-dined in the name of social equity.
Finding the Why
As a reporter covering business news, I have to keep an eye on the money. Companies—by definition—exist to create profit, so when a company spends significant money, it is doing it for a reason. Common Citizen pulled out all the stops to launch Principle, and I wondered why. As a writer in the weed world, I listen to the cannabis community, including the Report subscriber that reached out to me when she read I was going to the Common Citizen launch. As a Michigan local, she wanted to make sure I knew of issues regarding Common Citizen and their part in a coordinated effort by a group of licensed brands to support legislation that would limit Michigan’s medical caregiver program.
Looking into it, it seems as though the Michigan Cannabis Manufacturers Association, a trade group representing the state’s largest adult-use cultivators that included Common Citizen, lobbied for legislation that would lower caregiver’s growing limits, block home cultivation, and increase testing and regulation for medically licensed growers. Those are hot-button issues for the legacy and medical communities rightly credited with making adult-use cannabis laws remotely possible—perhaps hotter than the MCMA or CC even anticipated. That said—companies are companies. They don’t have souls. They generate profit. This sort of lobbying is exactly the kind of profit-generating effort that companies across all industries engage in.
Their efforts were seen as strategic steps towards eliminating the medical/caregiver community altogether and bringing those hundreds of thousands of patients into the licensed system, turning them into customers. At one point, the executive director of the trade association questioned the legitimate dealings of medically licensed operators at a public hearing, further offending the medical community, spurring a boycott of MCMA companies (which we actually mentioned as a One-Hitter when it was happening in June). Things got spicy enough for MCMA to take their website down for a while.
It’s a complex situation. I actually think that of all states negotiating adjacent medical and adult-use markets, Michigan has a better chance at maintaining a thriving medical side. Oregon’s passionate medical community plummeted from around 80k to 20k within years of legalization without any changes to grower allowances. Michigan’s medical community is strong, active, and united—hell, their boycott had an impact! That speaks volumes of the consumer power they hold across both markets. Although increased costs will be a burden, implementing testing requirements on the medical side seems reasonable. I do find it nefarious to support changes that would force caregivers to abandon patients.
I found out via generic cannabis Google Alert that in October, Common Citizen announced Common Care, a program for medical customers. Starting in 2022, it will provide low-cost or free cannabis to low-income patients and those with severe or terminal illnesses. It might have behooved them to siphon off a little of the Principle fanfare towards Common Care, the initiative that speaks to the loudest of CC’s critics, or perhaps Principle is merely one part of a larger plan to do better. That said, the structure of Principle itself is worth thinking through.
Products like Principle are tricky, because they put the onus on the consumer to be the one making a difference—their purchase powers the donation. Based on pre-roll sales, the company estimates that “at minimum, annual donations will reach $500k.” If that does end up being the case, that’s an impactful amount of money. Still, donations only help communities in one specific way: money. But equity is not just about money—it’s about resources and opportunity, too. I appreciated that CC hired a range of local partners to execute the event, but I also wanted to know about the diversity of its staff. The avenue of converting sales into donations, while certainly helpful, does not directly make space for people from marginalized communities to profit and build wealth from this industry.
Of course, this issue is far bigger than Common Citizen. They aren’t the only brand making noise about nascent equity efforts. Common Citizen is taking more care than other brands to ensure their equity efforts have real, lasting impact—they’ve brought Jessica Jackson of Copper House on to the company’s senior leadership team as Social Equity Officer and have hired Cannaclusive to support Principle and develop the company’s internal social equity program. Still, I can’t help wondering if a launch like this—or any brand’s splashy press trip—is the best use of equity budgets.
The Messier Stuff
I learned how to write at Portland’s Pulitzer Prize-winning alt-weekly, Willamette Week. The editor-in-chief was (and still is) a badass, old-school journalist that protected ethics above everything. I’ve written both sponsored content and objective news articles. I understand the value of each in today’s media landscape, but maintaining a world where those are two separate things is very important to me. Hopefully, it is for you, too.
Things can get blurry when people start getting treated to flights and hotels. It’s hard not to be influenced by nice experiences and nice people, and companies know that. However, this weed writer was too distracted by the fact that the majority of the cannabis businesses I’ve written about in the past seven years couldn’t have afforded an event like this. What does that mean for who gets covered and the kind of coverage they receive?
I know I’m asking a lot of questions, but that’s where we are in this industry. We’re still figuring out how to hand out licenses without disproportionately disadvantaging people from marginalized communities—we certainly haven’t figured out the one perfect way to support equity. The largesse of this press trip and the scale of the mega grow looked like the doom of small, indie competitors in the Michigan market to me, but residents in local weed community Reddit threads point out that some of the best, most stable, and well-compensated jobs are found at bigger companies like Common Citizen. They’re stimulating local economies like Flint with beautiful stores that provide well-paying jobs. And I imagine the Shinola Hotel, local restaurants, and others involved in the CC programming appreciated this boost to their businesses after a very rough couple of years.
As with most things, the real question is what happens now. After a big public announcement, does a company walk the walk, or is it just talking the talk, hiding behind a cannabis-equity version of greenwashing? Companies have fallen over themselves in the past couple of years, proclaiming their intentions to do better, but few have made good on those promises. Only time can reveal the depth and impact of Common Citizen’s equity commitment, and I hope it does result in real effects.
I’ll see you Monday with a little recap of where we’re at closing out 2021, touching on weed trends and favorites, as well as the latest news for our last newsletter of the year.