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  • David Rozanski, JD, MBA

You Don’t Have to Be a Rebel to Be Successful in the Cannabis Industry, but It Definitely Helps

What is the secret to successfully breaking into the legal cannabis industry? While there is no singular factor that drives success in this industry, there is one personality trait that can help: being a rebel.

2018 was huge year for the cannabis industry. Canada became one of the first nations to federally legalize recreational marijuana use. The US passed the historic 2018 Farm Bill, which fully legalized hemp cultivation. At the state level, the year started with Vermont becoming the first state to legalize cannabis for recreational use through the legislature, rather than a ballot initiative. The legislature in Maine overrode their Governor’s veto to pass a recreational use law that started as a ballot initiative. Michigan also became the first Midwest state to legalize recreational use thanks to a voter initiative passing in November. Add to that states like Oklahoma, Utah, and Missouri, which legalized medical marijuana in 2018, and you have a total of 33 states with medical marijuana laws and 10 states with recreational use laws.


2019 is expected to be even bigger for the industry. In addition to New York and Ohio considering recreational use laws for cannabis, the US federal government appears to indicate an increasing willingness to legitimize the cannabis industry by bringing cannabis businesses into the banking system and potentially decriminalizing the once-demonized substance. While it is unlikely that full legalization or decriminalization will happen in 2019, Altria’s recent acquisition of Cronos is one of many moves by big players that suggest an end to prohibition is right around the corner.


As a result, everyone is looking to cash in while the purported “Green Rush” is ongoing. How long the window for opportunity will remain open is anyone’s guess, but hinges on a variety of factors. Regardless, now is an excellent time to find an opportunity in the industry. From laborers helping to grow the product to billionaire financiers, there is a role for anyone with the right level of ambition and tenacity. However, many individuals still find themselves wanting to enter the industry, but worry about the risks. This can range from living in a state where cannabis is still illegal, or only available for narrowly-defined medical reasons, to stigma within families and friend groups. This is where it pays to be a rebel.


It is cliché to suggest there is no reward without risk, but this is especially true for the cannabis industry. Big players like Altria can (and should) afford to play it safe by entering the industry where it is federally legal. This is because these companies have a tremendous amount of capital that allows them to enter markets in later stages. By the time the US truly legalizes cannabis use at the federal level, the best opportunities will be gone. While it would inadvisable to operate in a black market, timing is everything. States like Oklahoma and Michigan are poised to begin licensing cannabis facilities in 2019, which means now is a good time to enter those markets. New York is poised to legalize recreational use in 2019, which means it could be an even bigger opportunity by strategically buying real estate in areas that will be primed for cannabis facilities.


Individuals who remain in a state with unfriendly laws towards cannabis are less likely to enter the industry while the “Green Rush” continues. Ambitious entrepreneurs would be well served to move into a state with new cannabis laws, where the largest opportunities are likely being created. This certainly creates hurdles from a cost and practicality perspective, but this is where it quite literally pays to be a rebel.


Although there are some large brands on the West Coast, the cannabis industry is still anyone’s for the taking. Having millions of dollars in capital helps with any new business venture, but there are opportunities in this industry at all levels. What many forget about this industry is there are just as many (if not more) chances at success within ancillary services as there are in roles directly involved with the production and sale of cannabis. Fears regarding the lack of banking, even for some ancillary services, often keep enterprising individuals away.


Stigma also plays a big factor in the decision not to enter the industry yet. What will family and friends say? Will working in the cannabis industry become a permanent blemish on a resume? Will banks and other service providers find out and deny service? These are all fair questions to ask, but they miss an important life truth: fortune favors the bold. Stigma will dissipate as cultural norms come to accept the industry like any other. States like Colorado, and even California, faced tremendous hurdles in attempting to convince voters that allowing recreational use wouldn’t collapse society. Now, veterans of those battles look back and laugh, as will everyone 20 years from now, when cannabis use is as normal as drinking coffee or a glass of wine.


While no one should consider abandoning their family or leaving a steady job without a proper plan, waiting for the perfect moment to enter the cannabis industry is a mistake, because that moment will never arrive. It is important for anyone considering making the jump into the cannabis sector to make informed decisions and establish a strong network. Having a rebellious spirit isn’t required, but it helps to ignore the nay-sayers and fears that can hold a person back from realizing true potential. For individuals looking for employment opportunities, there are a variety of new staffing companies and career sites dedicated to the industry. For investors and companies, there are many consultants who can help advise clients on the right path to success, which is vital to avoiding common pitfalls. For entrepreneurs, there is a world of opportunity waiting, but not for very long.

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