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Q&A with Adam Smith, Executive Director of the Craft Cannabis Alliance

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Craft Cannabis Alliance is a values-driven industry association whose mission is to define, promote, and celebrate authentic Oregon craft cannabis. Though it has only recently launched, it already counts many of Oregon’s most important local brands among its members, and looks poised to help lead a craft cannabis movement both within the industry and among consumers.

When recreational cannabis was originally legalized in Oregon, according to the Portland Mercury, there were residency requirements for obtaining a license, but in 2016 those rules were removed. In the wake of that decision, Adam J. Smith, founder and executive director of the Craft Cannabis Alliance, saw the prospect, and, increasingly, the reality of out-of-state businesses with deep pockets buying up local cannabis businesses, expanding out of state brands into the market, or financing new brands here. It was quickly apparent to Smith that the big money threatened to overwhelm the market, push Oregon-owned companies off of shelves and eventually dominate Oregon’s much-anticipated export market.  In May, drawing on his experience as an organizer and drug policy reform advocate, as well as several years working in with Oregon craft industries, he launched the Craft Cannabis Alliance.

Adam Smith, founder & executive director of the Craft Cannabis Alliance

Smith has a long history of taking aim boldly at seemingly implacable interests. In 1998, Smith launched the Higher Education Act Reform Campaign (HEA Campaign), which successfully won back the right to federal financial aid for students with drug convictions. That campaign led to the founding of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, now the world’s largest student-led drug policy reform organization, active in more than 40 states and 26 countries. Since then, he has participated in a number of public policy and civic engagement campaigns and organizations, serving on the  founding boards of the League of Young Voters and the Oregon Bus Project. He’s also written for dozens of publications on drug policy.

The Craft Cannabis Alliance is a membership-based industry association of cannabis businesses with like-minded values, who believe that cannabis is, in fact, Oregon’s next great craft industry.  And they want to make sure that means something.  We sat down with Smith to learn more about his organization and why he wants to fight big cannabis.

CannabisIndustryJournal: How exactly do you define craft cannabis?

Adam Smith: In the beer industry, the Brewers Association defines a craft producer as one who produces fewer than 6 million barrels per year, and is not more than 25% owned by a larger brewer.  And that’s fine for beer, but with cannabis just emerging from its own prohibition, there are broader concerns that we believe a craft industry needs to be responsive to.  So we’re less concerned with the size of a company’s production than how it’s producing that product, and how it’s contributing to communities and a healthy industry.

Here in Oregon, there’s a core of the cannabis industry that cares deeply about people, place, planet, and plant. As someone who has spent considerable time writing about and organizing around ending the drug war, it is important to me that cannabis’ first foray into the post-prohibitionist world is not only successful, but that it reflects a shared set of values.  When I started talking with people in the industry who take their values seriously, I asked a lot of questions. I wanted to go from “we know it when we see it” to something that could be defined and therefore legitimately promoted.  Pretty soon, it became clear that there were six major areas of agreement.

  1. Clean product
  2. Sustainable methods
  3. Ethical employment practices
  4. Substantial local ownership
  5. Community engagement
  6. Meaningful participation in the movement to end the disastrous drug war.

The first three requirements, clean, sustainable, and ethical employment practices, are pretty obvious core values for craft producers, and we believe for many Oregon consumers as well.

Substantial local ownership, particularly in a place like Oregon, is an essential component of what the Alliance is trying to organize and represent. We grow some of the finest cannabis in the world in Oregon, and while we’re a small market, we know that eventually, probably sooner than most people realize, the federal walls will come down and we’ll be able to export our products to other states and internationally.  At that point, Oregon will be home to a multi-billion dollar industry. The question then, is who will own that?

We are already seeing big out of state and international companies and investment groups buying up brands or starting their own brands here.  With tens of millions of dollars behind them, they have the marketing and distribution muscle to push locally owned companies, even those producing superior product, off of shelves.  And if foreign-owned companies are dominating shelf space here when those federal walls crumble, those are the companies that will own the export market, and who will ultimately own the Oregon Cannabis brand globally.  And if that happens, we will never buy it back.

Southern Oregon, in particular, is a region that has seen little economic growth since the waning of the timber industry.  The communities there have a huge stake in how this plays out.  Will the cannabis industry build wealth, and economies, and institutions here? Or will Oregon become a low-wage factory for out of state and international corporations.

Beyond local ownership, community engagement is another important component of craft cannabis. The industry, which still faces PR challenges, many of them well earned, needs ambassadors who can demonstrate what a healthy cannabis industry looks like, and who will build the relationships and the credibility necessary to gain the loyal support of their neighbors, local media, and public officials.

Finally, participation in the anti-drug war movement, beyond the self interest of simply opening up the next market, is a must. This industry stands atop a mountain of eighty years of ruined lives and destroyed communities. If you are in the industry, and you are not looking for ways to support drug policy reform, you are profiteering, plain and simple.  The drug war is teetering on the brink of the dustbin of history, but it is not over yet.  The very existence of a legalized industry is the product of decades of work by many, many individuals, most of whom will never earn a dime from the end of prohibition, and never intended to. We view a healthy legal cannabis market as an important platform for social progress on this front, and we are going to use it.  

CIJ: Doesn’t capitalism guarantee that the big money will win out? That striving to maintain one’s values in the face of competition that is laser-focused on profits above all else is inefficient and doomed to failure?

Adam: Believe me, when your name is Adam Smith, you spend a lot of time thinking about capitalism.  Let’s be clear, our members are committed to profits. We just don’t believe that nihilism is going to be a profitable strategy in Oregon cannabis, nor should it be.  Our goal is to monetize our values by offering a win-win proposition to consumers, opinion makers, political leaders, and everyone else who will benefit from a visionary, responsible, and successful Oregon industry feeding into the local economy.

The choice is not between capitalism and something else.  It is between an extractive model of capitalism and a value-adding model of capitalism. Between an industry that seeks to bleed value from the earth, and communities, and employees, and consumers, and one that adds value to everything it touches at every level while producing the best cannabis in the world.  

In the end, consumers are the key.  If we can be the coolest thing happening in Oregon cannabis, if we can bring consumers into this movement, we will succeed.  There’s simply no reason for Oregonians to be buying cannabis grown by a Canadian bank account, even if it’s physically produced here.  That is SO not cool.  And what’s cool in Oregon will be what’s cool and in demand nationally and internationally as we are able to expand the reach of the legal Oregon industry.

We believe that offering the world’s best cannabis, grown responsibly, by Oregonians who are actually committed to the environment, to their communities, and to social justice is a going to be a powerful marketing proposition here.  More powerful than having a famous person on your label or weak attempts at greenwashing.  

Within the authentic Oregon craft universe will be super high-end products, as well as more value-oriented offerings, and everything in between. We’re going to make it easy for Oregonians to recognize and support the kind of industry that we’d all like to see here.

CIJ: Why do you think this could be successful in Oregon? Is the industry receptive to this idea?

Adam: Not only the industry, but the media, elected officials, and most importantly, we believe, consumers.

Oregon sees itself, not unjustifiably, as the birthplace of the craft movement in America. Our craft beer, artisan wine, and craft distilling industries are world-class by any standard, and are very well supported locally.  Include in that list our local food scene and the myriad artisans of all stripes who ply their trades in the region, and it’s pretty obvious that there will be strong support for a values-driven, locally owned cannabis industry.

Craft is about people making something they love, as well as they possibly can, for themselves and their friends, and to share with others who will love it too.   It’s not a coincidence that those products tend also to be of the highest quality.  

The key, as I’ve mentioned, is for craft cannabis is to build a partnership with consumers. Let them know who we are, and what we are trying to build, which is an authentic, and authentically Oregon craft cannabis movement.

There are quite a lot of people in the Oregon industry who share this vision, including many of the best and most important brands in the state. The are people who got into cannabis for the right reasons, with a craftsperson’s dedication to quality and mindfulness on all fronts.  To truly be a craftsperson is not only to make an exceptional product, but also to be cognizant of the historical and social context of your craft, with a respect for what has come before, and a commitment to setting an example for those who will follow.

Those are our people, and they are well represented in the industry here.  Our goal is to organize them and help insure a path to their success.

CIJ: Tell us about how you are educating the industry, consumers and political leaders.

Adam: Well, we launched at the end of May, from the stage at the Cultivation Classic, which highlights and honors the best cannabis in Oregon, grown sustainably and regeneratively. That was a great opportunity for us to introduce ourselves to the part of the industry that we’re targeting, and we were very grateful to Jeremy Plumb of Farma, who is also an Alliance member, and who puts on that incredible event, for that stage.

Right now, we are still a manageable group, size-wise, and we are doing a lot of personal networking in the industry, seeking out the right people to join us.  It’s been a lot of “who do we like and trust, who is making great product?”  As a long-time organizer, I believe in starting out by putting together the strongest possible group of leaders who are also good people and fun to work with.  I’d say that that’s going very well, since we have just an incredible group, who I am honored to stand beside.  Over the past several weeks, as we have started to be a bit outward facing, we have had more and more folks in the industry reaching out to us, rather than the other way around. So we’re in a great spot to grow.

On the political side, we really launched the project at the very end of the most recent state legislative session, and so we purposely did not engage that process this year. But over the past several months, we have been seeking out and introducing ourselves to key public officials.  Their response has been extremely positive.  Here we are, a group of companies who are substantially locally owned, and committed to being transparent and accountable to the health of our employees, our communities, and our state.  In an industry that is still very chaotic, and not well organized, with plenty of shady players, I think that they see us as a compelling partner going forward.    

CIJ: Some of these standards seem pretty difficult to quantify. How do you expect to judge new member businesses?

Adam: Well, in the areas of clean product, sustainable methods, and ethical employment practices, we will adopt standards being developed and promulgated by third-party certification efforts such as Resource Innovation Institute (energy, water, carbon footprint) and the Cannabis Certification Council (“organic” and fair labor standards).  There are others as well, some that exist, things like Clean Green, and some that are still in development.  We are beginning to meet with these folks to gauge where they are, and to give input on their standard-setting processes. In the end, hopefully within the next year as more third-party standards come online, we will choose which of those standards to adopt or accept.  

Community engagement and anti-drug war participation will be things that we undertake as an alliance, as well as providing support for our members to do these things individually behind their brands

As for “substantial local ownership” we are already discussing the parameters of what that means.  Certainly, here in Oregon, there is a need for outside capital.  We are not going to fund a robust industry, especially one that is prepared to take advantage of the coming interstate and international markets, with all local funding.

That said, there is a huge difference between having an out of state partner who owns a piece of a local business, and having an out of state or international corporate overlord with a 90-100%  ownership stake.  And the distinction is important for the future of the industry and for Oregon’s economy.  

The temptation is to set the bar at 50% in-state ownership. But what if you are a large cannabis brand, selling in four or five or six states, that is 35% or 40% Oregon-owned?  That would likely meet the definition of “substantial.”  It is a difficult line to draw, in some sense, but not impossible.  As we move forward, we will develop guidelines on this, and we will have a membership committee that can look at an individual company and say “yes, you are substantially Oregon-owned” or “not you are not” as well as a process in place to insure fairness in that decision.  Right now, every cannabis company in the Alliance is majority Oregon-owned, and I would expect that to continue except in very rare cases.

CIJ: One of your standards for membership requires participation in the movement to end the drug war. Some might see this as a given, but could you shed some light on this?

Adam: As I mentioned earlier, we see reform movement participation as a moral imperative, and since a lot of my background is in drug policy reform, it’s important to me personally.  As an alliance, we hope to partner with organizations like Students for Sensible Drug Policy and NORML, and within the industry with groups like the Minority Cannabis Business Association to both advocate for broad drug policy reform,  and hopefully to provide opportunities and support for communities that have been most negatively affected by Prohibition.  We believe that those of us participating in the legal, regulated cannabis market have both a responsibility and an opportunity to use our voices to point out the difference between the chaos, corruption, and violence of prohibition, and the the sanity, humanity, and opportunity of a post-prohibitionist world.

Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council Launches Education Program

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council (MRCC) is an interesting nonprofit that recently launched an educational campaign, called Consume Responsibly Massachusetts. For many cannabis advocates who watched their states legalize the drug, consumer education is a very important part of moving forward. As states across the East Coast implement regulatory frameworks for the cannabis industry, there is a sense of urgency to make sure the rules are right the first time, and that cannabis businesses become responsible stewards of their new market.

In the wake of pesticide recalls in the west and related public health concerns, the issues surrounding consumer safety and how states protect that are now front and center. “The purpose of Consume Responsibly Massachusetts is to keep adult-consumers informed of their rights in the state,” says Jefferson. “It’s also an ongoing effort to bring consumers into the world of cannabis politics and science.”

The MRCC’s mission is to help protect the safety of recreational cannabis consumers by bridging the information gap between businesses, legislators and communities. “We work at the state and local level advocating for sensible recreational marijuana policy and regulations,” reads a press release. According to Kamani Jefferson, president of the MRCC, bridging that gap requires a lot of community engagement. “I was a field organizer on the Campaign to Tax and Regulate Marijuana here in Massachusetts so this is extremely important to me,” says Jefferson. “MRCC participated in this year’s Cambridge 5K Freedom Run.” He says getting out in the community like this is one of many ways to help provide educational opportunities, help promote local cannabis businesses and get rid of the “lazy stoner stigma.”

Kamani Jefferson, president of the MRCC

For the MRCC, the issue of craft cannabis is a significant part of the organization’s philosophy, in addition to product safety and others. “Craft Cannabis will benefit the consumer in an entirely new way,” says Jefferson. “Members of the community will have a chance to provide products and directly affect the economy.” Because local owners tend to be more involved in their towns, Jefferson says residents will get to make more of an impact than nonlocal owners. And he’s right- small, local businesses contribute substantially more to local economies and communities than large companies. Between 1993 and 2013, small businesses created roughly 63% of all new jobs in the United States. With the new cannabis market comes a promising opportunity for local economies.

“The Massachusetts cannabis industry is developing and growing fast,” says Jefferson. “Aside from the medical marijuana production sites, the new recreational marijuana law grants production participation in the regulated recreational marijuana industry to farmers, in the form of craft marijuana cultivator cooperative systems.” While he thinks this is a good opportunity for small businesses and communities alike to gain a foothold in the market, Jefferson is hesitant to endorse Massachusetts’ regulatory policies. “A lack of regulatory oversight from the CCC [Cannabis Control Commission] places the cannabis industry in a vulnerable position,” says Jefferson. “If we want clear, consistent standards for clean and safe products prioritized, then we need consistent testing data.” Jefferson is arguing for more regulatory oversight for safety issues, such as contaminant testing. This is one of a handful of issues they are pressing for sensible cannabis policy in Massachusetts.

Here are some of the issues they support:

  • Local Cannabis: Equitable licensing for small and medium sized local businesses from members of the community.
  • Quality Control: Access to a variety of clean and safe cannabis products in retail dispensaries, tested for harmful contaminants, mold, pesticides and fungicides.
  • Responsible + Safe Consumption: Access to educational materials about proper dosage, methods of ingestion, quality analysis, understanding product labels and general cannabis information.
  • High Potency Flowers, Edibles, & Concentrates: Access, non-restriction to high potency marijuana products of all forms.
  • Home Grow: Ability to grow at least 6 plants per person, 12 per household as stated in Question 4.
  • Social Use: The ability to consume in designated establishments outside of the household.
  • Expungement: Sentence commutation and record expungement for convictions involving non-violent marijuana charges that are now legal.
  • Research: University supported biological, behavioral and cognitive marijuana research to further our understanding and capabilities of the cannabis plant.

Judging a Craft Cannabis Competition

By Aaron G. Biros
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Willamette Week, a Portland-based publication, is hosting the 2017 Cultivation Classic with Farma, Cascadia Labs, Phylos Bioscience and the Resource Innovation Institute on May 12th. The event is a benefit for the Ethical Cannabis Alliance, an organization that promotes sustainability, labor standards and education surrounding the integrity and ethics of growing cannabis. Cultivation Classic is a competition for pesticide-free cannabis grown in Oregon, according to a press release.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer speaking at last year’s Cultivation Classic
Photo: Bridget Baker, 92bridges.com

While the event’s focus is on the competition, it is just as much a celebration of the craft cannabis community in Oregon. This year’s competition incorporates scientific collaboration like genetic sequencing for the winners by Phylos Bioscience and carbon accounting for all competitors. Keynote speakers include Ethan Russo, medical director of PHYTECS and Dr. Adie Po, co-founder of Habu Health. Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a prominent cannabis legalization advocate in Oregon, will also be speaking at the awards ceremony. You can check out the full schedule and speaker lineup here.

Raymond Bowser, breeder at Home Grown Natural Wonders, is a judge for this year’s Cultivation Classic. He speaks at cannabis conferences around the country and his business created a number of different strains, so he has experience with a myriad of growers and strains. “This time around everyone has really stepped up their game,” says Bowser. “The entries are noticeably better than last year.” When looking at the different samples sent to him, he sees a few key factors as most important in judging the quality. “What I am looking for is simple; a nice smell and a decent look, generally speaking,” says Bowser. “Aesthetics can tell you a lot about how it was grown, temperature changes and the overall care taken in cultivating and curing the flower.” For him, flavor, smell and aesthetics are the big variables to consider.

Photo: Bridget Baker, 92bridges.com

Those are factors that his company holds to high standards in their work, so he judges the samples based on the same variables. “It is what we strive for in our gardens and so far the samples I have tried are fantastic in that regard,” says Bowser. In other competitions that Bowser has judged in the past, they sent him between 40 and 60 strains to judge in seven days. “That is not conducive to a fair evaluation,” says Bowser. “Here, we are getting fourteen or so different strains, so we can sample one strain a day which is how I personally like to do it.”

Bowser is supportive of Cultivation Classic because of their emphasis on the craft industry. “We talk about craft cannabis and breeding craft cultivars at conferences around the country,” says Bowser. “With the rec industry growing so much, we see so many people cutting corners to save money, that it is refreshing to see growers take pride in the craft.” He also stresses the need for good lab testing and sound science in the trade. “I am big on lab testing; it is very important to get all the right analytics when creating strains,” says Bowser. “Cascadia is a solid choice for the competition; they have been a very good, consistent lab.” Emphasizing the local, sustainability-oriented culture surrounding the craft market, Bowser is pleased that this competition supports that same message. “We need to stay true to our Oregon roots and continue to be a clean, green, granola-eating state.”

Photo: Bridget Baker, 92bridges.com

Cascadia Labs is conducting the pesticide and cannabinoid analytics for all submissions and Phylos Bioscience will perform testing for the winners. According to Julie Austin, operations manager at Cascadia Labs, pesticide testing for the Oregon list of analytes was of course a requirement. “Some of the samples submitted had previous tests from us or from other accredited labs, but if they didn’t have those results we did offer a comprehensive pesticide test,” says Austin. The competition’s fee for submission includes the potency and terpenes analysis.

Jeremy Sackett, director of operations at Cascadia Labs, says they test for 11 cannabinoids and 21 terpenes. The samples are divided into groups of THC-dominant samples, CBD-dominant samples and samples with a 1:1 ratio of the two. “The actual potency data will be withheld from judges and competitors until the day of the event,” says Sackett. “We are data driven scientists, but this time we want to have a little fun and bring the heart of this competition back to the good old days: when quality cannabis was gauged by an experience of the senses, not the highest potency number.” The event will take place on May 12th at Revolution Hall in Portland, Oregon. Click here to get tickets to the event.