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NCIA Federal Policy Update: Q&A with Aaron Smith

By Aaron G. Biros
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The Justice Department rescinding the Cole Memo, the Omnibus bill including Leahy Amendment protections, a host of potential bills for federal cannabis policy change: a lot has been happening in Washington D.C. recently with respect to cannabis business. With the National Cannabis Industry Association’s (NCIA) Cannabis Business Summit in San Jose fast approaching, as well as the 8th Annual Cannabis Industry Lobby Days, we thought it would be a good time to hear what NCIA has been up to recently.

We sat down with Aaron Smith, co-founder and executive director of NCIA, to learn what the organization is working on right now and how we might be able to make some real federal policy changes for cannabis.

Aaron Smith, executive director of NCIA

CannabisIndustryJournal: With the Department of Justice rescinding the Cole Memo, working as a group to tackle federal policy reform is now more important than ever. Can you give us a 30,000-foot view of what NCIA is doing right now to help us work together as a group and affect policy change?

Aaron Smith: So our team in D.C. consists of three full-time staff members as well as lobbying consultants, who have been really focused on the appropriations process, which is the way we’ve been able to affect change in such a dysfunctional congress by affecting the budget and restricting law enforcement activities. The medical marijuana protections, formerly known as the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, [and now known as the Leahy Amendment] prevent the Department of Justice from using funds to prosecute state-legal medical marijuana businesses and patients. Going into the fiscal year, thankfully after a lot of hard work, we were able to include protections for medical marijuana, which just happened last week. Now we are really focused on the next year’s fiscal budget, working to hopefully expand those protections to cover all state-legal marijuana activity so the Department of Justice cannot go after all state-legal cannabis businesses, including those businesses in the recreational cannabis industry, which is certainly one of our priorities right now. As Congress starts to transition into fiscal year 2019 appropriations, the D.C. team is working with Capitol Hill staff and other cannabis groups in D.C. to ensure an organized, uniformed strategy through the appropriations process.

CIJ: What are some other priorities for NCIA in the House and Senate right now? What is NCIA focusing its resources on?

Smith: Another big issue for us is the 280E section of tax code, which prevents legal cannabis businesses from deducting normal business expenses. A lot of these businesses face upwards of a 70 percent effective tax rate. Working with our champions in Congress, we are working on reforms to 280E so we can make normal deductions and be treated fairly, just like any other legal business. The Small Business Tax Equity Act of 2017 addresses this issue and has bipartisan support in the House and the Senate right now, and we are working to build more support for that. This bill currently has 43 cosponsors in the House.

The other big issue for us right now is banking reform, which is a very high priority for NCIA as it affects most of our members. The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act of 2017 provides a “safe harbor” and additional protections for depository institutions who provide “financial product or service” to a covered business. This bill currently has 89 cosponsors in the House. NCIA’s D.C. team and lobbying consultants continue to push for cosponsors and support on these important bills.

CIJ: I saw that the Omnibus spending package includes Leahy Amendment protections for cannabis businesses through September. Would you consider that a win in your book? How are you working to maybe extend those protections?

Smith: It was a big win for us. It doesn’t always seem like it because it is really just maintaining the status quo, but we are up against an Attorney General lobbying congress to strip those protections and the house didn’t allow us to vote on it. But by including the Leahy Amendment in the budget we are not only protecting medical marijuana patients and businesses, but we sent a clear signal to Congress that the intention is not to go backwards. We have been playing some defense recently given the current administration’s policies. But we are working with our allies in congress to negotiate those protections for recreational businesses as well. Negotiations for that are just getting started now.

The fiscal year ends September 30th so the protections are in place for now, but Congress needs to pass another budget for the next fiscal year with those protections included. It’s hard to say when the vote will be, because they haven’t been passing budgets in a timely manner, but usually it’s in May or June, right around our Lobby Days. This is what we are focused on now, getting as many of these cannabis businesses and NCIA members out there to really show Congress what the legal industry looks like.

CIJ: NCIA is hosting the 8th Annual Cannabis Industry Lobby Days a little more than a month from now; do you have any goals for that event? Is there anything in particular you hope to accomplish there? How can cannabis businesses get involved?

Smith: The primary purpose of Lobby Days is to show members of Congress and their staff (many of whom have never had exposure to cannabis businesses) what a responsible industry really looks like. And it lets business owners come tell Congress how current policies and laws are affecting their business. It is great for the cause and helps change minds in DC.

Last year, we came out of Lobby Days with several new co-sponsors of cannabis legislation and we hope to get that again this year. It is a great opportunity to connect and network as well; some of the top people in the industry will be there.

Adam Jacques and Team Launch Sproutly, Dispensary in Eugene, Oregon

By Aaron G. Biros
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sproutly signAdam Jacques and his team officially launched the newest arm of their business last week, Sproutly, a dispensary located in Eugene, Oregon. “This is an extension of what the Grower’s Guild Gardens does and what the Microgrower’s Guild was,” says Jacques. The Grower’s Guild Gardens, Jacques’ award-winning cultivation business, is known for their high-CBD genetics and patient-focused work, most notably with Leni Young, which helped lead to the passing of legislation in Alabama called Leni’s Law, decriminalizing the possession of cannabis oil for patients in the state.

The shelves of Sproutly boast over 75 strains of cannabis from Jacques' farm.
Sproutly’s shelves boast over 75 strains of cannabis from Jacques’ farm.

Sproutly is a medical and recreational dispensary that boasts a wide variety of high-CBD strains, a reflection of the team’s focus in the past. “We are extremely medically focused with a variety of unique CBD strains in stock,” says Jacques. “First and foremost are the patients, but entering the recreational market means we will be carrying a wider variety.” The opening of the dispensary is well timed as the team received their Tier II cultivation license, allowing them to grow cannabis up to 20,000 square feet in an outdoor space and 5,000 square feet indoor. So in addition to the handful of brands they carry, including Lunchbox Alchemy edibles, Northwest Kind and Marley Naturals, they also carry over 75 strains from their own Grower’s Guild Gardens.

Adam Jacques in front of a display shelf at Sproutly.
Adam Jacques in front of a display shelf at Sproutly.

Adam and Debra Jacques pride themselves in rigid standards for quality in sourcing, so it should be no surprise that they plan on supplying their dispensary with over 150 strains coming from more than 1,200 plants on their farm. “We really only take products from people we know and trust,” says Jacques. “That is why most of the flower in the dispensary is coming from our farm, so we know exactly what is going into it.” Jacques points to third-party certifications such as Clean Green, for other vendors to find reputable growers. “I need to know where it is coming from and that requires a personal relationship to trust the quality of their products.” The value of trust and personal relationships is also why they go through extensive training of their staff, using their own expertise for in-house training.

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The team includes Chris West, Elton Prince and John De Kluyver, all of whom have a decade or more of experience cultivating cannabis and working with patients. “We take our bud tenders through training classes, they get tested on their knowledge of products and the science of cannabinoids and terpenes and how the combinations affect people differently,” says Jacques. By leveraging that high level of in-house expertise, the team prides themselves on customer service, helping patients and customers find the right strain or product that suits them best.

In the front of the dispensary, a receptionist greets patients or customers, checking identification and showing you to a bud tender. As you walk into the retail space, you immediately notice the professionalism of the staff, taking time to personalize each customer’s experience without making him or her feel rushed. The clean aesthetics, product selection and knowledgeable staff provide for a friendly retail culture without the common ‘stoner culture’ that usually follows.

Jacques and his team will not be trading in their overalls and work boots just yet as they are inching toward harvesting their 1,200 outdoor cannabis plants soon. Grinning ear-to-ear, Jacques showed off his Tier II cultivation license on the farm, and with it came a glimpse into their exciting growth.