Will You Stake Your Claim to the Ganja Gold Mine?

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A good portion of bar, nightclub and restaurant operators are considering a path into the cannabis industry but are uncertain how they should proceed. Sense needs to be made of the sound and fury coming from that space, no small task. Provided the set of eyes is capable of constructively critical vision, a view from the outside may be just what we all need. As it happens, former Gap, Apple and Tesla executive George Blankenship trained his experienced gaze on the cannabis industry this year. Last week he shared his insights at the Marijuana Business Conference.

Blankenship admitted that he doesn't know much about the cannabis business. In fact, several speakers at the 2017 MJBizCon were from outside of the cannabis industry. That doesn't mean that Blankenship’s perception of cannabis as an industry should be dismissed; the former executive certainly knows business and innovation. He also knows all about going around, over or through obstacles.

Operators in the hospitality business have questions. Should they overtly show their support for the legalization of cannabis? Given current legislation, should they plan to operate a private cannabis club or prepare for the legalization of public consumption? Is the better plan entering the cannabis industry as a retailer? Regardless of the chosen path, Blankenship has identified three threats to cannabis industry operations that must addressed to move forward: image, attitude and failure to act.

To the first point, there's no debating that cannabis, even as we near 2018, has an image problem. We may not be living in the era of Reefer Madness but there’s stigma attached to cannabis. Yes, it’s a fact that most Americans live in states that have in one way or another legalized cannabis. And yes, according to a number of polls most Americans support legalization. But neither of those statements mean that cannabis has shuffled loose its status as a taboo substance.

A significant portion of Americans still look at those who consume cannabis through a lens of stereotypes: lazy, stupid, unambitious, addicted. To these people, there is no difference between cannabis and any other drug. Facts be damned, the tenuous-at-best pseudo-science that says cannabis is a gateway drug is true because the government says so. Never mind that this is the same government, generally speaking, that implemented the great illusion and astounding failure that was Prohibition, based on histrionics and spurious claims.

The good news is that image obstacles can be overcome. Cannabis can gain credibility through education and by coverage from respected, mainstream media outlets. As far as Blankenship is concerned, the medical benefits are a critical component to improving cannabis' image and gaining much needed credibility. Other speakers urged those considering entering the industry, those who have recently jumped in, and those who have been involved for several years to think about their own images. Living in the era of the Internet, social media, “alternative facts,” and tribalism as we do, optics are more important than ever. Three words, therefore, for those who wish to be viewed as an authority and a responsible professional: Look the part.

Second, operators in any space must free themselves of this concept-killing, two-word phrase:  "That's impossible." There are two things that kill a great idea, and that phrase is the main perpetrator. (I'll address That's Impossible's partner in crime in a moment.) Rather than focus on what is seemingly impossible, Blankenship advises turning the focus to what can be done.

When we look at the hospitality industry, which includes the cannabis business, we see that it's loaded with innovative, ambitious entrepreneurs who see only possibility and opportunity. Want to own and operate a bar, nightclub or restaurant? We know that’s not impossible. Want to operate a cannabis club? That's not impossible, either. Operating in an area with restrictive rules and regulations, whether as a bar owner or a dispensary owner? It's not impossible to advocate for change and see it materialize. Does it seem too big a challenge to change or otherwise overcome laws? It shouldn't – not here in America.

For example, when Tesla was pushing into states outside of the brand's native California, the company faced unique market obstacles. Specifically, direct-to-consumer automobile sales (owning the dealership and operating it) are illegal in some states. Therefore, it has been considered “impossible” for decades for carmakers to operate using Tesla’s sales model in certain states.

Blankenship had two paths forward in that situation: accept the idea that what Tesla wanted was impossible, or reject that notion. Clearly, the former Tesla executive chose the second path, poking and prodding at the laws until he found a way through that would make it work. This is how forward thinkers operate – they reject That’s Impossible. Forward thinkers are not friends with That’s Impossible – they have developed a strong disdain for everything it stands for. The cannabis industry, nascent as it is, facing the challenges it does, requires forward thinking.

Now for That's Impossible's dangerous known associate: Inaction. What good is any idea if the first step toward turning it into a reality isn’t taken? Thinking about something doesn't make it happen, it’s action that begets results. Tackling the first two threats to operations within the cannabis industry is a pointless exercise if the third remains unaddressed. To be sure, Inaction is a threat to all industries and everyone.

Any bar, nightclub or restaurant operator who thinks they should begin preparations now in anticipation of operating a legal, private cannabis club should stop thinking and start doing. Any operator who thinks they should fight for more favorable cannabis legislation and public consumption laws that will benefit their business needs to take the first step to developing relationships with local, state and federal lawmakers. Operators who aren’t considering entering the cannabis industry but have been kicking around their next big moneymaking idea need to pull it out of their head and bring it into the real world. Take a step from idea toward fruition every day or watch someone else get out of their head and into success.

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