Can pot companies gain legitimacy through social justice?

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By Sarah-Joyce Battersby | Mon., Oct. 15, 2018

There is almost nothing more corporate than an acronym. So as cannabis transitions to the mainstream, the industry is adopting a hallmark of modern business speak: CSR, or corporate social responsibility.

With their organization KindColorado, Kelly Perez and Courtney Mathis are forging paths for cannabis companies to be at the vanguard of social justice by pairing them with not-for-profits and other community groups. “It’s not blood money, it’s not an apology. It’s about taking the knocks and doing something good with it,” Perez said.

KindColorado worked with Rocky Mountain Planned Parenthood to find partnership opportunities. One such partnership sees 5 per cent of the profits from a line of CBD-infused cookies going directly to the organization. In another case, a dispensary supports a church-run food pantry in Thornton, Co., with food and volunteers, according to local news organization Westword.

The bridges between cannabis companies and local communities help both parties, they said. And in some ways it’s a natural progression. “I think the cannabis industry is totally ripe for this type of work, for the culture,” Mathis said. She points to the rhetoric of the U.S. “war on drugs” and its policies that targeted marginalized communities as well as the fight for legalization as reasons the cannabis community is already mobilized.

Though it has celebrated some wins, efforts remain to combat the lingering impacts of prohibition on marginalized communities, such as the disproportionate number of Black and Indigenous people saddled with criminal records. The group has consulted in Ontario and British Columbia and is working on establishing a KindCanada network. But Mathis stressed that it’s up to locals to dictate what it will look like and who it will benefit.

For a more top-down approach, a Canadian group is aiming to be a global leader in setting the standards for corporate social responsibility in the industry. The Global Cannabis Partnership is a newly formed organization based in New Brunswick that currently boasts 25 members, including representatives from the cannabis industry as well as business and legal services, such as McCarthy Tétrault LLP, EY, and PwC Canada. GCP aims to set a high bar for its members around things like environmental practices, consumer education, research ethics, age restrictions, and community relations.

Kim Wilson was recently appointed as executive director. She most recently spent 11 years with Atlantic Lottery Corporation as manager of corporate social responsibility. Wilson rejects the view that touting social responsibility is just a marketing ploy.

“Consumers are more savvy than ever before and I think with this age of technology and access to information, people are doing their own research and demanding more of the companies that they interact with,” she said. The GCP’s work is still in its early phases. It will soon get to work creating a framework for responsible cannabis use, like the one the World Lottery Association developed for gaming. Down the road the organization hopes to offer accreditation.

Cannabis researcher James MacKillop welcomes the efforts to create a social responsibility element in the cannabis industry, provided they are authentic. “There are exactly right ways to do this and exactly wrong ways to do this. And it’s entirely an open question whether or not the Canadian cannabis industry will embrace the best practices for doing this,” he said.

MacKillop, who serves as director of the DeGroote Centre for Medicinal Cannabis Research at McMaster University, said in the past industries like tobacco or soft drink companies have been known to fund research that benefits them, or set parameters on publishing, or not publishing, results, when it is to their benefit. If cannabis wants to embrace and fund evidenced-based approaches, he suggests firewalls might be needed between a cannabis company offering money for research or social programs and the parties carrying out the work.

The fact that cannabis is a drug, a product with risks and benefits, is beside the point, MacKillop said. “It will be legally available after Oct. 17,” he said. “Rather than thinking of the cannabis industry as either bad actors or good actors it’s important to think about this in a balanced way.”

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