Cannabis Industry should heed lessons from the other California “Green Rush”

George Passantino

Managing Partner, Passantino Andersen Communications


Beginning in the mid 2000s, California experienced a massive influx of solar energy projects—ushering in its first “Green Rush.”  Fueled by generous tax credits, President Obama’s green jobs initiative and sweeping climate change legislation, solar companies saw an “open for business” sign on California’s door. While many solar companies found success, others misread the welcome message and ran into a buzz saw of local political opposition. Cannabis industry professionals should heed these lessons, because it mirrors the way their second Green Rush may play out.

While there is undeniable political support for cannabis consumption broadly, as expressed by the passage of Proposition 64, this doesn’t necessarily translate into local support—particularly for an industrial-scale cultivation facility or neighborhood dispensary. Even the presence of an accommodating local ordinance should not be confused with local political support for a project. Whether you like it or not, the opposition is out there.  And as the exploits of the renewable energy sector illustrate, rarely are opponents afraid to fight a project. The thought that often occupies their mind is seeing your project go down in flames.

The presence of opposition even in the most seemingly fertile communities is clearly illustrated through the exploits of a former renewable energy developer we encountered.  Here, the developer was pursuing land-use approvals for a new project. After conducting extensive environmental, financial and technical evaluations, the project team found a piece of land that fit their needs.  They had quality communications with municipal officials lending them comfort about the local climate as well.  An experienced project manager and an engineer—both of whom worked out of the area—led their project. All things seemed on track.

Unfortunately, as soon as the local media publicly announced the project it drew fierce opposition from a small group of residents and advocacy groups.  Reeling from negative press, the developer recognized that a small subset of the community had the capacity to put their massive investment at extraordinary risk, possibly leading to failure.  Given that no budget was set aside for public outreach, the development team had to scramble to request the needed resources to modify their plan—all while taking ongoing attacks from opponents. Moreover, that public opinion had already formed, it became even more difficult and costly to reverse local attitudes.

Sadly, this story was not isolated.  Solar developers routinely maintained a false sense of support because of a narrow engagement with local officials and misinterpreting the broader support for green energy.  Other times, they completely underestimated the potential for opposition to their project locally.  And as more of these projects showed up, the more opposition seemed to appear.

In the modern, politically organized environment of land-use approvals, cannabis industry developers would be smart to ensure that they themselves don’t get bogged down in a local battle that can put an entire project at risk like many in the renewable energy sector did.

Unfortunately, we are seeing a trend where many of the first cannabis developers are making the same mistakes as the renewable energy sector.

BROAD SUPPORT DOES NOT EQUAL PROJECT SUPPORT

First and foremost, many project developers misread public support for cannabis consumption as tacit support for their manufacturing, cultivation or distribution projects. Again, support for the general proposition of cannabis consumption does not mean support for a growing facility in the neighborhood. Political support is often expressed with a local double standard—such as people having unfavorable attitudes about Congress while strongly supporting their local member of Congress. In the same way, it is easier to support the proposition of cannabis use without having to contemplate the local impacts of a new industry coming to town. Ignoring this fact is a recipe for conflict, delayed projects and the potential of denials. And there is no costlier decision to a developer than a stillborn project.

FORGETTING TO DO POLITICAL HOMEWORK

Second, while most developers conduct thorough environmental, technical, and financial due diligence before launching a new project, they almost always overlook or underappreciate the value of what we refer to as “political due diligence.” Understanding the political landscape will provide a clearer expectation of the approval timeline and can help avoid costly delays, unexpected local opposition or worse, denials.  The best way to conduct this is with a professional firm who can quickly (and quietly) flush out political challenges that might otherwise be overlooked.  Investing in this line-item will save tremendous money down the road on the project.

YOU CAN’T FLY UNDER THE RADAR

Third, many developers try to “fly under the radar,” reluctant to reach out and potentially stir up opposition to their project.  Unfortunately, land use decisions are highly transparent with public notice, 24-hour media cycles, social media and expanded public access.  Flying under the radar is virtually impossible for any project of significance and trying to do so is incredibly risky. The advice here is simple. Expect that potential opponents will find out about your project.  To mitigate this, successful developers invest early to shape public opinion rather than be forced to react to it.  By effectively explaining the benefits of a project to the community the development team can cultivate a favorable local climate and avoid the ugly fight altogether.

D.I.Y. OUTREACH = D.I.Y DIFFICULTY

Finally, while many firms believe that they can conduct community outreach with their internal staff, it is a complex process that demands experienced professionals with suitable time, tactics and resources. Most developers do not have this capacity internally. Supporters and opponents have much in common—they are passionate and eager to express their views. However, unlike opponents that are motivated by strong resistance to a project, most supporters do not mobilize on their own. In fact, likely supporters often stay home because they do not realize how important their voice is in the land-use approval process.  If they support a project they often do nothing because they just assume it will be built.  As a result, public hearings often look like lopsided battlegrounds with overwhelming opposition and limited public support.  Experienced professionals prevent this from happening by forming a supporter coalition that leads to a more balanced political climate. A quality firm will help you put “butts in the seats.”

Over the course of the first Green Rush, many solar project developers ran into this opposition and numerous quality projects were denied, delayed or scaled back. Billions of dollars were lost to these defeats. And to add salt to the wound, as more projects came forward, so too increased the number of projects that were denied.  The field just got too crowded.

Amid these denials, successful solar projects, by contrast, recognized the potential for the danger and invested appropriately in comprehensive community outreach.  In many cases, they succeeded in the same jurisdictions AFTER their peers had failed—precisely because they considered the need to address potential opposition as a critical activity.

As the second Green Rush emerges in California, we are already seeing many following the risky approach of neglecting the potential for opposition.  As this field of applicants gets more crowded, it is imperative that cannabis industry leaders take a different approach and avoid the mistakes of the past.

George Passantino of Passantino Andersen Communications has nearly 25 years of experience in strategic communications and project advocacy at the federal, state and local level.  George has developed a proven communications strategy design specifically controversial land-use approvals across diverse industries.

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