Jedidiah Haney is a cannabis activist and entrepreneur who is an outspoken advocate for sensible cannabis regulations and opponent to the seemingly default legalization legislation, which hinges on price gouging and over-regulation. He is also the founder of Higher Influence, LLC and a founding board member of The Cannabis Alliance.
In our recent interview, we asked Jedidiah about ongoing issues in the Washington state cannabis market, political developments that could spell hope for the state’s future, his recent shift toward more media-focused projects, and the obstacles and successes he’s faced so far through that transition.
Ganjapreneur: You’ve been involved with a lot of cannabis-related projects in Washington State, but what was your very first introduction to the industry?
Jedidiah Haney: My first introduction to the industry was back in 2004. I started growing for a group of medical patients in the Bend area of Central Oregon. I did that for a few years then I moved back home to Washington State I got involved in medical advocacy through a series of rallies, which were organized to protect and expand patients’ plant count while adding new qualifying conditions to our medical marijuana program. Then skip ahead a few years to 2012 — when we voted for I-502, our state initiative that legalized recreational cannabis — I was living in Yakima and I had intentions to enter the legal cannabis industry. The state law went into effect in December of 2012, however, in January of 2013, the City Council of Yakima passed a resolution to ban legal and medical cannabis in the city limits. This new city ordinance was so regressive it went as far as banning the use of cannabis even in the privacy of your own home. So, you could only imagine what the cannabis community was saying after this happened. Our personal rights along with our professional intentions were becoming stifled. In response, I founded a non-profit organization along with local stakeholders named CAUSE-M, and we got to work. The organization’s name was an acronym which stood for the Committee for Adult-Use Standards and Ethics and our mission was to go forward and pave a path for our legal and safe industry. Then in 2016, I merged CAUSE-M with three other WA State non-profit trade associations to form what is now The Cannabis Alliance of which I am a Founding Board Member. I served this organization as the Interim Board Secretary as we merged and developed new bylaws along with the overall organizational structure. Last year I resigned my board position with The Cannabis Alliance to pursue community organization through social entrepreneurialism.
Could you briefly explain your current projects?
As a community organizer, I focus my work on connecting and empowering my various audiences by offering education and information. Recently in June of 2017, I launched a firm named Higher Influence, LLC to house multiple channels of direct marketing services and a series of events that I had developed over the last few years. Our core offering is our weekly community newspaper named Cannabits, which is published across defined regions in Washington State. Cannabits is a simple community newspaper filled with educational content that will connect them with positive consumption trends. This process will elevate our reader’s appreciation for cannabis. Currently, our paper is printed and distributed in the South Sound Region – which is where our state seat is located. The social experiment built into Cannabits is to connect the cannabis community with news about policy along with unique calls to action on legislative and regulatory concerns. To further this connection Higher Influence, LLC has developed a series of popular education events that are balanced between B2B and B2C. The flagship B2B event that we produce is Croptoberfest, which is a popular education event. This hybrid industry tradeshow focuses on the agricultural trends in the growing cannabis sector. Each year, we design an intimate event that features over 5 hours of education and speakers. This last year we were proud to host panels covering topics such as organic standards, pesticides, pest management and testing standards. We also featured a panel dedicated to the formation of a Washington State Cannabis Commission, which is a quasi-state agency that will facilitate research and education for the state-licensed cannabis farmers. We also produce a series of local events called Herb Talks that feature speakers and a comradery of sponsors. These monthly events will be broadcast through our channels to activate the community to come out to our events to learn more about topics such as cannabis lifestyle, medicine, and policy to name a few.
What lessons would you suggest other states who enact cannabis legalization take from Washington’s experience?
The primary objective when departing away from cannabis prohibition should be to protect the craft industry from being shut out from the licensing process. Here in Washington, we were told that I-502 would have nothing to do with medical cannabis, in fact, originally you couldn’t even mention medicinal benefits. That was the standard for the marketplace until the medical transition in June of 2016, which was the result of the legislative direction of SB 5052. The issue that I see was that the legislature passed language directing the WA Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) to create a “merit-based application” for transitioning businesses that were operating in the limbo of RCW 69.51a. It took a tremendous amount of work to get that merit-based application language into SB 5052, and I am witness to the fact that the LCB failed that directive. I am witness to the complete shutout of the robust medical cannabis industry save a few lucky or fortuitous individuals. There are many businesses that tried their best to position themselves for success, but there were much more that didn’t see this coming. In the end, the state plays their primary role as a tax collector the best and we should remember that the majority of the policy shift is based on fiscally positive forecasts.
Earlier this year, you penned harsh words about Washington’s I-502 legalization law, even referring to the regulations as a “Prohibition 2.0” — have you seen any positive changes in the state since then?
First off, even though we are the new cash cow for tax revenue, the state is treating the nascent industry as a pariah. The LCB has turned more into a policing agency that makes its money through compliance violations and penalties. If you think about it, the LCB only makes money through applications, licensing, permits and fines. Now that the licensing is done, the only robust revenue stream that the LCB has left is through the enforcement of the fines. That being said, there are some major improvements coming down the pipeline; such as the state cannabis organic standard that is being built and managed by the WSDA. This standard will bring farmers a new price point advantage in the marketplace. I would also like to comment that once we get the Washington State Cannabis Commission up and running it will be an amazing tool to strengthen our industry through research. I am honored to have been involved in this process since the concept and it is now ready to be submitted to the WSDA. The changes that this will bring will be many, but if you want to see an example of how a commission will assist the industry to develop then just review the wine industry previous and post the Washington Wine Commission being established. From our research, the introduction of the commission led to the emergence of the craft industry swelling the number of licensed wineries and bringing changes such as on-site tasting and sales.
What do you see as the next big step towards enacting positive changes in Washington’s adult-use marketplace?
As a community organizer, I see that we are missing the voice of the people in this policy molding process. That may be a cookie cutter response, but it is truer today than ever before. There is a distinct lack of education delivered to the people on cannabis policy and that has led to an overall confusion as to what current cannabis policy actually is in our state. We must connect with the community and fill this void. According to a recent Gallop Poll, 64% of Americans now say that cannabis use should be made legal. That is the highest level of public support for legalization in that Gallup has ever recorded. This poll shows that federal interference in our states experiment could be politically disastrous. Meanwhile the Washington State Institute for Public Policy benefit-cost analysis of I-502, which shows that youth access, drug treatment, and incarceration are all on the decline. These two examples are positive signs that we are on the right track, however, we are not done. A few policy changes that need to be addressed include:
- People are still sitting in jail for previously doing what we are all doing every day and there needs to be a non-violent criminal prisoner release program or a special commission created by the Governor to address this travesty;
- The people need to have the right to grow non-commercial cannabis at home – we are the only recreational state including the District of Columbia that has passed recreational cannabis laws yet we do not have the right grow for non-commercial purposes at home;
- Legislation that would allow public consumption clubs and special event permits are needed to continue the transition to responsible cannabis consumption in public.
We have made it so far but we have so much more to do.
As both an entrepreneur and an activist, what role do you see trade unions playing in the cannabis industry?
We need labor representation so badly. We needed it way before I-502. I am constantly receiving reports that the industry is struggling with the simplest of human resource issues. This is typical in start-up industries, so I wouldn’t want to use a labor union to single out companies that are doing poorly. Instead, we could use labor unions to help build generative models that educate and support the development of skill and craft inside of the industry. What I think we need to implement are cannabis trade apprenticeship programs that would allow a person to accrue on the job training along with class time. This kind of program would translate levels of skill and compensation, which could be easily understandable and transfer between jobs. One of the primary benefits of an apprenticeship program is that it would have reciprocity with other states specifically CA. Right now I know that the majority of the industry can’t afford to compensate their labor appropriately because the market for cannabis is crashing. However, if the state reduced the taxes and then increased overall store access then we would see a positive disruption in the marketplace. I bring that up because as an entrepreneur I believe that if we had a trade union gather the cannabis employees to advocate for these issues then we would see the craft industry finally set its roots in Washington State. This is necessary if we want to place our industry in a competitive position for the future of national and international cannabis trade. We need to mold our industry now so that it has sustainability into the future.
How big is your team at Higher Influence and what were you looking for when choosing employees/partners for this endeavor?
Our team is small but magnificent. I am at the helm steering this production house with two media experts, three writers, two event organizers and six sales representatives on staff. When hiring staff members we seek professionals first. I study the way our applicants decide to communicate with us. I especially observe their demeanor in the process of the interviews. We specifically seek self-starters that can work on their own without a bunch of oversight. For a business owner, this is a practice of trust. This is why we look for people that we can trust to work with. This is really important because every client is considered our partner and we take them on with a generative perspective. We aim to leave every situation better than how we found it. The practice of generosity resonates with me as an entrepreneur. I am a problem solver at heart and I am always looking for ways to make the world better. Think globally and act locally is a motto that I live by.
What was the most difficult part of getting Higher Influence and these other educational projects off the ground?
Higher Influence was built to produce all of the events such as Croptoberfest, and media that I had assembled over the years into a single portfolio of activity. The most challenging aspect of juggling all these balls is managing the individual project timelines and multiple team/staff efforts. For me, these are the two most difficult parts of operating a production house. To streamline our efforts we have created internal departments that are siloed into specific activities. This allows team members to shine and it distributes the yolk of our projects efficiently. Our goal is to keep expanding our team by adding experienced and professional individuals, therefore we are always on the hunt for new talent. We believe that this will set us on a sustainable path. In the end, our goal is to produce the highest quality media while cultivating the roots of the community through our efforts.
What do you think is the most important consideration when organizing an event for the cannabis community?
I am always scrutinizing our impact versus the application of energy. From my experience, as an activist, I know that our communities are suffering because of a lack of access to knowledge. Specifically, the business community suffers because of a myriad of issues that directly impact the end consumer. Having spent time organizing both businesses and consumers I see that there is a big picture fix needed to solve some of the most crucial issues in our marketplace. When I organize events I focus in on these common concerns. For example, I know that there is an organic standard for cannabis being developed by the WSDA. I know this because I helped lobby for the standard, and because I knew that the WSDA was nearing the rulemaking around the organic standard I preemptively built a portion of this last Croptoberfest to feature a panel on organic cannabis standards. I then invited the WSDA Organic Standards Program Director to the event as a special guest panelist. Therefore the industry had a chance to speak with the program director to provide a perspective prior to the public hearings being launched. Then to further the value in the marketplace on organic cannabis we have developed media that we publish directly to the consumer market via our channels such as Cannabits and Cannabits.Online. Then through these channels, I promote a series of consumer events that are organized to educate target markets about positive trends such as organics and why they matter. Thereby this process develops consumer demand, which in turn drives the marketplace. My belief is that the whole system will work if we work it.
What is your proudest moment since you started down this path of cannabis activism/entrepreneurialism?
My proudest moment as an activist is when my parents first asked me for advice on medical cannabis. Second to that was when we repealed the ban on medical and recreational cannabis in the City of Yakima in 2016. At that point, I had moved away from Yakima to Seattle, so it became a personal mission to see that the community that had inspired my advocacy was left in a better place than when I left it. As an entrepreneur, I see myself as a constant work in progress. That is why I think I tend to be attracted to projects that express an abundance of social capital. The one project that I am the proudest of is The Cannabis Alliance, which was the result of the merger of four previously existing organizations. As I mentioned before I am a founding board member and served as the interim board secretary while we developed bylaws and organizational structure. I was elected to the first elect board and subsequently resigned later that year to follow a bolder entrepreneurial path. Today, as a member of the organization, I am witness to The Cannabis Alliance becoming Washington State’s largest trade association and I am very proud of the current leadership that is in place.
What is your advice for hopeful cannabis entrepreneurs who are considering joining the Washington industry?
Do something unique! The marketplace is not dead, but we have hit the forecasted bottom. Each year cannabis flower has been reduced in its value in the marketplace to the point where we see tested the product on the market for less than .50 cents per gram. There is hope for those that are prepared to withstand this bottom dollar moment. We have to remember that this isn’t a new trend in agriculture. An old farmer took me aside back in 2014 and told me that cannabis was about to deal with this market issue. He said, “it happened to wheat in the 80s and then corn in the 90s, so it’s bound to happen to cannabis.” He was right. But like I said there is hope. If you look at the wine market back in the 90’s there were only a few big names that dominated the marketplace, and Charles Smith Winery wasn’t one of them. Be like the Charles Smith Winery and make sure you do something unique and special. If done right the marketplace will respond. If you are a farmer, make sure that when you are choosing a farm that you follow genetics and appellation aka terroir to ensure that you stand out in the market. Test your water and soil before you plant, and overall be a good neighbor. The last thing I would say that would help any player in this sector become successful is to pay attention to sustainable solutions for one of the most unsustainable commodities that we produce. One day in the future we will be able to export our cannabis to other states and even internationally, so keep the long game in mind. Be a conscious player in this developing marketplace.
Thanks, Jedidiah, for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer our questions!