The cannabis trade found itself in an even weirder position than most industries during the COVID-19 pandemic, declared an essential business in the states where it’s legal even while it’s refused federal business aid because of the plant’s prohibition. As the new head of the Marijuana Industry Group, one of Colorado cannabis’s largest trade associations, Truman Bradley had a lot of work to do.
A Denver dispensary owner for most of the last decade, Bradley had moved into his new role just as such tough issues as industry diversity, hospitality and delivery popped up. And, oh, yeah, COVID. We recently chatted with him about those challenges, and more.
Westword: With the current economy in mind, will more Colorado towns be open to allowing marijuana businesses?
Truman Bradley: I think they are, and they should. We saw that at the state level, when cannabis funds were swept into the general fund in order to cover the budget shortfall. It’s not like that totally closed a $3 billion gap, but it certainly made a nice little dent. I recently saw that Colorado Springs could be considering legalizing recreational sales, and they should. One of the highest-grossing recreational stores in the state is in Manitou Springs, for obvious reasons. There is a demand for adult-use cannabis down there.
I understand there is a lot of military and Department of Defense stuff down there, and Mayor [John] Suthers doesn’t want to lose that. I understand that. But when times are tough, cannabis is a relatively recession-proof industry that can help out. I’m surprised that more municipalities aren’t openly considering it right now, and I expect that to change as municipalities have to make more tough decisions, like furloughs and cutting jobs.
You’re in the City of Denver’s Marijuana Licensing Work Group. How fast do you think Denver is moving in regard to delivery, hospitality?
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I tip my hat to Denver, because they’ve invited a very broad group of stakeholders to weigh in on issues. It’s refreshing; it’s how democracy should work. Denver is going to do what they think is best, but at least people get a chance to say their piece — everyone from borderline prohibitionists to mom-and-pop businesses to concerned citizens. I think that’s great.
How quickly will they move? I think budget cuts will have an impact on that. Resources are more scarce because there’s less money, and the city has to deal with all of the effects of COVID-19, so it will be stretched thin. I would expect that Denver will do something on January 1, 2021. I don’t know that, but I don’t see it happening before then. You never know, though, and we’ll learn a lot more as these work group meetings go along.
Do you see the implementation of cannabis hospitality — cafes, galleries, tours and other businesses allowing social pot use — being significantly slowed because of COVID-19?
Any kind of social gathering with COVID-19 is tough. When I think about social gatherings, there is just a new landscape now. I don’t know how much it costs Denver to get a new license like hospitality in the system, but there is a cost associated with that. I don’t know the city’s timeline, but I think resources will dictate some of that.
Most of this ultimately has to go to Denver City Council after we finish up the work group and someone drafts these rules, and that process takes time. Cities like Denver are trying to move as nimbly as they can, and we’ve seen some interesting things happening, like closing down city streets for pedestrian traffic — but some of these other things require a process.
What issues are important to cannabis businesses right now? What’s taking up your energy?
Delivery is a hot topic, and social equity is a big one. Right now, after the beginning of COVID-19, we’re trying to find a way to keep the current social distancing rules in place for [dispensaries], understanding that there are so many priorities outside of cannabis at the state level that take precedent. But there are some things that have been very helpful for the cannabis industry, like curbside pick-up and online ordering, or allowing these businesses to modify their premises to keep customers, patients and employees safe. I think MIG members would like to see those stay, because there is a new normal for retail. Ultimately, something like that would take legislative action, so the question is whether that happens this year or next year.
You mentioned other issues taking priority over cannabis right now because of these unprecedented times. Being an industry trade group, how do you explain that to the industry you represent?
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My approach has been just trying to be honest about the situation. We were allowed to stay open [during stay-at-home orders], and I agree with that decision, but there were a lot of Colorado businesses that weren’t able to do that and are taking the hit financially. There are a lot of priorities that state and local governments are trying to juggle, and we’re part of a much larger thing in this crisis. Not everyone wants to hear that, but most people understand. We have lobbyists for a reason, and we were told the only bills that are going to pass during this short session will be fast, friendly and free. [Editor’s note: This comment was made before the protests over police brutality.] In other words, if it’s divisive, complicated or going to cost money, there is no money, so those are the bills we’re seeing die across the board. The state is focused on COVID-19 stability and recovery, and rightfully so. That’s what I’m trying to communicate to our members.
Social equity has become a big part of the cannabis discussion. How big of a role do you think established industry members should play in the crafting of these potential diversity policies?
I think it’s really difficult, because cannabis owners weren’t the decision makers when a lot of these rules happened. I’ve built a couple of cannabis businesses before this, and the industry was much more diverse in 2009 than it is now. I don’t think that was deliberate, but there is certainly systemic racism when it comes to barriers to entry.
Now it’s trying to figure out how do we, collectively — not just a trade association, not just businesses, but as a community — how do we try to right some of those wrongs? I think it comes down to expungements, maybe some license prioritization. But any licenses given out need to be sustainable, because it’s tough to run a marijuana business in 2020. Having training involved is important. I also think it’s important for established cannabis businesses to have good internal models with diversity and inclusion policies in their companies, and to extend that to their vendors. Asking if they have these policies, if they provide training opportunities for people of color, allowing people in our companies who are victims of the drug war. It’s a multi-faceted thing.