Although this is not the author, it is something you might have found him doing at some point. (Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash)

One year ago this week, with more than a little help from my friends, Grown In was born.

Illinois was the initial focus. The state was about to go recreational, and my hometown Chicago was already home to a number of the largest cannabis corporations in the country. Although most banks were spooked by the sector, due to its federal illegality and whatnot, business was booming! Venture capital was flowing in, companies were being acquired for nosebleed valuations, and fortunes were being made.  

I wanted in! But how? 

While I was no stranger to consuming the plant, up until then I hadn’t spent much time contemplating its commercial potential. Following the lead of others in my network who already emigrated to the cannabis industry, I applied what I already knew how to do (business reporting) to this green new field. 

Nobody could’ve predicted the pandemonium of 2020. Amidst shutdowns, essential business designations, scoring irregularities and a political world ablaze, here are five things I learned during my first year on the bud beat. 

1. The Midwest is best

Legal cannabis commercialization originated out west in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon.

The Eastern Seaboard, starting with New England and expanding to New Jersey, looks to be the next green frontier. In the middle of everything, geographically and economically, are Michigan, Illinois, and Missouri

Grown In co-founder and reporter extraordinaire Mike Fourcher patiently and relentlessly encourages me to write and report about the ascending industry from a regional perspective. 

Through this lens, patterns and deviations can be recognized between Michigan’s 12-year-old program that (at least for now) empowers municipalities to dictate conditions deemed unfriendly by many multi-state operators, to statewide limited licensure in Illinois that enables a small handful of companies to dominate, to Missouri’s fledgling medical program where the first generation of pot shops are just opening up to serve the state’s 70,000 or so medical card holders. 

While more states legalize recreational and medical cannabis, the constellation of red, purple, and blue states in the Midwest with distinct programs and economic incentives for operators represent the U.S. cannabis industry today more than any other region. 

2. Social equity aspirations are no match for institutional inequities  

A review of the “About Pages” of most cannabis companies in the Midwest, this one included, reveals that white men are typically in the position of ownership and control. Stop the presses, I know. 

While this demographic tends to dominate most industries, I idealistically and perhaps naively believed that things would be different with cannabis commercialization. Surely an industry that for generations operated in the illegal market, where innovative entrepreneurs were incarcerated rather than celebrated, would through public and private partnership figure out ways to extend ownership to individuals and communities most adversely affected by barbaric drug criminalization laws.

So far, no good. 

One year ago many national observers believed the Illinois social equity program would be a blueprint for how to extend ownership and opportunity to black and brown entrepreneurs. Today, the program is stalled due to legal stalemates, mercurial scoring for license applications and uneven leadership. 

The only clear winners right now are incumbent license holders that in lieu of competition are capturing more market share, ultimately reducing economic upside for any enterprise that follows.

3. Marijuana is ready for main street 

From Springfield, Missouri, to Naperville, Illinois, to Kalamazoo, Michigan, municipalities all over Middle America are going green. 

Cannabis commerce is good for community coffers. The sky has not fallen. The argument and perhaps misguided fear by some that a dispensary in their backyards would bring a plague upon their communities could not withstand the reality of an actual plague. 

At the onset of the Coronavirus pandemic, cannabis was recognized as an essential business. For some, it’s a medicine that is more effective than anything that comes in a pill. For others, it provides creative inspiration and adventure to help us pass the time before the world, Lord willing, becomes less socially distant again. 

Nobody’s going to put that genie back into the bong.  

4. There is a lot more to learn 

As our societal relationship with cannabis continues to evolve, the legal cannabis industry in the United States will remain in an embryonic phase until banking is normalized and standards are nationalized. 

Each state currently has different requirements for doing business, including employee training. However, there are professional learning best practices every cannabis company should embrace. 

So here comes the plug: Grown In recently debuted an online learning platform that helps cannabis companies become smarter. Early critiques are quite positive. 

Email me at brad@grownin.com if you want to schedule a time to talk about how our organization’s expertise in developing cannabis information and education systems can better serve you and your organization. 

5. Another boom around the bend 

Twenty-one years ago, I began publishing an email newsletter that reported on what was then the embryonic internet industry. Back then, as was the case a year ago, I could not have fathomed what was to follow. 

The first half of the year 2000 coincided with a steep and sudden end of the dot-com boom. By the end of our first year of publishing, people were writing obituaries for the so-called “new economy”. Google was pre-revenue and Mark Zuckerberg was pre-puberty. There was seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel.

The Internet and technology industry has since generated trillions of dollars and wealth while, for better and worse, forever changing who we are and our view of the world. 

Your guess is as good as mine as to what the world will look like in 2021, much less 20 years from now. I’m betting the next phase of my career on an industry that is currently figuring out how to keep up with consumer demand while still having the potential for providing a more equitable economic environment for all who choose to build it. 

What about you?

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Brad Spirrison is a journalist, serial entrepreneur and media ecologist. He lives in Chicago with his son. Interests include music, meditation and Miles Davis.