Aon’s leadership green lights expansion into the cannabis industry
Stakeholders across ascending industry convene to address common interests at the Burn ‘Em Plan Launch Meeting
It’s not everyday when an iconic financial services company that has shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange details with cannabis industry leaders why it is bullish on bud.
“It used to be really exciting when a traditional company entered the cannabis industry, but that hasn’t happened in years,” noted Cresco Labs CEO Charlie Bachtell last week during a panel conversation at the inaugural Burn ‘Em Plan meeting convened by Grown In and hosted by Discovery Partners Institute.
In a summer of doobie discontent when companies like Mastercard send cease and desist letters to banking partners serving cannabis operators and prospects for SAFE Banking legislation continue to get deprioritized by congress, Aon, a $12 billion insurance brokerage, is serving up green shoots to the beleaguered industry.
“We looked at this for three years,” explained Aon’s vice president of public affairs Dan Serota. “We are seeing more people getting hired and more money flowing into the industry. Us signaling that we are beginning to support more players in this space will help bring others to the table.”
One of the core components of the Burn ‘Em Plan – through curated and facilitated interactions among stakeholders – is to identify ways mainstream corporations, research institutions, and government officials can more proactively serve the cannabis industry today. While cannabis is regulated and provides significant tax revenue to nearly 40 U.S. states, most licensed corporations – from multistate operators to social equity startups and everybody in between – continue to get the smoke and mirrors treatment from reluctant business and political leaders.
“What would be very useful to the full scope and scale of what cannabis operators can achieve is to get critical mass from industry and local officials and make this a jump on the table moment,” Bachtell said.
(Doug Kelly of the Cannabis Equity Illinois Coalition on the left with Cresco Labs CEO Charlie Bachtell – credit Kirsten Velasco)
While the inability to raise capital from federally-insured institutions is far and away the biggest impediment standing in the way of industry growth, federal illegality continues to impose constraints on operators from the business formation stage through vertical integration. In Illinois, where state laws were designed to give social equity operators a boost in standing up dispensaries and production facilities, federal law still makes it difficult to buy a building in which to hang a shingle.
“When deciding on a dispensary location, you need to find a building that has a mortgage that is not federally backed,” said Brewer, an owner of Grasshopper Club, which opened up its second Chicago location last week and is one of the only black-owned cannabis businesses in the state. “The little pieces all add up and can be crippling. The single biggest pain-point is federal illegality.”
(Carmen Brace of Aclara Research left with Matt Brewer of The Grasshopper Club, credit Kirsten Velasco)
Attracting buy-in for cannabis-friendly issues from lawmakers at the federal and state level – already a herculean task – becomes impossible when elected officials smell intra-industry conflict.
“Washington D.C. decision-makers who are the champions of our industry only have so much time to devote to this issue,” said Bachtell, who also is chairman of the National Cannabis Business Roundtable, an advocacy group. “There is this feeling of internal competition within the industry. The industry is so nascent that if we are not aligned and not working together it won’t work.”
Brewer concurred that legitimate political squabbles at state houses – while necessary – should be contained relative to the common interests in which all industry operators and stakeholders share.
“Rooms like this don’t come together enough,” he said. “There is middle ground where there is an opportunity to speak in a unified voice to focus on the big areas in which we can all win.”
Only the Beginning!
Our mission to Grow No Small Plans together has only just begun! Stay tuned for more details about future Burn ‘Em Plan Meetings and please inquire as to how Grown In can bring this economic development model to your market.
In the meantime, here is a flavor of what transpired on August 10, kindly captured by our friend Dina Muzzalupo.