The 99-person board of the Chicago and Northern Illinois Chapter recently gave the green light to accredit cannabis companies.

Marijuana is mainstream. 

No longer stigmatized as drug dealers by many parts of Chicago’s business and civic communities, cannabis companies are increasingly becoming the toast of the town. Dispensaries and other conveyors of the plant can now even receive an official seal of approval from the local chapter of the Better Business Bureau. 

The 99-person board of directors of the Better Business Bureau of Chicago and Illinois in December “overwhelmingly” approved extending membership to the region’s expanding base of cannabis companies, so long as they meet the organization’s standards of trust and accreditation. 

“Initially these organizations did not meet our standards and we had to turn several organizations away,” explains longtime CEO Steve Bernas. The change in Illinois law as well as a precedent established by the Denver Bureau a little over a year ago persuaded the organization and its industry-driven board to reconsider. “After a long meeting, the majority of our board recognized this as an opportunity to help businesses bolster their images in the community as well as grow and profit.”

Founded in 1912 by Coca Cola executive Samuel Candler Dobbs, the nonprofit organization – unaffiliated with any local and national government – accredits hundreds of thousands of businesses through more than 100 regional chapters across North America. Accredited businesses, who pay dues starting at $695 annually, often market their BBB seal of approval within their storefronts, websites and community outreach programs.

Nearly 40 Colorado-based cannabis companies joined the Denver Bureau after it extended membership to the business category (still deemed federally illegal) in January 2019, five years after adult-use consumption became legal in the state.  

“From a regulation standpoint, these companies have to run very clean organizations as the Department of Revenue oversees these companies through the Marijuana Enforcement Division,” said Johnna Caruthers, the chief customer officer of the Denver Bureau, which established an advisory group “to better understand the needs of business owners and the industry as well.”

Seed-stage conversations with cannabis businesses 

Independent dispensary owners as well multi-state dispensary and cultivation operators throughout the Chicago area are required to jump through several municipal and state regulatory hoops to be in business. While they are conditioned to comply with government regulations, the value proposition for becoming a member of the Bureau for some remains to be seen. 

“Sunshine is a great sanitizer, and we are generally supportive of the notion of third-party validators coming in and offering their perspective of our industry,” said Jeremy Unruh, senior vice president of regulatory and governmental affairs at Chicago-based PharmaCann, which operates multiple Illinois locations and has approval to operate downtown dispensaries. “I don’t have a bone to pick with them, but I know they sell subscriptions to their service. So, my only concern would be ensuring the information they give to consumers is objective and accessible to everyone.”

In the coming months, as 75 additional dispensaries become licensed by the states and incumbent operators open additional locations, cannabis industry owners and executives will invest considerable time and resources generating support from municipalities and neighborhoods where skeptical stakeholders remain. 

Better Business Bureau accreditation, says one board member, “is another signifier of the cannabis industry becoming legitimate.”

“The Bureau should work early with industry players to support best practices,” says Natalie Bauer Luce, a crisis communication specialist with public affairs agency Culloton Bauer Luce. “If any industry needs to be responsible, it’s the cannabis industry which as it moves toward full legalization in the country.” 

Ultimately, says Bernas, all sectors are better off when they are policed from within. 

“There are bad actors in every industry,” he said, “and we are going to denounce them and businesses who are not adhering to our standard.”

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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.