Cannacurio Podcast Episode 22 with Jason Ortiz of Minority Cannabis Business Association

In the latest episode of the Cannacurio Podcast from Cannabiz Media, my co-host, Amanda Guerrero, and I discuss beneficial owners, backers and true parties of interest in Connecticut as well as cultivation leaderboards, and new point-of-sale data being added to the Cannabiz Media License Database. We also speak with Jason Ortiz, Board President of the Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), a non-profit organization created to progress the cannabis industry by increasing diversity of owners, employees, and consumers.

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Cannacurio Podcast Episode 22 Transcript

Amanda Guerrero: Welcome to the Cannacurio Podcast, powered by Cannabiz Media. We're your hosts, Amanda Guerrero and Ed Keating. On today's show, we're joined by Jason Ortiz, board president at the Minority Cannabis Business Association.

The MCBA is one of Cannabiz Media's trade association partners, and we are so excited to have them on the show. It's going to be a good conversation. As always, let's check in with Ed and see what he has for us this week from the data vault. Ed?

Ed Keating: Hi, Amanda. This week I've written a blog post on a unique license that we have in Connecticut where backers of a license need to have their own license. It essentially tracks those that have a 5% ownership or more in a given license. We found 65 of these licenses in Connecticut, and they're held by about 40 individuals, 37 are from out of state.

The interesting thing for me is when we first started this company five years ago, we did a report on Connecticut, which I think you can still find on our website if you dig deep enough. It's curious to see so many of the backers have changed since then. In the early days, a lot of them were simply limited liability companies where people would sort of hide behind that.

Amanda Guerrero: Right.

Ed Keating: Now, that's not the case. It was interesting to sort of jump back in history and see what's changed but also to notice how the complexion of those owners has changed in 2020.

Amanda Guerrero: Yeah, I'm sure that's the case in a few other markets as well, but good to know, Ed. We'll definitely have to check that out. As always, we're going to ... When we come back, excuse me, when we come back we'll be joined by Jason Ortiz of the Minority Cannabis Business Association. Stay tuned.

Amanda Guerrero: Welcome back to the show everybody. As mentioned, we're joined by Jason Ortiz, the board president of the Minority Cannabis Business Association. Jason, welcome to the show.

Jason Ortiz: Right on. Thank you Amanda and Ed for having me. Excited to chat about all the good stuff going on this year.

Amanda Guerrero: Of course, of course. Well, I know that you just stepped into the president position here at MCBA back in December but I wanted to learn a little bit more about yourself. How long have you been with MCBA and working within the cannabis industry?

Jason Ortiz: So I've been with MCBA since we had our first founding board back in 2015, but I got my start in the cannabis industry I'll say back when I was 16 years old in high school and I got my first experience with the criminal justice system - being arrested for a simple possession.

I was smoking on the way to school and that really taught me a lot about how cannabis laws affect communities of color and young people and how just outrageous the approach of being so strict on this particular plant really was. So I got my start in this movement as someone that was impacted by the War on Drugs and I got thrown out of school for a while. It was really detrimental to my schooling and my growth.

Amanda Guerrero: I'm sure.

Jason Ortiz: It was just like, a very difficult time. I was lucky enough, though, I had a strong family. We were able to get through it, but I learned some very particular terms that sort of changed my life. One was the War on Drugs, the school to prison pipeline, and selective enforcements.

Amanda Guerrero: Yeah.

Jason Ortiz: Those three terms really changed how I viewed society, how I thought about the law and police. I was then lucky enough, though, to go to the University of Connecticut and graduate from UConn.

During my time there, I realized that there were activists that had been doing lots of work on issues I didn't know about before I got there that changed a very specific law that allowed me to go to college. That change was the elimination of the Higher Education Acts Federal Aid Elimination Penalty. That particular law meant if you got caught with any kind of cannabis or any drug related offense, arrest, or conviction, you couldn't access financial aid.

Amanda Guerrero: Oh, wow.

Jason Ortiz: Luckily, organizations like Students for Sensible Drug Policy and other activists from NORML changed that law before I applied to go to college, and it was shifted to say you would only lose financial aid if you are already in college when you got caught, which meant everyone that got caught in high school was able to go to college. I was one of those people.

I always say that while I was negatively impacted by the War on Drugs, no doubt, I was also positively impacted by the movement to bring justice for our communities. I saw the impacts of bad policy and the impacts of good policy and policy changes directly affecting me.

Once I graduated from UConn, I went out into the movement, did some more work in different issues like ending the death penalty, and then, eventually, came back to the cannabis industry to work with Shaleen Title who is now one of the Cannabis Commissioners of Massachusetts. She recruited me to MCBA to work on our first model state legalization bill.

Amanda Guerrero: Wow, I mean, what an experience to have. Especially at such a young age to be in that position where you see kind of the good and the bad of the movement being in the middle position and being able to both be negatively impacted and positively impacted.I'm sure that's really kind of helped push you into more of the policy side within the cannabis industry. Can you tell us a little bit more about MCBA and kind of what it is you guys are focused on?

Jason Ortiz: MCBA, the Minority Cannabis Business Association, is a trade association nationwide that seeks to get more people of color in the industry as owners, employees, and consumers. We are focusing on all three levels that we look at it within the industry that we want to make sure that the communities most impacted by prohibition, by the War on Drugs, those are predominantly communities of color and poor folks, are the ones that benefit from the legalization of cannabis moving forward. We've seen that that is not the case currently.

Amanda Guerrero: Yeah.

Jason Ortiz: It was something that I noticed when I was younger and as an activist to end the War on Drugs, I wanted to make sure we did that, and we still do. But the people that ended up owning all of the businesses were giant corporations.We weren't getting people out of prison, and so, we were seeing massive corporations making millions of dollars selling thousands and thousands of pounds of cannabis, but folks would still be going to jail for selling a gram here in Hartford, Connecticut.

Amanda Guerrero: Yeah.

Jason Ortiz: So when I was seeing that develop, I knew that was not the movement that I was putting in my blood, sweat, and tears into to see just to get some massive corporations to be rich while everybody else still remains essentially illegal and creating two different legal systems - one for corporations and one for individuals that was replicating the racism I saw with the War on Drugs.

From there, I joined MCBA. We had our first full board meeting with President Jesce Horton, who is a cultivator in Oregon. He's a great dude, he's got the loud cannabis. Definitely check him out. He's still growing good stuff, and so I'm always impressed when I see his stuff come out.

Just also, shout out if you can anyone out there, help folks on the West Coast right now. A lot of our cultivators and growers and cannabis industry and friends and family are dealing with some very difficult times. We're thankful for all they've done to help the nation move forward, and they can use our help a little bit right now.

So at that time, that was 2015, and really I came into MCBA with a policy focus that would ... We decided as a group that instead of arguing against bad laws everywhere, because we saw, for instance, what was happening in Ohio where it was just a very monopolistic law that was going to be happening, the one that failed ultimately.

Amanda Guerrero: Yeah. Big time.

Jason Ortiz: That was a bit of an inspiration for me to get back involved but just like, "Wow, this is the complete opposite direction I was hoping we would go," right? Nick Lachey from 98 Degrees was going to be owner of the industry-

Amanda Guerrero: Oh my God, that's right.

Jason Ortiz: Communities of color weren't going to be. It was just so ridiculous. So when I got re-involved it was, it's time for us to start writing our own laws and being able to push our own laws from people that are actually in the industry that are actually growing cannabis and selling cannabis or dealing with criminal justice issues with cannabis, not some corporate board room writing what they think is going to be the most profitable.

That inspired all of us to host the first Model Policy Summit where we had 30 people of color come together in DC to talk about what do we want? The big core root of what MCBA is able to do is bring stakeholders together to the table, really get into the details of what kind of policies we think we want to see, what kind of impacts and outcomes are actually happening out there, and then articulate very clearly what we want - both from the movement and from policy that provides that guiding document for any activist out in the country that wants to fight for more equity in their community have that tool.

Ed Keating: So Jason, drilling into the different stakeholders that you've got, one thing that intrigued me, as especially somebody who used to work at a trade association, is you've got a disparate group of stakeholders. You've got cannabis entrepreneurs, workers, and patients, consumers. How do you manage that group? Because I imagine there's going to be cases where there might be a conflict or two among those groups.

Jason Ortiz: For sure. I take pride in the MCBA’s incredibly diverse and perspective background, class levels, relationship to capital, relationship to social movements, and so, like myself, I was not someone that came into it as a business person. I'm more of a community organizer by trade. I run political campaigns, and so I deal very specifically with the political world, but we have folks that are individual owners, cultivators and also folks that work in major MSOs while simultaneously we have PHDs. We have two women, PhD women of color, PhDs, Doctor Olga Obie and Doctor Rachel Knox that are pioneers in the medical field.We all have opinions on every aspect of what we do. I think we've been able to set a stage that we are really going to get into the details of policy. We're really going to argue it out, and we're going to bring experts that are maybe from other industries in to provide as comprehensive of an approach as possible. I think this allows us to include all the voices, right?

Instead of what I see happen often in other advocacy or trade associations where policies and statements are crafted to be as narrow as possible so as not to say the wrong thing or offend the wrong people, we say, "No, no, no, no. We're going the opposite. We want to make it as inclusive as possible."

That may mean that we say, "This is what we want with this other nuance allowed and these other things to consider and these are the people that made it." We want to go into both. Who's speaking in these meetings? How are we handling this process?

It is longer and it takes a lot more talking, a lot more drafts of every document and a lot more people involved. Our first policy summit was 25 people. Our most recent one, which was unfortunately all digital, was 75 different people with 40 plus different organizations and 24 different working groups.

It is a massive amount of information and as y'all know at Cannabiz Media, right, data is super important and super helpful if you know how to use it. What we do is we're collecting an incredible amount of qualitative information, what folks want.

We ask people, "If you were governor, how would you design this element of the cannabis industry?" We take just, I think personally, a very different approach as far as we want to be comprehensive, we want to be visionary in what we do and get all the voices at the table rather than be very narrow, and so it takes more time.

And yes, there is more arguing involved, but I think we're respectful about it and we haven't had it devolve into anything really bad. It's just we know everybody has different interests, and then if it really comes down to it, we take a vote on how we're going to move forward. Everyone so far respects the decisions of the group. Yeah, and I've had ones that I didn't agree with but moved forward and maybe it was the right decision even if I didn't personally at the time agree.

Ed Keating: Yeah, exactly, exactly. So in terms of who you serve, we've covered that. From what I've learned about the MCBA, there's really kind of four parts of your mission of develop, advocate, accelerate, and serve. I'd like to just probe a little bit on that to help our listeners get a better understanding.

On the develop side you talk about building that network of cannabis owners as well as ancillary businesses. I'm curious kind of what's the split of members between ancillary and license holders and what have been the challenges in bringing those people all to the table?

Jason Ortiz: So it's a pretty even split as far as our corporate members go. For members of MCBA, we have both individual members and corporate members.

Anyone who is interesting in advancing equity can sign up as an individual member, and you can find more information at for our membership. That, as a person, will be able to give you access to some of the informational resources we have, some of our previous webinars, and other things just to get you started. From there, hopefully you extend all that information into starting a business. Whether that's an actual plant-touching license holding business or something else and move into the corporate ladder.

In the corporate sense of the term, I would say the majority of our members at the top levels are license holders. They're rather either larger organizations or sole proprietors, someone that owns an actual dispensary, cultivation facility, or otherwise. But it's not that much of a majority, right? We definitely have a significant amount of folks that are in the legal filed. There is a tremendous amount of opportunity if you're a cannabis lawyer of any kind to join in the industry now and help folks get licenses.

Ed Keating: Yes.

Jason Ortiz: We also, our Treasurer Jessica Velazquez, for instance, is a CPA and so she is a certified public accountant and so we do have accountants and other sort of ancillary services that are also members.

Then we have folks that they're just trying to start a new business. Whether that's event planning or some other kind of government service or advocacy, and so there is quite a diversity of who has joined us.

Our top corporate members are Cresco, Weed Maps, and Parallel just to put sort of the big level on there. Then we kind of go smaller from there. We have a significant number of law firms, and then again other folks that are sort of one person freelance that have a really awesome service to give the industry.

Ed Keating: Well and it's great that you have the balance of sort of the sole proprietor members as well as the larger companies because that always foments great networking. I did want to find a little bit more about the advocacy work because what I've seen in this industry is it happens really at three levels. There's local, there's state, and federal. I'm curious sort of how you balance that and where MCBA really puts its efforts?

Jason Ortiz: I'm going to throw a fourth one on there for you that we'll talk about a little bit later on international policy because that is becoming increasingly important, especially as we see Mexico making moves to legalize, as well.

Amanda Guerrero: Love it.

Jason Ortiz: On the original US focus level, yeah, there's definitely three different types of governments that govern cannabis policy. Because cannabis policy and the War on Drugs affects so many different parts of our lives, we have to have our own policies to undo all of those different facets, right?

Again, we try to come together to provide model policies for policy makers or advocates to be able to use at all three levels of government, and so for local policy makers, we have a model municipal ordinance and so this details specifically how you could institute an equity program in your city. If you're a mayor or a city council person you can use this ordinance. This is actually technically 10 ordinances that would work together in your locality. We're happy to work with folks and we have worked with local officials to do things like either introduce the ordinance as is, create resolutions or other types of policy work.

At the state level, we have our state and model legalization bill. This bill would be if you wanted to bring it to your governor or to your state representative and say, "At the state level, this is how we should govern cannabis."

Some of the things that are different between those two could be something like zoning. Zoning tends to be a local issue. So if you are concerned that there's just going to be no place for you to open up your business, that is something you want to bring to your city council or your mayor to figure out where it is zoned to allow cannabis businesses, right? Your state government may address that, but it's unlikely that they're really the place that's going to get you what you want.

At the state level, however, they will be deciding, for instance, how is taxation going to happen? How are we going to license folks? Are we going to empower the localities to handle all the licensing? Are we going to mandate any social equity programs at the state or local level? It is different for each state the amount of power that is transferred either to local or state and so that's why we create model policies, so folks can change whatever their situation is to be a little bit better.

Lastly, we do do work on the federal level. We have been pushing for access to the Small Business Administration through SAFE Banking is a huge part of what we do. We're also big proponents of the MORE Act, which would completely deschedule marijuana and cannabis and allow for all kinds of opportunities. In 2019, we actually spoke to Chairwoman Nydia Velazquez of the Small Business Administration Committee in favor of opening up the Small Business Administration to cannabis businesses.

We have been able to speak directly to the legislators at their own committees but also as MCBA, we have a particular pull with legislators of color. Legislators of color want to hear from their communities in real policy terms - what can we do to solve some of these problems? We're lucky to have champions like Ayanna Pressley from Massachusetts and Barbara Lee in California that listen to us and have been very helpful in making sure we move things forward in a way that includes equity in the center of everything that we do.

Ed Keating: That's great. Sort of tying it together, one of the other elements I saw that's part of what you all offer is this economic empowerment where you're really trying to make sure that minority business owners and professionals get access to the opportunities. The thing that I'm curious about, especially as you talked about these equity programs is which states are doing it right and which ones are not doing it right?

Because yeah, we track all these licenses, we see which ones really share information. Like Massachusetts, I think, does a very good job of saying which licenses are coming through with which kind of information in terms of different groups, but you have a unique perspective from where you sit. Who do you think is doing it right and who could do it better?

Jason Ortiz: Everybody could do it better. I'll just put that out there first. I get this question a lot, but I often say it's like asking me what car is the best because there's so many different elements of different pieces of programs that are positive or negative but I will say that when I first joined MCBA in 2015, equity programs didn't exist. In Oakland, specifically, they were working on it, but as far as the conversation in the broader movement, we weren't having the conversation.

If you look at our first model build, there's no equity programs in it, right? That speaks a lot to where we were at that time. The conversation has just shifted dramatically in favor of equity definitely has to be a part of the conversation. Now, how we go about it and what sort of policy specifics are we seeing that work and don't work? There's no state wholesale that has done it, I would say, correctly.

California has the biggest scope. So I'll backtrack a little bit here. When I analyze a program, there's three basic buckets that I'm looking at to see if this is a quality and effective equity program. One is criminal justice reform, and so that is are we letting folks out of prison? How are we changing the penalties for sales and cultivation moving forward? Are we expunging records, and what kind of reentry services are we offering to folks that are returning to society?

The second one is community investment, and that is how are we using tax monies to reinvest into the communities most impacted by over-policing? There's lots of different ways that can happen. Then lastly ownership. How are we making sure that the communities most impacted by the War on Drugs own the businesses? Not just work in them but own the businesses that will be operating in their communities or in other wealthy communities.

I can look at a bill and say, "This has fantastic licensing but you're not doing anything for criminal justice and actually addressing the harm that was done previously." Or vice versa. You can say like, "Wow, these policies here are really great, will reinvest a lot of money in the communities, but our communities will own 0% of any of the businesses that open for this."

There's never a silver bullet like, "This is great, this is bad." It's always weighing how much of each of those things are we willing to accept in order to get what we do want? So what's happening now though in places like New York for instance, the bar is getting higher and higher for legalization. You got to do more for our communities to get our vote, and I think that's a good thing.We see though not all legislators are ready for that conversation. Even just like here in Hartford Connecticut. I've lobbied many times and spoken many times in front of legislature, and I had one of the Republicans ask me, "Are you seriously suggesting that we put criminals at the front of the line for licensing?" I say, "Yes. Yes, not only at the front of the line. I think they should get most of the licenses."

There's still some cultural conversations that we need to have as far as who will benefit and why are we legalizing cannabis but I will say, writ large the conversation has shifted dramatically.

Massachusetts is a good example of creating entire swaths of the supply chain, such as delivery, focused on equity applicants and economic empowerment applicants. Illinois has set up incredible funds and loans in order to help people of color get started in the industry where they don't have to access predatory lending from private capital. California has created amazing infrastructure for community investment to be able to take that revenue and actually put it back into the communities to build things that have nothing to do with the cannabis industry.We need to build some sidewalks or a new park or something that will beautify the community.

So there are pieces all across the country, and we have fantastic regulators of color that are in various places across the country. Dasheeda Dawson is in Portland now and Shaleen is in Massachusetts. So we have experts of color that can tell us how to do these thing,s but I wouldn't say we have the silver bullet, "This state got it 100% right," yet.

Amanda Guerrero: Understood. Well I'm definitely learning a lot about equity programs. My background was previously in staffing prior to joining the team here at Cannabiz Media, and the organization I worked with kind of dabbled a little bit in social equity, but I do agree that we don't have a perfect program right now. But it is interesting to see how over the last two years this has really become a conversation not just for the California market, for example, but also coast to coast. It's something that businesses are prioritizing.

I'm really glad that you guys are there to help champion and guide the legislators on that. I wanted to kind of touch base on the international markets that you guys are working with, Jason. Earlier in the show you mentioned that you guys are doing some work internally and I know that you're scheduled to host an event, a digital webinar, for Latin America in December. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Jason Ortiz: Absolutely. It's the Asamblea Internacional Cannabica  is our effort to provide a platform for Latinos and folks that want to operate in Latin America or South America to come together to really focus on the particular opportunities that we see in those areas but also the context in history of oppression from the United States against those communities specifically when it comes to the War on Drugs.

I am personally Puerto Rican. I've grown up ... I've been Puerto Rican my whole life. I actually lived in Puerto Rico many times. I'm exploring a cultivation license in Puerto Rico because Puerto Rico has a more free market than even here in Connecticut.

Amanda Guerrero: Oh, interesting.

Jason Ortiz: To put things in a very weird perspective, right? I am looking forward to the day when I see my own business come across my Cannabiz emails.

Amanda Guerrero: I love it.

Jason Ortiz: I get those every day. I see all these other licenses. I'm looking forward to Top Floor being one of those people. But for me personally, I do believe that the economics of cannabis can empower our communities and help grow out of poverty, out of these issues, provide countless jobs and other economic benefits.

I do feel strongly that I want to bring all of the opportunities I see happening in the States to Latin America and to Puerto Rico and to South America. Especially knowing that the United States government has devastated communities for doing exactly now what the entire state of Colorado is doing 10,000 more than Latin America wanted to. We don't see the feds raiding or having PLAN Colorado where they're going to come and dump toxic waste like they did in Columbia where they were dropping defoliant on all of the trees to try to get at the cocoa farmers.

Amanda Guerrero: Yeah.

Jason Ortiz: There's a history there that I think the US-centric activism world needs to accept and understand, but also, there's just tremendous opportunity for both cannabis entrepreneurs and communities of color in Latin America to benefit from this plant.

We are creating this event, the Asamblea Internacional Cannabica, December 1st as a forum for folks to be able to start to meet each other, to hear from regulators in other countries the problems that they're facing and see what kind of opportunities exist, as well. I don't think most folks know that you can go and get a license in Puerto Rico right now where you can't in Connecticut.

Amanda Guerrero: Yeah.

Jason Ortiz: Also, the big thing that's coming more recently is that Mexico is moving quickly towards legalization and the United States will be sandwiched between Canada and Mexico, two legal countries, and it's going to create a mess of policy and what we’re seeing happening in the Caribbean, right?

There's just so much bad that will happen if we don't get our act together, and I want to make sure that the Caribbean and Latin America also bring the equity conversation with them, not just these big corporations, right?

Amanda Guerrero: Yes.

Jason Ortiz: What does equity, what does reparations, what does repairing the War on Drugs mean at the international level? That is a huge conversation. It's one I don't know if we're ready for, but MCBA and myself are going to force us to have this conversation because legalization is coming faster than our ability to understand the damage that we did.

Amanda Guerrero: Yeah, no, 100%, and again, I really am so glad that an organization like MCBA exists because I don't think we're ready to have that conversation but it is such an important conversation to have. Especially when you look at Latin America, racial injustice and the militarization or kind of living within a police state is so common for those living in Central, South America as well as the islands. It is super important that we have that.

Jason Ortiz: The intersection of how specifically our cannabis policy has created an immigration issue.

Amanda Guerrero: 100%.

Jason Ortiz: Is something that I don't think the current president will want to talk about but even those within the cannabis industry, those issues cannot be de-linked. What we did in Latin America, force people to leave their homes and come here, now we're dealing with labor issues here in the States with cannabis companies, right?

Amanda Guerrero: Oh yeah.

Jason Ortiz: As the cannabis industry becomes more agricultural, we're going to have to deal with labor issues. That was one thing, for instance, our model bill wanted to address is to ensure that the cannabis industry acts like a sanctuary industry. That we should be better to immigrants than any other industry there is because of the history of cannabis prohibition on Latin American communities.

Amanda Guerrero: Yep. No, I agree 100%, and Jason, I mean, this was such an animated, lively conversation. I'm so glad that we had you on the show. I know when we connected back in December at MJBiz, we could not have predicted the year that 2020 would be, but so glad that it brought us together and that you joined us on the Cannabiz Media Trade Association Partnership and we're so happy to have you on the show. Thank you so much.

Jason Ortiz: Yeah, absolutely, and thank you for having me. I got to say, the access to your database, we've used it a lot over the last year.

Amanda Guerrero: I love it.

Jason Ortiz: I enjoy the emails. It’s been such a great partnership, so again, thank you all for that - for putting together all this amazing information for us because we definitely use it and appreciate the work you do.

Amanda Guerrero: Well, thank you so much. All right, Ed. Let's take one last look into the data vault and see what you guys have for us in the coming weeks.

Ed Keating: Absolutely. We're going back through to bring out the leader boards for the different license types. The next one we have on tap is the cultivation licenses to see where they're at. We're also in the last wave of telephone calling for the information on the point of sale.

Amanda Guerrero: Oh.

Ed Keating: And CRM information, and we've been getting a lot of good information in this last batch of calling. Hopefully, we'll have a good set of numbers so we can be working off of as we pull that report together in the coming weeks.

Amanda Guerrero: Wonderful, looking forward to it. All right, everyone. That's our show. Thank you so much for joining us on today's podcast. We're your hosts, Amanda Guerrero and Ed Keating. Stay tuned for more updates from the data vault.

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