Building a platform for national legalization

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It is nothing new for Colorado-based cannabis businesses to secure licenses in other states with legal medical or recreational markets. In fact, it is rather commonplace. Some of Colorado’s biggest companies, like Denver-based LivWell, have been open about their plans to ride the wave of legalization all the way to a national brand. Others, like Boulder’s Terrapin Station, are more selective, finding one-off opportunities that make sense on their own terms. Large or small, as more and more companies set up shop in other states, Colorado is amassing a presence across the nation, influencing policy and business from coast-to-coast.

Where once the state was viewed as an outlaw rebelling against entrenched federal prohibition, now its players are courted as guides into uncharted territory. Just last week, three Colorado businesses (including Terrapin) won licenses to operate in Philadelphia’s burgeoning medical market in a decision that didn’t come as a surprise to anyone, especially considering Pennsylvania was up-front in using the Colorado regulatory structure as a basis for its own version of cannabis policy.

Terrapin CEO Chris Wood wasn’t looking to expand to the East Coast, but when Pennsylvania made an open call for applications for 12 grower/processors and 28 dispensaries, he couldn’t resist. Hailing from Bucks County just outside of Philadelphia, Wood is eager to bring his business to his home state because of what medical marijuana can stand for — a way to improve the quality of life for people with serious medical conditions.

Beyond the direct impact Terrapin will have in the consumer market, the company is also seizing a political opportunity, positioning itself as a leader in the industry as it spreads from state to state.

Uniquely situated in the space between industry and politics is Terrapin Station Director of Government Affairs Shawn Coleman. Now 10 years into his work as a lobbyist of sorts in the Colorado cannabis industry, Coleman knows all too well what it was like to be on the front lines when cannabis was still young and untested; which is to say he knows what Pennsylvania is facing as their new market takes shape.

“Creating cannabis policy is an iterative process, right? I mean, you pass your legalization bill, whatever it is, then you implement it, whatever it is, and then you spend the next 10 years fixing it, or unfixing it depending on what perspective you occupy,” he says with the knowing laugh of a lobbyist practiced enough not to claim wins or losses. “It’s all a part of the process, and other states like Pennsylvania can learn a lot from how Colorado has gone through it all.”

It’s hard to imagine that Coleman doesn’t feel the pangs of purgatory, stuck where he is, in the chasm between legalization and prohibition, but he treats it like a minor occupational hazard. For a lobbyist, Coleman is oddly empathetic to oppositional forces like Big Pharma and stuck-in-the-mud legislators. That’s because he’s learned the hard way that frustration is a dead end. The only way to meaningful policy-making, he says, isn’t to prove people wrong. It’s to inspire curiosity.

“If you are a lawmaker, you didn’t get elected because you are an expert in marijuana, nor do you know all its intricacies, particularly if you are a new lawmaker because it probably passed before you got there,” Coleman says. “The only way to facilitate the conversation with the lawmakers is to put them at ease, to get them curious about what they don’t know, to get them to ask the right questions to lead to the right answers.”

He looks at the expansion of companies across state lines as an indicator of the emergence of a national curiosity — one that could create the beginnings of a coherent national infrastructure. One that could even pave the way for an end to federal prohibition.

“A national brand has the potential to facilitate and expedite the development of that crucial curiosity,” Coleman says. “In cannabis, national brand recognition is a big deal because it brings a certain level of credibility that makes conversations with lawmakers easier. If they’ve heard of a company like Terrapin before, it puts us on something like equal footing with those that habitually oppose us, like police departments or Big Pharma, for example. It means they might listen to us enough to start asking questions about what they thought they knew.”