Processing the System
As I embark on my career journey into the cannabis space, my work has been connecting.
Not just with people, as that is obviously critical.
More than who people are, I am fascinated by what people are saying.
I need to connect with ideas. So far it has been pretty inspiring.
A lot of people are talking about the regulatory environment. Banking restrictions, federal illegality, homegrow and possession laws. The legal landscape reveals a much trickier industry than is really necessary (a lot of the regulation is designed by current players and pharma to keep future players out of the market).
There’s a lot of chatter about social equity, but a lot of the language feels frustratingly aspirational and - hot take - performative. (See prior paragraph…. Though GOOD NEWS on IL HB1443 passing the Senate Friday evening).
A lot of people are talking about marketing. How to attract new customers. How to build a brand. Even though right now the general conceit from a customer perspective seems to be ‘weed sells itself’ (which, in the short run, is a valid strategy….). There are lots of ‘activations’ that inspire certain emotions (mainly casual/comfort or wellness positioned) but events and promotions are difficult to execute (see regulatory issues).
Social justice projects and criminal record exoneration projects have already gained momentum. There are socialization and normalization efforts that are emboldening people on both customer and industry sides to be more transparent and unashamed of their cannabis journey.
There’s an undercurrent to all these topics. They all have to work. And work well together. They have to be capital Q Quality.
Obviously as a customer I am concerned about safe, quality products. But as a future employee or entrepreneur, I have an expectation that my employer or partners, the regulatory environment, the product innovators, the advocates, will share this relentlessly high standard.
I never had this expectation for my cannabis products. Frankly, my options were usually limited to ‘what my guy has’. It’s an exhilarating new landscape, but also an enormous market opportunity.
Now that the cannabis industry is ‘coming into the light’, so to speak, there are opportunities to poach more customers from the illicit market and grow the market through new customers.
Of course “invisible hand” economic theory suggests you allow unrestrained competition and the market will work itself out with supply and demand reaching an equilibrium and inefficient players atrophy out of the system. Only the best and strongest will survive.
The stakes are too high for first-movers to let market forces shape the industry. With $40-60+ billion in untapped annual revenue on the horizon, existing players are none too keen on new market entrants.
Illinois is the hub of almost all the major multi-state cannabis operations (known as MSOs). These are the companies that will scale, they will acquire. They will continue to vertically integrate. And they will probably survive and thrive once the Wal-Marts and Amazon players start to ‘dip their toe in’. (Weedmaps CEO famously bragged about how Amazon wouldn’t be able to compete with them once they decide to enter the market. LOLOLOLOLOL….)
It is true, for now, that cannabis companies enjoy a somewhat open runway. Downstream competition from international conglomerates are many national and international legislative leaps away from realistically competing, and upstream mom-and-pops can easily be outcompeted or acquired (or legislated to the kiddie pool).
The current landscape, in Illinois at least, results in a somewhat boring customer experience.
Most of the menus are identical. Many of the companies wholesale to each other so product offerings are fairly similar from store to store. The only real customer retention strategy is special promotions and loyalty points. Larger MSOs are already beginning to draw criticism for making sacrifices in quality to achieve scale.
I've heard similar tales of first-movers elbowing out craft competition in other states. But Illinois hasn't even really seen a craft business yet.
It is confounding, this seemingly self-inflicted harm being done on the industry. I went looking for ideas that would help me better understand solutions to this conundrum.
My journey almost immediately led me into the dirt.
I was on a Reddit forum one day years ago wondering why our roses hadn’t grown so well. We moved out of the city into a suburban home with the garage and the yard, but we had little to no idea what we were getting into on the landscape front. A team of azalea bushes were our first casualties, and the roses weren’t doing so hot the first season we planted them.
As with every conceivable human topic, a distraught redditor had already posted my question, and a redditor who tagged themself as “soil scientist” wrote a reply to the post that opened a world to me.
The post said the troubled garden soil ‘wasn’t ready’ for the roses.
They went on to describe that ‘fresh soil’ is rich in bacteria. Certain flowers and grasses and vegetables love this bacteria as it helps break down the nutrients those plants need.
Then those grasses/vegetables die and their plant material decays in the soil, which is broken down by slightly bigger critters, which excrete nutrients into the soil that nourish thicker/heartier plants that grow fibrous celluloid structures that become too big for bacteria and the tiny critters to break down. Enter the fungi, who happily break down the fibrous material and also grow and die in the soil, which then attracts plants that derive nutrients from fungus-rich soils and larger critters that eat those smaller critters, and so on…
It’s a lot, but the TL;DR is that soil isn’t just dirt. Soil is a complex ecosystem.
And of course! The marketplace has a product or solution for every problem.
Microbiologist Dr. Elaine Ingham sells a series of educational products around the “Soil Food Web”, a training targeted to mass agricultural concerns. The idea is that once you have a “living” soil” you can stop adding pesticides (the pests already in the soil will protect you from the pests you don’t want there) or herbicides/fungicides (healthier soil means fewer bacterial/fungal infections) or nutritional supplements (of course, if you do need supplements she sells those too!!)
If you’re too busy for some dumb, boring class, farms and enterprising entrepreneurs have bagged that soil up and shipped it off to an Amazon fulfillment center near you!
It reminded me of my tranquil suburbs with all our carefully manicured lawns. The monthly spring applications of nutrients to the soil to feed the young grasses and to kill off any potential biodiversity (what we call “weeds”), followed by the careful curation of beds of native and non-native vegetation set up in regular rows to our visual delight.
We grow specific grasses that have short root systems so they’re heartier and easier to plant but hold very little water and cause all manner of problems with soil erosion. We add fertilizers to our flower and vegetable gardens to ensure our plants get what they need.
The domination over nature at the expense of nature itself.
When all you have to do to grow beautiful roses is to be patient and get the soil ready. A few seasons of decayed mulch later, and our roses are doing just fine.
Even before I began ‘digging in’ to soil webs and biodiverse ecosystems I remember it being referenced as a point of comparison in the documentary The Second Brain, an examination of the human gut. Specifically the microbiome that exists within our bodies.
A scientist in the documentary describes the development of a patch of earth untouched by humans. The grasses would grow then weeds, then larger weeds which will provide cover for small critters, then trees which will provide cover for more diverse plants which will sustain bigger critter growth.
Then he said “now this would take hundreds or thousands of years on earth. In your gut it happens in 2-3 days.”
Back of the envelope math puts that at >~1 lb of bacteria happily chugging away in my petri dish of a body, helping it metabolize nutrients, helping fight against other nasty critters.
Antibiotics wipe out this gut microbiome. Also the antibacterial world we live in has reduced the biodiversity in the wild (and arguably contributed to humans living a lot longer, so thanks!) which ergo can lead to microbiome issues in broad populations of people.
(I read a study suggesting that part of the reason so many modern humans express gluten sensitivity and difficulty breaking down gluten structures is because in the process of ‘enriching’ baking flour we strip the hull and many natural bacteria in the grain that help naturally break down these structures. We’ve ironically ‘enriched’ ourselves into increased gluten intolerance across the population because the process made our food ‘healthier’ (read: longer shelf life) and more consistent)
Theoretically, scientists could create a bacterial ‘cocktail’ customized to ‘amend’ your biotic loads (similar to Dr. Ingham’s soil web products) which could ‘cure’ a whole slew of maladies.
Science is usually quick to admit it doesn’t understand the complexity of the microbiome yet (although they’ve done some, ahem, creative research with respect to ‘transplanting’ bacteria from one subject to another using feces)
But the probiotic industry has no such reservations providing a solution for you!
Kombuchas, yogurts, supplements. All neatly packaged and promising a panacea of health benefits (Not FDA approved statements, natch). Sure, it’s very likely you’ll feel effects after consuming a bunch of non-native bacterial cultures, but hey it could help right? And it probably won’t hurt!
Shit, this is sounding kind of familiar again.
A quality ecosystem has many moving parts all working in concert. (I can’t remember the podcast or philosopher who I heard refer to the human body as “a conspiracy of atoms”. )
In cannabis, it’ll start with legalizing and proliferating high quality and focused cannabis research. We need to better understand the effects of the plant. This will lead to better production methods to potentially isolate or accentuate specific intended effects. This will lead to innovative and disruptive products. This will bring in new customers and serve existing customers better.
As the cannabis industry is still in its infancy, it’s easy to see the primary vegetation growing. And humans being humans, we seem obsessed with ‘picking out the weeds’ (aka constraining competition) and carefully landscaping our lawns (heavy federal state and municipal regulations). The industry looks pretty, but the roots are shallow, and frankly I feel like they might literally or figuratively be using too many chemical pesticides...
I’m not sure where “prescribed burns” fit into this analogy…
I don't want cannabis to be a homeopathic treatment. I don't want cannabis to continue to be a cynical cash grab. I don't want cannabis consumption or possession to be criminalized and stigmatized by the broader public.
I want to be a part of building the healthy, complex, and biodiverse ecosystem that will allow the industry to grow and thrive, and be shaped in positive ways.
I’m eager to help it move in the right direction!
LET ME BE YOUR NEMATODE!
All the best, Jonathan “Doc Wattson”
The Native Stranger