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Strategic Communications for the Cannabis Industry

Jun 28, 2022

In this episode of CannaCast, Partner and leader of EisnerAmper’s Cannabis and Hemp Group, speaks with Stu Zakim, President at Bridge Strategic Communications. Bridge Strategic Communications works with clients to raise, expand or reposition their profiles to their various constituencies through integrated public relations programs. Clients include start-ups and established properties in the media, entertainment and cannabis sectors.


EisnerAmper:Thanks for tuning into this episode of CannaCast. I'm your host, EisnerAmper's National Cannabis and Hemp Practice leader. I am joined today by Stu Zakim, president of Bridge Strategic Communications. He's a strategic communications professional with senior level experience in the entertainment, media and cannabis sectors. He has a strong background and proven track record in brand repositioning, integrated marketing programs, product launches, strategic media relations, development and implementation of corporate communication programs and crisis communications. Stu, thanks for joining me here today.
Stu Zakim:Thanks for having me, Eric.

Stu, how did you get involved in the cannabis industry?
SZ:Well, in addition to being a long time consumer, about 10 years ago, when Washington State was going legal, a friend of mine was forming probably one of the first marijuana business trade associations called the Marijuana Business Association actually, based out of because he was being asked by a lot of his friends when it was going legal, "Well, I want to go in this space, but what do I do?" So he started creating what is now common, is not webinars, but meetups where they'd have guest speakers and also he needed some communications help. I wanted him to be the guy on camera when the first Seattle dispensary opened and that worked. And then that was really my entry into it, although through the other parts of my career. Cannabis has been a constant one way or another, whether in films, I worked on a bunch of Cheech and Chong films. I handled Half-Baked on TV, I helped launch Weeds, I worked at Rolling Stone. So cannabis has been a link, in Playboy as well, throughout my career, but focused exclusively, it's been 10 years.
EA:How important is public relations to this industry?
SZ:Incredibly important and I'll tell you why. There's been an enormous amount of misinformation and propaganda put out there for God knows how many years by a variety of different people with agendas, that don't really sync up or make sense. Nevertheless, people have stigma, even though the plant is legal in 19 states. And if you add medicinal, we're in 38 states now. There's still a stigma that exists as a result of this long term propaganda campaign by the government, which really was started during the Nixon administration as a way to penalize African Americans and hippies. So to me, public relations is crucial, we are the bridge to the media. And it's up to us to use that vehicle to tell the correct story, by telling the right story, we can help eradicate the stigma, at least soften it and let people understand that this plant is really a miracle plant. And when we have a world of addicts on opiates and other things, cannabis only helps people, it doesn't destroy lives. So that is why I think the public relations function is so important
EA:With what you do, how different is it working in the cannabis industry, as opposed to the other industries you mentioned earlier?
SZ:It's only difficult, because once again, after the people giggle or laugh when I call and I bring them down to reality, it's a bit of a challenge, because once again, they still have that stereotype in their minds. And when you try to demonstrate not only the medical benefits, but from a lifestyle perspective, how legalization of cannabis is changing hospitality and so it's not just about getting high, it is a cultural thing. And getting them to understand that is the challenge, but I have been okay doing that so far.
EA:At what point in a company's life cycle, should they contact you?
SZ:In my mind when they're trying to get their license, because the most important part of the license, regardless of what state you're in, is the town has to A, approve selling cannabis or growing it and B, they have to have some infrastructure set up where there's a board who approves or not approves. And the PR function at that point is more policy driven than media relations driven, because you're working to educate the legislators as to why they should advocate for legalized cannabis in their town.
EA:You mentioned the stigma associated with cannabis earlier. How important is education and changing that stigma and how do you accomplish that?
SZ:Education is probably the most important part of the tool shed for changing that stigma and eradicating it. Once people learn and see and experience how somebody who might be strung out on opiates can live a normal life and still address their medical issues by using the right strain of cannabis, is a story that nobody can refuse. The same with how it can create enormous economic opportunities for towns and for people who are looking to either switch careers or enter probably one of the last major growth industries. So by telling those stories, you hope that ultimately, that the impact will be to soften public opinion, because the role of PR is really to influence public opinion.
EA:Let's focus on New Jersey, because New Jersey recently approved and started selling adult use recreational cannabis. In the first month New Jersey's shop sold over $24 million in cannabis. How did the first month go? Absence forgetting about sales, how did the whole process go?
SZ:Two things, first of all, the dispensaries that are open are MSOs. So while it's great that there is adult use cannabis for sale in New Jersey, it almost goes counterintuitive to what the whole legalization initiative was about, was social equity in this cannabis space. That said, it went incredibly smoothly, obviously there were lines the first couple of days, but as a medical patient, I applaud the focus on the medical patient by the MSOs rather than in other states where medical is tossed to the side. In New Jersey by law, the medical patient comes first, no lines, you have parking spaces, you have a separate place to purchase your cannabis. And as of July 1st, there will be no sales tax on medical cannabis, because there's no tax on medicine. So I think it's going incredibly smoothly. And my only point of contention, as I mentioned earlier is when do the social equity people, which include women, veterans, Blacks, Latinos, everybody, they are included and 25% of the licenses have to go to that crowd, when is that going to start happening? And how are they going to raise money? Is the bigger question.
EA:Well, let's cross the water now and go into New York State and New York recently issued another 58 conditional cultivator licenses, bringing the total to the state to 146. They're considered conditional, because the state is still drafting rules for the adult use program. When can we expect sales to occur in New York? What are the next steps you expect New York state to undertake?
SZ:Well, sales is in the distance, because I believe today the OCM was having a meeting to go over regulations. They have to the regulations done first before any licenses can be issued for anything, not the conditional ones for cultivation, I'm talking regular licenses. And that state law is, I guess, once the regulations are written, they still have to go out for approval to various parties that have influence over weighing in on things before it gets locked. And the most important part, is you have to have product. Your point about the temporary licenses for the cultivators, they're limits are so restrictive that they could never generate enough product to feed the demand.

Which means that the legacy market will continue to thrive until that demand is met by the legal side, which who knows when that will be. I'm not a Debbie downer, but in my mind looking at what hoops New Jersey had to go through, I don't believe you're going to see a dispensary open in New York State for two to three years. And that's only going to encourage the growth of the legacy market, even though the OCM has been crystal clear that being a part of the legacy market will not help your cause in applying for a legal license.
EA:And just to clarify by the legacy market, you mean the illegal market?
SZ:The illicit market, yes.
EA:Can the potential of cannabis legalization impact upcoming elections?
SZ:Without a doubt in my mind if the politician or his or her advisors are on top of it. Now let's look at New York State specifically, we have a gubernatorial campaign currently in the works, we have Governor Hochal on the Democratic side, there's a Republican primary, scary prospects on all sides. Enter Juliani being one of the candidates with the lead right now. So Governor Hochal, not that she's not concerned about the cannabis consumer and patient, made a really smart move in my mind from a political and PR perspective by announcing that they were going to award the first couple hundred licenses to people who were incarcerated for cannabis offenses. And got great play, the second part of that is however, you have to be part of a successful business team, not in the cannabis space, but in any space, which is almost impossible to happen, because when you're a felon, you can't get legitimate jobs.

So whereas, she got a lot of buzz, no pun intended for that move, in reality, it's not practical. However, since she has been governor, the state has expunged over 400,000 people's records who were previously not allowed to vote, because they were felons. So you have all that fresh voter bait who should feel some loyalty or obligation to the person who helped get rid of their record. And that could make the difference in this race and in any race, if someone sees the opportunity, because combined the cannabis consumer is a Republican and Democrat and as a voting block, we are probably the largest besides the ARP, voting block in the country if people realize how to mobilize it.
EA:Stu, do you expect that we'll see federal legalization anytime soon?
SZ:Unfortunately I do not. It's not whether Biden is for it or not, he's not. But if we can't take care of guns, cannabis is way down on the priority list, let's be realistic. Obviously, it's important to a lot of people, but as we've seen, there's a lot of other important things going on in the country and in the world that need to be addressed. We have a war in Ukraine. I just don't see the urgency on the Federal side since the States seem to be rolling along so well, that's my honest take. So whether Biden runs again or not, it's not a question of who's president, it's a question of how much energy regardless of the tax dollars that are being left on the table, is the leadership going to put into this? And honestly, it's just not a priority.
EA:Yes, Stu, I would tend to agree with you, I think there's so many things going on, I think it's a low priority on the list. I think there are other things higher on the priority.
SZ:Yeah. And if the states didn't have it covered, maybe it'd be more important, but in reality, it got almost two thirds of the country covered.
EA:Stu, the last question I have for you today is, how important is the Safe Banking Act to this industry?
SZ:For the expansion and growth and access to funds, especially for the social equity ground, it is crucial. It cannot succeed without it. Private equity does not invest with minority businesses, just doesn't exist. So even if they get a license, they still need to raise five to $10 million. How are they going to be able to raise that? The Safe Banking Act will unlock all those doors to those people. Even though once again, Governor Hochal has established a fund for social equity of $250 million in getting real estate, which is brilliant and should be the template for other states to follow. But it's everything, Eric, it really is.
EA:Well, thanks for joining me here today, Stu. And thanks for listening to CannaCast as part of the EisnerAmper podcast series. Visit for more information and podcasts. Join us for our next CannaCast podcast, where we'll discuss other budding issues.

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