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Cannabis businesses operate on tight margins. High regulatory fees and expensive cost of goods sold leave little remaining cash to invest in projects that don’t return profit. It’s a balancing act to pay the bills, yet one of our strengths as an industry has always been giving back to our communities. The good news is we can leverage this collective strength and add value to our dispensaries by doing good in our communities.

The late Dennis Peron was this industry’s founding father. He and other California Bay Area activists wrote and passed the first medical marijuana initiative, Proposition P, in San Francisco in 1991. He also wrote Proposition 215, California’s Compassionate Use Act, which legalized medical marijuana statewide, allowing patients to use cannabis they grew themselves or received from a designated caregiver. But it did not provide a means to distribute medical cannabis on a larger scale. So, Peron opened the state’s first dispensary in a busy San Francisco hub. It had five floors, each with a different atmosphere and set of cannabis offerings.

He called it a “compassion club,” and other clubs soon appeared throughout the Bay Area. Each shared the same values Peron promoted, such as offering free adjunct health services in the form of massage therapy, acupuncture and group counseling. Dispensaries were headquarters for an ever-growing social movement, promoting peace, tolerance and an end to the war on drugs. They promoted the facts about cannabis medicines, worked to educate physicians about its uses and provided gathering spots for people to share ideas (and cannabis).

Ancillary Services Serve a Social Good

Magnolia Wellness, the dispensary I help run in Oakland, Calif., follows this old-school methodology of putting values and community first. Our staff and everything we do aims to promote tolerance, sharing and compassion. This values-based foundation fuels our mission: providing the best cannabis, served by the nicest people. This is not just good for our community; it’s good for our bottom line.

Being a good community steward and performing good deeds gets noticed, and attracts loyal clients, who return again and again, knowing their money is deployed back into the community. For example, Magnolia offers Cannabusiness 101 classes where budding entrepreneurs can learn from experts how to start a business, get funded and obtain a marijuana permit. We have free grow classes, hash-making classes, a book club, a massage therapist, an annual school-supply drive and a registered nurse (RN) on duty three days a week to consult with clients. These services are the core of the dispensary’s marketing plan, and by giving back to our own members and community, we give our clientele ample reason to return.

“Our social services form the core of our marketing plan,” says Barbara Blaser, RN and director of clinical services at Magnolia Wellness. “It’s easy to stand out from the crowd if you offer something other than a standard retail experience. Cannabis culture is fun, creative and welcoming to all, and your dispensary should be, too.”

The cannabis industry is well-known for promoting social values and for being politically active. Owners, managers and operators can and should use their businesses as platforms to promote peace and justice issues and to create less stringent regulations across the states.

Cannabis businesses are still fighting for laws and regulations that legalize marijuana at the federal level. They must invest in government relations and lobby efforts to secure the industry’s future. This can be done by hiring a professional lobbyist, who will help amplify your message to the proper thought leaders and decision makers, or by joining grassroots campaigns that mobilize large numbers of people to do the same. Dispensaries are ideal locations for advocacy work, with dedicated client bases who are willing to turn out for meetings, attend fundraisers and vote for laws that improve access to cannabis.

How to Get Started

It’s also important to grow our community connections. One great way to do this is by creating cross-promotional partnerships with other local businesses. Dispensaries (for the most part) share the same customer base as the local diner, record store and coffee shop; therefore, if several local businesses work together to create and promote fun initiatives that bring people to the area, the campaign’s reach goes farther and the expenses are divided among more people. Examples of such initiatives could be passing out each other’s promotional fliers, organizing community festivals, or implementing goods and services from other businesses into your rewards program. Imagine giving everyone who spends more than $100 at your dispensary a coupon for a free coffee at the nearby shop, or 10-percent off at the record store. Collaborating in these ways builds good will within the community by showing that your dispensary is an active community participant and invested in neighborhood improvement.

Social responsibility is good for business. It makes companies magnetic; people are drawn to them and will keep coming back for more. What’s more, on a macro scale, if the industry continues to aggressively participate in corporate social responsibility and advocate for cannabis, it will make it more difficult for federal lawmakers to keep kicking the legalization can down the road. The flip side is rather bleak. If we do not properly prioritize and participate in social responsibility, we will be left with an industry that cares only about money, where social-values-based companies are squeezed out and the money goes into the pockets of fewer and fewer people. Oh, and prohibition will likely continue into the foreseeable future.

The goal is in sight, now we must continue to forge ahead. So, spread the news, the plant and the goodwill. Your community, and the industry, will thank you.