Medicinal cannabis has been legal in Colorado since 2000, with recreational cannabis making its legal debut in 2014. Since then, attitudes towards cannabis in the Denver area, as well as nationwide, have shifted. The taboo surrounding cannabis has slowly begun to shrink away. As we approach this new horizon, we must ask ourselves—how can the cannabis industry and the arts come together to ensure the success of both industries? I recently attended a CBCA panel discussion on this exact topic. Gathering legal, industry, and non-profit leaders who work in the cannabis space, the panel discussion encouraged us all to open our minds and think differently about the future interconnectivity between the arts and cannabis.
While Denver is fortunate to have a robust arts community, this can sometimes lead to competition over funding. As such, arts organizations are consistently looking for new ways to fund and expand their programs and offerings. Cannabis organizations can fulfill this need and serve as a new door for funding. While cannabis companies may not be as flush with cash as we may think, they are actively seeking ways to connect in meaningful ways with their communities. New funding avenues also open doors for further democratizing of art in the metro area. It opens up inclusive opportunities for artists and art mediums that may be overlooked by traditional art spaces such as galleries or museums. Additionally, cannabis companies are inherently collaborative. The regulations around cannabis in Colorado are stringent thus causing companies to embody a culture of collaboration in order to work effectively, efficiently, and legally with state regulators.
Additional funding opportunities and meaningful collaborative partnerships may sound too good to be true. And in some sense, it is. Federally, cannabis is still recognized as an illegal substance with no medical benefits. Therefore, any arts organization must carefully consider the legal implications of partnering with a company in the cannabis space. Tom Downey, a lawyer who was on the CBCA panel I attended, noted that while accepting money from a company associated with a federally illegal substance does present some risk, there are numerous examples of other companies who have not experienced negative repercussions related to receiving funds from the cannabis industry. One example Downey offered was the “Adopt-A-Highway” signs that line the interstate. Several of these signs are sponsored and funded by cannabis dispensaries or other ancillary businesses meaning that in the strict legal sense, CDOT is breaking the law. However, no criminal action has ever been taken against them. For nonprofit organizations in particular, there may be a fear around regulatory repercussions, such as your 501c3 status being revoked. Downey noted that this has not happened yet either.
If your organization may be interested in developing a relationship with a cannabis company, there are three critical steps that must be taken:
- Get your board’s buy-in
- Set clear expectations about goals for your partnership
- Talk to a lawyer or legal advisor about your organizations’ specific risk potential
Convincing a board to accept money from the cannabis industry may be a tough topic to navigate. The CBCA panel suggested selling the board on an increased revenue stream, transparently communicating the risks and rewards of a partnership, and pointing out comparable businesses that are already successfully working with the cannabis industry. If your board is hesitant to enter into a relationship with a cannabis company, another option is to work with ancillary businesses, such as insurance providers, package producers, or marketing firms that work with those in the cannabis industry but are not directly related themselves.
Once the board has given a clear go-ahead, it is important to seek out partnerships with companies and organizations that are open to a relationship that has clearly defined shared goals. As with most partnerships, cultural “fit” is important to consider.
Consulting a legal advisor never hurts either, as your organization assesses the risks and rewards of partnering with a cannabis company. Lawyers, such as Tom Downey, have extensive experience helping clients handle the federal, state, and local implications of such a partnership.
In our work, we often engage non-profits in the arts and culture space who are looking for new ways to raise money for capital campaigns. We have a saying at Corona— “money follows bold action”. In Colorado, cannabis is a $1.6 billion industry, with slightly fewer than 400 operating dispensaries. As we face the brave new world of cannabis legalization, we here at Corona are interested to see how “cannabis social responsibility” has the potential to disrupt the nonprofit and arts space. Enhanced arts and cultural offerings contribute to a vibrant and engaged community. In the next 3 to 5 years, we anticipate the taboos related to cannabis to reach a tipping point, where the dated negative associations with cannabis subside. Given that, now is the time to think about how your organization will maneuver a changing philanthropic landscape.