The Wild West of Cannabis

Last summer I received a message from a former leader at the company where I worked: “Do you know any good finance people who might be interested in working in the cannabis industry?” I felt a surge of excitement and jumped at the opportunity. After all, cannabis is the “final frontier” of business. After decades of lobbying, cannabis enthusiasts finally influenced legislation and public opinion to create meaningful change. What was once the pastime of hippies and stoners crossed over into the realm of big business, attracting huge amounts of investment capital and no small amount of media attention. Of course, that’s where I wanted to be: In the middle of the action, on the forefront of social and political change, and living off the land on a pot farm in Southern Oregon.

Six months later, I can report that some of that dream came true. I’m now the only finance person I know who can speak intelligently on the differences between hemp-derived and cannabis-derived CBD. I know more about terpenes and cannabinoids than I’ll ever know what to do with in polite conversation.

I spent time on the farm in late summer, watching the plants grow and learning how a sungrown cannabis farm operates. I helped with the harvest, learned how to identify ‘A’ buds and witnessed the process of curing flower. I rode along with our sales reps, learning the ins and outs of the dispensary scene.

It turns out that working in finance at a cannabis company is a little less like Goodfellas and little more like Office Space. And a few months in, I’ll admit I experienced some professional disillusionment.

Yes, I get piles of cash dropped on my desk, but most of our customers have transitioned to paying with checks and wire transfers. Yes, our production consists of rolling joints and trimming flower, but in the meantime, I’m still filing payroll tax returns, approving purchase requests, reconciling bank statements, and paying bills.

Although it can be a source of pop-culture zeitgeist and countless news clips, legalized cannabis is still just business as usual when all is said and done. Our calendars are filled with compliance and safety committee meetings, awkward networking events, sales scrums and one-on-one meetings with direct reports. For the most part, the core functions of our cannabis jobs are eerily similar to what we would be doing at any other job. Occasionally, I’m overcome with a sense of irony that we’re working in a federally illicit industry, while a visitor to our Portland office might at first suspect we’re a tech startup.

This is not to say that I find my job boring or mundane. On the contrary, working in cannabis is challenging and exciting precisely because of the ironies and contradictions that exist. Our marketing team must be constantly vigilant that our message does not appeal to minors. Our post-production team is prohibited from moving product from one licensed premise to another. (They’re 30 feet away from each other.) On a quarterly basis, I’m required to provide a stack of documentation to our bank, simply for the privilege of having a checking account. We have found that our regulators, the good people of the OLCC, are some of our most trusted advisors, helping us carefully navigate the maze of laws we are required to comply with.

Sometimes it feels like we’re doing business blindfolded, with one arm tied behind our back and a small child kicking us in the shins. These setbacks and restrictions force us to do our jobs with innovation and efficiency, and I’m filled with gratitude because of it. I get to work with people who are passionate about removing the stigma from a product that shouldn’t be treated any differently than alcohol or tobacco. And yet, I’m aware that at any moment the feds could shut us down, or the state could rescind our license.

Cannabis is indeed the wild west of business: Opportunity abounds and danger persists, but more often than not, we’re just trying to steer clear of any outlaws and keep our business running. Sh#!, the printer is out of ink again.

Brian Johansing | Director of Finance