Kate Bell, General Counsel at Marijuana Policy Project
Ms. Bell joined the staff of MPP in December 2015 as a legislative analyst. In addition to her responsibilities as general counsel, she is MPP’s point person in New Jersey and Maryland and assists with the organization’s 2018 ballot initiative campaign work. Prior to joining MPP, she worked as a criminal defense attorney based in Baltimore, Maryland, where she witnessed first-hand how the racially disparate enforcement of prohibition warps the relationships between police and the communities they serve.
Ms. Bell graduated magna cum laude from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law.
[00:00:01] You're listening to thinking outside the bud where we speak with entrepreneurs investors thought leaders researchers advocates and policy makers who are finding new and exciting ways for cannabis to positively impact business society and culture. And now here is your host Business Coach Bruce Eckfeldt.
[00:00:30] Welcome everyone. This is thinking outside the bud. I'm Bruce Eckfeldt. I'm your host And I'm here with Kate Bell from the Marijuana Policy Project and we are going to talk a little bit about the industry in a little bit about from a legal point of view. But first let me just welcome Kate thank you for being on the program. Thanks for having me. So I'd like to talk early to kind of start with just understanding a little bit about your background. I know how you got into the kind of space how you got involved in the marijuana marijuana policy project.
[00:00:57] Now we talk a little bit about the project and the program and the organization and what its focus and is because it has a really interesting one and I think we should we should understand how it fits and about the whole the whole world of cannabis and marijuana.
[00:01:09] So give us a sense your background.
[00:01:11] Sure. So I would say criminal defense attorney based in Baltimore Maryland.
[00:01:17] And so I really come to this with the goal of keeping people out of the criminal justice system. Maryland actually has to have what they call an affirmative defense for medical cannabis. So you had to be arrested and then prosecuted and then hire me and go to court to try to prove you were a patient rather than having real protections. Interesting for people using medical cannabis and of course it was better than nothing. Yeah but. So I represented a lot of patients and really got to see how that impacted people on the medical side but also just the idea that we are wasting tax dollars and time that could be spent solving violent crimes locking people up for marijuana made no sense especially when you consider how disparate the enforcement is based on race. On top of that and you know nobody should be jailed for marijuana. So that's kind of how I got interested in this. I've been with MPP for about two and a half years now. I was working in the state policies department doing lobbying with a number of state legislatures. Now I'm actually general counsel so I'm working on some legal for the ballot initiatives that we're doing as well as general legal staffs. So sort of backed my roots up in in terms of actually practicing law. You know I also had the great fortune of graduating from law school in 2007. And so thanks to the economic collapse and its imaginably industry it's been a little bit of a roundabout journey to get here.
[00:02:46] I to tell it and tell us a little bit more about the policy product. What is the water. What is the specific focus and what are the outcomes that you're looking for as an organization.
[00:02:55] Sure. So everybody's been around for over 20 years now. And this was like a crazy fringe idea of course when it started and that we were going to legalize marijuana at the national level. So we've come a long way. MPP is responsible for the ballot initiatives that legalized marijuana in five of the now nine states plus D.C. that have legalized adult use. So we worked on the Colorado initiative in 2012 as well as Alaska in 2014 and then most recently Maine Massachusetts and Nevada in 2016. And right now we are supporting the Michigan initiative which is a dual use for the ballot this year as well as a medical initiative in Utah and we helped pass many of the medical marijuana laws around the country as well. And went.
[00:03:44] And when you support news efforts. What. How are you supporting them what do you actually do. Are you working with local local groups that are hands on the ground. What involvement do you have.
[00:03:53] So when the initiatives of course are at least as a legal matter separate entities that are formed specifically for the purpose of passing that particular initiative. Our campaign's team helps with the drafting bringing stakeholders together trying to come up with initiative language that makes everyone happy as much as possible whether that's advocates the existing industry looking at concerns that opponents might have all of those types of things to work on the drafting of the initiative and then you know we help hire campaign staff bringing in contractors that work on advertising things like that really sort of consulting and helping out through the whole process. There are other initiatives that we provide other support for for example we may help an initiative or a local group with fund raising we might help them out with consulting on language for their initiative different things like that. So it depends. You know we certainly helped out with a lot that we weren't even sort of behind the scenes as well. And then for the states that don't have initiatives or where there isn't one being worked on. We also do a lot of direct lobbying so we are for example leading the Coalition in Illinois. So we're working with a broad coalition of organizations but we're leading the charge in terms of adulteries in that state and that is through a lobbying effort at the state legislature.
[00:05:16] Got it.
[00:05:16] And maybe I think or be helpful since you have a little more detail kind of little understanding some of the folks that don't quite understand these different terms because I think we we talk about adult use. We talk about recreational use we talk about medical What are these different categories. How much are they the same and how much are they different from state to state.
[00:05:35] Sure. So there are 30 states that have what we call effective Montcoal marijuana laws. That means that qualifying patients which may be anyone who's doctor recommends medical marijuana or they may have to have one of a list of specific conditions can get a recommendation from their doctor. And then in those states they can either cultivate medical marijuana in their own home or they can have a caregiver cultivate it for them. Most of those states also have a dispensary option. So businesses storefronts where they could go purchase medical cannabis in addition to those 30 states plus D.C. that have what we call effective medical marijuana programs. There's a number of other states that have some. Actually it's 49 states now in total that have some form of knowledge of medical marijuana. But in some of those other places it's very limited. For example they might have a provision that says if you're caught with CBD low THC oil who knows how you got it. But if you're caught it will give you a break and we won't criminalize you for it. Right now where that's supposed to come from for you. States don't have interstate access.
[00:06:41] You know isn't clear but there is at least some provision in law the only remaining state that doesn't have anything whatsoever at all is Idaho Anderson trying to figure out who might be wiped off the map of Kansas was on that list until very recently. So now it's Idaho stands alone there and then in terms of what we call adult use is the same thing as what other people call recreational and basically being set any adults 21 and over can legally possess and cultivate or in some cases also cultivate cannabis. So it's a little confusing because there's nine states and D.C. that have legalized it. Yes but two of those. D.C. and Vermont only allow possession and home cultivation there's no stores. So it doesn't fit into what we would call tax and regulate it which means that you can legally purchase said as well. Got it. It set up a system of license regulate businesses that are called oxybate process and sell cannabis which is what most people are thinking about when they're thinking about like I mean for example a state like Iowa.
[00:07:44] Yeah yeah. And certainly from a business point of view it's against that. Doesn't a state have the regulation on the system in place to be able to support a real economy of growing processing dispensing to various consumers.
[00:07:56] Do you find that most states kind of go through go through that process of legalizing a very basic use and then eventually kind of work their way up or do some states go go all the way all at once. How does this play out.
[00:08:07] For the most part they'll do medical first and decriminalization where it's still illegal but possession for adults is treated like a civil infraction like a traffic ticket as opposed to a criminal offense. So states usually will do medical and cram before they do adult use although that hasn't always been the case in Washington state. I believe as the is the state where they sort of skipped over medical and then added medical endorsements later. But it is certainly I mean so New Jersey which at the time of this recording is is considering passing an age all bill now has not decriminalized yet. So they would be somewhat unusual in sort of skipping that step and going straight to a licensed tax regulated market without doing decriminalization in the middle. The model in D.C. in Vermont is unusual because D.C. got stuck there because of Congress. So there was a ballot initiative ballot initiative because of the weird character of D.C. and its congressional oversight can only do certain things. And before the D.C. Council got a chance to pass a full tax regulated market. Congress stepped in and blocked them. So we're stuck in this weird limbo. And then there's a lot of problems because it's not legal to sell it but people want to buy it there's huge demand. So there is this massive underground economy that's not and DC's missing out on all the tax revenue out there as well as you know consumers being able to buy laboratory tested properly labeled products and know what they're getting as opposed to not unless they grow it themselves. In Vermont it does seem to be more of an interim step and they're seriously considering going ahead and moving to a fully tax licensed regulated market there.
[00:09:56] Got it then and now are you on board that all the federal level or look looking at the federal level or are you focused very much need to stay right now. Oh yes.
[00:10:03] I mean so we have a federal lobbyist we're very much involved in the efforts in Congress as well. And you know the states act in particular is very exciting because it has strong bipartisan support unlike you know there's a ton of different bills in Congress that have sort of different levels of support from different parts of the political spectrum. I know the states act would basically and federal marijuana prohibition and leave the issue of as you may have guessed the states no. And so that would be a great step forward and it would allow the states continue to be as we lawyers like to say laboratories of democracy and experiment with different policies.
[00:10:41] It would impose legalization from the federal level on states that didn't it wouldn't handle the Interstate Commerce issues because I know I mean the big issue that most businesses face right now is you have to do everything inside the state because you can't cross state lines with this for the state to address them.
[00:10:59] You wouldn't have to comply with state law. So like if you were in Colorado and Colorado allow it was the sale of products manufactured in other states you could ship from your facility you know in Nevada and Colorado as long as that was allowed by those states laws. What you couldn't do is ship from Colorado to Idaho. Right. And if you did that not only would Idaho have something to say about that but likely the federal government would as well because just like we have the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco Firearms and Explosives. Their job is to for example crack down on people shipping cigarettes from North Carolina to New York was one of the states that cigarettes are legal in both states of course. But New York has much higher taxes and so the federal government intervenes where people are trying to get around the state.
[00:11:53] Yeah got a little bit about because of the situation that we've been in for the last several decades in terms of criminalization of some of these things.
[00:12:03] And you know we've got a lot of people in the business world that have been involved in cannabis marijuana and different winds and a lot of them have picked up records of resorts have run amok with laws and now they're in a prison term trying to get involved in this kind of industry in fact they have a huge amount of knowledge and a huge amount of experience in the things that we need to make this market viable. I guess what's under way. How do you see some of that stuff being addressed. You know not only from sort of social justice and just you know what's good for society or from a business point of view. How do we address the fact that we've got this population of folks that are in this situation.
[00:12:37] Yeah well so the initial reaction of lawmakers was to put it like a blanket bans on anyone with any sort of drug related criminal record being in the industry. In some cases any record at all although there are some states where bizarrely you couldn't get into the at least to a certain point you couldn't get into the cannabis industry where the cannabis conviction but have you had some other like violent crime or something you weren't subject to the blanket ban or so it didn't necessarily always even make sense. And I think we're starting to see that get rolled back now. For example D.C. recently loosened up on their restrictions which had previously been a blanket ban. And one of the arguments for that is that because the prohibition was enforced in a racially disparate manner that it's going to have a racially disproportionate impact so you might have someone in the industry who was involved in the illegal marijuana industry previously. But they don't have the conviction for it whereas a person of color who did the same thing does have the convictions on their part. So I think a lot of lawmakers are really starting to see that this is not just a way of starting this new industry. And they are still concerned about gangs and cartels being involved in the legitimate industry. So there are still concerns about people who have been engaged in illegal activity recently or on an ongoing basis versus someone who got into trouble years previously and those people are going to be treated differently.
[00:14:01] But certainly businesses want to have knowledgeable people especially like on the cultivation side I mean on the retail side you know you bring in somebody with high end retail experience you know they're going to have all that customer service experience and you can sort of train them on the cannabis aspect but for things like cultivation obviously it's a lot more interest and there's a weird thing that happens to beginning you know. So when the cultivators first opened they kind of get seed. I've always always wondered as like how do you start. What's Ground Zero. It's the immaculate conception.
[00:14:33] I mean basically what ends up happening is the regulators sort of look away for a little while and then all of a sudden they have seedlings and then the seed to sale tracking starts.
[00:14:44] And then after that you know they can't be bringing in any mystery seeds that are accounted for in the online tracking system.
[00:14:54] But there has to obviously be a window because it doesn't fall out of the sky.
[00:14:58] So from a business point of view what else do you think people that are getting involved are thinking about getting involved in the cannabis marijuana market industry. What else are they really need to understand about the current laws or where the laws are going or what's going to impact them with legislation and kind of industry regulation.
[00:15:18] Well it's not just legislation like you said. Industry Regulation I mean MPP stays involved in the states where we have ran initiatives to make sure that things are implemented properly because there is ample opportunity for regulators to screw things up to make businesses have such onerous regulations that they can't make any money to make patients or consumers jump through a bunch of hoops so that they don't end up believing the criminal market which is one of the reasons that the public voted for the initiative in the first place. Now you know that's something that we're certainly involved in and it's also that businesses need to be paying attention to a need to be going to the right at these meetings public meetings usually that the regulators are having an offering their opinion and their expertise.
[00:16:04] And as a business partner and you know and if they don't have the ability to do that that they need to you know be hiring lobbyists or working with an industry group or working with us or someone who is helping them sort of now they get the process because that's going to have a huge impact on their day to day. And it takes a long time either once the laws passed to go through all of that.
[00:16:27] It's an interesting industry now because it's kind of your your biggest competitor can also be your biggest collaborator when it comes to you know how about having you know getting policies address changed the right way. So well I mean I'm you know troll this will will continue to be quite dynamic as the market grows. But right now there's as much cooperation between a lot of these businesses because it's really about setting up the industry in the right way as much and is about head to head competition.
[00:16:54] If I could just comment on that. So it depends.
[00:16:57] In some states they have something much closer to a free market and in another state there is a very limited number of licenses. Obviously if you get one of those licenses that's great for you for a while. But what I think some folks competing for those aren't thinking about is what happens when national prohibition falls because then you're you're not going to just be competing with a dozen other people who got the same license you did in that state you're going to be competing with all the companies in these other states who have had more competition and maybe have been developing their brand or developing products that consumers really like. Now because they've had this sort of crucible of that competition and now they're going to be able to ship their products into your state.
[00:17:43] It's going to be a state trade war after that. You know when people tried to restrict interstate commerce because of product development.
[00:17:50] Yeah no it's a fascinating kind of dynamic and certainly these states that have had products or had regulation legislation regulation in place for a while have a bit of a jumpstart not only in terms of developing their market but actually setting up the companies inside their state as being one step ahead of all the other states for national national products national distribution national sales. I guess what. You know when you look at the regulations what are some of the challenges of implementation because I think people do focus a lot on this. You know where is the legislation and what laws are on the books but then actually putting that into practice in terms of putting in the regulation the actual systems the departments the the groups that actually issue the licenses like all that kind of stuff. What are some of the things that you have seen kind of go awry or seem to be challenges for states when they actually want to pass a law then what happens for them.
[00:18:38] Well some of the sort of more cutting edge things that I think we're starting to see develop now are things like social use. So obviously you can go to any number of buyers and have a drink with your friends. Whereas cannabis has been treated this like shameful causative thing where you have to be shut up inside your own house and places like for example Las Vegas which has tons of tourism and people come and they buy their cannabis and then they don't have anywhere to use it and they're not supposed to be consuming it outside in public legally. So the city is kind of saying OK Nevada like we need to get it together or we're going to do something about this creates sort of like lounge a place for people to go. Denver is now experimenting with it with that as well.
[00:19:21] So there's a number of places that are that are really looking at that issue you know childproof packaging is something that sort of took a while for states to realize the importance of that and now that that was a huge business opportunity for companies that saw that coming and started developing. And like I can't get some of these things open. I mean they don't provide me with the same way that because I was in Denver and actually went into a store and the like it's amazing. So and that also illustrates that you don't have to touch the plant you don't have to go through the licensing process to be able to get into this base and make money.
[00:19:57] Yeah and I think that's one of the biggest takers and I found that a lot of the innovation a lot of the new fascinating business ideas that have huge potential actually don't touch the plant product you know they're they're a product and silvery product or service.
[00:20:12] I was talking to one company that does training of dispensary workers you know on on particular issues around how to deal with dispensary mushrooms roads.
[00:20:21] And it's a whole business and it's training it's a training business it just happens to be focused on the kind of estimate well and another thing that I think is owners need to keep in mind is like paying attention to what the illicit market is and how they're going to compete with that because they need to understand that like while most consumers would rather know what they're getting and go to a legal store they are still at least initially when the industry is getting on the ground competing with the traditional guy. All right. And particularly in places like for example New York City there's a whole HBO show about this messenger bike delivery guy right now and so having home delivery for example where people are used to having that service provided to them. And if that's not allowed in the regulations then consumers are going to not be happy because they've gotten used to that. Some states have tried to restrict the type of products or the strains or things like that a lot which is also a concern for what reason.
[00:21:18] What thing. What's the thinking behind trying to restrict the.
[00:21:21] So there's some states have sort of dragged their feet or had concerns about edibles. I mean certainly I think initially in some states where there wasn't regulation on serving size and how much could be in there and there were uneducated consumers coming in there may have been some people had an unpleasant experience. Thankfully no one is going to die of this overdose right. But you want to have childproof packaging and an appropriate serving sizes and labeling all that in place certainly. But then there's other things like for example the medical market. There's a number of states now that have restricted plant which is really unfortunate because it drives up prices for consumers a tremendous amount because it's like you know buying a bag of chickpeas versus buying a fancy container of hummus. It's the same substitution. Right. But all of that extra processing makes it so much more expensive.
[00:22:14] And if you're a patient got on like a fixed income not working and it's not covered by insurance and you're struggling to afford medical cannabis you know maybe a lot better for you to be able to buy the flour and make your own edible or and you don't vaporize that or whatever. As opposed to being forced to buy processed products then I think the state theory is that it seems more medical if it's now in your life boil for him or whatever. But what they're not realizing is in addition to costs like allowing patients to vaporize or smoke allows them to tighten their dose so they don't have to like take this whole pill and end up too high and may not be able to function in their daily lives they just need to take a little bit when they're feeling they're not feeling well and they can try trade there does better that way.
[00:23:01] So there are some unintended consequences but that is sort of one problem that we've seen.
[00:23:05] Well I've certainly seen as we move from kind of figuring out ways to legally serve existing cannabis users who have no particular doses in particular use cases that they're looking for.
[00:23:19] As we move more you know medical and even just general public. Yeah. Microdosing you know different formats being able to consume in different ways. You know I think that that is where a lot of the market opportunities are. But I think where it's going to challenge I think a lot of these state regulations and how the states are kind of thinking about their markets and thinking about how they're controlling what else happens in the from a regulatory point of view I guess as we see this market expand as we've seen the number of states and then you know we're at some point you know we're open here of a federal legislation in place. What do you predict or what do you suspect is going to happen from a regulation point of view that people should be aware of them and how are actually going to manage this market to the general benefit of society.
[00:24:00] Well so it's support for people to understand especially the people who are lucky enough to be in the states that have already gone down this path.
[00:24:08] The market doesn't expand by itself. That's what we do is create new markets by passing these laws in New States. And a lot of people don't realize how alive and well Reefer Madness is in a lot of these state legislatures. You know I always give this example of Maryland decriminalized marijuana possession but they didn't include paraphernalia.
[00:24:33] So people were getting a light criminal charges with the plastic bag and a civil citation for the marijuana. So we fix that and we like you know how has this law to decriminalize paraphernalia. And there the governor vetoes it.
[00:24:46] They're doing the veto override and this lawmaker stands up and it's like there's going to be on the highway and you're just like it.
[00:24:52] I mean this is what you know you do it as much as people who grew up with this reefer madness propaganda that this is the devil's lettuce and you know we have to work very hard and it requires resources in order to change the laws so we need the industry to continue to support this work so that we can continue to move forward and also to be good ambassadors. You know I'm just sort of think about the fact that unfortunately everything that they do reflects on the industry and the movement as a whole I think and I think that's an important point for the people involved in the read.
[00:25:29] I know we talk about a lot. As you know we are our ability to you know grow and make us a highly profitable and successful market is going to be based on how we behave and how we how we approach these issues and how we deal with them.
[00:25:43] And it's going to be challenges and we're going to face we face the forces out there and we face various opinions in public about the product but you know focusing on education focusing on helping people understand the positive uses of it is going to be what helps move a lot of us want any particular strategies or an entrepreneur or a businessperson looking to get involved in cannabis in a market that's not legalized yet or is on the path of legalization.
[00:26:08] What are some things I can do to actually help participate in that process and help move that process along. How do I get involved.
[00:26:15] Yeah well as I mentioned I mean so in Illinois and some other states that we're working and we are helping lead coalitions of organizations so groups that are interested in social justice like NAACP or ACLU are involved with us in some states industry groups. So people who maybe are in the existing medical industry or who want to get into the industry are often involved in those efforts and sort of bringing together those various stakeholders so that we can lobby with one voice and also have the financial support of some of those folks and organizations in order to do that is very helpful. And so that's really you know I'm also thinking about so as this issue has become more sort of mainstream and popular a lot more people have been jumping in the industry.
[00:27:06] Obviously the people who are signing up to raise their hand that they are committing federal felonies initially were the true believers right. The people who been in the drug policy reform movement for years people who like watched their loved one die of cancer who benefited or could have benefited from medical marijuana. And now we're seeing a lot more sort of mainstream business interests coming in and there's also increasing concern from a lot of people about the fact that Prohibition has had a devastating impact on poor communities of color.
[00:27:40] And yet the industry is not all that diverse.
[00:27:45] And so people who are trying to get into that now I think certainly being sensitive to that and trying to ensure that you are recruiting a team that is diverse that you're working with people who are local to the state because state elected officials really like when their states are benefiting from this and not just out of state companies.
[00:28:06] And you know looking at the community impact people don't realize how terribles voting is like. It's really difficult to get a property that's zoned for a cannabis business. A lot of jurisdictions. And so being able to like how the local government on your side like going in and working with them prepping them for this figuring out how you can benefit the local community. And so when you present to the zoning board you've got people who haven't been able to get jobs who have been struggling coming in saying this is going to be amazing I'm going have a living wage to be able to support my family as opposed to people who didn't know you were there and start freaking out about you know marijuana in their neighborhood. So there's a lot you can do to sort of be a good citizen that will help you in your application process.
[00:28:59] Yeah. And the good points. I think it's something that people don't think about or don't aren't insensitive to in terms of what is the impact they're going to have on the local community and how can how can you integrate better into the into the group that you're going to be serving and and ultimately your customers. So we're about a time here Kate. This has been really great very educational for me and this is a lot of good insight and explanation on what is happening. If people want to find out more about the Polish project or want to be able to contact you what's the best way to do that.
[00:29:31] Yes so we are at MPB network.
[00:29:34] I definitely encourage anyone to sign up for alerts since we keep everyone informed about what's going on legislatively and policy wise in their state as well as at the national level. I can be reached at K Bel K B as in boy EFL at NBPA org as of this recording. We are actually about to launch a new membership program for cannabis businesses so that they can get up to the minute policy information from us. And you know in appreciation for their support. So all I'm happy to share more information about that as well.
[00:30:07] Great. I'll make sure that your e-mail and the links and everything are on the shots and you will get all of that and the newsletter is great. I would highly recommend people sign up for that when they get the chance. OK. Thanks again. This is a pleasure. We will we'll record another episode in the future here when as things develop I would love to let them stand. All right thanks so much
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