Cannabis Observer is creating cannabis policy transparency for all stakeholders
By Allison Cohn
There is often a chasm between policymakers and citizens in all verticals of government. Cannabis Observer was formed in 2017 out of the need to fill that gap and create transparency between cannabis policymakers and cannabis industry members. While cannabis policymaking meetings are open to the public, it takes a lot of energy to stay well informed and engaged.
Cannabis Observer streamlines this chain of information by sending their team of dedicated “observers” — including industry professionals, advocates, activists, journalists and technologists — out to personally attend each meeting of the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board (WSLCB), Washington State Legislature and other various regulatory bodies throughout the state. Cannabis Observer then edits and archives the information from each meeting on to its website, making the content digestible and available to its users. Their goal is to generate “more public information into condensed and contextualized content for busy audiences.”
These “observers” create accessible, transparent and educational information regarding cannabis policymaking in Washington state. This content benefits industry stakeholders, the public and policymakers themselves by engaging the cannabis community in the process. Cannabis Observer’s vast archive of policymaking meeting documentation saves stakeholders lots of valuable time and money otherwise spent traveling and attending these events themselves.
Cannabis Observer hopes to activate more community involvement when it comes to policy making, empowering constituents and improving policy outcomes. By holding policy makers accountable and keeping stakeholders informed, Cannabis Observer fosters healthy relationships between the cannabis industry community and local lawmakers.
THE MORE INVOLVED STAKEHOLDERS ARE IN POLICYMAKING, THE BETTER THE POLICIES WILL BE
Cannabis Observer founder Gregory Foster has a computer science background and previously worked for Consumer Reports in Texas, before he relocated to Olympia, Washington. Foster’s emphasis was on product safety, understanding constraints of digital organizing and — more specifically — how regulation and policy are formed at both national and state levels. He was intrigued by how cannabis legalization was causing the industry to transform so quickly and knew he wanted to get involved with policymaking, so he began regularly attending cannabis board meetings. He noticed there was lots of discussion around changing the regulatory structure of the industry at these meetings, but none of that information was being publicized in an efficient manner.
Foster saw this as an opportunity to “make himself useful in this industry,” with the goal of helping to change people’s relationship to cannabis. He wanted to “personally address some of the harms leftover from the war on drugs and cannabis prohibition.”
Foster explains how the name 'Cannabis Observer' came about as a sort of inside joke. “By definition, to observe is to be removed from the action. But scientifically speaking, there is no objectivity without being able to influence the course of the events,” he tells us. “So that’s one of the important things that we do: We’re in the room. Us being there changes the behavior of the policy makers. If they know that they’re being observed, they’re being held accountable for their words.”
“We initially started by observing cannabis board public meetings, which they [Washington state] have a lot of,” tells Foster. “From there, we expanded out to the legislature for cannabis related policy making and other agencies that have authority with regards to the cannabis market, including the Department of Ecology and the Department of Agriculture. We've documented over a hundred different organizations at this point.”
Covid has recently changed accessibility to these meetings for the better, because now organizations have been forced to undertake a digital transformation basically overnight. Public meetings have to be virtual now according to a government mandate.
“The pandemic is changing the dynamic of access. Access is often reserved for those who are privileged enough to have the time and the money to be a lobbyist or something like that,” says Foster. “But it’s still hard to tell if this has increased attendance at these meetings, since many use webinar software where you can’t see the other participants.”
With all of the ongoing cannabis policymaking occurring throughout all levels of government, it’s challenging to stay on top of it all. Policymaking is constantly happening all around; there is no one specific law or regulation that stakeholders need to pay attention to. With the ever evolving rules and regulations shaping the industry, it’s crucial that stakeholders stay on top of it. The same way that one scans the national news headlines each morning, one ought to stay abreast of local and regional cannabis policymaking.
“Cannabis Observer provides a new approach, rather than a final solution,” says Foster.
Foster claims that the work that Cannabis Observer is doing is “changing the dynamic of how policy is made in general.” Their ultimate goal is “to see a much more engaged and informed electorate,” which is very much needed right now.
Cannabis Observer’s platform is prepped for growth, once cannabis legalization spreads throughout the country. “The potential is there for us to bring in transparency and accountability to local government about cannabis policymaking, providing more depth and breadth of coverage. We have developed our process in a generalized way so it can be applied in any jurisdiction across states and countries. This process of increasing transparency and accountability can be applied to any policy vertical.”
According to Foster, Cannabis Observer has taken a “somewhat uncharacteristic approach to the funding,” due to its sensitive nature and goal of providing an honest service to its customers. “In some ways, we are a journalism organization,” explains Foster. “Contemporary journalism faces all kinds of challenges, not the least of which is a business model. We don’t want to reinforce existing power dynamics, with paywalls for example.” Cannabis Observer has been largely self funded since its start and doesn’t accept advertising dollars; and even if their subscribers have sufficient funds to pay for Cannabis Observer’s information, that didn’t seem to fit with their mission statement either.
Instead of going the subscription route, Cannabis Observer enables users to voluntarily support them with donations via Patreon. Optional monthly donations proved to be more in line with their values of providing the cannabis community with transparent documentation of policymaking ongoings. Their Patreon includes several membership options for contributors and they display top donor’s branded logos on their website to express gratitude.
Tamerlane Trading is a proud supporter of Cannabis Observer. You can support Cannabis Observer by contributing to their Patreon in select monthly increments, visiting their website, and following them on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.
Allison Cohn loves gold spray paint and nonsense. She also has a very difficult time sitting still and keeping quiet. She can often be found dancing like a fool when she isn’t hiding out in her mountain lair or gallivanting around the globe.