Cannabis Values: Social Responsibility and Our Emerging Cannabis

Marijuana’s legalization is not inevitable. All of the progress toward this goal over the last several years can easily be reversed, as unlikely as this may seem. Passage of legalization initiatives in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C. create additional momentum toward nationwide legalization, but in any conflict, momentum can change. Continued success of measures at the state level is a necessary condition for advancing legalization to a national policy, but not sufficient to guarantee success. There is more to be done to both persuade the American public about the merits of legalization, as well reassure them that this is a viable and worthwhile decision.

In other words, this is still a matter of examining costs and benefits – of both prohibition and various legalization proposals being advanced to replace it. Indeed, opponents of legalization have adopted a new strategic approach that relies more on criticizing legalization than defending prohibition. The core assertion of this approach is that a legal cannabis industry is bad for American society.

This argument takes various forms, all of which attempt to alarm the American people about the potential dangers of legalization rather than the dangers of marijuana. Or, rather, the dangers presented by big business, referred to as “Big Marijuana,” and the potential excesses of commercialization. The idea behind this approach is persuade the public that legalization will result in increased marijuana use among all age groups and that commercialization will result in marketing campaigns to increase marijuana use among teenagers.

The idea behind this strategy is to suggest that marijuana is a lot like tobacco and that the marijuana industry produced by legalization will end up being a lot like the tobacco industry.  There are a number of factual problems with this analogy, including the profound differences between marijuana and tobacco with respect to their pharmacological properties, their health-related characteristics and how they are, and can be, delivered to consumers. The most important distinction, though, involves age, disclosure and choice. Given adequate disclosure about the effects of tobacco, most adults choose not to use it. On the other hand, the more that adults have learned about marijuana, the less hostile they become to its use, personally or by others.

A legal marijuana industry does not need teenage customers to grow; it has ample opportunities to sell their products to adults.  And adults have ample opportunities to learn about cannabis and make informed choices about its use.

The public is intelligent enough to see through this smokescreen; they have experience with both substances. Still more have observed both firsthand. However the emerging debate over the social impact of legal marijuana raises an important and entirely legitimate issue that must be addressed by advocates of legalization and prospective members of this emerging industry: How will the new cannabis industry address the issue of corporate social responsibility?

More than anything else, this issue will be the one that decides whether or not marijuana will be legal in the United States. In other words, how can this prospective new industry assure the public that it will act in a socially responsible manner?

Corporate Social Responsibility

The issue of corporate social responsibility is not unique to the context of marijuana’s legalization. It has gained popularity in the last few decades. It’s not only the subject of considerable commentary, but has become an important component of management and practices of corporate America. This article is based in part on issues and ideas presented by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in an article titled “Strategy and Society,” published in the Harvard Business Review in 2006. Porter and Kramer write about ways to improve the social and environmental consequences of a business’s operations and how firms should view this as an opportunity rather than an obligation. Society and companies need each other, they argue, and consequently a business should operate in a way that pursues the concept of shared value. This requires recognition of how a firm’s operations affect society and how social conditions influence a firm’s activities.

Corporate social responsibility involves more than philanthropy and its use in public relations. It requires integrating concern over the firm’s social impacts with awareness of society’s impact on the firm’s ability to prosper. It means managing the way a company creates value based on an understanding that addressing social values improves the competitive context in which a company operates. According to Porter and Kramer, corporate social responsibility means adding “a social dimension” to a firm’s “value proposition.”

A strategic approach to this challenge has three basic dimensions. The first concerns generic social impacts – a company should engage in good citizenship. This is referred to as “responsive corporate social responsibility.”

The second concern is to mitigate or reduce harm that occurs from their value chain activities: how a company creates their product and sells it in the market. This addresses the societal impacts of the business. The objective here is to transform production in a way that benefits both society and the firm.

The third dimension involves taking on a wider social focus that affects the society. Here, a firm engages in philanthropy that leverages their distinctive capabilities in ways that improve significant areas of the competitive environment.  This last activity is known as “strategic corporate social responsibility.”

Cannabis and Corporate Social Responsibility

These are issues that concern just about any company: workplace conditions, human resource policies, and environmental impacts from production – the use of natural resources, waste materials carbon emissions, etc. The most important ones – the ones of greatest concern to consumers, producers and the public – concern product safety, packaging and labeling, consumer information and how marijuana is marketed and advertised. How the industry is able to address these concerns will have tremendous influence over competition, regulation and access to personnel, technology, and resources.  These four areas make up what Porter and Kramer describe as the competitive context. Addressing the right social issues, in an effective way, will improve the competitive context and create a profitable environment for industry growth.

This is not a matter of ethics versus accountability. It is misleading to suggest that if the industry polices itself, there will not be a need for more costly regulations. Instead, this is a matter of competitive advantage; firms that embrace corporate social responsibility will gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

One of the keys to establishing corporate social responsibility in the cannabis market is to promote and publicize consumer values.  Marijuana consumers must make their values clear, and make adherence to these values an important part of marketing their business.

Consumer values help a company address basic social issues, ones that are not materially connected to the company’s long-term competitiveness. More importantly, social issues can be affected by a company’s routine activities. These are the key issues that must be addressed by the industry in order to gain the trust of the American public. The two most important areas of concern for the cannabis industry are responsible use of marijuana and the discouragement of teenage use. These are of such importance that they transcend other related issues.

Embracing Change

One of the enduring characteristics of critics of legalization is their deeply embedded cynicism. Any attempt to address societal concern over marijuana use and marijuana’s legalization will be criticized by opponents of legalization as superficial propaganda designed to fool and mislead the public. This works to the advantage of change agents, as it merely exposes the shallowness of some opponents.

Fundamentally, the issue of corporate social responsibility must be embraced by the emerging cannabis industry because it is the essential ingredient to its viability and survival over time. It’s good public relation and good politics, but more importantly, it’s good politics. Also important to note is that many groups, such as NORML and High Times, have addressed such issues in the past, and are already committed to addressing them in the future.

Everyone with a stake in legal cannabis must learn more about CSCR. It’s not that this is a new concept for stakeholders in marijuana’s legalization, but that they need to be able to express their concerns and ideas about these issues in the same terms and concepts used in the addressing these issues in the context of American free enterprise.

The values of marijuana consumers with respect to corporate social responsibility need to be clarified, documented and publicized. Advocacy groups need to help educate the public about the importance of CSCR to marijuana consumers and incorporate recognition of these issues in prospective legislation and regulations. Emerging industry-related organizations, both trade association and investment groups, need to begin educating their members about CSCR and its ramifications. Consumers, advocates and entrepreneurs need to prioritize issues, develop model programs to address them and agree on model codes of conduct for industry members.

Meanwhile, the most immediate steps stakeholders can take involve embracing a profound change in the language used to talk about cannabis and its use. This involves two simple concepts, and despite the simplicity of these steps, they have enormous impact on the future attitudes about cannabis and its use.

First, and this is not a new idea, the term “cannabis” must replace the term “marijuana.” Second, a new vocabulary must be applied to what people do when they use cannabis. This also is not a new idea, but one that takes on additional importance in the context of Cannabis Social Corporate Responsibility.

Sociologists have developed a concept they refer to as “social construction,” part of a sociological perspective called “social interaction theory.” It argues that we create social norms through the concepts and ideas we express through language and practice. Marijuana is a drug people use to get intoxicated, a word derived from toxin or poison, and the overall practice is often referred to as “getting stoned,” “wasted” or “wrecked.”

In truth, these terms do not accurately reflect how the majority people use cannabis. In this day and age, and in the context of promoting its legalization, it is paramount that cannabis is discussed in language that that describes what the substance is and what it is used for.

Popularizing a more accurate language about cannabis and its use will take some time. The effort will be ridiculed as self-serving propaganda by critics and cynics. However, it is a socially responsible action that teaches potential cannabis users an important and vital lesson. Cannabis is to be used, not abused, and the purpose of its use is not to withdraw, but to engage; not to waste the mind, but to utilize it productively, creatively, and effectively.

Cannabis Social Corporate Responsibility begins with personal responsibility, both necessary and essential to persuading American to legalize cannabis and assuring the public that it’s a beneficial and just course of action.

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