In the wake of Amendment 3’s passage, legalizing adult use marijuana in Missouri, a new chapter beckons in the state’s pursuit of a more equitable cannabis industry. At the forefront of this groundbreaking venture is Abby Vivas, who has assumed the role of Chief Equity Officer within the Chief Equity Officer of the Office of Business Opportunity within the Division of Cannabis Regulation. Vivas’ role, a mandate of Amendment 3, is engineered to bridge the equity gap that has long existed in the cannabis sector.

The Chief Equity Officer’s realm is expansive yet focused – to cultivate and drive forward programs and educational tools concerning marijuana microbusiness licenses. Vivas and her office have aimed to enlighten potential applicants about the opportunities available to them through educational opportunities and support.

Vivas is the linchpin of the effort, her role and involvement is key to developing and executing these programs and supporting the microbusinesses recently awarded licenses.

The Missouri Division of Cannabis Regulation (DCR) recently announced the award of the initial 48 marijuana microbusiness licenses, distributed evenly across the state’s eight congressional districts. For vivas, this was the first of many major milestones.

“It’s been like being on a roller coaster, you go down the big hill, and then you hit all small hills, and then you’re going right back up the hill again. As we go through these different milestones and things, you’re kind of enjoying that moment, and then it is on to the next thing, she explained. “It’s been challenging for sure, but also rewarding and I’m enjoying it a lot.”

As Greenway sits down with Abby Vivas, we delve into the aspirations, challenges, and the roadmap envisaged for ushering in a new era of equity and inclusivity in Missouri’s marijuana industry. Through her lens, we aim to explore the tangible impacts of this novel position and the ripple effects it’s poised to create in the broader community.

Vivas comes to her new position after nearly two decades working for the State of Missouri.

“My background with cannabis is from the testing perspective of working at the crime laboratory and kind of seeing the industry evolve from that perspective.”

Vivas recalled the change in the product that was processed inside the lab, “We went from seeing bricks and ditchweed and picking out stems and seeds to all these, nice buds and edibles and things like that. And meanwhile, we’re getting pounds and pounds of meth and heroin. And with marijuana having some accepted medical uses, at some point, it was kind of like what are we doing with this?”

For Vivas, that thought and the crucial role of equity made the position attractive. 

“Allowing those disproportionately affected people to have a foothold in the market was important,” she said. “When I was at patrol, I did a lot of outreach and training and education for law enforcement and school groups, colleges, and the public, things like that. I really enjoy that. I enjoy helping people and helping them get the information that they need, whether it’s to do their job better or to just be more informed. The educational aspect of the role really appealed to me, I liked the idea of being able to help people and educate them about this program.”

Prior to the award of licenses, most of Vivas’ time was spent on outreach. “My duties are to provide education, outreach, training, and support for people who are interested in the micro business program. What that has meant is that I go out and let people know about the program; and how they can apply, assisting them through that process and giving them the tools that they need to be able to complete a successful application. But looking at post-licensure, my responsibilities become more focused on user support and what our office can do to keep assisting these people who’ve got licenses to become successful. We are still shaping and rounding out what that looks like. We will be working with compliance to coordinate activities of what types of additional training and education we can provide to the licensees to help them be successful.”

Vivas emphasized a more human-centric approach toward working with individuals and entities interested in microbusiness licenses under the Missouri marijuana program, underlining the importance of seeing and addressing these individuals as people seeking assistance rather than merely as licensees or operators. This perspective, she noted, is vital in demystifying the often intimidating realm of regulatory compliance and fostering a more supportive and understandable framework for prospective business operators. Vivas also underscored the importance of communication and outreach in bridging the informational gap that often stands as a barrier to entry for many interested applicants

“The approach for Office of Business Opportunity is that these are people that were trying to assist and help through this process. Reading the Constitution and rules can be really intimidating. I’ve been around that for many years, reading those types of guidelines, and there are still things that are up for interpretation. So I think being able to help people digest that information, to put it out there in a manner that’s more easily understandable is really important. That’s why the department issues guidance documents and things like that to provide clarification for things.”

Vivas also touched on the feedback loop that’s been established, shedding light on the evolutionary nature of the program. She candidly shared the mixed reactions from the community and industry, which appear to stem from a range of factors including skepticism from some quarters about the program’s viability and the legislation underpinning it. 

“I think there were a lot of successes. Things went really well. But we’re always improving. As we work through this, we’re like, “Oh, this is something we need to do differently next time or this is something that we need to work on our process. But I think, overall, I think it went really well,” Vivas continued. “I think our number one focus [moving toward the next application period] is outreach, continuing to have events and in more locations.” 

“As we did outreach events, I learned a lot about what types of information and resources were helpful. It’s still confusing for some people, what tools would be helpful for them. We are continuing to improve the things that we’ve already made available. We did some live application tutorials to walk people through the actual application software itself, and people found that really helpful. Now we are also looking at things like working on our internal processes to make things flow smoother.”

“Some of the feedback was a mixed bag. I think some of it stems from people that maybe weren’t happy about how the legislation went down, and were thinking that this program would be successful. But then I have other people that really appreciate all the information that we put out and what we’ve been trying to do to help people along in the process.”

The feedback, both positive and critical, is being harnessed to fine-tune the program’s approach moving forward. This was particularly apparent when Vivas discussed the learnings from the initial round of licensing and how they are being channeled towards identifying gaps, addressing FAQs, and enhancing the resources available for applicants.

“We are definitely looking at where those gaps are in our education for individuals that are applying. What other resources do they need? Where do we still have questions? What are the FAQs that we still need to put out? All of those things we’re already putting things into place to fix those things or at least make them better.”

“[Going forward] we will continue to have similar kinds of forums to what we did before, but we are also looking at who we can partner with for other events to grow our reach. I did an event with NORML Kansas City Kansas City gifts. Being able to partner with those people again for those events that, you know, were successful, as well as increasing our online, events as well for people that maybe can’t travel to to something. We did, like I said, the live application tutorials, but also the presentation patient that I’ve been giving. Probably gonna provide that, like, as a recorded version online, and just whatever we can do to help reach people and get them the information that they need.”

Vivas also discussed the vocal concern of the community that the criteria for applying for microbusiness licenses failed to fully address the issue of underrepresentation, particularly of the black community, and concerns about certain ZIP codes and areas being excluded from the program, which seemingly perplexed many interested individuals and groups.

Responding to these concerns, Vivas underscores the importance of education and outreach as instrumental in addressing the perceived and actual gaps in representation. She mentions that even if certain individuals don’t live in a qualifying ZIP code, they might still meet other eligibility criteria that would allow them to participate in the program. 

“I think part of it is just the education piece, even if people don’t live in a zip code that was qualified in a way that they thought that it would be, they may meet another eligibility criteria. Making sure that we are reaching out to those groups and making those networking connections with people where they think it would be valuable to have them to reach people who are interested and get them the information. I was really surprised that at some of the outreach events, there were people that came up and said, oh, I didn’t know anything about this program until, you know, so and so told me. So even though people who were interested in the cannabis industry maybe didn’t follow the legislation as closely, didn’t know what all was a part of it. So making sure that we’re out there providing that information to people.”

Vivas also discussed the intricacies and challenges surrounding the use of ZIP code data in the context of the Missouri marijuana microbusiness program. The data obtained from the highway patrol, which was used to determine eligibility based on geographic location, was tied to the location of conviction rather than the location of arrest. This inherently limited the ZIP codes that could be considered eligible. Efforts to obtain more granular data from various sources like universities and the Census Bureau proved futile as the requisite data detailing arrest or conviction for marijuana offenses was unavailable, while national data statistics largely lumped all drug offenses together, making it difficult to extract the specific data needed.

Additionally, the use of ZIP codes posed another challenge as some ZIP codes lacked population data, requiring a shift to using ZIP code tracked area (ZCTA), which groups several ZIP codes together. This approach was adopted to align with the available population data, inevitably broadening the geographic eligibility criteria to include additional ZIP codes that were part of a ZCTA. This methodology was necessitated by the absence of population data for specific ZIP codes where convictions occurred.

Vivas acknowledged the complexity of the process and recognized the validity of concerns from the community regarding the apparent underrepresentation, but reiterated that her office was open to working with those in the community to find additional data and simply wasn’t presented with viable data to make changes.

The discussion highlights a multifaceted challenge where data limitations, the nature of legal convictions, and geographic delineations intersect, creating a complex scenario for ensuring equitable access and representation in the program. Despite these challenges, the earnest effort to make sense of the available data and adapt the eligibility criteria to the realities on the ground demonstrates a nuanced understanding and a willingness to engage with the community to address their concerns in a constructive manner. Vivas’ answers reveal a proactive approach in trying to navigate the complex landscape of data, eligibility, and representation. It also brings to the fore the inherent challenges in striking a balance between regulatory compliance, equitable representation, and the practical limitations imposed by data availability. 

For Vivas and her office, the next phase is working to support and propel the microbusiness licensees to become operational and successful.

“While some of this is still in development, the initial plan is to have a welcome meeting for new microbusiness licensees. Licensees will receive a letter to introduce them to their business licensing services specialist, then they’re going to be assigned a compliance officer whom they can go to with questions. We are looking at taking a different approach with the microbusiness licensees, trying to help them through the compliance process as much as we can within the rules to help them be successful. [From there] we are looking at what types of training can we provide to them. And that training would probably be offered to comprehensive licensees as well.”

While Vivas and her team are prioritizing microbusiness licenses and operations currently, the focus on improvement is constant.

“We are currently working on a survey for, applicants or licensees. We want to ask questions to help push the program forward and see what we’re lacking and where we need to improve, and what we can do to make that better. I really have very high hopes for our micro businesses, though, that they will be these niche market pieces, craft cannabis. Maybe we’ll have people that focus more on the medical side of things. I’m just really excited to see what they do to set themselves apart from other people in the industry.”

“I think that the micro dispensaries have this real opportunity to set themselves up as this small business. There are a lot of people who like to buy locally. These dispensaries will have this product that you can’t get anywhere else, but also knowing that you’re buying and supporting somebody local or that you’re supporting, that shop small, small business idea.”

“Talking about products you can’t get any anywhere else, microbusinesses only do business with one another, really working together as a dispensary and a wholesale facility to develop, products that you believe in, products that you want to sell in your store, that you want to market to people because you like what a lot of things about that product, I think that that’s really important as well,” Vivas explained.

Chief Equity Office Abigail Vivas at a microbusiness forum event in Columbia, MO

Vivas shares a reflective and forward-looking perspective on the goals and initiatives of her office moving forward. She emphasizes the continued process with the first round of microbusinesses, focusing on the minimum standards review process and preparing a comprehensive report due by January 1st, outlining the steps taken to support the program. The ambition stretches into the next year with an emphasis on enhancing resources and outreach efforts to publicize the process, aiming to simplify the application procedure for prospective participants.

“I’d say we have a lot of little goals and some bigger goals. First of all, we’re still in this process with the first round of microbusinesses. Starting this minimum standards review process, getting through to that, then our report is due by January 1st, outlining, the things that we’ve done, through our office and the Department to support this program. Then looking to next year, the goal is to improve our resources, improve our outreach efforts to make this process, very well publicized and understood by people so that they, find it easy to apply. And then the next step is to evaluate, what we are doing to help these people that have licenses. What does that look like? And what are the other things that we can do to support, diversity and inclusion in the current industry?”

A significant aspect of her vision is the continuity of support beyond the licensing phase. Vivas underscores the importance of aiding licensees in their journey, indicating a proactive approach toward ensuring the success of these microbusinesses. This is not merely about ticking boxes; it’s about nurturing operational and profitable enterprises, reflecting a long-term commitment to the success of the licensees and the program.

“I attended CANNRA in June, and in our social equity discussions, we talked about ‘what does success look like for these programs?’ What does that mean? Is it just that you’ve issued the licenses? I think not. For me, success in this program is getting our licensees up and running, and they’re profitable. I think that’s the long-term goal. We don’t want to just issue these licenses and check things off the off the list, it’s about seeing if people become operational and become successful.”

Vivas’s approach to gauging success revolves around the provision of essential resources and support to microbusinesses, aiding them in navigating the path toward becoming operational. Being available to answer questions and provide necessary guidance is seen as a pivotal role for Vivas and her office.

Vivas is realistic yet optimistic, acknowledging that the journey will evolve with time and unforeseen challenges may arise. Yet, the broader picture remains clear—increasing diversity within the cannabis industry, aiding microbusinesses in becoming profitable, and fostering a community among microbusinesses to ensure a supportive network, minimizing operational hiccups.

“Microbusinesses need to know one another. They need to be able to network with one another and be able to plan and work together. It is important for them to be able to build those relationships. And that is something that we are going to need to assist with, as the department, to be able to introduce them to one another and make sure that they know who their colleagues and peers are.”

“Right now, if we’re providing the resources that these businesses need, if we’re giving them the information that they need in order to work towards becoming operational, being there to answer questions and whatever we can do to support them, that makes us successful. For my office, and my position, our focus now is continuing those efforts. But I think that this is going to change over time as things happen. I think that there’s going to be a lot of other smaller things along the way or things that come up, that we can use as milestones. If we are increasing diversity and helping people, helping micro businesses to become profitable, I think there’s a lot of different layers to defining the success of our office along the way.”

Vivas is quick to share credit for the commencement and early success of the program.

“Launching the microbusiness program has truly been a collaborative, Department-wide effort. Without the teamwork and support of essentially everyone in DCR, we wouldn’t have gotten to this point in the process. Everyone has been committed to bringing this to fruition and it shows in how much we have accomplished in a short timeframe,” she explained.

Vivas expresses genuine excitement for the program and the prospective journey of the licensees, underscoring a commitment to continuous learning, improvement, and support throughout the process. This reflective dialogue paints a picture of a department keen on not just launching a program but ensuring its sustainable success, reflecting a deep-seated commitment to the ethos of diversity, inclusion, and communal success within Missouri’s cannabis microbusiness landscape.

“I just want people to know that I am excited about this program. I’m excited to see what these licensees really do and the products that they put out there, and just whatever we can do to, further the education about the program and then support people who do get licenses,” she continued. “Nothing’s perfect. And we’re going to continue to work and learn and get better in this process. But I’m excited.”

The post Equity and opportunity: An interview with Chief Equity Officer Abby Vivas appeared first on Greenway Magazine.