Abby Vivas, the Chief Equity Officer of the Office of Business Opportunity within the Division of Cannabis Regulation, is bidding farewell to her role, marking the end of her tenure.

Vivas served as the state’s first Chief Equity Officer, and in that capacity was successful in ushering in the application process for awarding and verifying marijuana microbusiness license applications, creating outreach opportunities, building rapport in communities, and fostering relationships to push social equity forward in Missouri’s cannabis industry.

As she departs, Vivas leaves behind a foundation for creating a more equitable space for the cannabis industry, but with many questions still unanswered ahead.

Vivas, who has served the state of Missouri for more than 20 years, moves to a new position with the Department of Health and Senior Services, returning to her roots Vivas will move to the State Public Health Laboratory to serve as Unit Manager for the The Laboratory Preparedness, Education and Safety unit.

Ahead of her final day in the position, Vivas spoke to Greenway about the successes and struggles of being the first to hold her position.

“For me, this program was an opportunity to lead and build something new,” she explained. “But what really drew me to the position is the opportunity to provide education, and assistance to people that wanto to apply for this program. There’s a lot of people out there that are really passionate about cannabis, and to be able to give them the tools and resources to be able to apply for a license. I take a lot of personal satisfaction in that.”

“I think that this program is a really important step towards equity in cannabis in Missouri.”

Throughout her tenure, Vivas spearheaded initiatives aimed at providing guidance and resources to potential license applicants, one of the keys to the positon.

“A huge part of my job is providing education and reaching out to people that are interested in applying for a microbusiness license,” she continued. “But that also involves developing resources, and tools to help them with that process.”

Aside from outreach and education, another pivotal part of her role was to ensure the integrity of awarded licenses and applicants through a review process. Unlike the licenses awarded in the rollout of medical marijuana, the microbusiness licenses are awarded in a constitutionally mandated lottery process, but applicants must meet at least one of a list of qualifying criteria in order to be awarded a license. In the first lottery, 48 microbusiness licenses were awarded. Nine of those licenses were revoked. “Once we issue licenses, we review those licensees to ensure that they are majority-owned by eligible applicants and meet the criteria,” Vivas said. Those 9 licenses were added to the number of licenses to be awarded in the second round of application licensing which is currently open.

One element that has made the verification of licenses and applicants more difficult is the predatory practices of some businesses – including out of state companies who have taken to social media to farm applications through predatory practices, requiring applicants to sign agreements that violate the requirements of the licenses themselves.  Vivas has taken a proactive approach in addressing potential scams targeting micro-business operators.

“We were aware that those things would be possibilities, because when we’re talking about awarding licenses to people that thave low income or are disproportionately affected in one way or another, they still need access to capital for these businesses,” Vivas explained. “We don’t have any funding that we can provide, so that’s where those predatory practices have their entry into that situation.” Part of her office’s strategy for the second round of licensing applications opening was to disseminate information about the risk of predatory practices and scammers to coincide with the launch of applications and the roll out of other announcements and tools.

Educating potential applicants, both about risks and opportunities, was a driving factor in Vivas’ vision for the Chief Equity Officer role.

“I really wanted to give this program some peace and keep the integrity of the program. These licenses are supposed to be in the hands of eligible people and I was passionate about ensuring that people aren’t trying to circumvent the system. But I also wanted to do whatever I could to provide the resources and guidance to people to help them be successful.”

Looking ahead, Vivas sees the role evolving. “I think it’s changing over time. Now that we have licensees, the next kind of thing is providing those licensees whatever resources we can as a department to help them be successful.”

The launch of a new office, with a new vision and mission is difficult, and while Vivas was successful and well-regarded, she recalls obstacles and difficulties and sees a path to more success.

“I think trying to build those initial relationships was challenging. I could tell, or people just flat out told me, they had some distrust of the Department or some jaded view of what this program was going to be.”

Vivas explained that difficulties in reaching many in the community who were eligible to apply were often driven by misunderstanding or misinformation, “Trying to educate people about what the program really is, what we can do, what we are or aren’t allowed to do in the program, what’s prescribed by the constitution, and what’s within the department’s control, was a lot of time spent battling preconceived notions.”

Additionally, Vivas stated that one of the biggest challenges faced was in a general misunderstanding. “I think there’s a lot of confusion from people about why equity is important or just not understanding what the difference is between equality and equity.” The need for education led to one of the most important decisions made by Vivas – to embrace the history of cannabis in the state and country.

“With equity, we’re talking about opportunity. We’re talking about this legacy market that’s already been here and the people who have been impacted by it, the people who have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. I’m recognizing that the legacy market and legacy operators and others have their place in this legal market, I think that’s important.”

Looking ahead, Vivas expressed optimism about the future of equity in the cannabis industry, citing progress in implementing social equity programs across multiple states.

“I think we’re seeing progress. We’ve got at least 15 states now that have social equity programs in various stages of implementation, and I think that’s a good sign. I think it’s going to be more of a long game and a slow growth than maybe what we would like to see. But I think just continuing to educate people, about the importance of social equity in cannabis, is really important.”

“The last 2 CANNRA meetings I attended, were very social equity forward, which I think is great. So I think you’ll see, more to come from people in regulation.”

“We’ve talked about measuring success throughout creating this program. What does success look like for the microbusiness program? I think for me, there are different steps. We issued licenses and did everything we needed to do to get to that point. So I think that’s successful,” she continued. “But the bigger picture is in seeing these licensees become operational and profitable. And in raising awareness to people about this program and why it’s so important to the cannabis industry as well.”

“I’m very proud of all the work that we’ve done to get here. There are a lot of projects that may seem small, that we’ve done, to get everything ready. To provide resources and things on the website, and there are a lot of heavy lifts going on there. I’m really happy with what we’ve been able to put out to help applicants.” Vivas continued, emphasizing the value she placed on ensuring the licensing process maintained the integrity she stressed. “I am really proud of the fact that we are keeping these licenses in the hands of eligible persons. That’s the goal of this program. And I think we’ve all done our work and our due diligence to ensure that we’re really, embracing the spirit of the Constitution.”

“On a personal level,” she added, “I’ve just really enjoyed all the relationships that I have developed with applicants, licensees, other stakeholders, and other groups that are interested in cannabis,; that’s been really personally rewarding for me.”

“I think these licensees have a great opportunity to fill some market niches.”

“They could focus on medical. They could be craft cannabis, not everyone wants to buy the big box cannabis. So focusing on terpene and cannabinoid profile, customer education, really being that small business that people feel comfortable going in and asking questions and then having talented staff to answer those questions and help people through that process. I think that there’s definitely a place for that in the market,” Vivas glowed.

With Vivas’s departure, the Division of Cannabis Regulation faces the task of finding a successor to continue the mission of promoting equity and inclusivity within Missouri’s cannabis industry. As the division navigates this transition, Vivas’s contributions serve as a foundation for the path forward.

“This is definitely something that has been a challenge, from the get-go. Developing relationships and getting other people to help spread the word was really important, because we didn’t have a great way to advertise and reach different, markets. Now we have our email list that started in January. Which I am super proud of getting that going because that allows us to put out some information to people as soon as things are posted to the website or to be able to communicate new events. And we’re well over one thousand subscribers for that email list.”

Aside from the struggles of outreach, Vivas sees other opportunities for improvement. During her tenure, Vivas operated her office with only two employees – herself and Program Specialist Lacie Lloyd. Creating and administrating the application and review process for hundreds of licenses spread across multiple application periods, while also reaching potential applicants, and managing the dissemination of information and changes fell to the team of two. While Vivas is quick to credit DCR in helping to manage tasks and implement, she admits that the lack of resources for the Office of Business Opportunity was cumbersome at times. “My office is small. It’s myself and Lacie, and we collaborate with a lot of people in the Department, but we’re the only two people whose sole focus is the microbusiness program. So just having some more resources, a larger team to dedicate to this would be really helpful.”

“This is position is definitely a balancing act of the expectations of the Constitution and rules. [The Chief Equity Officer must] be able to explain those things, build those relationships with people in the industry and in the community to be able to educate people and reach the right groups, to spread the word about the microbusiness program. But also, being confident in your conviction and being an advocate for this program is really important.”

When asked about the challenges facing microbusiness licensees, Vivas points to both institutional obstacles and regulatory boundaries.

“We don’t have any financial assistance program for our licensees – that’s not built into the Constitution,” she explained. “One of the the first questions I get from people is once I get a license, how do I get the money to fund it?” she said. The cannabis industry has historically been a difficult climate to secure funding in and has a limited number of resources. That problem can be more exacerbated for microbusiness licensees. “Microbusinesses have the lower barrier for entry as far as the application fee and application requirement, but they’re still beholden to all the same regulations. So if we’re talking about disproportionately affected groups, people with lower income, things like that, they still need to have an amount of capital, similar to our original licensees in order to get up and running. And if we’re talking about people with less access to that, they don’t have consultants and attorneys and things that they can hire to help them. So, getting the license is just one piece in the process.”

“So having some way to provide assistance to licensees would be really beneficial,” she continued. “The other thing is, the 250 plant count is a hardship for sure. So, I think if there was some constitutional amendment to change that so these microbusiness licensees could have a larger plant capacity, I think that would, be helpful. Those things are are the two big things.”

“I hope to see more support from the larger industry helping to support these businesses get up and running so they can be part of that community. And I’d like to see our comprehensive licensees doing other things to support our economically distressed and disproportionately impacted communities.”

As Vivas bids farewell to her role, she leaves behind a legacy of dedication and advocacy. Reflecting on her time, she expressed gratitude for the support received both within and outside the department. “I just feel really fortunate to have been in this role,” she stated. “I feel it’s been a privilege to be able to help start this program, and I really am appreciative of all the people that have supported this within and outside the Department. I  feel like I’m leaving it in a good place, and I am excited to see where the program goes from here.”

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