It is sad to say that some charities are turning their noses to donations with ties to the legal cannabis industry in Massachusetts, claiming morality. It is sad, people as still holding on to the false stereotypes of the War on Drugs. These companies are looking to help the community, not destroy it.
Donations Provided thru Recreational Sales
Massachusetts marijuana shops collectively rang up $420 million in recreational sales last year. But some of them are reporting having a little trouble giving some of that money away.
“It’s been a little bit challenging to find charities who are willing to take our donations openly,” Yasue Keyes, community affairs liaison at Cultivate marijuana dispensary in Leicester, said in an interview early this month. Keyes is in charge of Cultivate’s charitable giving. “Some of them have accepted donations but don’t want to publicize it, so that has been a little challenging … but ones we have partnered with are thrilled to share with us.”
Cultivate is not the only one.
In May, Canna Provisions CEO Meg Sanders told Cannabis Business Times that charities had refused donations from the Western Massachusetts dispensary. Ms. Sanders could not be reached for comment.
“I’ve seen several instances of charitable organizations refusing to accept donations from cannabis companies,” Jim Borghesani, chief operating officer at cannabis consulting company Tudestr, said in an email.
To be sure, many charities are more than willing to accept cannabis companies’ cash.
“I’m not going to say we’ve never been turned down, but it’s never been a problem finding organizations that want to work with us,” said Amanda Rositano, president of New England Treatment Access in Northampton.
Although she couldn’t provide a dollar amount that NETA has donated over time, Rositano said NETA workers have donated hundreds of hours to hundreds of events – ranging from charity golf tournaments to food drives to animal events – since the philanthropic arm of the company, NETA Cares, was established.
A spokesman for the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network also said the organization had not heard of or come across the issue before.
But the refusals and interviews reveal that, as in many aspects of the marijuana industry, the charitable-giving sphere is a little gray.
Those interviewed cited several reasons why charities might not accept marijuana money.
Most notably, marijuana remains illegal federally.
“Some organizations are wary of accepting these donations as they are seen by some as illegal proceeds,” said Ed Keating, chief data officer at Cannabiz Media, a media outlet which has blogged about the difficulties of charities accepting donations from marijuana companies. “If these organizations receive federal funding they are worried that these funds might be put at risk.”
Federal prohibition also causes concerns about banking the money.
“There are some organizations that will not take money from a marijuana establishment out of fear of banking that check for fear of federal regulations,” said Jennifer Flanagan, a commissioner on the Cannabis Control Commission who has worked on the issue of charitable giving for marijuana companies.
Flanagan also noted that marijuana might not mesh with a charity’s mission.
“Some will say they don’t want a company selling marijuana, which is a drug, to finance a substance-abuse program,” Flanagan said. “Others will say, we don’t want them sponsoring a Boy Scout or Cub Scout league.”
And Borghesani said that accepting money from marijuana companies might violate some charities’ national policy.
He also said some charities display “a bias leftover from Prohibition days.”
“Either way, it presents yet another challenge to applicants who are trying to do what’s required by law or simply trying to be good corporate citizens,” Borghesani said.
State regulations also somewhat complicate the issue.
As a licensing requirement, marijuana companies must provide “a plan to positively impact areas of disproportionate impact” – or areas that have been particularly devastated by the War on Drugs. Charitable giving to organizations in these areas (if the community has voted to accept marijuana businesses) is explicitly written out as a way to do this, according to a CCC Guidance on Positive Impact Plans and Diversity Plans.
At the same time, there are limits on the benefits of charitable giving.
Flanagan noted that marijuana companies have to direct giving to a particular geographic area, which can also limit the number of charities that could accept their money.
Moreover, as marijuana is legal for adults only, cannabis companies can only market and advertise to audiences where 85% of that market is “reasonably expected to be 21 years of age or older.” This carries into charitable events and can limit the reach of cannabis cash.
“They’re not going to sponsor a Little League team because they’re not going to have a banner in center field for a marijuana company,” said Flanagan.
“It’s sort of a Catch-22,” Flanagan continued. “How do we let the companies be a good neighbor in supporting charities and how do we let the charities get to a comfortable place where they’ll take the money, but what will we do in the middle where there’s some recognition for the company without violating advertising regulations and not marketing to minors.”
But just because giving might be somewhat complex, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening.
Earlier this month, Megan Moran was awaiting the birth of baby goats at Cultivate Care Farms, an outpatient farm-based therapy program in Bolton that has received “thousands of dollars,” according to Moran, from Cultivate marijuana dispensary in Leicester. Moran, the nonprofit farm’s director, said the money has been used for everything from staffing, to helping support the nonprofit’s wool-working program, to vaccinations for last year’s lambs, to bills, to a weed whacker.
Moran said the connection between the two businesses started because of their similar names – both the dispensary and the farm receive phone calls for the other. But when the dispensary approached the farm about receiving a donation, Moran admitted there was a little concern about a negative reputation of marijuana. But Cultivate employees came to a volunteer event, and the farm learned more about the cannabis company.
“We found them to be a really friendly group of people … and really educated about the type of work we do and also knowledgeable about their craft as well,” Moran said.
The organizations also found they had something other than their names in common.
“Mental illness also doesn’t have the best reputation and people can be kind of fearful,” Moran said. “Marijuana and mental health can go hand in hand, there’s a stigma for both.”
Several of those interviewed said this education – both on the part of cannabis companies looking to make a cash gift and nonprofits looking for donations – is crucial.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with a stigma (against marijuana),” Flanagan said, noting that YMCAs and Boys and Girls Clubs also don’t accept donations from tobacco and alcohol companies because they serve mostly youth.
“I think it’s a lack of understanding,” Flanagan said. “Some organizations are just not educated enough … they want to hold off for now, while others have been ‘write whatever check you want.’”
And key to that understanding is knowing that many marijuana companies are looking to give.
Back at Cultivate, Keyes said that the dispensary has given almost $250,000 to charities across Massachusetts in the past year. In October, the company also launched the Community First Program where 10% of sales on the first day of the month will be donated to a participating charity.
“A lot of those communities are realizing we’re not the boogeyman, that we’re a good business and legal, provide good jobs, and we’re humbled to be a part of those communities and want to make an impact on our communities and throughout Massachusetts,” Keyes said. “If anyone is out there, we’d love to hear from them.”