This is the second issue of a three-part blog series reflecting on the findings from recent cannabis program audits about the long-term management and scalability challenges of regulatory cannabis programs. All audits are anonymized. You can read the first post, on takeaways regarding digitalization and data security here.
Getting a business license from a city, county and/or state to operate a cannabis business does not mean that doors open the next day. Like all companies, a cannabis business must meet various fire, building construction, health and other safety requirements, requiring the intervention of an intricate network of functionalities across state and local jurisdictions. This complete review process helps agencies make informed decisions and assures that only qualified applicants are operating licensed cannabis businesses.
This obviously isn’t unique to cannabis – it’s the standard process for starting a business for most local governments. Any coordination between these entities has typically been via a casual, unofficial network; government agencies, by virtue of their unique functions, have long operated separately from each other. But this kind of tenuous arrangement can be inconsistent and inefficient; and it also means there’s very little visibility for leadership.
Fusing government siloes
The unique nature of the ‘dual licensing framework’ of cannabis regulations, requiring close cooperation between state and local departments, adds another external audience who needs access. And for some programs, the unique challenges posed by this industry have exacerbated those sticking points. One city department got dinged in a recent audit for tracking license, complaint and enforcement data across disparate spreadsheets (which were so large they crashed constantly), email inboxes and Access databases, creating a disjointed and insecure process for both customers and different departments’ staff. A state-level analysis found that the state’s regulatory program was inconsistent in inspections, complaint management and follow-up due to a lack of interface between operational units.
This issue is one that I see most often in the media and public reports. A common, and valid, complaint is that the cannabis offices do not necessarily have the authority to compel more integrated action. This response certainly resonates with me. When we first began issuing licenses for marijuana businesses at the City and County of Denver, Colorado, we also struggled to work together with other departments. To try to get ahead of this, my Licensing department began scheduling regular meetings and inviting the different departments, such as Environmental Health, Fire, etc. Attendance was scattered for a while but over time it expanded. When new issues would inevitably pop up for these departments, such as how to manage pesticides used in these consumer products or the new fire risks these types of business were exposed to, we had some infrastructure in place that they could immediately turn to. Today, Denver is often touted as a model for robust cannabis licensing and enforcement management.
Benefits of a collaborative model
This network was self-driven due to the forward-thinking leadership of these departments to lean into and support a collaborative model. It required human beings coming together and sharing best practices, processes and learnings. However, a technical solution to bring the data of these different departments together, as is now being implemented in Denver today, can advance and institutionalize that mission faster and more effectively.
Multiple benefits emerge when you begin to collaborate cross-functionally.
- The customer experience for your businesses improves; rather than submitting the same information repeatedly to different departments, the right information is submitted and stored once, to be accessed by the appropriate actors when needed. This could be especially impactful for shared data and duties between state and local agencies.
- User adoption increases, inconsistent practices are streamlined, and department efficiency and communication improve. As data is centralized and manual, time-consuming work (e.g. bouncing from a spreadsheet to a forwarded email to a paper document) is drastically minimized, allowing staff to focus on more strategic work, such as providing more education and partnership to the regulated community.
- For many regulatory bodies, regulation of cannabis businesses often shares some overlap between state and local agencies. A flow of communication and data between these external entities where duties overlap can provide consistency, reduce duplicated efforts and allow, as one City noted, the ability to provide backfill for the State (or vice versa).
Once agencies automate laborious manual processes and digitize paper forms and files cross-functionally, it becomes easier to understand and report on program performance and industry issues. That ‘feedback loop’ is the most impactful part of meeting another common mandate for these agencies: a mandate to Identify challenges and make necessary adjustments to the requirements, fees and processes over time.
In our final post of this three-part series, scheduled for next week, we’ll discuss what happens when you start getting answers that allow you to ask even better questions.
Accela Cannabis Regulation eases agency burdens in licensing cannabis cultivation, processing, and retail businesses. With intelligent workflow routing, automatic notification, and concurrent online plan and document review, Accela provides instant visibility for staff and leadership, and keeps applications and other important processes moving.