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Chandler Cooks, Political Action Chair for The Chamber of Cannabis & Social Equity Licensee – Interview Series

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Chandler Cooks is a longtime cannabis activist who has collaborated with monumental cannabis reform and industry organizations as well as a recipient of one of Nevada's very few social equity consumption lounge licenses. Currently, he serves as Political Action Chair for the Nevada Chamber of Cannabis and stays diligently up to date on all matters related to cannabis reform law and politics, especially with several crucial cannabis-related bills and votes in the upcoming November elections.

Tell me about your background in cannabis advocacy and industry and how you got the position with the Chamber.

I have been actively involved in cannabis advocacy for over seven years now. My journey began my senior year of college in 2016 as I faced a lengthy prison sentence after being arrested for cultivation of cannabis at Grambling State University. Through immense studying of the law and a strong rapport with my law professors I was able to overcome that situation. This experience propelled me into grassroots activism, where I worked to educate the public and policymakers about the medicinal and economic benefits of cannabis. I initially became involved in Nevada by volunteering with local advocacy groups, where I focused on educating the community about the benefits of cannabis and the injustices of past drug policies. This grassroots involvement quickly grew into a more substantial role as I began leading campaigns aimed at further promoting cannabis legalization and reform. Over the years, I have collaborated with various advocacy groups such as Cannabis Equity and Inclusion Community (CEIC), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Minority Cannabis Business Association (MCBA), and many industry stakeholders to push for sensible cannabis reforms. One of the key milestones in my advocacy career was my involvement as the Dean of Students in the CEIC Cannabis Business School Pathway to Ownership program; an intensive 16-week course on how to establish a cannabis business, enter the industry, and make sure the business is sustainable. My passion for the cause aligns closely with the mission of the Chamber of Cannabis, which is dedicated to advancing responsible and equitable growth in the cannabis industry. My advocacy efforts and industry experience made me a natural fit for the Chamber, where I have been able to contribute to policy development and community engagement initiatives. The journey to my current position on the Board of Directors involved consistent and impactful contributions to the cannabis community. I have worked closely with other industry leaders to promote policies that support small businesses, social equity applicants, and sustainable practices. My significant achievements, such as successfully advocating for expungement clinics and supporting legislative efforts to improve social equity programs, demonstrated my commitment and effectiveness in this field.

What are some important political races and bills on the state and federal level that activists and industry professionals should pay attention to?

At both the state and federal levels, several key political races and pieces of legislation will significantly impact the cannabis industry. The upcoming state legislative elections are crucial, as the composition of the legislature will determine the future of cannabis policy in Nevada. Activists should pay attention to candidates' stances on cannabis reform, especially those running for positions in the Nevada Assembly and Senate. Key issues include expanding social equity programs, increased access to the industry, and streamlining the licensing process for cannabis businesses. As Nevada continues to develop its cannabis industry, legislation aimed at improving social equity provisions is critical. Activists should support bills that enhance opportunities for communities disproportionately affected by previous drug policies. This includes efforts to reduce barriers to entry for social equity applicants and provide them with the necessary resources to succeed.

On a federal level there are two initiatives that the public should pay attention to and support; the MORE Act and SAFE Banking Act. The MORE Act aims to decriminalize cannabis at the federal level, expunge previous convictions, and invest in communities impacted by the war on drugs. The MORE Act is significant because it addresses both criminal justice reform and economic empowerment. Its passage would remove cannabis from the list of controlled substances, allowing states more freedom to regulate it without federal interference. SAFE Banking Act seeks to provide cannabis businesses with access to banking services. Currently, many cannabis businesses operate on a cash-only basis due to federal banking restrictions, which poses security risks and financial challenges. The SAFE Banking Act would enable these businesses to use traditional banking services, facilitating safer and more efficient operations.

How can activists make sure that they’re supporting cannabis reform-friendly candidates in the November elections?

First and foremost, doing thorough research is crucial. This includes reviewing candidates' voting records on cannabis-related legislation, which is often available through state legislative websites. It’s important to look for candidates who have consistently supported cannabis reform measures. Additionally, analyzing candidates' public statements, campaign websites, and social media profiles can provide clear insights into their positions on cannabis reform. Engaging with candidates directly is the most effective strategy. Attending town hall meetings, public forums, and candidate debates allows you to ask direct questions about their stance on cannabis reform, providing an opportunity to hear their views firsthand. Participating in campaign events also helps build relationships and encourages candidates to prioritize cannabis reform if elected.

What is the best way to speak with voters who may be skeptical about cannabis reform?

When I am speaking with voters who are skeptical about cannabis reform I find it best to approach the conversation with empathy and understanding. I start by acknowledging their concerns and showing that I respect their perspective, even if it is skewed by propaganda and myths. This is when I lay out the facts that address their concerns. In addition to facts and figures, sharing compelling stories that highlight the benefits of cannabis reform is powerful. For instance, stories about veterans with chronic pain or PTSD finding relief through cannabis can humanize the issue and make it more relatable. Also highlighting the economic gains such as job creation, increased tax revenue, and local business opportunities that cannabis reform can bring.

What was the process of applying for a social equity license like? Are there ways the process can improve and do you see social equity programs in Nevada truly helping and providing great opportunities to those communities that were previously devastated by prior drug policy?

Applying for a social equity license was an intricate process that was both challenging and enlightening. The process began with an extensive application that required detailed personal and business information, proof of eligibility based on social equity criteria, and a comprehensive business plan. One of the initial steps involved gathering all necessary documentation, including obtaining records of past convictions and demonstrating a clear connection to the affected communities within the past several years. The business plan needed to be meticulously detailed, outlining how the proposed business would operate and its financial projections.

The challenges were numerous. The application process required substantial financial and legal resources, which are often limited for those who qualify for social equity programs. Access to capital was a major barrier, as social equity applicants were required to show proof of $200,000 liquid assets. Moreover, the complexity of the regulatory requirements may have required legal and business expertise, adding another layer of difficulty for applicants without prior experience in the industry. However, there were some resources and support systems in place that proved beneficial. Local advocacy group, CEIC, offered workshops and guidance on navigating the application process and even paid for social equity application fees ($2,500) which helped alleviate some financial pressures. The Nevada Cannabis Compliance Board (CCB) also held virtual workshops to walkthrough the application and address any questions and concerns prior to application being made public.

To improve the process, several constructive changes could be made. Increasing the availability of financial support, such as grants, loans, and subsidies, could significantly help social equity applicants overcome financial barriers. Additionally, it is essential to address the broader systemic issues that affect social equity applicants. Ensuring that these programs are not just symbolic but provide real economic empowerment and community development is key. This means creating policies that facilitate market entry and sustainability for social equity businesses, such as tax incentives and priority access to state-funded business support services. There is also a need for ongoing evaluation and adjustment of these programs to ensure they are truly accessible and effective.

Where do you see social equity programs going or evolving in both Nevada and nationwide?

I envision a future where social equity programs in the cannabis industry become more comprehensive, accessible, and impactful. As these programs continue to evolve, several potential advancements and policy changes could significantly enhance their effectiveness. Reducing the financial burden on applicants through grants, low-interest loans, and subsidies will be crucial in leveling the playing field. Innovative approaches, such as partnerships with established cannabis businesses, can also enhance social equity programs. These partnerships could involve mentorship, training, and investment opportunities, helping social equity applicants gain the skills and resources needed to succeed. Programs like incubators and accelerators specifically designed for social equity applicants can provide tailored support and foster a more inclusive industry. The ongoing need for advocacy and community engagement cannot be overstated. Continuous advocacy efforts are necessary to push for legislative changes and ensure that social equity remains a priority in cannabis policy.

Community engagement is crucial for understanding the needs of the affected communities and tailoring programs to address those needs effectively. This involves regular consultations with community leaders, feedback sessions, and collaborative efforts to develop and refine social equity initiatives. Continuous evaluation and adjustment of these programs are also essential. Establishing metrics to measure the impact of social equity programs and conducting regular assessments can help identify areas for improvement and ensure that these programs deliver meaningful benefits. Ultimately, the goal is to create a cannabis industry that is not only profitable but also equitable and just. I’m a veteran of the War on Drugs and will continue to fight to ensure that the benefits of cannabis legalization are shared broadly and that the people most harmed by past drug policies are given the opportunities they deserve.

Josh Kasoff is a journalist and copywriter living in Las Vegas covering all aspects of the cannabis industry. From law and politics, to arts and entertainment as well as advocacy and further criminal justice reform. Along with interviewing the Nevada cannabis industry's most important decision makers and professionals, Josh has also worked directly in the Nevada industry for over five years in a variety of packaging, manufacturing, marketing and testing analysis roles.