Christopher Jensen, cofounder and treasurer of the National Cannabis Roundtable (NCR), says the work the trade association has done on the Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act is just one example of the behind-the-scenes efforts the industry group does on a regular basis to push cannabis reform.
“It’s not just a trade association that monitors what’s happening on the Hill and reports back to their members. We’re doing a lot of the work,” says Jensen, who is also co-founder and CEO of Mana Supply Co., a medical cannabis company based in Maryland with locations in Missouri and Colorado. “And that was really attractive to me, to be able to sit down and not only spend the time explaining, educating, doing tours, doing things to help legislators understand what the issues were, but I really liked the notion that we were going to be so involved in policy itself.”
Now that the SAFE Banking Act is on its way to the Senate, where there is hope it will finally pass after making its way through the House multiple times, Jensen explains what NCR is focusing on next.
Michelle Simakis: What has been the National Cannabis Roundtable’s (NCR) priority most recently?
Christopher Jensen: We’ve done a lot of work on the SAFE Banking Act over the past couple of years. It’s come out of the House and we’re looking for a place for a place for that bill in the Senate.
[NCR helped] legislators with all the background information, and we got an alliance with the American Bankers Association … getting them all the information they needed to get to the place [the bill] is now, which is a banking bill that with bipartisan support very easily made it out of the House, and we do expect bipartisan support out of the Senate side.
MS: What is the biggest hurdle to passing the SAFE Banking Act and also the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which passed the House in December?
CJ: You can’t eat the whale in one bite. Everybody wants this change to happen immediately. The best way to get this done is incremental progress. So, you ask, what’s going to stand in the way? The more complex the problems, and the more issues you throw at it, the more places there are to disagree. So I think that while there may be this feeling that we want to have one great sweeping thing take care of it all and make all of our problems go away, I think the reality is for progress to go forward, we want to be incremental in that approach.
MS: How do you work on a bipartisan level to mitigate political disputes?
CJ: It’s about educating and finding out what’s important to a particular legislator no matter what their party and address those needs and concerns. That includes running back and forth between offices. We know from this office this is important, is there room for that in the bill? Or, can we move this around and still get to the same place of success? And that’s why I talk about incremental progress; there’s a give and take that has to happen so that both sides feel like they’ve got a win.
Operating a business in cannabis is like operating in a recession all of the time because of all of the tax burdens and the regulatory requirements and all the risks in cannabis. You’re operating as if you’re in a stress environment all the time, which is part of reason I got into it.
MS: What do you think is the greatest challenge holding the industry back right now, if you were to name just one?
CJ: The federal tax burden. 280E is obviously what holds industry back the most. That tax burden makes it difficult for people without access to capital to operate and be entrepreneurial in this industry. I think the regulated markets in these states are doing a good job, and I think the industry is doing a good job. [Eliminating the tax burden] comes once again benefit to social equity, benefit to entrepreneurs and benefit to the business, and how it can grow, and the impact it makes on the American economy.
MS: You founded TrustPoint International in one of the most challenging economic periods for the U.S. in history – the Great Recession – and were successful. For many cannabis businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic fallout as a result was their first experience with a downturn of that magnitude. What lessons learned did you bring from that experience more than a decade ago to your role as a cannabis business owner and on the NCR?
CJ: Operating a business in cannabis is like operating in a recession all of the time because of all of the tax burdens and the regulatory requirements and all the risks in cannabis. You’re operating as if you’re in a stress environment all the time, which is part of reason I got into it.
When I started getting involved in the cannabis industry, there was great exuberance. People started getting listed on the Canadian Exchange. There was a lot of money going around, and I don’t think I was as conservative as I should have been. Then we had that market correction, and I think the industry has figured a lot of things out. I think people expanded far too fast. But when COVID-19 hit, there were a couple of things that saved my business, personally. Most of these governors decided that cannabis was an essential business, that we were medicine. That was so important. I can’t tell you what would have happened to my patients in Maryland if Governor Hogan would have shut it down. That saved us.
On the flip side, the capital investment anywhere really dried up, but in cannabis in particular, it was already difficult and made it so hard. There were a lot of plans we had, like expansion and growth, but we had to tighten our belts and get very, very cautious, as if we were a brand-new startup all over again. That wasn’t comfortable, but it was old hand. I started a business during a recession, and so I was going to see it through this one. I’m not sure we’re through this.
You can’t eat the whale in one bite. Everybody wants this change to happen immediately. The best way to get this done is incremental progress.
MS: Regulations can change quickly. Where have there been missed opportunities in the industry?
CJ: Most states have discussions about THC content. It’s one of the most misunderstood things among legislators. They don’t understand [the nuances,] so I think it’s really important that you not only pay attention on a grassroots level but on a local, state and federal level. Let’s be honest; everyone should have been paying attention to the  Farm Bill and what happened with hemp and what that means for the cannabis side of the business.
Right now we are facing a hemp industry that obviously is omnipresent; you can buy CBD from your gas station down the street. And now that [extractors] have learned to convert CBD into delta-8-[THC], we really need to pay attention because delta-8 will affect what legislators think. If they see that delta-8, which is psychoactive, and they are watching kids come in and buy it at gas stations, we have to understand what that means for us.
MS: With that said, do you consider delta-8 a threat? Is there an opportunity to regulate it better?
CJ: We formed a delta-8 committee inside of NCR, and we are currently evaluating what this means. I don’t want to state NCR’s definitive position yet because that’s still being formed. But we need to understand the dangers, the consequences—we need to thoroughly understand the upside and the downside of regulation. We’ve gotten into a gray area. Is this an artificially derived cannabinoid or is it a naturally derived cannabinoid? We have obviously been in favor of regulation to the extent that it doesn’t choke the industry. Regulation keeps people safe.
NCR wants to take a measured and methodical approach in understanding this issue, and very quickly we will come up with our guidance and our suggestions for that, and we will only do it after we build consensus with the entire board. And we can take that consensus to the legislators and educate them and make sure that they understand, as well.
MS: What would you say is NCR’s greatest accomplishment so far?
CJ: The work that was done on SAFE was incredibly important, I think that it was lot of that not only the education but a lot of that negotiation that National Cannabis Roundtable did between offices. I’m super bullish and I’m super optimistic that this will get done at some point this year.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. A shorter version of this conversation was published in the June 2021 issue of Cannabis Business Times.