First Person Perspective: Cara Crabb-Burnham, Compliance Professional

By Cara Crabb-Burnham

I’m left with one question: was it worth all this?

I worked in cannabis for 15 years. I started as a student activist – and anyone who claims, “activism isn’t work,” never tried it. I focused each of my class projects (B.A., Marketing) on the drug war, fighting the drug war, drug education, cannabis education, cannabis markets, etc. After my school work and my paid job, I attended Students for Sensible Drug Policy Meetings, cannabis educational events, and fundraisers; all unpaid work for the cause of legalizing cannabis. 

I spread the word like a Born Again Christian. I argued with the barista at the coffee shop. I defended my positions over any holiday table. I wrote letters to the legislature, courts, and state house representatives. Hundreds, if not thousands, of my hours went to “the cause”.

My activism in school launched my career of organizing people. I co-hosted a weekly podcast, hosted fundraisers for local non-profits, coordinated marches and walks, and volunteered at local events. I used my vacation time and paid my way to volunteer at Seattle Hempfest, where I met established cannabis activists and learned to organize such events. 

My years of activism positioned me to become Operations Director for a first-of-its-kind cannabis vocational school. I spent the next several years helping others join the cannabis industry, assisting with selection of classes, writing resumes, preparing for job fairs and boards, and hosting networking events. My next position was in sales by title, but in practice my responsibilities were compliance and operations. I’m very good at compliance, applications, and operations strategies, so from then onward I focused in that area. I grew a successful consulting practice around compliance in cannabis.

I naïvely believed that cannabis would avoid replicating the failures of other American industries. I was emboldened by the early burst of businesses owned by women, along with stable sales in CA, CO, and WA. I thought that this would be an industry that put people FIRST and ahead of profits. I had seen so many pre-market operators do so, they seemed to care more about patients every day. We would “over grow” the government and “share”. But, man oh man, I was a Simp.

What did I do all that for? 

Today patients across the country are getting products that are bad, old, contaminated, moldy, and overpriced. Growers who sell bad product in one state just rebrand or move to the next state. Profiteers from tech, insurance, and commodities have found their way to cannabis to make quick bucks off the backs of the activists. The number of businesses owned by women falls year after year. Social equity licenses are hijacked by big businesses looking to corner the market. Were any promises unbroken?

Now the MSOs are indistinguishable from the “local small business”; many don’t pay their bills to smaller firms – or even each other. Investors and owners of “early-movers” buy the next Ferrari, while everyone from mom-and-pop retailers to big testing labs is staring down the gaping holes in accounts receivable. What’s worse, employees are harassed, neglected, laid off, and stiffed on wages and commissions. Affected people and businesses are sometimes afraid to speak up or file claims in court.

Why did I spend this past decade preparing people for jobs where they are undervalued, underpaid, and suffer injuries to their health and the threat of death? Now, cannabis education and workforce training are just a mandated requirement. Managers rush employees through RVT training, claiming it is just a “check the box” need and “not important to their work”. Meanwhile any profits from momentary success are siphoned out of the state, to expand into the next state during the brief window when that will be profitable. They bring along their underpaid employees, bad practices, and desperation. Education means nothing here. HR prefers someone who will shut up and ring over someone who can explain the Endocannabinoid System. 

And if you don’t know what the Endocannabinoid System is, maybe YOU don’t belong in the cannabis industry!

Regulators can’t manage the workload and won’t spend money where it counts. They declare victory upon spending under budget, while the state takes one hundred times the money in taxes that it allocates to enforcement. The state agents have been hired at lower rates than the underpaid industry workforce. The staff at our Cannabis Control Commission are overseen by an Executive Director, and also a board of five Commissioners. So no one knows who the actual boss is. The Commissioners don’t have their own staff, so employees take orders from them and the executive director, to the confusion of everyone.

Cannabis operators don’t maintain or update their documentation because the regulatory Commission won’t check during regular inspections. Inspectors seem to be only looking at the physical space for security needs. I have seen too few surprise inspections, and I’ve witnessed inspections that noted multitudes of minor infractions that were omitted from the report or list of expected corrections. I have seen Impact Plans and Diversity Plans unfulfilled year after year, because there is no consequence. Why should these operators take the expectations seriously if the regulators don’t? 

As I watch the “Chads” count their profits while inmates remain incarcerated, families lose children, and sick patients struggle to access medicine, I wonder: “did I do the wrong thing?” Was my activism, well-meaning as it may have been, foolish and short-sighted? I followed my passion, skilled up, and found my niche. 

Was this, inevitably, another industry waiting for P&G, Nestle, Craft, Coca Cola, Pepsico, General Mills, Mars, J&J, and Unilever to buy us out? Could the cannabis industry have developed without dirty money, or kept the “culture” the way it was? 

If you dismiss me as an activist Simp, you are the problem. If you think weed is just another Chance Card on the Monopoly game board, you are the problem. If you deny patients access to relief with threats of losing their jobs, children, guns, or licenses to drive; you are part of the problem. 

After nearly two decades of working for “the cause”, I don’t know if there will ever be demand for compliance in cannabis again, or how I could ever get hired outside of this industry. I don’t think I did anything wrong, I don’t think I was misinformed, but hindsight is always 20/20.