Evaluating cannabis industry projects

  • February 1, 2024

Working as the named evaluator for NCCC’s The Business of Cannabis: Sustainability from Seed to Sale has been an immensely rewarding process. Our recent visit to the 2024 SUNY Cannabis Conference got us wondering what other evaluators in our industry space were having similar experiences.

Our recent search for publicly available information on firms evaluating cannabis industry workforce development and training programs provided surprisingly few results. Zero, to be exact. Despite cannabis legalization in some states, many evaluation professionals remain hesitant to engage with the industry. Why is this the case?

At the end of the day, cannabis is an agricultural crop. No different than soybeans, corn, cotton, or wheat. There are several reasons why cannabis programs, despite being legal in some states, are not always well-evaluated. Here are a few key factors:

  • Cannabis remains classified as a Schedule I drug under federal law. This classification creates significant barriers to research and evaluation, as it:
    • Restricts funding: Federal research grants are generally unavailable for studying Schedule I drugs, making it difficult to secure the resources needed for rigorous evaluations.
    • Limits access: Researchers require special licenses and permissions to handle Schedule I substances, adding complexity and bureaucracy to the process.
    • Discourages participation: The stigma associated with Schedule I drugs may deter both researchers and participants from getting involved in cannabis research.
  • State-Level Variations:
    • Cannabis laws and regulations vary widely from state to state. This makes it challenging to conduct research that can be generalized across different legal and regulatory contexts.
    • Many states prioritize program implementation over evaluation. With limited resources and competing priorities, states may focus on getting programs up and running rather than investing in robust evaluation efforts.
  • Methodological Challenges:
    • Evaluating the effectiveness of cannabis for medical purposes can be complex. Factors such as the specific condition being treated, the type of cannabis product used, and individual patient characteristics can all influence outcomes.
    • Developing objective and reliable measures of cannabis-related outcomes can be difficult. This is especially true for conditions like chronic pain, where subjective experiences play a significant role.
  • Additional Considerations:
    • The relatively recent legalization of cannabis in many states means that there is still a limited amount of long-term data available. This makes it difficult to assess the long-term effects of cannabis use, both positive and negative.
    • Concerns about potential harms, such as addiction and psychosis, may lead to a cautious approach to evaluation. This can result in stricter research protocols and a reluctance to approve studies that may be perceived as risky.

The good news is, as someone with experience in the field, we can confirm that evaluating a project related to the cannabis industry is fundamentally no different than evaluating a workforce development or agricultural project in any other industry.

Consider this: evaluating a workforce development project in the quantum physics industry does not require you to be a subject matter expert in quantum technology. Similarly, to properly evaluate an agricultural project to improve the crop yield of heirloom tomatoes, an evaluator does not need to be a well-trained botanist. Our advice to other evaluators is to focus on the outcomes, not the industry segment.

Our recommended best practices for evaluation within the cannabis industry

  1. Own it. Embrace the stigma and approach the subject matter openly and directly. This stigma stems from decades of historical misinformation, misrepresentation, and a hefty amount of harmful social and cultural biases. This stigma is perpetuated because we as a society allow it. There is no reason to feel shameful, guilty, or fearful of your reputation for being involved in the evaluation of a project that is always 100% legal at a state level and, in many instances, a project that is state-funded!
  2. Focus on the outcome. What is the project essentially about? Is it a workforce development project? A crop yield/pest management/horticultural project? Or perhaps even an assessment of a project focused on marketing, sales, or packaging. Chances are, as an evaluator, you already have experience working with similar data sets. This gives you a clear vision of where to head with your objectives, outcomes, reports, and assessment protocols.
  3. Learn about your local, state, and federal laws and legislation. Be informed so that you can correct any biases or misinformation you may encounter about the industry. Learn how your client is in compliance with the law specifically.

The cannabis industry is growing exponentially and creating new jobs in the process. Training programs at an industry and institutional level are being created to train and certify tomorrow’s cannabis industry workers in compliance with regulations. Sales, marketing, packaging, growing, researching, and even cooking with cannabis products will play a pivotal role in workforce opportunities, with New York alone projecting 63,000 new jobs across the state by 2025. Nationwide, 80,000 new jobs were created in 2020 due to legislative changes at state levels that allow the production, manufacture, and sale of cannabis products.

This means countless potential new projects for evaluation will be cropping up soon, pun intended. The 2022 New York State Department of Labor’s Cannabis Employment and Education Development (CEED) dispersed 5M to 17 public and seven private educational institutions. This represents at least 24 new opportunities to evaluate all from a single state grant opportunity. At E.B. Howard Consulting, we are excited about the opportunity to evaluate these future projects and hope to empower other evaluators to embrace this new pipeline of opportunity.

We work with high-growth startups and organizations that support the startup and innovation ecosystem. We build highly specific non-dilutive funding menus, provide proposal preparation services, and measure outcomes of funding through evaluation. Schedule a consult call with us HERE.