Published in Small Business

Michigan’s top cannabis regulator oversees a shifting market for companies, consumers: A Q&A with Andrew Brisbo, executive director of Michigan’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency

BY Sunday, September 26, 2021 06:00pm

Michigan’s emerging cannabis market is marked by many complexities, including an ongoing period of industry consolidation, a push for racial equity and a move to ensure businesses of all sizes can operate. Andrew Brisbo, executive director of the state’s Marijuana Regulatory Agency, is overseeing it all. He recently discussed the state’s “nuanced market” that has caused division among industry advocates and the shifting dynamics that are leading to license changes and ongoing dialogue with businesses.

The MRA recently proposed licensing changes involving cannabis research and small businesses. What would these do and how would they improve Michigan’s industry?

We proposed in our draft rules a couple of new license types. They don’t exist in the market as of yet. We received a recommendation from a workgroup that existing microbusinesses under the (Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act) faced a couple of key issues while engaging in that license type. One is the limitation on the number of plants at 150 that would not produce enough biomass to be a viable business. The other is cost. 

We tried to address those concerns. The new license type would allow businesses to have 300 plants. They’re not allowed to do processing, but they could purchase (edibles and concentrates from processors). They would just sell the flower they produce. It’s trying to be an interim step between small microbusinesses and full-blown integration with all license types.

How difficult is it for entrepreneurs to break into Michigan’s cannabis market?

The market is doing really well overall. It seems to be stabilizing in terms of price as well. We see people approach it in a couple of different ways, either as a boutique with a singular experience or others in a chain style. I still think there’s room in the market for small businesses, but we’re starting to get close to saturation in the number of businesses in communities that allow them.

For communities that don’t allow cannabis businesses, do you see the tax revenue potential acting as a motivating factor for municipalities opting in at this point or in the future?

I think it’s a compelling argument for some municipalities, for sure, to get a direct benefit from (tax revenue). A lot are focused on the revitalization of areas in their communities and see it as an opportunity to bring good jobs.

Ongoing state and local efforts are focused on bringing more diversity, equity and inclusion to the cannabis industry. What are concrete ways to ensure more people of color are employed or own businesses in the sector?

That is a challenging topic not just in Michigan but across the country. We’ve done some analysis on our side and have empaneled several workgroups. You certainly hear, and the data supports, the fact that communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. We want to continue to provide opportunities for those impacted by the war on drugs in this industry. Our program has been successful with a piece we’ve put into place with one-on-one sessions to help social equity applicants and establish those business relationships.

Some of the other hurdles include access to real estate and the amount of capital needed — those are some of our biggest challenges. We continue to try to establish partnerships with companies in this space so they can be successful, but it is a very complex problem.

Can you weigh in on the latest dispute over legislation backed by cannabis manufacturers that would scale back and create more oversight of medical marijuana caregivers?

It’s a very robust legislative package, so I hesitate to comment on it directly. We certainly are aware of the concerns on both sides of that argument — businesses wanting to ensure there’s a fair market when it comes to commercial operations, and then those individuals who have access to caregivers to have medicine. It’s a nuanced market. Michigan and other states had this firmly established network of individuals working in a vacuum from 2008 to 2016 when there was no commercialized market.

Regardless of the laws in place, our agency focuses on efficiency of operations and creating an environment where businesses are successful and patients can access medicine quickly and easily as well.

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