Long-time Chicago entrepreneurs Josh and Tara Joseph made history in 2020 when the company they founded in 2014, Grassroots Cannabis, was sold to Curaleaf for a reported $850 million. Then they moved to Nashville and created Big Plan Holdings as an umbrella for the family’s business ventures, but especially to focus on helping others, in particular minorities and women, successfully enter the cannabis business.

The Josephs, whose enterprises included commercial real estate development, music and entertainment, branding and licensing, and philanthropy, added cannabis shortly after Illinois legalized medical marijuana in 2014. Then in 2019 Illinois legalized recreational uses of the popular herb. By that time, "Grassroots" had expanded well beyond the state’s boundaries, and the Josephs were ready for a new mission.

Moving to Nashville, they entered a state with much more antiquated marijuana laws; even medical cannabis is disallowed. Big Plan Holdings’ CEO, Josh Joseph says their mission is now to provide and deploy capital into encouraging social equity, diversity, and inclusion in various industries, including cannabis, and even within that of music and entertainment, at a very high level and throughout their philanthropic activities.

“We wanted Big Plan Holdings (BPH),” said Joseph, “to help mentor entrepreneurs in whatever field (including film), especially minorities and women, who often lack the opportunities to make their investments work. Thus, we sought to create a safe space for investors and began looking around for opportunities to help others create wealth.”

The experience the Josephs gained in Illinois puts BPH at the forefront of the cannabis industry nationwide. As of now, 37 states have legalized marijuana for one or multiple medical purposes; recreational marijuana use is variously legal in 22 of them. Other cities and states have decriminalized the herb; hemp and CBD products are at least conditionally legal in every state.

Via the subsidiary BPH Legacy Holdings, the Josephs are involved with cannabis-related companies in several states, serving on corporate boards of directors, state advisory boards, and even franchise acquisitions teams. The team works with both plant-touching industries (growing, processing, manufacturing) and significant non-plant-touching activities, including technology, staffing agencies, and label manufacturers in marketing, advertising, and branding.

“Our clients,” Joseph explained, “include several celebrities whose roles in branding and sponsorship for cannabis and CBD companies may soon be made public. Ultimately, we are looking for people ready and able to make investments into one of the fastest-growing markets in the U.S. Since selling Grassroots Cannabis, we have become ‘free agents’ of change for minorities and women in the industry.”

There are a lot of elements the BPH team analyzes when looking where they can add value; sometimes just by creating applicant strategies to a cannabis application. Team members monitor where and when additional licenses will become available. Joseph sees a massive industry taking shape, despite the federal marijuana prohibitions, largely because the federal government has left to states how to treat cannabis and cannabis products.

This means that every state, and many localities, that authorize cannabis use has its own set of laws and regulations. This diversity and the complicated processes involved in licensing led the Josephs to desire to fill a need for a more public forum, one to address the nuances and hurdles that those seeking to enter into or expand their involvement in cannabis-related businesses might face.

Thus, on June 8, BPH will host what it hopes will be the first of numerous “Cannabis Live Chats” in Nashville.

Joseph will be one of three panelists who will cover a wide variety of topics for a live and interactive audience. Especially in cannabis-unfriendly Tennessee, Joseph believes he has a lot to offer those seeking to change state laws and create a more cannabis-friendly environment.

David Belsky, Founder and CEO of FlowerWire, the nation’s largest staffing agency for the cannabis industry, will share his experiences in building a top pipeline of executive-level candidates, to fill positions from HR director, legal counsel, chief financial officer, and other jobs vital to building a successful cannabis business in the nation’s most regulated growth industry.

Former NFL athlete Jordan Reed, one of the young minority entrepreneurs the Josephs are mentoring, co-founded BPH subsidiary, ‘BPH Legacy Partners’ with fellow Florida Gator (and NFL veteran) Dominique Easley. Reed will share his experiences with cannabis, first and foremost as a medicine to help him deal with football injury pain (which shortened his NFL career). Reed will also share the BPH mission to bring women and minorities into the cannabis business.

The live chat will address a wide array of topics, with a special focus by Joseph on what it takes to create and operate a successful cannabis business – in which the most difficult hurdle is obtaining a license to operate. The panel will focus heavily on how to move Tennessee beyond near-total prohibition. Legal hemp-based CBD is quite popular in the Volunteer state, but mere possession of cannabis-based CBD is a misdemeanor, subject to fines of up to $2,500 and a year in prison.

“Some people think the cannabis business is an easy route to a fast buck,” said Joseph, “but the reality is quite different. This is not a field for the faint at heart.”

Cannabis is the nation’s most regulated industry, even above gaming, tobacco, and liquor. That is why, Joseph says, BPH is committed to providing guidance at all levels of the process.

Notwithstanding federal prohibitions, each state creates its own set of laws and regulations for governing whatever level of legality lawmakers will approve. These help determine whether and how the industry can operate and grow statewide and in each locality. They also determine what and where specific products can be sold.

Typically, said Joseph, a governor will create a cannabis commission, whose members then spend one or two years learning and providing feedback on what might be a good first step – usually a medical marijuana. Then there are the physical proximity limitations (schools, houses of worship, etc.) and opt-in or opt-out provisions that enable localities to decide whether to participate in such a “pilot.”

These restrictions, together with property values, traffic, and other factors evaluated by most businesses, narrow the list of qualified locations that can support a medical cannabis program. This two-tiered system increases the already staggering amount of work that must be done before applying for a license to operate, itself a highly competitive process.

Those seeking a license must also maneuver through the zoning and special use permit processes; convince and educate local safety, fire, police, and emergency response officials and personnel; and gain acceptance from neighboring businesses. Public and private meetings with citizens and officials follow before any site is approved. The bottom line: The “great green rush,” in fact, takes a lot of time, focus, dedication, discipline, and especially capital.

And, because there are usually multiple applicants for a limited number of licenses, there are no guarantees that all this time, effort, and capital will pay off. Applications are graded, and successful applicants must hit all the marks. Minority and female applicants, who typically lack deep pockets or local connections, face even greater difficulties.

Even more capital is needed once an applicant (especially a DEI applicant) obtains a license at any level. Successful companies must establish strong standard operating procedures in order to acquire capital, especially given that cannabis enterprises lack access to bank loans.

Poorly run, or poorly thought out, businesses can lose enormous amounts of money.

All in all, cannabis has become a “big boy, big girl” business that favors giant corporations that did little if any of the real work of building public acceptance of the industry, said Joseph.

“Our BPH office exists to help ensure that diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) candidates enter into the cannabis business successfully.” 

Duggan Flanakin is a Director of Policy at the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT). The views expressed are his own.