Paul Meyere (00:35):
Thanks so much for joining everybody. While we give folks a couple of minutes to log on to this session. For those coming from trivia, we’d love to know in the chat which questions dumped you. Gosh, no trivia questions. All right. We’re just gonna get a few more minutes while everyone jumps on here.
Paul Meyere (01:35):
Okay. Now that we’ve got some folks here, I’m excited to kick off this session. Today we’re joined by Toni-Anne Blake, the director of communications at the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission. Toni-Anne’s expertise in integrated communication strategy and stakeholder engagement has made her a highly effective communicator for more than 20 years. Over the span of her career, she has worked with multinational corporations, nonprofits, elected officials, and state and county government agencies in Florida and New Jersey. She’s currently the communications director at the one-year-old New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission, where she established the agency’s communications program for public outreach education and media relations. Before joining the NJ CRC, Toni-Anne was the corporate communications director at the broadband manufacturer Atronix, where she was responsible for the company’s international integrated marketing program. She has also been a partner in the public relations firm CC Communications and an adjunct professor at Mercer Community College.
Paul Meyere (02:51):
You know, prior to moving to New Jersey, Toni-Anne lived in South Florida, where she held various positions in county government, municipal services, and in education. One of these positions was providing strategic communication support to the 13 elected members of Miami-Dade County’s Board of County Commissioners, crafting engaging public messaging and facilitating constituent engagement as public information as the public information officer at the Miami-Dade Water and sewer department. Her solution for customer service challenges was a NACO Award winner for Public Affairs Communications. While at Miami-Dade College, she secured and wrote for a weekly column of the college news in the Miami Herald. Throughout the session, feel free to send questions in the chat and we’ll answer them during and at the end of the session. And with that, I’ll take it over to you, Toni-Anne.
Toni-Anne Blake (03:49):
Thank you so much for that introduction. Paul. I had planned to start with introducing myself, but I don’t need to do that at all. That was by far the best introduction I’ve ever gotten. Thank you. So rather, I wanna say though, that since I’m talking to a room of public affairs folks that I think most may have started as a public information officer. I just wanna give a shout-out to the current and former PIOs out there. That is usually an entry into government communications, and I’m very proud of that. Being into public service just as Paul mentioned, I have done a lot of things in a lot of places for a lot of people. And the one thing that all those positions have is that there was somebody doing the job before I was in every position, in every position, I had to learn new things.
Toni-Anne Blake (04:54):
I had to learn how sewage is treated. What zero escaping is. How corporate responsibility engenders goodwill, which supports a nonprofit’s bottom line. What capacity building is, how broadband service gets to my smart TV so I can binge-watch the show, and what a splitter has to do with all of that. I’ve had to learn all of that in every single position I’ve ever done. I’ve had to learn something new. But as I said, there was always somebody who had been doing the job before, somebody who I could learn the job from. That was not the case when I started at New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission. There are a couple of basic things for us. Public affairs folks that we know. Know your audience clearly. Craft your messages. Select appropriate channels of communication. Monitor and measure your resultsm and adjust those things will always serve us well, no matter where we are, that we know, but it is understanding the nuances of each client, each project each company, each agency.
Toni-Anne Blake (06:09):
That is what will make us most effective. I cannot though, think of one other new area of government communication that has emerged since I have been working in public service, have I can’t think of another area that is new, just brand new. And cannabis is that new area. As more states legislate changes to the status of cannabis, and certainly the tide is flowing that way. We hope that the President’s pardon of the federal cases for simple possession and encouragement of states to do the same, as well as the FDA hiring a cannabis person. And there’s review of the status as a schedule one drug. We hope that all of those things will have an effect, but certainly, the tide is already flowing that way, that government communicators are going to be tasked with communicating to the public about cannabis.
Toni-Anne Blake (07:14):
And that is amid persistence, public stigma, conflicting political currents, and for many people their own unfamiliarity with the topic as I preview what we’re gonna be talking about today drop in the chat, the status of weed in your state. So we’ll cover all the, the legal states and then we’ll discuss, well, weed is legal now what. So you’ll notice as, as I’m talking, I will be talking about what we did as the communications director and actually the totality of the communications department for most of the past 18 months. But I’ll also be saying, speaking constructively, because I’m assuming that somebody in this room is going to one day have the opportunity to do this job for our state. Maybe it’s New Jersey, I don’t know. But so it’ll be, I’ll go back and forth. I did this, this is what you should do. All right. So we will cover research and planning all this, the elements of implementation of a public affairs or communications plan, and also the social and political climate, and what some of that consideration is. Paul, can you tell me if anybody has mentioned what the status of weed is in their state and what state they’re from?
Paul Meyere (08:42):
There was one from Danny Brown who said legal. Danny, if you might mention where you are in the country.
Toni-Anne Blake (08:55):
Did Danny mention where he’s from? Sorry, Danny, I’m putting you on the spot here. Okay, well, maybe Danny is one, well, Danny would have to be one of 19. Currently, there are 39 states that allow medicinal cannabis, 19 states that allow recreational plus DC. So it’s 19 — District of Columbia plus 19 other states, 19 states. And the first medicinal state was California 1996. Now, that is a significant time ago. So clearly we’ve been doing this for a while. It’s been slow, but now it’s like the floodgates have opened. The first recreational was in 2012. Many of us never imagined that we would be a topic of discussion in polite company, let alone nicely dressed folks at a conference. I’m assuming you’re nicely dressed. You could be at home and, you know, and not, but times are changing and we have to figure out how to traverse this new frontier as government communicators or within public affairs firms. The circumstances on the ground will be different for every state. The laws will be different, the demographics will be different. The politics will be different. The government structure will be different. And also the number of states to look to for examples will also increase as time goes by. So these are the recreational legal recreational states. I, Danny must be from one of these states, <affirmative>.
Toni-Anne Blake (10:38):
So there are nine. These are the 19 among the other states. And then you will see from 1996 to two let’s see, from 1996 to now, that’s 26 years ago. So it’s been a long time. In addition to the states where there are other states, as I mentioned, where they’re medicinal, which was 19, but yet other states have decriminalized possession or use, meaning criminal penalties have been removed from the states where only medicinal is allowed. Some allow CBD only. Some allow CBD with a little bit of THC. So it varies. And of course, there are several other states that are in debate and conversation about what their next steps are going to be for cannabis. So question is, well, federally it’s illegal, still illegal. So how does that work? So the federal law says that controlled substance, the Controlled Substances Act, which is the federal law, prohibits the cultivation, distribution, and possession of marijuana states that allow cannabis sales, yes, are in fact conflicting with federal law.
Toni-Anne Blake (11:55):
However, states are not required to enforce the law or prosecute people if they’re doing activities allowed by their states like in New Jersey. So New Jersey directs law enforcement to not cooperate with federal agencies enforcing the Controlled Substances Act for activities that are authorized in New Jersey. So in New Jersey, the law that established legalization and my agency is the Cannabis Regulatory Enforcement Assistance and Marketplace Modernization Act. Everybody calls around here, calls it CREAMMA. The rules and regulations and enforcement of the legal market is the purview of the New Jersey Cannabis Regulated Regulatory Commission, which is where I work. And that is led by five commissioners and an executive director, all appointed by the governor.
Toni-Anne Blake (12:56):
So in November 2020, residents of New Jersey voted to regulate cannabis. And I say that all the time, you voted to regulate. And a lot of people assumed that as soon as they voted on election day, and the results came out, they would be able to walk into a dispensary the next day. That is not how it works. The actual law had to be written, and I remind people all the time that there is nothing that is legal that is not regulated, and more often than not cast, that is just the way it works. So the CREAMMA was finished in February 2021. Between February and April, the commissioners and the executive director were named and seated. They had their first meeting in April 2021. They had their first meeting, I believe, on the 12th. I started there on the 26th of August, between April and August, those people sat and wrote the rules or regulations that would govern the recreational market.
Toni-Anne Blake (14:03):
So, you know medicinal cannabis has been available in New Jersey since 2012. So CREAMMA basically regulates recreational or personal use for adult use. Those are the terms that will be used interchangeably. In December 2021, we opened licensing for cultivator manufacturers and testing laboratories. And then in March, cuz you have to have something, you have to have the growers before you have the dispensaries. So the dispensaries, the application for dispensaries opened in March of 2022. And then we started giving out license conditional licenses in March of 2022. And in April of 2022, adult sales began. However, up from that point till now, the only dispensaries open for recreational sales were the medicinal dispensaries that were given licensed to expand into recreational. That was part, like a carve-out that said those existing could go into recreational. While the market started out, we have not yet had a new brand new facility open. So the fact that I started
Paul Meyere (15:21):
Toni-Anne Blake (15:21):
Ahead. Go ahead. Go ahead, go ahead.
Paul Meyere (15:23):
There are a lot of folks who’ve responded here mentioning whether they’re from and, and whether it’s legal or not. I’m noticing a lot of folks on the east coast and the West coast here. Is there a reason why you think the coasts are more you know, legalizing medical marijuana over other states in the country?
Toni-Anne Blake (15:43):
Politics? I, I just think that more liberal states are gonna be the ones that have, are more pro, are more inclined, rather to legalize. That’s my take on it.
Paul Meyere (15:58):
And do you think this is a, and do you think this is a pretty standard timeline that most people will follow?
Toni-Anne Blake (16:04):
Ours, So I will say this, we, we took a lot of beating for, which I’ll get into later too, for how slowly the market has evolved, but by comparison. So people talk about Nevada went very quickly, but they had a ton more medicinal facilities that could turn over. We only had 12. So it depends on what the infrastructure is going in. When we did a timeline, we were about average for the opening states from the time of the vote to the time of sales. Okay, we’re about average if we’re sometimes a little bit below.
Paul Meyere (16:49):
So it really varies, you know, between states.
Toni-Anne Blake (16:51):
It does, it varies. It depends on the existing infrastructure. As I mentioned Nevada is the first one that comes to mind because they just had way more medicinal facilities than we did.
Paul Meyere (17:05):
Thank you Toni-Anne.
Toni-Anne Blake (17:07):
All right. So as I mentioned, I started in April. And when, when I started, it was the five commissioners. It was the ED at admin assistant, I believe, and some customer service folks that had come over from medicinal, because prior to the establishment of the New Jersey Cannabis Regulatory Commission, medicinal cannabis had been the purview of the Department of Health. So we took over the medicinal cannabis program. So those, we had customer service folks come up. And the fact that I was hired so early in the process indicated to me that the executive director and the commissioners understood how important communicating with stakeholders would be. And I’ve internally like very grateful. It’s been an incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to support an agency while establishing a whole brand new market. Okay, so weed is legal. Now what?
Toni-Anne Blake (18:19):
So there are some things to consider when the market opens. Looking to other states as examples, of course, will be helpful. But so much will, as I mentioned before, so much will be different. It will actually require, and it did for me, building a whole new communications framework from the ground up. Some of the differences relate to the laws, some relate to who the managing agencies are. Who is the agency that will be responsible for what, how is the agency funded? A few of the questions communicators will have to ask, does the presiding legislation include CBD and hemp medicinal or create recreational? Is homegrown allowed? Will there be consumption lounges? How much can you buy or possess? How much control will municipalities have? As in some states as it was in New Jersey, a brand new agency may be set up to handle this new responsibility in other states.
Toni-Anne Blake (19:28):
Either it can be health or agriculture or alcohol on tobacco. What will be the structure of the agency in New Jersey? As I mentioned, we have the five commissioners and our executive director, the commissioners are responsible for writing the rules regulated in the market, and they’re and approving in the license, in the license of work process, while the executive director is responsible for administration and operations of the agency. You also wanna know, will you have a budget or will you need to wait for tax revenue or some other kind of funding to launch paid campaigns? Will your first, what will your first task be? Will it be to start the market, or will it have to be a safe-use message? Or will you need to do both simultaneously? Will you have time to do quantitative or qualitative research or what it will, you need to look for what information is available.
Toni-Anne Blake (20:27):
You also wanna think about did legalization come about by popular referendum or was it legislative action? And also, which is really important, is the public inclined to trust the cannabis regulators are expungements of race, social equity part, the public discourse. The answers to these and some other questions are gonna lay the foundation for your communications programming going forward. So I’ll just go over some of these with you. That happened with New Jersey. As I mentioned, medicinal had it existed prior. CREAMMA regulates recreational, but that also set up this agency, which also takes, took over medicinal. The law does not allow for home grow. I’m gonna come back to that in a sec. Here the amount for purchase is you can buy one ounce. Recreational patients can buy up to three ounces. There is no limit for terminal patients. We don’t regulate CBD or hemp. That is the Department of Agriculture. And municipals have full rule over which, and how many or if cannabis businesses open in their jurisdictions. Are you getting any questions? Go ahead. Yeah,
Paul Meyere (21:54):
There, there’s a great question submitted by someone named Anne here. I think it’s phenomenal. She asks, is there a model or template legislation, language for states seeking to legalize?
Toni-Anne Blake (22:06):
I don’t know, but I don’t think so. They vary so much that I have not seen any consistency. But as I said, I started after CREAMMA was written, I started with the state after CREAMMA was written. So I am not sure, but based on some of the interactions, and I’m gonna mention CANRA again later, but CANRA is the Cannabis Regulatory Association of America. And based on the questions that are asked in the forums, I don’t believe so. It, it, it varies so wildly.
Paul Meyere (22:41):
Now, I guess on the topic of variation, we have another question here that I think is good. As, do you see more success in terms of when it’s a public referendum or when it’s done by the legislature?
Toni-Anne Blake (22:54):
I have not done that study. I haven’t done that assessment. I don’t know. I know that when I, and I’m gonna talk about that too. When I started and had to go through, do my research I could do it would seem to me that the fact that it was, and in New Jersey, I believe the number was something like 76% of New Jersey and who voted, voted for regulation of cannabis. So meaning to allow recreational, and that tells me that broadly there is public support. If it’s a legislative action, I think you can, you are less, you’re less able to say what the you know, without a study, without polling, you’re less able to say what the public wants.
Paul Meyere (23:40):
Yeah, Totally agree. Thank you Toni-Anne.
Toni-Anne Blake (23:43):
Thanks. Thanks for the questions. All right. So what do you do when you don’t have anything to look to, right? When, when you’re the first one in town where do you look for information when it hasn’t been done before and you don’t have a lot of time? I did not have the luxury of time or money to conduct primary research available studies on societal attitudes, which is something I probably would’ve looked at, may not be, wouldn’t have probably been held applicable based on the demographics. So what are some of the alternatives? How do you carry out the necessary research that will inform our communications goals? Most of us know that our pie method for communications planning, and it starts with research. So what do you do? All right, so what do you wanna know? What is allowed and not allowed for consumers and businesses that will be in the legislation?
Toni-Anne Blake (24:44):
Which agencies are allowed? Are they new or existing? Is it my agency? Is it another agency that we have to work together? And where is the budget coming from? We are self-funding. So I started out with zero. You wanna know public engagement and attitudes towards legalization and towards cannabis use, how our elected officials feel about legalization and about cannabis use. Who are the people calling it a gateway drug? Like you, you wanna know all that? I combed through transcripts from public meetings related to cannabis legalization towns, the state online, just watched committee meetings. I went through news reports on the legalization process and looked at the referendum results. I looked at polling results from reputable sources. I just looked, I Googled and I went to the states, to do off-site, and looked there.
Toni-Anne Blake (25:47):
You wanna know what the positions are pro and con in the advocacy space. What are the public expectations of the cannabis market for that? I looked at authors’ editorials position papers from people like normal and medicinal marijuana for all. Media statements went on these organizations’ websites, did keyword searches so they could go through social media threads, hashtag searches. I also looked at what other states approach that cannabis communication. I have to say my favorite among them is let’s talk cannabis. Both Let’s Talk Cannabis is California, and I believe Massachusetts has another communications program I really loved. And I looked at how they handled their rollout and covered also the news coverage of their rollout. And I, early on, I got connected with CANRA, Again, that’s the cannabis association, the Cannabis Regulatory Association of all the legal states.
Toni-Anne Blake (26:55):
And they were a great resource, the regular meetings, and people kind of bounced around ideas about what worked and what didn’t work for them and why. And hindsight is a hundred percent. So everybody who did work did something and it didn’t work and get to tell you what didn’t work. So by looking in these spaces, I was able to find a couple of things. Much of the engaged public was distrustful of the government regulating cannabis. And it’s kind of understandable. We spend all this time locking people up during prohibition. And then now we’re saying, Well, okay, fine, you can go ahead and do it. Black and brown communities assumed that the market would be fixed. Despite the social equity provisions in the Act and the CRC’s stated mission to go above and beyond the state mandate to ensure an equitable market, it was assumed that licenses were going to go to the multi-state big core, predominantly white-owned companies.
Toni-Anne Blake (28:00):
And some of the factors fostering that mistrust were well-earned, right? So there was, in New Jersey specifically, there was a lot of controversy and some lawsuits related to the rollout of licenses for the medicinal businesses. The CRC, in fact, inherited the resolution of those lawsuits. And, or we’ll talk about some of the messaging that had to be related to that. And then also we can look to other states, the ones that have gone before. And there is a chronic lack of diversity among cannabis owners in other states and other states kind of did it the other way where they rolled out the program and then tried to add social equity components. So it’s trying to fix it. And we led with social equity so that needed to be part of our messaging. Anything Paul?
Paul Meyere (28:54):
Oh gosh, I was on mute as always. Two years. I can’t figure it out. No questions yet on our end.
Toni-Anne Blake (28:59):
Awesome. Okay. So we’ve been doing this for a long time. So some of the audiences will be obvious. Everyone understands why elected official means on there — we’re public affairs. This is a public affairs conference. In addition, though, to all the typical reasons I would say that as long as cannabis is controversial elected officials who publicly support legalization need ammunition to defend their position. And that kind of falls on us to give them that message, whether directly or indirectly, we just show progress success benefits to their constituents. Municipal officials will also be part of your audience with special consideration. If there is a municipal rule situation like there is in New Jersey, the public consumers and non-consumers advocacy groups, community-based groups, and others, depending on what the goals are, we’ll talk about goals.
Toni-Anne Blake (30:12):
So as public affairs folks, predominantly are goals are informing and education, that is primarily what we do. But what, beyond that, down to the detail, what will you need to communicate first? It depends. Effective public sector communications for me has to start with earning public trust so that your audience will ultimately listen, believe you, and be moved to do the things you want them to do. The desired behavioral outcomes that are achieved by maintaining, I think, a delicate balance between transparency, even amid something with keen public interest like cannabis, and also, of course, not divulging the kinds of information that shouldn’t be publicized yet or ever. Just kind of like striking that balance and transparency has been very important to this process for me. And my communication strategy. So we made sure everybody knew that public meetings were open.
Toni-Anne Blake (31:18):
Because of the COVID year 2021, we were still on lockdown. So all our meetings were virtual. We still have not had an in-person meeting. I think our next one will be but promoted the public meetings heavily on our social media sites and through media. We used social media posts to clarify roles. For example, municipal rule municipalities I mentioned. There are, despite the overwhelming support by residents, voters of New Jersey for cannabis recreational cannabis regulation and sale more than 60% of municipalities and New Jersey has a lot of municipalities, but more than 60% of municipalities currently are opting out of cannabis sales or any kind of cannabis businesses within their jurisdiction. And some are only one, or some are only cultivation and not recreational. And part of my messaging communication goals had to be making sure people understood what municipalities are responsible for and what the CRC is responsible for.
Toni-Anne Blake (32:26):
Another thing is homegrown. Like I had no idea so many people were interested in growing their own plant at home. Like I had no idea. But apparently for pricing, for access, people wanna grow. And that has been a really big sticking point. And we have to constantly remind people on our social media through our meetings. We are not responsible for home grow. It is not in the CREAMMA act. We can’t make it happen until legislators do. And we, as I mentioned the lawsuits before, part of our communications goal was making sure people understood that the old RFA process the call for bids process is old. We’re not using it anymore. It is now an open application process, rolling applications. Anybody can apply. There’s a social equity prioritization framework. So if you have had a cannabis charge conviction, if you are, if you have a state-certified minority business, if you are a disabled veteran, if you are living in designated impact zones or economic economically disadvantaged areas, you are a priority.
Toni-Anne Blake (33:51):
Your application is considered first. So the goal was to make sure people understood how the distinction between how things were previously done and how they were going to be done under this new agency and under these new regulations. So what will maybe be standard for somebody else for another state or another agency is introducing yourself. And we had to do that. There hadn’t been a new New Jersey State Department in a very long time. We had to tell people what our new function is, what our name was, who we were, educate the media and the public about what the next steps would be. Inform the public about what has changed, what is now allowed, and what is still not allowed provide any information available for businesses, or the best semblance of a timeline, particularly for businesses. And also safe use messaging.
Paul Meyere (34:49):
I have a question here. You know, how do you track the success of your communication strategy? Are you measuring reach, social media engagement, or even the amount of communication campaigns you’re able to run?
Toni-Anne Blake (35:01):
Absolutely. So, as I said, I started with no money <laugh>. So there is the growth of our social media audience, certainly. Our web trends, the analytics for web trends for how our traffic was coming in, where they were going, how much time they were spending on the website we set up, and I’m gonna get into that a little later, but we set up a microsite so that when our goal was to bring in application, so we saw the traffic through there. Also anecdotally I counted the change in the tenor of the conversation on social media as a positive. Initially, as I said, that was where I saw, Oh, the fix is in, they’re not gonna give it to anybody. Da da. You know, like, the rules are gonna be crazy. And then when the rules came out and we did a primer and we, you know, educated the media and went through the rules with them, I saw the conversation change. And as we did more explaining about what the process gonna look like, we saw the conversation change. And, and I just said to somebody the other day, I am down to about three recognizable trolls. And I think that’s amazing. Across all our amazing, all across our social media techniques. Cuz there was a time when there were many, Now there are three. I know, I know what you know, who they are and I think that’s great that hope I answered the question.
Paul Meyere (36:23):
I think you did. And we also put a poll on the chat here you know, asking, does cannabis have public support in your state? And I would say about 70% say yes. And 30% say it’s complicated, but we have no nos. Do you think, you know, say 10 years ago, do you think that the poll would be completely skewed? Or what do you think about that?
Toni-Anne Blake (36:44):
I’m gonna, to be honest, that I, and I think they will be the case for a lot of people, I didn’t think about it. I didn’t know, I, I, it was not something I thought about. I knew from, you know, like friends or family members that California was, for a long time I thought only California was the only state. And then I went to Colorado a few years ago and that was my first inkling of my previous job. I, we had a conference in Colorado and I was there and I just noticed like a lot of people from the conference were like streaming down a particular street to go. It was a constant and the buzz. And I’m like, Oh, that’s very interesting. Because one of the things that told me just, you know, anecdotally me looking at who’s going in, that the face of cannabis was not what I thought it was. And that was kind of like what started me thinking about it. But again, that was maybe four years ago, so that was pretty recent. I don’t think 10 years ago I, it, I was thinking about it at all. I, I think 10 years ago. What I do know is that if somebody brought it up, it would’ve been in whispered tones.
Paul Meyere (37:57):
Okay. Like behind the scenes almost.
Toni-Anne Blake (37:59):
Yeah, behind the scenes. <Inaudible> it wasn’t something, you know, people talked about out loud or nice circles. Anyway.
Paul Meyere (38:07):
Well great. Thank you Toni-Anne.
Toni-Anne Blake (38:09):
Okay. sometimes safe use messaging, I should say is as it is in New Jersey, is written into the legislation that we are required to, particularly for underage to — underage deterrence is written into the law. So that was you know, we have a safe use page and every now and again we’ll do some safe use messaging, but a full-on campaign, I’m just in the bidding process right now. And that will come. So you have your communication goals and also, you know, who the stakeholders will also tell you what some of those goals should be. Post the four messaging, specific messaging. I have to say this, like, it’s really important for you to remember, do not continue the legalization debate. It’s done, it’s legal. We’re not talking about whether it should be or should not be anymore. Your job, or my job as this spokesperson or the communicator for the agency is to speak about the regulation and where the market is moving.
Toni-Anne Blake (39:20):
You can get tangled up in conversations about whether or not it should be legal. Every now and again, somebody will be at a public meeting that will talk about it. You need to keep it from kids and that’s fine as part of the safest messaging. But don’t get bogged down in the legality question. Understanding the political landscape and what behavioral outcomes are desired, again, from your stakeholders. And your bosses will determine the messaging priorities, the messaging in the immediate months after we’re conflicted, well not conflicting, but just a lot of them that were changing rapidly. Agility has been key. Multitasking is paramount. There’s just no way. But some of the messaging that I imagine would be the same for everybody is the agency values. What are commitments, and what is the mission? And what is again, is in our purview you know, borrowing down onto how the law affects residents’ lives, whether they’re supported or didn’t support cannabis. Clarifying the murky points, and what people can expect. What are the parameters for the business application process and how to safely use cannabis and cannabis products? For us, our commitments are to equity and safety. So it’s equity in the marketplace. Safety by protecting access for patients and making sure there are quality, safe and quality products.
Paul Meyere (40:58):
Yeah, Toni-Anne, have you had do any clarifying on New Jersey policy after President Biden re President Biden’s recent executive action on federal marijuana policy, given that, you know, lots of power still rests in the states.
Toni-Anne Blake (41:16):
We haven’t, and the reason why we haven’t is that pretty much by now all the media understands that we are ahead of this. We have been expunging cuz expungement was part of the CREAMMA act. So the clarification that we have had to do going along was to make sure they understood that the expungement was done through the AGs office and not us, the through the courts and not us.
Paul Meyere (41:43):
Toni-Anne Blake (41:44):
Yeah. So we were definitely ahead of the curve on that one. So many audiences, varying messages, several communications goals as it as it is for me, and no budget. What would be, just dropping the chat? What would be your primary communication tool if you were in that situation? Drop your answer in the chat and then Paul, you can tell me what it is, what answers you’re seeing.
Paul Meyere (42:15):
Let me see here. Waiting them to, to fill in, there’s usually a little bit of delay in the chat here, I guess, you know, when it comes to, and while we wait for these answers to drop in, when it comes to, you know, that public trust you know, is there kind of that golden egg of, of who is the most, who’s the best person to have that public trust? Is it the, is it officials, or the community leaders? And who do you see has the most success in doing that?
Toni-Anne Blake (42:42):
So we haven’t done the study here. But again, somebody, one of the other states did the study, and the person who people trusted the most were budtenders. <Laugh>.
Paul Meyere (42:59):
Oh, that’s interesting.
Toni-Anne Blake (43:00):
The budtenders. And then I believe doctors. But yeah, the regulators came a little ways down the list. Friends, family came first, the regulators came a little way down the list.
Paul Meyere (43:16):
I was a little surprised. I always thought it would be like an elected official. But, and I guess
Toni-Anne Blake (43:22):
Paul Meyere (43:23):
I guess to answer your question here, Toni, in we got once as social media, then we have someone saying in-person ads and relevant community targets, like bus stops or, or train stations. And we also have influencers in community organizations. So that’s kind of the avenues that folks think would be best to get this message going.
Toni-Anne Blake (43:44):
Yeah, well, so I will, I will respond to some of those. So yes, social media, cuz it’s free. Cuz remember I have no budget, bus ads didn’t have a budget yet. So right out of the gates, it had to be our website. Have to be our website. We did not have an in-house IT department. Remember I was a very early hire. We actually still don’t have an IT department in-house. But the state’s IT office was super helpful. There were so patient with me because I was really committed to setting up a website, which was all things to all people. Whether there were lawyers, search, researching legislation and regulations or businesses getting guidance on the application process, or the general public looking for information. It was important to me that the language was simple and as, as simple as possible. The fifth-grade level at least, or eighth-grade, fifth to eighth-grade level, I have taken the position that having information easy to find and easy to understand and accessible is part of the CRCs commitment to social equity.
Toni-Anne Blake (44:59):
I didn’t want, you know, entrepreneurs who don’t have lawyers, for example, to be at an information disadvantage because they couldn’t understand or access information. So the website had to be a resource platform. There is everything and I’m very proud of my website. Please go look at its nj.gov/cannabis. If there is something you wanna know about New Jersey cannabis that you cannot find there, please email me and let me know. I guarantee you that if it is in our purview, or even if it is not, but it’s related, you will find a link from our website. It has to be it was important that it was a resource platform. We use it as a campaign amplifier when we got some money to do a campaign, which I’ll discuss. It is our campaign amplifier and our bulletin board. That hero image rotates about four or five different things at any given time about what is going on.
Toni-Anne Blake (46:02):
It is education and information. There are about six FAQs on our website general for businesses for medicinal whatever, What they’re in total, I would say over a hundred questions answered in these different FAQs connected all over the website. And they’re also these little explainers for words that aren’t part of our daily parlance. People may not understand. They’re also explainers for those that will just pop up right on the screen. And also to the next person who said social media. Social media was owned, we owned it, so therefore free platform. And it was obvious to use. Once we started providing information through the platforms or audience just blew up and they have not stopped growing. I coordinated, oh, by the way, this is an ask, but we have been locked out of our Facebook account because I tried to create an account for staff comms as a person and we have been locked out.
Toni-Anne Blake (47:08):
Does anybody have any suggestions of how to fix that? Please send me an email. I would love to know. But even our Facebook account just jumped thousands in the last couple of weeks. I’m not quite sure why I need to go down on the web trends on that. I know that our post last Friday or last Thursday, congratulating the thousands of people who are now having their federal records expunged. That one did very, that, that posted really, really well. So I coordinated the messaging on the platforms with every phase, every milestone, and every event. And I continued like I did in the research stage to continue to use the platforms to listen. I would see something where a number of people were commenting incorrectly or asking the same question. I would make sure the information existed on our website.
Toni-Anne Blake (48:02):
I would it is not our practice to respond directly to comments in our threads unless it’s a specific question that I can say the date is or here it is on our website. But I would create a post that would answer questions or clarify something or add it to our website. We also used it ultimately to amplify our paid campaign when we got that going. And I would say this if your reach is significant on social media depending on what your campaign goals are, you may not even need to have paid advertising if your social is doing really well. Somebody did mention community outreach and that has been very important. And I will say this very often.
Toni-Anne Blake (48:57):
I know I was, and I imagine if the government communicators who are going to enter the cannabis space, they will be new to the space. There will have been people on the ground doing the work for years before legalization. And they will have influence on the public and it is very important to engage with them early in the process here in New Jersey, we started having meetings that the commission started having meetings with them as soon as they were seated and the agency was started, they started having conversations about what it is that was a needed in the cannabis industry, what the concerns of the community were, what people were looking for. And that was grassroots. So you’re talking about your community organizers. We are very proud of the ongoing communication we have with our legacy sellers which is primarily through our Office of Diversity and Inclusion. And our legacy sellers are those people who are already in the cannabis space. We don’t like to call the black market we’re, we call it legacy, the legacy market. And we’re having, we have really great conversations about how to get them into the legal space. For grasstops, we’re talking to the heads of advocacy organizations, Chambers of commerce business leaders, and we’re doing that through cohosted community events. Incoming, the ODI email sign-up emails to subscribers and a lot of virtual meetings.
Toni-Anne Blake (50:44):
Yeah, I will finish. So partners are really important internally and externally. You want to think about who it is that you interact with or who affects your work. I wanna say this for media relations. There will be interest to cover stories on cannabis. You will not have to stalk a reporter. However, you may have to sometimes pitch for angle, but generally speaking, there will be a lot of interest. Controversial. Historical is big, is a big deal. Media relations has to be about education though. Just like many of us coming into the space, the journalists don’t know anything about cannabis. They’re very often State House reporters or financial reporters and they will need to learn. So we are really good about providing primers to media and explaining the law breakout, having meetings and conference calls with them to explain things.
Toni-Anne Blake (51:39):
This is a public affairs group. I don’t have to tell you how government relations, how important government relations is. I will say that we have to learn the hard way about keeping our legislators in the loop. As I said before, they need to be able to defend their position. So we need to give them admission and give it to them early. I wanna go over when we finally did get some money to have our public information campaign, the intent was to bring in those people who have typically been left out of the market, like in other states, and bring them in. But these are the people who were skeptical that the market was going to be skewed. So we had to, this is the plan video ads on social media, transit ads. Somebody mentioned bus shelters and microsites.
Toni-Anne Blake (52:29):
Here’s what happened. The word cannabis gets bounced from social media all the time. We couldn’t do it. We couldn’t even post anything. I know New York has been trying to engage with the administrators at TikTok and Snap and all those other places and Google. We actually got somebody on the phone to explain, we were a state, didn’t matter. Other states are basically playing whackamole. They’ll post something, see if it gets not taken down, and they’ll put it back out. They’ll appeal. Ultimately we end up with programmatic advertising. Billboards. Our New Jersey Transit gets federal dollars. They didn’t wanna chance it, states said no. So we had to go with non-state-owned buses and bus shelters. Our microsite ended up being cannabiz instead of cannabis. And so far we’ve been okay with social media if we’re posting images and not necessarily going on about cannabis. And this is just one of the images that we used for our program.