To avoid stumbling out of the gate, Canada and other countries that are moving toward legalizing recreational cannabis use need to learn from the mistakes of previously-prohibited industries like alcohol and gaming.

“There is a lot we can learn from other industries,” Cynthia Goodwin - President and Corporate Social Responsibility Lead of Revolution Strategy - said while moderating a panel on responsible use earlier this week at the 2018 World Cannabis Congress in Saint John, New Brunswick. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.”  

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Panelist Michelle Carinci - CEO of LottoTech, which operates Loterie Nationale in Mauritius - commended cannabis businesses that are discussing Corporate Social Responsibility before legalization becomes law.

“One thing you’re doing differently [in the cannabis industry] that we didn’t do is recognize that corporate social responsibility is key to your survival. When we began in the 1970s, it took almost three decades before we figured that out,” Carinci said. “It was quite painful talking about that.”

In the 1970s, there was what she calls an “innocent lottery draw every three months. By the 1990s, we’d forgotten about the objectives of player protection and public health. As an operation, it was strictly business.”

Soon after that came a backlash that saw severe restrictions imposed on the industry. Critics even called for outright bans on some forms of gaming. Carinci warned that the cannabis industry runs the same risk if it fails to develop CSR standards to address issues like preventing youth from becoming involved in the industry, educating the public on potential risks surrounding cannabis use, combating cannabis stigmas, establishing environmental protections, and promoting evidence-based research on cannabis.

To help businesses tackle those issues, Goodwin - alongside Corporate Social Responsibility expert Rick Petersen - announced on Tuesday a list of 16 inaugural founders of the Global Cannabis Partnership, a group of stakeholders who will work on setting standards to address burning questions that the cannabis industry will inevitably face. 

And one of the biggest challenges is "identifying how to marry that policy to actual practice,"  according to Sam Carsley - Vice President and Associate General Counsel at GreenStar Brands (a Canadian subsidiary of the alcohol producer and marketer Constellation Brands. "We can’t just have CSR as PR. It kind of floats into the ether. It gives you a warm feeling, but then falls flat."

Carsley added that an effective CSR standard also involves making sure consumers know what they’re getting into. When cannabis users and folks in the industry think of responsible consumption, they tend to think of topics like safe driving and restricting youth access. For those with no exposure to the effects of cannabis, though, public health information needs to begin at the beginning, explaining strains, THC and CBD, methods of consumption, and health risks. Carsley says developing a clear and effective language around cannabis use is crucial.

Goodwin agrees. She’s not a consumer of cannabis right now, but she told Civilized that if she decides to change her mind once legalization happens, she’ll need a lot more information first. So will many others, it seems.

“I was part of a conversation upstairs [at the Congress] and the question was posed among the group, ‘What’s the difference between a joint and a blunt?’” she told Civilized, “And no one in the group could confidently answer that question. It’s about definitions, it’s about nomenclature, and backing up the truck and acknowledging that there will be people trying cannabis for the first time who don’t know anything about it.”

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