It wasn’t cannabis that brought Gregory Foster and his family to Olympia one-and-a-half years ago. After two decades in Austin, Texas, Foster was looking for a change, and Washington’s capitol city’s beautiful nature caught his eye.
But after relocating and starting a job search, Foster recognized that his previous work experience could be perfect for the ever-changing cannabis industry.
Foster spent nearly a decade working for Consumer Reports, a non-profit organization that provides unbiased product ratings and reviews for consumer protection. He also has training in computer science, and a background in advocacy and activism, particularly in the realm of digital privacy.
“I just needed to figure out a way that I could be of service,” Foster said in a December phone interview.
With that background in mind, Foster attended a public meeting of the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board in November 2017. He noticed right away that there was low public attendance.
“Four out of the five meetings every two weeks were not broadcast or recorded,” Foster said. “There was no readily accessible way for stakeholders or members of the public to know what was happening.”
To change that, Foster founded Cannabis Observer, which sends independent citizen observers to observe and report on the public meetings of the WSLCB. Observers are contract employees who are cannabis industry professionals, advocates, activists, academics, journalists and technologists. Reports are published on their website, often with embedded links to audio recordings and WSLCB documents. Links are shared via e-mail newsletter and social media.
“The cannabis industry is extremely unique, and extremely new,” Foster said. “Because it’s so new, the establishment of law and rule, the adjudication of the cannabis industry, in every jurisdiction – we (regulators and legislators, as well as stakeholders and citizens) are making it up as we go along. The result is a patchwork of different laws and rules, which can result in mistakes and the need to change things over time.
“Rules are changing at a very rapid rate. For stakeholders in the industry, it’s very difficult to stay informed.”
Along with WSLCB public meetings, Cannabis Observer is beginning to observe and report on other legislative and regulatory bodies in the state, such as the Department of Agriculture and Spokane Clean Air Agency, to keep up with ongoing regulatory changes.
“Because this looks like it will be a busy session for cannabis, we intend to cover the state legislature as well,” Foster added.
Cannabis Observer also researches public records to provide more background and understanding behind potential regulatory and legislative changes, which can help industry advocates anticipate and influence policy.
Cannabis Observer is a project of a previously established company, Cannabis Data, which Foster founded to collect and analyze data surrounding the cannabis industry, specifically traceability. Cannabis Data has evolved into an incubator for cannabis industry projects, with Cannabis Observer as the first.
In the future, Foster sees Cannabis Data returning to data collection and analysis, as well consulting work. He also believes that the type of regulatory observation the Observer is conducting could be applied to other subjects and industries, as well as other states and communities.
He’d also like to have more people working full time for the organization and to hire observers in other parts of the state to report on regional regulatory meetings.
In order to maintain independence and impartiality, Cannabis Observer needs to be community supported.
“It’s a good way for us to be held accountable by stakeholders,” Foster said. “Journalism is facing a lot of challenges, what with the disruption of traditional business models based on advertising. It’s a challenge to not have that funding stream, but (community support) is a respectable way to go. It allows the community to hold you accountable. It’s a tangible way to vote with your dollars.”
Supporters can become patrons on the crowd funding platform Patreon, or donate via PayPal, Ethereum and Bitcoin; links can be found online at cannabis.observer.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter