How to Launch a Cannabis Permitting Process Really, Really Quickly

By Josh Goldstein, Chief Product Officer

When California voted to legalize marijuana in late 2016, a lot of people were excited, especially the prospective cannabis buyers and sellers. For regulators, though — the group of government officials tasked with setting up a system of permitting to govern this entirely new industry — that excitement was a major regulatory and governance challenge.

(Photo: Jacob RepkoUnsplash)

Following legalization at the state level, many cities passed their own laws regulating who could open a dispensary. In some cases (see, for example, Clearlake), city ordinance actually detailed the steps required to get a permit for a variety of activities: dispensary, growing, manufacturing, etc. In other cities, the guidance was less specific. Either way, a regulatory agency faced the practical task of setting up a permitting process.

We’ve been working with a major California city that is launching a new cannabis permitting process, using CityBase digital services. As part of this process, we’ve studied how cities across the state are responding to the new law. Here are a few things we learned.

1. Permit Managers Need an Easy Way to Get Feedback from Stakeholders

For teams in charge of launching the permitting process, one major challenge is getting the user-facing content exactly right. While there is often guidance on language in the ordinance, teams need a way to prototype application forms and get feedback from legal and other departments.

What we’ve often seen in cities is that teams will build web forms by hand, and send these around to stakeholders after each update. As designers and content strategists hear feedback, they communicate necessary changes to their software developer, then wait until that person has the bandwidth to make changes.

This is inefficient, to say the least.

Instead, teams should use a software tool that allows anyone to build, design, and modify forms (including the conditional logic behind them), without having to wait on a developer to make changes.

Tools like this give newly formed teams the ability to collaborate more efficiently:

    • All stakeholders can view and make changes to the forms themselves.
    • The team incorporates feedback faster and iterates more quickly.
  • Developers are free to focus on backend integrations.

A drag-and-drop form builder can be a “nice to have” tool when you’re updating an existing form or making a paper form digital. But it becomes essential when you’re required to build a form from scratch on a tight deadline, translating the legal language and making sure you account for a variety of far-flung ordinances.

2. Permit Managers Need a Way to Communicate with Applicants

Many small businesses feel like the permitting process is a black box. While larger companies can hire experts to shepherd their applications, most small business owners must navigate the complex process on their own. They submit the initial application forms, and it is very difficult for them to get a subsequent status update. Our research suggests that this is because permit managers are overwhelmed with emails and phone calls seeking status updates.

The easiest way to send relevant and consistent updates is to build and maintain a simple communications plan. At key points in the approval process, applicants should be informed of what stage they’re in and when they can expect the next update. Permit managers should look for software that lets them automate these emails. For starters, the product should let teams send confirmation emails to business owners as soon as they’ve submitted an application. Even better if they can automatically send personalized preset emails based on an application’s status.

3. Permit Managers Need a Way to Simplify a Complex Approval Process

In our research, we found that approving a vendor for a cannabis dispensary requires multiple steps with many different municipal stakeholders. Common steps include verifying identity (Cannabis Office), conducting a criminal background check (Police Department), and making site visits to ensure buildings are up to code (Fire Marshal).

Cannabis permits need a single constituent relationship manager (CRM) to simplify this approval process. Permitting managers should be able to create sequential approval workflows that automatically assign each step to the appropriate team member.

For example, when the Police Department completes the background check, this could trigger a notification to the permit manager suggesting they can now review the store layout. At each step, team members can request additional information and approve or deny applications with the click of a button. They can see who has viewed which applications, identify when emails are sent, and track conversations tied to a given user.

In other words, they are able to focus on the permitting side of things rather than the tech side.

The trend toward marijuana legalization means that it’s an exciting time to be in permitting — and that cities across California and other states are facing similar challenges. We understand that a lot of what makes a service successful is invisible: services that function seamlessly require a lot of forethought. Every touchpoint matters.

Our product Screendoor facilitates the launch of digital services. Cannabis permitting is just one example. We make it easy to prototype and publish web forms, send status updates to applicants, and configure approval workflows. Those of us working on Screendoor are delighted that regulators are finding new uses for our software. We’re looking forward to learning as much as possible from their experiences so we can make our product even more useful for these types of applications.

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