Women in Cannabis Interview: Devon Wardlow of Coastal Dispensary on Policy and Philanthropy
Within the rapidly growing cannabis industry, at both the state and city level, there are people behind the scenes making policy, creating laws and regulations, educating, and individually advocating to build a safe and prosperous cannabis community. Women are starting to emerge as a powerful force in these roles (both on the public and private side), and there’s a burgeoning opportunity to get involved.
Devon Wardlow, the public affairs director at Coastal Dispensary, a Santa Barbara-based vertically integrated cannabis company, thinks the time is now for more women to get into the space. I caught up with Devon (and her new puppy Habibi) to have a chat at Coastal’s 6,000 sq. ft. flagship retail store in downtown Santa Barbara.
CM: You’re the Public Affairs Director for Coastal Dispensary, a retail cannabis organization, based in Santa Barbara. Your role is an interesting one that our readers might not know too much about … so what exactly do you do? And perhaps give us a taste of a ‘day in the life’ of Devon at Coastal.
DW: As Director of Public Affairs, I head up Coastal’s expansion efforts. I work with government officials, the philanthropic community and our internal team to develop our application and expansion strategy. I am primarily focused on the permitting process for adult-use retail cannabis dispensaries.
As a Santa Barbara-based and founded company, Coastal is normalizing cannabis and highlighting the importance of an active, healthy, happy lifestyle. I feel lucky to say that I do not have a typical day—every day is different. Lots of strategy meetings, lots of ordinance reading and lots of learning from the community. I also work with regulators and local leaders to provide community focused recommendations on cannabis retail permitting.
Everyone is new to legal cannabis; cities and applicants are learning together with all stakeholders having the opportunity to improve the process. Advocating for best practices with policymakers while identifying opportunities for Coastal to make a positive impact, is my primary goal. In short, I have a great job. I work in the community that I love, with fun motivated people, on a policy issue that I deeply care about. The successful rollout of legal cannabis will set the stage for the new era of drug policy in the United States.
CM: You have an interesting background, working in D.C. — Who did you work for and how did you transition into the cannabis space?
DW: After growing up in Santa Barbara and graduating from UCSB, I moved to DC to intern in the Obama White House. I ended up staying for 8 years – working in the Obama Administration and later on federal affairs in the private sector, at Facebook and then Lyft. I loved my time in DC and am grateful to have had the experience of working and learning there starting early on in my career.
I had always planned to move home to Santa Barbara and am very happy that I did, when I did. This past year has been extremely exciting for me personally and professionally – watching my hometown community emerge into a geographic powerhouse in the cannabis industry.
Though I never worked in cannabis before, the issues are very similar to those the tech industry faces with federal regulators. In order to have successful regulatory oversight and policy implementation, industry must educate policymakers on the nuances of this rapidly evolving industry. And given that cannabis has such a conflicted policy history, it is even more important that industry engage with the community to ensure that legalization is felt of as a success to all community members.
CM: You grew up in Santa Barbara–where Coastal’s flagship store and your operations are located– you’re a graduate of UCSB, and most of your team is as well and seems like you all take pride in a lot of the team being local. What is it like to be back in the city you grew up in? How does that impact your work and influence company decisions?
DW: I am thrilled to be working in Santa Barbara County and across beautiful CA! It is pretty awesome to see how the community has evolved over the last 10 years in respect to cannabis policy. I love being a part of the new conversation where you have cannabis operators, elected officials, law enforcement and community leaders all working together to develop a safe process for the sale of legal cannabis. It is pretty amazing to be a part of this level of coordination across multiple stakeholder groups—all charged with different and sometimes conflicting responsibilities.
And when it comes to Isla Vista and UCSB, it really is a small world. Julian (our CEO), Myles (Director of Business Operations) and I, all lived within one block of each other in Isla Vista (the college town). Having graduated from UCSB and lived/loved Isla Vista life, we understand the importance of engaging and listening to the local community. The community is what makes Isla Vista the special place that it is. And as an applicant in this process we want to make sure that our efforts reflect the broader needs of the Isla Vista community.
This has been very interesting for me as I travel to communities across California and see the differences and similarities between how municipalities conduct their engagement around cannabis policy.
CM: It seems like Coastal is very active in the community. And you have helped lead some of the philanthropy initiatives at Coastal. What are some of the initiatives you have helped head up?
DW: Yes! Here at a Coastal being an engaged community partner is important, and as individuals we all want to be a part of something bigger that gives back. That’s why we created Coastal Cares, our employee community service and philanthropic donation program. Coastal Cares is a way for us to stay connected to our community and focus our efforts on specific charities. For our first year, we chose two local partners, PATH and Unity Shoppe. Both work to better the lives of underserved populations within our community. These organizations also provide ample opportunities for our team to get directly involved in their volunteer efforts which is really empowering for employees.
In 2020, we look forward to growing our Coastal Cares program and expanding efforts in Isla Vista and across Santa Barbara County broadly. As one of the only dispensaries in the region, we take our responsibility of stewardship seriously. We believe in the importance of working together as an industry and are committed to being a trusted and responsible community partner.
CM: Do you encounter a lot of women in this same role you have (as you are out meeting people, going to conferences etc.)? If no, why do you think that is?
DW: It depends. In working through the municipality processes on the retail side, I am often one of the few females and likely the only female advocating for specific policy recommendations.
I believe there is tremendous opportunity for women who want to lead and help shape cannabis policy in today’s industry. Women are ready to be leaders in the new legal industry and have the opportunity to shape how the cannabis industry and its surrounding regulatory policies continue to evolve.
Here in Santa Barbara County, there are a number of powerhouse women involved on the cultivation side of cannabis. Autumn Brands is a prime example, I am excited to have women leaders in this space and hope to see more women involved as the cannabis industry continues to grow in our region.
CM: For someone interested in getting into the policy side (or public affairs) side of cannabis, how do you recommend they get started?
DW: It is an interesting time to enter “cannabis policy” as the story of how cannabis regulation unfolds is still being written. It is exciting to get involved in the process of how we change drug policy in America – for the better.
If you are interested in cannabis policy, I’d consider interning with a local municipality in the process of implementing their cannabis ordinances; join a community coalition that is advancing common sense solutions to drug policy or reach out to your local cannabis store to learn about policy opportunities they may have available. If you are interested in politics broadly, join a political campaign or do an internship on the Hill.
CM: What excites you most about the future for cannabis in California and beyond?
DW: I am most excited about the potential societal benefits that cannabis legalization and substantial drug policy and criminal justice reform could have on communities across America.
In order to ensure we continue to move away from the antiquated drug policies of the past, we need to have successes in legalization that all facets of the community can identify with.
It is important that California have success in transitioning to the legal cannabis market. The more that community leaders from all sides can come together to ensure safe access,the more we as a nation will adopt holistic and community based approaches to drugs and criminal justice reform in America.