We are living in an age of social justice. Cannabis corporations, like traditional franchises, recognize the value and necessity of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). However, unlike mainstream companies, cannabis retailers face additional challenges while attempting to do good and give back. Up-and-coming cannabis corporation Sanctuary Medicinals may be a role model for cannabis businesses that want to nail CSR correctly.
Sanctuary, a scrappy start-up cannabis chain that some people are sleeping on, launched approximately seven years ago with its first locally-owned, vertically integrated retail dispensary. Since then, the company’s meteoric rise has been described as “something of a whirlwind” by its former Marketing Director, Loren Hynes.
Sanctuary’s premier, vertically-integrated medical marijuana dispensary opened in Orlando, Florida. By the time the initial dispensary opened, the company was awarded additional licenses in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
In May 2016, Sanctuary opened the first medical marijuana dispensary in the state of New Hampshire. From there, the company was off to the races. In 2018, the brand launched its first medical location in Gardner, Massachusetts, which became fully adult-use in March of 2019. Next came an adult-use location in Danvers. Sanctuary opened a fifth location in Brookline in 2020. Fast forward to the company achieving its 10th and 11th medical marijuana dispensary locations in Florida and counting, in Boca Raton, and Palatka, respectively. With a newly awarded medical license in New Jersey, and a retail location presumably to follow, the company shows no signs of decreasing its momentum.
During the height of the pandemic, when dispensaries were designated “essential businesses” in the wake of large-scale retail shutdowns, the promotion team was lean, consisting of only two people. Their job was to help raise awareness to drive people beyond local foot traffic to Sanctuary, a far cry from the promotional efforts of numerous billboards in Los Angeles touting every dispensary and cannabis brand under the sun.
Sanctuary’s initiatives are attributable to having a younger Millennial and Gen Z staff. And yet somehow, this multi-state operator (MSO), while not yet on par or running with the big dogs like Curaleaf and Trulieve—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering that Sanctuary didn’t join the anti-patient MSO chorus to actively fight home-grow provisions in Florida—is quietly and more humanely holding its own. Moreso, the company’s corporate social responsibility initiatives set them apart from its more ruthless competitors.
CSR can be tricky in the cannabis space. While some might say the old adage “charity begins at home” could apply, Sanctuary initially faced repeated rejection from various local non-profits, including homeless shelters that did not want to partner with a cannabis company to accept donations. Team members knocked on several figurative doors of domestic violence shelters before finally finding one in Roxbury, Massachusetts, willing to accept cannabis-generated cash.
“I lost count of how many charities my boss and I called,” said Jacob May, Sanctuary’s Marketing Manager. This was a paradigm shift for employees used to being asked for cannabis donations.
“It’s a big transition, getting into cannabis from my previous line of work. Back then, people were pounding on our company’s door to ask for donations. This is a very different scenario. I’ve never had to ask people to take donations and face rejection before. That was a key learning experience,” Hynes continues.
However, being altruistic—often cynically derided as “virtue signaling”—is a precarious perch. “When times get tough, the ‘cause folks’ are the first to go,” says Hynes.
Many Millennial and Gen Z marketing mavens have made it their mission to convince higher-ups that CSR, rather than being a cost center or loss leader, is in fact good for business. This is a daring outlook, considering the IRS’s 280E clause that prohibits cannabis companies from writing off donations for tax purposes, making corporate givebacks in the cannabis sector seem less appealing.
Kera Duguay joined the company in 2018 and was present for the grand opening of Sanctuary’s Gardner location in November of the same year. Her current title is Regional Dispensary Manager. For Duguay, though, CSR is much more than merely cutting a check. “I think you can be more thoughtful, creative, and compelling in how you create partnerships,” she muses. “Giving back to the communities in which we operate in a meaningful, authentic, and productive way is paramount.”
“I think you can be more thoughtful, creative, and compelling in how you create partnerships. Giving back to the communities in which we operate in a meaningful, authentic, and productive way is paramount.”
—Kera Duguay, Regional Manager, Sanctuary Medicinals
After the initial partnership with the Roxbury shelter, Sanctuary made additional local donations by partnering with the Brookline Food Pantry by collecting canned goods. Sanctuary also conducts coat drives, which Duguay refers to more as “simply being good neighbors” than CSR per se.
Each Sanctuary location similarly collaborates with a local organization, and the organization rotates each quarter. Sanctuary’s homespun, neighborly approach seems to be paying off.
The Danvers dispensary location is currently partnering with Beverly Bootstraps, which provides critical resources to families and individuals so they may achieve self-sufficiency. Beverly Bootstraps offers emergency and long-term assistance, including access to food, housing stability, adult and youth programs, education, counseling, and advocacy.
In addition to donations, Sanctuary partnered with Bagley Inc., an org for the LGBTQA youth during Pride Month. Other donation recipients include Mission 22, which provides mental health and psychosocial support to military veterans and their families.
Sanctuary collects donations at the counter, and the company matches the raised amount at the end of each donation cycle.
In addition to working with local non-profit organizations, Sanctuary works closely with Boston’s Got Next and its owner, Shamara Rhodes, who supports local artists and small business owners in the Greater Boston area by giving them a platform to express themselves through the arts.
“The Social Justice Trap Movement, Inc. and Boston Got Next have partnered with Sanctuary Medicinals to bring music and mental health awareness through cannabis,” explains Rhodes. “The Social Justice Trap Movement is soon to be a global-based service organization serving the needs of musicians in the New England area.”
Since 2013, The Social Justice Trap Movement uses multidisciplinary arts to address trauma and mental and public health issues while creating a robust network and pipeline for womxn. Currently, the organization prioritizes artists who have experienced inequalities due to sexism, racism, and homophobia in the entertainment industry.
“Partnering with Sanctuary Medicinals expanded our network, and we were able to create more opportunities for artists to display their art and become an advocate for more than just cannabis flower, but for tinctures and topicals as well,” Rhodes continued.
Through Boston’s Got Next, Sanctuary has collaborated with MIA Art, fitness brand Strong Black Girl apparel, and Mass Cultivated, which is self-described as “the first in the nation jails-to-jobs training program for the cannabis industry.”
“This innovative public-private partnership provides fellows with a robust cooperative education program in the cannabis industry, free legal services, workforce preparedness training, and cannabis externships with livable wages and benefits,” boasts the Mass Cultivated website.
Overall, when leading by example, this small but mighty MSO demonstrates that providing micro-donations does not have to be a scary or off-putting endeavor. Local cannabis businesses that partner with their neighbors to help them to the best of their abilities are what makes a community a sanctuary.