Q&A with Taylor West

August 23, 2017

Earlier this month, COHN brought aboard a cannabis pro (and upped our collective IQ) by hiring Taylor West as our senior communications director. Taylor comes to COHN as the former deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, helping shape policy and push forward a rapidly evolving industry.

We invite you to spend a few minutes with Taylor in our new hire Q&A. Enjoy!

1. What are you doing here? Why COHN? Why now?

After four great years with NCIA—and many more in the overall political and advocacy space—coming to COHN is an exciting chance to stretch some new muscles while building on my cannabis industry and strategic communications experience.

I was really drawn to COHN because it’s not just a cannabis agency. I’ve known about COHN as a well-respected, high-quality brand and marketing firm since I first moved to Denver.

The cannabis industry is only getting more competitive and more sophisticated as it grows. The businesses that want to rise to the top and stay there need partners who combine unique cannabis industry understanding with time-tested experience across business sectors. I love that at COHN there’s a team of 30-some incredibly talented, creative professionals behind every project we take on.

2. Tell me something I don’t know about cannabis.

The science behind how the human body interacts with cannabis is pretty incredible. Humans, and all mammals, actually, have a whole biological system that is designed to relate to cannabinoids, including ones created by the body itself. (Yep, mammals produce their own internal cannabinoids.) That system for interacting with cannabinoids plays a role in all kinds of core body functions: appetite, stress, sleep, pain, immune responses, and more. We’ve only scratched the surface in understanding the ways cannabis could help us address some of our most difficult medical issues, including chronic and neuropathic pain, degenerative muscle disorders like multiple sclerosis, seizure disorders, neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and even cancer prevention or treatment.

The point isn’t that cannabis is a medical cure-all. It’s really important that we not over-promise on that front. The point is that there is a unique biological relationship between mammals and cannabis that has incredibly wide-ranging potential.

Boy, that got nerdy.

3. What was life like for you before legal cannabis? Where were you? What were you doing?

I spent a lot of my pre-cannabis career in politics. Through a good part of my 20s, I moved from state to state, working in media relations for a series of candidates. It’s hard to imagine a better boot camp. Working press on campaigns is basically living in a constant state of crisis communications.

That said, campaigns are a young person’s game. I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world…and I’m so glad I’m not doing it anymore.

After I pulled the ripcord on campaign life, I settled in D.C. for a few years, working on policy issues at a public affairs firm for a while and then as the Communications Director for a D.C.-based media organization.

In another life, I might have stayed in D.C., working my way up that ladder. But love intervened, as it will sometimes do, and lured me to Colorado for good at the end of 2012. That move changed my life completely, and I haven’t regretted it for a single minute.

4. What does the next 24 to 36 months look like for our industry? When will cannabis become legal across the U.S.?

I learned a long time ago that making predictions about the cannabis industry is a fool’s errand. And predictions about Congress are just as impossible (although you can at least get decent odds on “Congress will fail to act” pretty much any time).

That said, the big things to watch in the next two to three years are the roll-out of the adult-use industry in California and the increasing sophistication of brands in the most competitive adult-use markets.

It’s hard to overstate the impact that a fully implemented legal market in California will have on the overall industry. There’s simply no comparison in terms of size and potential for growth. But there are still lots of bridges to cross in terms of that roll-out. California’s existing medical and gray markets are huge in their own right and have grown up in a fragmented system that has varied from well-regulated to “Wild West,” depending on locality. Bringing that large and deep-rooted cannabis economy under one statewide regulated umbrella will be no small feat.

Make no mistake, though: This is the future of the cannabis industry in California. There will be bumps (and likely more) along the way, but the companies that ultimately succeed there will be the ones who invest for the long haul and make their peace with the realities of a regulated system.

In California and other well-developed adult-use markets, the critical trend will be toward smarter, more sophisticated marketing and branding. I talked about this in a lot of detail in an interview with Reason this week, but the gist is that it’s not enough just to be in the cannabis market anymore. You need to know who your target customers really are, what they really want, and how to communicate that your product is uniquely right for them. Differentiation is going to be key, and that’s about sophistication in both product development and in marketing.

When will cannabis be nationally legal? Honestly, I don’t know. The most likely scenario that gets us there is Congress finally agreeing to deschedule marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, which would essentially throw the decision about legality to individual states. The support for that kind of move is stronger than it’s ever been, but the realities of congressional policy-making still make it unlikely in the near future.

But hey, the story of cannabis policy over the last decade has been one of unlikely successes after years of seeming stalemate. So I make no claims to omniscience.

5. What will your autobiography be titled?

I Make No Claims to Omniscience.

6. What websites do you visit everyday?

For all its frustrating qualities—and they are legion—I don’t remember how I did my job before Twitter. I’m not nearly as active on it as I was back in my D.C. days, but I’ve still never found a better tool for staying on top of the industries and issues I follow most closely. (The key is to really curate whom you follow. Otherwise it gets overwhelming, and dispiriting, in a flash.)

With Twitter (and to a lesser extent Facebook) as my primary content discovery tool, I graze on individual articles from lots of different sources, meaning there really aren’t specific websites that I visit every day. (And yes, journalism friends, that makes me part of the problem.)

In the last year or two, I’ve also tried to claw back some of my reading time from the bite-size internet and put it into books again, which had disappeared from my life for a while. I’m now a devoted customer of the Denver Public Library’s e-book offerings, and it’s made me a lot happier.

(And fine, I’m also kind of a celebrity gossip connoisseur. I like for discussions that are little more highbrow than your average pink-tinged rumor-monger. And for the fun of trying to figure out the clues. We all need our guilty pleasures.)

7. What keeps you busy outside of work?

For the time being, it’s mainly a combo of reading, music, and eating. I covered the reading part above. My husband and I see a lot of live music in town, including taking in Denver’s really great local scene. (Point of personal pride: My husband is actually a part of that great local scene with his band, Bear Antler. I was not blessed with a similar level of musical ability.)

The eating part is also really just a function of my husband’s talents. He’s an incredible chef. I just hang out at the kitchen counter in the evenings and wait for delicious creations to appear in front of me. It’s nice work if you can get it.

All of this, however, is about to be totally up-ended. Our household of two people, one deliriously sweet golden retriever, and two grumpy cats is expanding by one tiny human in December. I don’t think any of us have any idea what we’re in for, but what’s life without a little adventure?


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