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The Challenges Ahead: Barinder Rasode on Communication and Education

Friday, January 25th 2019
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The Challenges Ahead: a series of conversations with Canadian insiders about the sector's most pressing issues.

Growing up, Barinder Rasode dealt regularly with the challenge of her parents’ permission. They were loving, but conservative, Indian immigrants who valued strictness in child-rearing and didn’t yet understand their adopted country. When Barinder wanted to do something other parents might consider normal—like going to a friend’s house to study, or staying late in the school library—her parents often clamped down.

In any situation she had three choices. She could accept her parents’ decisions and miss out on the things she wanted to do; she could disobey her parents’, do what she wanted, and endure the consequences; or she could find a way to make a case for herself in a way her parents would hear and understand.

“I had to advocate, in a respectful way where they didn't feel challenged or threatened, by educating them on what I needed,” she explained. “So, it became a part of who I was.”

We were sitting outside the Women’s Zen Lunch at the Lift & Co Vancouver convention. On stage, she insisted, in her typically direct style, that Zen Lunch attendees consider cannabis as part of a woman’s right to proper healthcare.

“I don't want us to lose sight of the fact that this plant is a medicine,” she told the crowd. “We do need to put pressure on governments so that they’re honouring how we're wired and built.”

Rasode is hard to describe because of how many things she’s done. At the Zen Lunch, she was described as the CEO of cannabis-business accelerator Grow Tech Labs, though she’s equally well known as CEO of the National Institute for Cannabis Health and Education (NICHE), and editor in chief of cannabis business magazine Botaniq.

Those with longer memories will remember she was also called Vancouver’s 45th most powerful person a few years back, around the time she was a two-time Councillor for the City of Surrey, a Vancouver suburb nearly as big as Vancouver itself. That was just before she ran for mayor of Surrey, breaking away from one party to lead an upstart team of eight progressive candidates, and took 21% of the vote.

“It's always been consistent that I do what I'm passionate about, so all of the projects that I'm working on have a policy component, an education component, and building a movement component,” Rasode said. “I think that we get hung up a little bit sometimes on traditional charts and models but also we are in the most fascinating time, I will never have an opportunity to give my all to four projects, nor should any sane person ever do that but I don't want to look back in three years and go, ‘If only I had just stuck with that one.’”

What ties Rasode’s various projects together is that she describes herself as an educator who likes to build movements. When I asked what she felt was the greatest issue confronting the cannabis industry, it wasn’t a surprise her answer was about communication. She’s a proud cannabis outsider with limited history in the space, and she knows that many people are still opposed to cannabis for reasons she believes have to do with a lack of informed consideration. Instead of attacking these cannabis opponents, she argued, the sector needs to focus on learning how to educate respectfully, the way she did with her parents as a kid.

“That's where I say to people, ‘Don't create the them and us,’” she stressed. “What it's going to take is for us to create an environment where people don't feel vulnerable or attacked if they don't agree with us. Then how do we present the stories of people who are most like them who speak in the same language either literally or figuratively? And how do we then choose influencers that represent a broad spectrum of the community so that more people feel aligned to them?”

Interestingly, she also sees this need for education as well matched with how marketing will work under Health Canada’s stringent advertising guidelines. She noted people are best won over—to both brands and new ideas—by friends and community members whom they trust, and said the cannabis industry needs to learn to “value an individual's personal experience, versus paying 30 grand for a billboard. Maybe we go back to the old fashioned ways of having coffee, tea parties to sell and pitch stuff.”

The fact that cannabis users vary widely in ages and backgrounds means people of one background—such as her own, a woman of colour in her late 40s brought up in an immigrant community—will often learn with less prejudice from people like themselves.

“We have submitted a proposal to Health Canada for a very comprehensive outreach campaign to various ethnic communities,” she said. “We want to produce materials in Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Punjabi, Hindi—across the country. Anybody in Canada can see the municipalities that quickly opted out are the ones that have a major portion of the population from those communities.”

Making a convincing appeal to wide communities of immigrants also means seeking to win over the kinds of converts whom everyone in the community knows—doctors, lawyers, accountants, and even religious figures. This appeal to the pillars of the community is a typical Rasode’s strategy.

“When somebody that they respect for other reasons stands up and talks about cannabis,” she says, “it's the same reason people look at me and go, ‘You're a very unlikely person to be in the cannabis’ but then they are like, ‘Why is she doing it?’ They take that extra time—and so your point is very important.”

Her program needs to be strategic because opposition to cannabis legalization is well-funded and well-organized. This is especially true among Canadian multicultural communities: she noted some of the stiffest opposition is backed by a wealthy and powerful Chinese-community lobby group.

“If we aren't able to counter the messages they are putting out there,” she warned, “MPs running in those ridings will feel vulnerable and then they will put pressure on government to not [continue expanding legalization] as well as they could.”

Rasode doesn’t believe the Chinese lobbyists whose efforts she hopes to deflect are bad people, but simply that they have not had access to the right information.

“We need to make the tent bigger,” she said “You have to be very tolerant of the people who don't agree with you.”