The industry has been loosely organized since its inception in 2012, but now needs a more formal trade group to make its voice heard by state and local officials, as well as the public, Downing says. He intends to lobby legislators for proactive policy stances, spur increased self-regulation, increase political participation of industry participants, and protect the industry from adverse laws.
"These are standard things that all trade organizations do," Downing says. "We need some more formality."
The group, formerly known as the Arizona Dispensary Network, originally was headed by notable grower and activist Gordon Hamilton, who still advises the group but has ceded the leadership role to Downing.
The all-volunteer organization brings together dispensary owners, applicants for the 31 new licenses about to be released by the Arizona Department of Health Services, and providers of ancillary services to the Arizona marijuana market.
It holds free monthly meetings sponsored by Weedmaps, a national dispensary-mapping service that, Downing says, understands the important role MITA can play in affecting policy. (More information about the group's next meeting, scheduled for Wednesday, September 28, is available on the MITA website.)
More than 250 industry participants attended the most-recent meeting, at which Weedmaps president Chris Beals and the company's vice president of government relations, Dustin McDonald, discussed Weedmaps' role in lobbying governments at the federal, state, and local level. They stressed the importance of working with local officials to make them see the value of proactive and well-informed policies regulating the marijuana industry.
Dan Schmink, a local veteran with ties to the medical-marijuana industry, discussed his new nonprofit, the Southwest Healing Group, which aims to connect veterans with medical cannabis. Bill and Cindy Abbott, part owners of the Holistic Center, a local Phoenix dispensary, spoke about their charity dinner benefiting multiple sclerosis research. And John Hartsell of the local media firm Weediabuzz announced an upcoming debate he'll co-host with the Phoenix Business Journal on Proposition 205, the proposal on Arizona's November ballot to legalize recreational marijuana use.
Downing says numerous elected officials have attended association meetings to learn about the industry and meet cannabis-business owners. Getting through to legislators on the issue, he adds, can be a challenge.
"A lot of them think marijuana is just a bad thing because of the whole Nancy Reagan 'Just Say No' thing," he says.
Downing hopes to form a close partnership with the Democratic caucus in the Arizona Legislature.
"The Democratic caucus has already been supportive of this issue," he says. "Representative [Mark] Cardenas and I have been working together to reach out to other members of the caucus. I recently took six members and their staff on a tour through three different state-licensed facilities. Most have never been to a facility before, and their eyes were opened to what's happening."
And he hopes to provide informed responses to concerns raised by prohibitionists like Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, and conservative talk-radio host Seth Leibsohn, who run the prohibitionist group Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy (ARDP).
One of ARDP's many anti-legalization arguments is directly trade-related: that Prop 205 would create a monopoly for existing dispensaries.
The initiative does call for a one-year period during which existing medical-marijuana dispensaries would be the only businesses allowed to sell medical or recreational marijuana. But Downing says it would be ridiculous to vote down 205 because it protects current dispensary owners.
"Of course it gives preferential treatment to existing dispensary owners," he says. "Otherwise, you're just telling a whole industry to go screw themselves. That idea would be 10 times more absurd than the concept of giving preferential treatment to business owners who put their necks on the line to open medical businesses and funded and advanced the industry. It is reasonable, but the industry needs to step up even more to support the initiative."
Downing believes that medical patients will benefit if adult-use marijuana passes in November.
"Prices will drop significantly," he predicts. "It could be as low as one-third of the cost it is today. Anybody who is trying to convince patients that recreational marijuana is a bad thing for them is just crazy."
Downing believes that at least 85 percent of dispensary owners have attended at least one MITA meeting. Monthly participation depends on who is scheduled to speak, he says, and varies from 35 percent to 75 percent of Arizona's 92 operating dispensaries.
Downing views his role as helping business owners realize the importance of being politically active.
"People don't want to talk about politics, they only want to think about things that affect their business," Downing says, adding that anyone who works in the marijuana industry anywhere in the nation has an obligation to support legalization efforts, because it's in their best interest.
"Their level of support can never be enough," he says.