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Marijuana: More Than a Taboo Topic

Joanne S. Barry, CAE

To the more than 140 people at the NYSSCPA's first Marijuana Symposium on Dec. 13, the Society produced a well-attended forum on one of the country's newest—and by many projections, quite lucrative—industries.

For the Society, though, the symposium was more than an educational forum for CPAs to learn about the business implications of medical marijuana. It was also the product of a strategic approach to reaching the Society's mission-driven goals of advocacy, professional excellence, public awareness, and supporting the next generation of CPAs.

I've written before about how the Society has been rebuilding its government affairs program. As we continue to grow this initiative, more and more of our members have become a part of it by hosting legislative breakfasts in their respective chapters, accompanying government affairs staff and consultants to meetings with state and national lawmakers, and contributing to the Society's political action committee. The symposium was also a program-building initiative, albeit a less direct one. State Senator Diane Savino, the primary sponsor of the bill that made medical marijuana legal in New York State, served as the symposium's keynote speaker. Savino is chair of the Senate Banks Committee and is also a member of the Independent Democratic Conference, a coalition of senators who broke away from the Senate Democrats and conference with Senate Republicans on key legislative issues. State Senator Liz Krueger, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, also participated as a panelist.

The senators' participation in the symposium not only made sense as an advocacy initiative—without them, the event would not have included important perspectives and background from the individuals who are helping to shape state policy—it also strengthened the Society's relationship with both lawmakers. We often refer to relationship building as one of the primary benefits of NYSSCPA membership, but that benefit does not pertain exclusively to individuals. We also build beneficial relationships as an organization, whether in Albany, in New York City, or locally.

Is hosting a symposium on medical marijuana controversial? Perhaps the topic of marijuana legalization is, but the bill allowing for the legal—albeit very regulated—sale of marijuana for medicinal purposes in New York became law in 2014, and the state's program launched in January 2016. Nearly 30 states have legalized marijuana in some form, ranging from adult recreational to strictly medicinal uses. While the product might be taboo, the business of cultivating, producing, and selling it is still a business, and every business needs accounting services. Because the industry is full of legal and professional conduct pitfalls for CPAs—the federal government continues to classify marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug—to not provide information on this topic would actually be doing a disservice to our members.

Todd Arkley, owner of the Arkley Accounting Group, was one of the symposium panelists who came from the West Coat to New York to talk about federal taxation issues surrounding the marijuana industry, and he left with a promise to be featured in an upcoming issue of NextGen magazine. While Arkley counts business owners in the cannabis industry among his clients, it's his nontraditional path to becoming a CPA that makes his story one our NextGen members need to hear. A former landscaper, Arkley entered the accounting field after he agreed to keep the books for one of his customers. He likens the role of the accountant to that of a water wheel—“one who efficiently shepherds resources to generate energy for growth,” as he writes on his firm's website.

The NYSSCPA always invites the press to its events and conferences; this symposium was no different in that regard. What was different was the number of media outlets the symposium attracted, as well as their breadth. The business trades were there—Accounting Today, CPA Trendlines, and the New York Business Journal—but so were Politico, the New York Law Journal, and WBAI, a left-leaning, noncommercial radio station in New York City.

The Marijuana Symposium was a resounding success—I recommend that you view it on our website; portions are available for free—but not solely because turnout was strong and the speakers were relevant. The symposium was the Society's proverbial stake in the ground. We've been building something new and exciting at the NYSSCPA, and the symposium is one of the best examples of it.

Joanne S. Barry, CAE. Publisher, The CPA Journal Executive Director & CEO, NYSSCPA.

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