This article is part of a series on the cannabis industry called “The Green Rush.”
If you doubt that cannabis may have an image problem, we have a Cheech and Chong record we’d like you to hear.
Thanks to years of stoner jokes, as well as official government policy and propaganda such as Reefer Madness and “Just Say No,” the substance has a reputation that clings to even the most upscale artisanal-cannabis boutique. And yet the formidable challenges of transforming yesterday’s pot into today’s legal cannabis have not deterred Victoria Gates ’10, who serves as Director of Operations at NisonCo PR, one of the country’s first and leading cannabis public relations firms.
“The industry is still in its adolescent phase,” observes Gates, who grew up in Sunderland, Massachusetts, and started at Williston her sophomore year. “We’re still growing and still finding our stride.” That rapid expansion has kept things interesting for NisonCo, whose 21 remote employees are distributed throughout the country (Gates herself recently moved back to Massachusetts after four years in Colorado), and whose clients include large retailers, cannabis-product manufacturers, CBD suppliers, and businesses in the emerging psychedelic space. “We have a really intimate knowledge of cannabis that other firms don’t necessarily have,” she says.
Like Sal Pace, Gates notes that inclusion and social equity have emerged as key issues for the industry, “so at NisonCo, we do a lot of work with policies and then a lot of work with clients that
are working to address those things.” Among their recent efforts: partnering with a group that helps formerly incarcerated individuals get jobs in the industry, and offering pro bono public-relations and search-engine-optimization services to smaller brands with a social mission.
Gates’ interest in changing how society views cannabis dates back to her time at Ithaca College, where as a double major in psychology and marketing she joined her campus chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, looking “to channel my rebellion and my anti-authority sentiment,” she explains. The club helped pass the first Good Samaritan law in New York State, beginning with a campus policy that granted students amnesty for drug use if they needed to call 911. Members also worked to equalize the school penalties for underage students caught with alcohol or cannabis. And they formed a peer-led, harm-reduction educational series called Just Say Know. Gates became president of the cam
pus chapter, succeeding Evan Nison, who after college launched NisonCo PR and hired Gates a few years later.
Gates credits her time at Williston with impressing upon her the importance of education, in both academic subjects and life skills. “I wasn’t like a lot of kids who go off to college and get their first taste of freedom,” she says. “I luckily got that at Williston in a safe and supportive environment. It taught me how to do what you need to do, hunker down and get the work done, and then know that you can have that play time later.” In particular, she gravitated to the hands-on work of tech theater, and discovered her love for photography in classes with Ed Hing ’77.
Today, she sees education as key to the future success of the cannabis industry as well. “The public education component is so important,” she maintains. “Everything in moderation. One of our mottoes is ‘It’s not so much about the substance as your relationship with the substance.’”