Lawmakers, CEOs and bigwigs from all walks of life tend to gravitate toward the message Ngiste Abebe has shared along her journey to shape the cannabis industry.
Most recently, that journey includes serving as the vice president of public policy at New York-based Columbia Care—one of the largest vertically integrated cannabis companies in the world, with licenses in 18 U.S. jurisdictions and the European Union—where she has championed patient access, social equity and normalization across markets for the past two years.
“She’s one of those people that she may report to you, but you’re probably going to work for her someday. And that’s what gets me just gushing about her,” says Adam Goers, the senior vice president of corporate affairs at Columbia Care.
Working at the company for nearly six years, Goers is a partner and board member for Columbia Care’s operations in Delaware, Virginia and Maryland. He says he “poached” Abebe during a social event and recruited her to come work with him at Columbia Care.
“What makes her really unique, I think, is that when she speaks people listen,” Goers says. “That’s not something you just get to. It’s because you choose your words correctly and people put great weight into it. … I think that’s something that I would hope to have a quality of in life, but have not gotten there, as I don’t think most people do.”
Abebe’s efforts to protect medical programs and end the inequities caused by prohibition claimed victories this year in Virginia and New York, where lawmakers passed adult-use legislation that drew ink from Govs. Ralph Northam and Andrew Cuomo, respectively.
In addition to being an advocacy and reform leader through her service to multiple industry associations in those two states, Abebe has directed successful campaigns for pro-cannabis politicians, such as Northam and state Sen. Jennifer McClellan.
Also, Abebe co-founded Aulenor Consulting, which supported and provided resources to values-driven, social impact startups worldwide; she co-founded Undaunted Ventures, a political consulting firm that specializes in leadership coaching and training services; and she co-founded the Virginia chapter of the New Leaders Council, which recruits, informs, equips and connects leaders from various non-profit, private, government and political sectors to improve health care, housing, criminal justice and other social initiatives in their communities through local progressive action.
As the oldest of seven siblings in her family, Abebe says she’s always felt like she had a head start in receiving an early crash course in leadership development, but her path in the cannabis industry has felt a bit surreal, as did the news that she was one of six recipients of the Cannabis Conference 2021 Cannabis Leadership Awards.
“When I told my mom, I was like, ‘So, I got this award,’ she just started laughing,” Abebe says. “She was like, ‘Could you imagine at 8 being like, ‘I’m going to grow up and be a cannabis industry leader.’’ I think a lot, in the last year especially, about that line, ‘I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams.’ And, in some ways, I feel like I’m so far beyond that because I work in a world that nobody had really bothered to imagine when I was growing up.”
After receiving her bachelor’s degree in public policy from the University of Chicago, Abebe pursued her master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz School of Public Policy and Management. During that time, she completed a grad school capstone project that included research on why Proposition 19—California’s adult-use ballot initiative from 2010—failed and what it meant for the future of legalization.
She presented findings from the project to the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy in spring 2011, when Kevin Sabet, a former three-time adviser for that office—serving under the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations—directed its policies. In 2013, Sabet co-founded Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), a prohibitionist organization that aims to create policies that decrease cannabis use.
“We said there’s support for legalization, and it’s going to happen at the state level first,” Abebe says of her grad school presentation. “So, the federal government urgently needs to figure out what its approach is going to be once this juxtaposition happens.”
After earning her advanced degree, Abebe worked for the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2011 to 2016, before steering her way back toward the cannabis industry—cannabis prohibition was always something she believed was wrong, she says.
“Even at high school, I remembered debating it with friends and just always feeling like, well, people get to have alcohol,” she says. “I always believed cannabis prohibition was wrong … but never really thought I’d be working on it or have the vantage points I currently have to get to shape that process.”
While Abebe was born in Boston, she was raised in Chicago, where her dad owned a restaurant, and spent the last two years of high school in San Diego. She now calls Richmond, Va., her home.
In Virginia, Abebe is a board member for the state’s chapter of NORML, and she also serves as a member of the state’s Medical Cannabis Coalition. She has driven major changes in Virginia’s cannabis normalization by advancing a legalization bill that introduces smokable flower, ends criminal justice disparities, and introduces a broad and diverse social equity licensing program.
The legalization effort in Virginia led to the creation of three cannabis oversight boards, including a Cannabis Control Authority, a Cannabis Equity Reinvestment Board, and a Cannabis Public Health Advisory Board. With a certain number of appointees granted to the governor’s office, Northam named Abebe to the health board and her personal friend, Vickie Williams, to the equity board July 19.
The Cannabis Public Health Advisory Board was created to ensure that health experts have a seat at the table as Virginia establishes a legal cannabis market, according to Secretary of Health and Human Resources Daniel Carey, who will chair the council.
“I think one of the biggest challenges ahead for medical programs is the idea that all cannabis use is recreational,” Abebe says. “Over two-thirds of adult-use consumers are coming in for a health and wellness reason … and so, I think making sure folks understand that even when we talk about adult-use cannabis, we’re still talking about health and wellness, which isn’t to say that some people don’t use it for recreational or social uplift purposes and things like that.”
A patient advocate, Williams says Abebe’s passion and innate ability to understand policy and administrative regulations were critical in guiding policymakers as well as fellow policy influencers in the right direction to progress Virginia’s reform efforts.
“Ngiste Abebe is one of the best things to happen not just for the cannabis industry in Virginia but the commonwealth as a whole. Her presence here in the commonwealth has truly brought a breath of fresh air.” Virginia state Sen. Louise Lucas
“Leadership is not about being in charge,” says Williams, who owns OPN-Door Communications and specializes as a mediator trainer and a conflict coach. Williams also is a medical cannabis patient who had breast cancer 13 years ago and still suffers from neuropathy and anxiety from her chemo treatment, she explains.
“Leadership is about influencing folks to do better than you as the leader, influencing people to be able to be their best selves and to empower them in spaces and places that they would not have access to unless you gave it to them,” Williams says. “And then when you give it to them, you’re not giving it to them in a quid pro quo kind of manner. You’re giving that to them because you’ve given them information, you’ve empowered them. And then you set them in a space so that they can do what they came to do, but because you opened the door for them, they can really shine. That’s Ngiste as a leader.”
Williams describes Abebe as a connector who loves to see other people in her space shine on their own. She also characterizes her friend as “young, but she’s an old soul.”
Abebe also went to bat for patient access during adult-use legalization efforts in New York, where she is the president of the New York Medical Cannabis Industry Association (NYMCIA). As part of her undertaking, Abebe helped ensure that the 2021 approved adult-use bill included an update to the state’s medical program. Some of the long overdue improvements include additional dispensaries for underserved areas; addition of whole flowers as a product format; removing the conditions list in favor of letting medical providers decide; and expanding the qualifying medical providers beyond physicians, she says.
With Abebe’s help, NYMCIA developed various studies to support its intentions, including one on the potential economic growth adult-use legalization could spark, and how to maximize benefits of an adult-use market when leveraging the knowledge of medical operators.
Abebe not only uses her public policy platform to attract listeners of all ages, but she resonates well among high-ranking policymakers, such as 77-year-old Virginia state Sen. Louise Lucas, who assumed office in 1992 and took over as the president pro tempore after Democrats won the upper chamber’s majority in the 2019 election.
“She is the first Black senator pro tempore, period, in Virginia,” Williams says. “She’s the highest-ranking senator. And she absolutely loves and respects Ngiste to the fullest.”
Lucas, who is also the first woman president pro tempore in Virginia, was a primary sponsor for the Senate’s measure to legalize adult-use cannabis this year.
“Ngiste Abebe is one of the best things to happen not just for the cannabis industry in Virginia but the commonwealth as a whole,” Lucas says. “Her presence here in the commonwealth has truly brought a breath of fresh air.”
While Abebe became well-liked and respected by the highest-ranking state senator, that’s not to say she didn’t have to choose her battles wisely in Virginia. But being able to navigate tense moments while remaining influential is part of what makes her successful at shaping public policy, and Goers says during the past two years she’s been with Columbia Care, he’s seen this in action.
“A state [delegate] tried to do a little mansplaining to Ngiste on some cannabis policy in Virginia in a committee hearing,” Goers says. “And let’s just say that Ngiste, again, who’s this thoughtful, people-listen-to person, right? I think she picked up a couple of votes by the end of it because people really wanted to listen to her afterwards. And I don’t remember what the issue was that was going through, probably innocuous as it would seem today, but at that point it was somewhat contentious. And I think quite literally the way that she handled herself in that regard and the fact that it just reminded everybody that they actually want to make sure to listen to [her] is what literally carried the day in that committee vote.”
Work Leads to Progress
Experiencing the fruits of her labor pay off through provisions in the Virginia and New York adult-use legalization bills—and feeling like she and her peers made a difference—was “pretty exciting,” Abebe says. Yet she acknowledges the progress that remains to be made.
“For anybody who works in this space on the day-to-day, … these are just milestones; the work isn’t done,” Abebe says. “It’s just really, honestly, like we’ve just entered a new and way more exciting phase of it, because we’re no longer dealing with prohibition. We’re not dealing with what we can’t do; we’re dealing with what we could be doing.”
Complementing her push to champion patient access and to normalize adult use, Abebe is a member of Columbia Care’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee, in addition to being a leader on the company’s Supplier Diversity Subcommittee. She also is a member of the Cannabis Trade Federation Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force, supporting the development of benchmarks and goals to measure the industry’s progress, and crafting policy proposals that could be incorporated into future legislation.
In New York and Virginia, Abebe says the push for equity was focused on reinvestment funds, licensing and restorative rights.
“The three pillars of equity that I always raise when I’m talking about equity and policy, which is, first, stop the harm,” she says. “You know, not just stopping arrests, but expungements, resentencing, all of those things. [Second], equity in the cannabis industry means making sure that there’s licensed program support for folks who were impacted by prohibition having the opportunity within the industry. And then equity beyond that, because not everybody who was harmed by prohibition wants to own a license; how else are we restoring the hopes and dreams that were shattered by prohibition?”
Although there is much work to be done to push social equity to the forefront, Abebe marvels at the progress made in just the past few years, and it gives her hope.
“Virginia is the home of the first enslaved Africans in the United States of America,” she says. “And to see us, you know,  years since those first captive Africans arrived on our shores, to see us legitimately having a conversation about equity and cannabis licensing, and to see all of these folks who are better equipped who care about this and are better equipped than ever to be able to talk about it on the legislative [side], that’s pretty exciting.”
Getting It Right
The question remains: How can policy experts and lawmakers make sure to get equity right?
“We’ve never seen equity done effectively in American history,” Abebe says. “It’s never been done on a scale that actually delivered justice to people who deserved it. And for that, you know, I can’t fix a lot of the things that my friends and family members have gone through, but I can at least fix policy to make sure that other people don’t have to have those experiences.”
As Abebe continues the fight, she says part of being a leader in the industry means that if she finds a door, then it’s her responsibility not just to hold that door open for others, but to “put out the welcome mat, turn on the front porch light and paint the steps to make sure that other people can’t just find the door, but know that the door is there.”
Until the rules for state-by-state and a federally legal cannabis industry are fully written, policy experts like Abebe are the leaders who are going to define what the future will look like, Goers says.
“When we look back in 10 years and see the apparatus of how the New York market is developed, it’s from purposeful policy,” he says. “Will we look back and find that impacted communities have been lifted up? Will we find that it’s a diverse—in multiple senses of the word—industry? … What does the federal market structure look like? … Those are questions that I think that we’re thankful to have a wise woman like Ngiste who’s helping steer the ship in the direction, not just for Columbia Care, but for this industry for broad stakeholders.”