Get Rich or High Trying
The Coming Age of Corporate Cannabis
May 22 2013
Image collage by Courtney Nicholas.
“At this moment in history, you've got to choose between being in favor of legalization, or being against 'the system.'”
Mason Tvert is leading a quick tour of what he irreverently describes as the Marijuana Manor—a genteel, three-story, historically-registered, 1880s-era brick and stained-glass building in downtown Denver that was recently converted into permanent office space for a consortium of do-gooders fighting to make legal cannabis work in America. The building houses four separate activist organizations, a trade association, and a law firm. Tvert is clad in a conservative suit jacket and tie worn above a pair of faded blue-jeans—an ensemble compiled in deference to a remote television appearance earlier in the day that shot him from the waist up. His clashing outfit offers an unintended statement on the split-personality of the pot world right now: Business in the front, party in the back.
Last November, Tvert certainly had plenty of reason to celebrate, after heading a historic campaign that saw voters in Colorado approve Amendment 64 by a wide margin, ushering in a new era of state-legal commercial cannabis cultivation and retail sales of up to an ounce for all adults 21 and over. A similar ballot initiative in Washington State also passed easily on the unforgettable night when pot outperformed the president, while making headlines around the world.
To date, lawmakers in both states continue to work out exactly how to implement the herb-friendly will of their citizenry, ever-mindful that a miraculous crop that can't kill you, won't hurt you, and just might heal you remains fully illegal under federal law, even if you've got terminal cancer and floor seats to see Phish. Despite the fact that smoking a joint remains a lot less dangerous than swilling booze. Not to mention that the same federales imposing cannabis prohibition ultimately answer to a guy best known in his youth for “roof hits,” “interceptions,” and sharing some righteous Maui Wowie with the Choom Gang.
Mason Tvert posing in front of a SAFER billboard. Photo courtesy of Mason Tvert.
Tvert has made such hypocrisy at the highest levels the centerpiece of his messaging ever since co-founding Safer Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) in 2005. From erecting billboards declaring “Marijuana: No Hangovers. No Violence. No Carbs," to publicly calling brewpub pioneer turned Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper a “drug dealer,” SAFER never misses a chance to challenge cultural norms that have us blithely cheering on a Jack Daniels-sponsored NASCAR team, while kicking down the doors of otherwise law-abiding ganja smokers.
So, I wonder, now that the good guys finally won big, how long until the Denver Nuggets (pun abstained) start offering an officially-licensed glass bong alongside the collectible beer mugs and shot glasses they already sell to basketball fans of all ages?
Well, don't hold your breath, but with the smart money increasingly looking to marijuana as the nation's biggest new business boom since the internet, don't look away either.
THE SILICON VALLEY OF CANNABIS
“The Silicon Valley of cannabis is already happening,” Troy Dayton, co-founder of the Arcview Group, assures me as his angel investor network prepares to gather venture capitalists and pot entrepreneurs together in Seattle for the second time in three months. Attendees from both camps pay Arcview a sizable fee to participate.
“I always thought I'd have to choose between making a lot of money and changing the world,” Dayton, a long-time fundraiser for non-profit drug law reform organizations, muses on his new role as a pot impresario, before offering up the mind-bending hypothesis that free-market capitalism just might be the best thing to happen to cannabis sativa since the advent of sinsemilla.
Troy Dayton addressing Arcview investors meeting. Photo by Kim Sidwell.
“The hippies keep being right. They were right about personal computing, alternative energy, organic foods, and yoga—four of the biggest business success stories of the past few decades. And they're right again about cannabis. All of this bubbles up from the counterculture, until finally the mainstream takes notice. Do things get diluted along the way? I mean, now you've got McYoga and Fortune 500 companies that aren't doing everything the way the original organic food movement wanted, and renewable energy owned by oil companies, but the overall impact is hugely positive.”
Especially when you consider that we never arrested 800,000 Americans a year for practicing kundalini. Or let Mexican drug cartels and violent street gangs control the trade in organic arugula.
“It's so much better to have large investors and corporations involved in this industry,” Dayton concludes, “because when you have big business behind something that creates jobs and tax dollars, it becomes completely untenable to keep putting people in prison for it.”
His partner in Arcview, Steve DeAngelo, agrees, but with a dollop of trepidation. As head of Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California, the nation's largest and perhaps best-run medical cannabis dispensary, DeAngelo sees a bright green future for both the plant and the industry, even as he battles the federal government in and out of court to keep his own doors open. After spending nearly 40 years fighting to legalize it, the star of Discovery Channel's Weed Wars still speaks warmly of his distant past as a professional underground marijuana retailer, while making it clear he'd much prefer to see cannabis culture transform corporate culture than the reverse.
“There are millions of people around the world who are either incarcerated or have seriously suffered because of their involvement with this plant,” DeAngelo explains. “Until we address their incredible persecution, I think that anyone who's only in this for the money is in the wrong industry. Honestly, if your main motivation is making the largest profit possible, in the shortest amount of time, you'd be much better off working on Wall Street.”
For the time being, Arcview remains focused on what they term ancillary and secondary players, meaning operations not directly involved in cultivation, distribution, or sales. Dayton describes the ideal investment opportunity as a company seeking between 200,000 and a million dollars to bring a new idea to market, or better yet expand a cannabusiness that already has some traction.
After forming in 2010, when it looked like the Obama administration would take a states-rights, hands-off approach to medical marijuana, Arcview itself almost went under following a marked shift in federal enforcement that saw armed government agents raiding state-compliant growers and dispensaries in Oregon, Michigan, Montana, Washington, Nevada, and California, including several considered models of the industry. Naturally, once the perceived risks of the pot biz eclipsed any potential reward, the investor class quickly evaporated, but they've now returned in droves after Colorado and Washington made history and the President of the United States revealed himself as (knock on wood) too afraid of America's ascendant marijuana majority to stand in the way.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Obama told Barbara Walters more than a month after the election, rejecting the idea of federal agents going after individual pot smokers in legalization states, while failing to directly address the larger issue of state-licensed cultivation and sales. Since then, Attorney General Eric Holder has repeatedly promised a more comprehensive federal response to the new laws, but so far the Justice Department has said little and done nothing.
Meanwhile, at the foresighted end of the political spectrum, Mike McGinn, Seattle's progressive mayor, actually helped lead the charge for legalization in Washington, getting out in front of an issue both major political parties have refused to embrace, despite a Pew poll showing support from 52 percent of Americans (with 85 percent approving legal medical use in a recent Fox News poll). McGinn, who met with members of Arcview and their allies in the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) during the groups' recent visit to the Emerald City, says welcoming the pot lobby to town didn't take any convincing.
“It's a legal industry,” he explains over the phone from his office in City Hall, “and I thought it would be interesting to share what I know.”
The mayor's focus remains squarely on the public safety benefits of legalization, rather than in promoting economic development. Still, one attendee described him as “gung-ho” when it came to bringing marijuana jobs, tax dollars, investment, and innovation to Seattle. And McGinn did share with me an idea of how he'd like to see things move forward.
“In Seattle, we love local and we love quality. That's what we look for in our coffee, beer, and spirits. So we want to create a type of regulatory framework that rewards small, local businesses and allows them to engage effectively, because that's what will reflect this city's values over the long run.”
McGinn worries that as the implementation process moves away from reformers and into the hands of state legislators, many of whom remain opposed to this bold, though long-overdue experiment, we may end up with a set of rules that's too restrictive. “Our biggest challenge is ending up with a system that displaces the black market completely,” he concludes, before returning to overseeing the governance of the nation's 23rd largest city.