Get Rich or High Trying

The Coming Age of Corporate Cannabis

By David Bienenstock


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.

FREE MARKET MARIJUANA


Tripp Keber at Dixie Elixir headquarters. Photo by Kim Sidwell.

Back in Denver, Tripp Keber, managing director of Dixie Elixirs & Edibles, also wants to displace the black market and he's not afraid to put marijuana where your mouth is to do it. A member of both Arcview and the NCIA, Keber invited me to his company's headquarters to witness firsthand the world's premiere intersection of cannabis and commerce.

At the entrance to Dixie's 27,000-square-foot production facility, a sign warns all who approach that the premises are under 24-hour video surveillance. Inside, a team of more than 40 full-time employees that includes PhD food scientists, biochemists, mechanical engineers, clinical herbalists, trained culinary chefs, and true pot experts work to produce a dozen distinct lines of what the state terms marijuana-infused products (MIPs)—everything from THC-infused beverages and treats to topical applications, tinctures, and botanicals.

Each product undergoes multiple third-party lab tests for potency before reaching consumers: first when raw plant material enters the facility, then after it's rendered into a concentrated liquid, and finally at the beginning, middle, and end of each production run. All packaging meets FDA-standards, should the Food and Drug Administration ever decide to actually oversee an industry that sells food infused with a drug, including nutritional facts, an ingredient statement, a mechanical reporting of active cannabinoids in milligrams, and all necessary regulatory language.

Things have come a long way from Dixie's founding just three years ago. Now at the helm of one of the industry's flagship enterprises, Keber describes starting up with just one “pot soda” produced in a 450-square foot “drug house” on the sketchy outskirts of town.

“We never really worried about the police,” he tells me, “only our neighbors—on both sides.”

The Washington, DC native, who earned his fortune creating and selling companies focused on technology and telephony, moved to Colorado in 2002, while still in his 30s, to retire, or at least refocus. As an incorrigible entrepreneur, it didn’t take long before he started a real estate development company, just as what's come to be known as the “green rush” swept through the state. A time when hordes of newly-formed medical marijuana businesses bought up commercial spaces with a fervor not seen since the original gold rushers first made Denver a boomtown in the late 1850s.

By 2009, Keber, who describes himself as comfortable with fairly high-risk ventures, decided to “dabble” directly in the green rush by lending money to cultivators. The risks quickly got a bit higher than he'd initially anticipated.

“A lot of times I was the only guy not wearing a handgun when we were meeting at grow facilities,” he says, reminiscing fondly on the Wild West days from the safety and comfort of his corner office. “There were a lot of 'smash and grabs' taking place back then, so cultivators on a large scale were nervous. I didn't take offense to it, but I think a lot of people thought I might be some sort of undercover narcotics agent.”

What proved far more intimidating than sitting down with glocked-up ganja growers was calling Dad and revealing the precise nature of his new venture shortly before an appearance on CNBC's Squawk Box—a financial news show his old man never misses. Fortunately, Keber has found everyone in his personal life supportive, though he's not without detractors within the industry.

“I don't have a strong relationship with the plant. I certainly have medicated in the past, but it's just not something that I traditionally do,” he says, almost apologetically. While nobody thinks he's a narc anymore, to some he remains a convenient symbol of a Wall Street-style hostile take-over in the making. “It doesn't help that articles have painted me out to be Gordon Gecko.”

Most notably, a Newsweek cover story called “The New Pot Barons,” by Tony Dokoupil quoted Keber as saying: “I make companies to sell companies. Make me an offer, and I’ll ride off into the sunlight with saddlebags of gold.” A sentiment fairly far removed from the old Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers maxim that “dope will get you through a time of no money better than money will get you through a time of no dope.”

And yet, for all that, Keber expresses genuine pride and joy in what he's built, including—if not especially—the “incredible amount of intellectual horsepower” Dixie has assembled. His convictions are also clear when he touts the 10,000-plus jobs the medical marijuana industry has created in Colorado, while generating over $10 million in licensing fees and taxes each year, a number expected to skyrocket once full legalization takes hold.

Still, it's nice to think about those saddlebags.

“Should somebody like Big Tobacco knock on our door and say they're ready to enter into discussions, it would be foolish to not give that serious consideration,” he says, after affirming that everything in life has a price, and a multinational conglomerate like Philip Morris would likely have no trouble matching the number in his head. “The reality is that Dixie represents probably a rounding error, when you look at the market cap of those companies.”

He's already had discussions at “high levels” with various interested parties he declined to name, but says that ongoing federal prohibition makes such a buy-out at least temporarily untenable. In the meantime, a funny thing happened on the way to Wall Street. Tripp Keber realized that marijuana may be a widget, but it's one that really helps people.

“On any given day, we probably receive phone calls from half a dozen parents with a child dealing with cancer and their oncologist has proscribed Oxycontin in some form or fashion, which they know is incredibly dangerous and potentially damaging. They say, 'Will you please send us some of your medicated fruit lozenges?' You would have to be inhuman not to be affected by that, but the reality is, unless they're a red card holder in the state of Colorado, we can't provide medicine to them.”

THE CHEESECAKE LADY


The Cheesecake Lady preparing product. Photo courtesy of Jessica LeRoux

Jessica LeRoux, owner of Twirling Hippy Confections, also in Denver, never let something as trivial as the law get in the way of helping those in desperate need of cannabis healing—at least not until the authorities gave her a license and let her operate openly. Now known far and wide as the Cheesecake Lady, LeRoux began baking THC-infused treats when her own mother was admitted as a hospice patient in Illinois in the early 90s. And though the illicit medicine helped tremendously, she says her father not only never forgave her, he pestered relatives for her phone number and address to turn her in to the FBI.

After relocating to Colorado, LeRoux connected with local pot activists and began supplying free “magic” cheesecakes to terminally-ill patients throughout the state. When that proved life-affirming, but cost-prohibitive, she decided to ramp up production, hoping to sell enough of the overrun in concert parking lots to cover expenses and fund her higher calling. Before long, former Grateful Dead keyboardist Vince Welnick, who suffered from emphysema but loved cannabis, became a dedicated fan of her smokeless sweets. The endorsement whisked the parking lot mainstay backstage, where her cheesecakes became an overnight sensation.

And so, LeRoux found herself as both a retailer of recreational cannabis and a compassionate provider of medical marijuana years before Colorado legalized either activity. All the while, her dream never wavered.

“Going above ground has always been my goal. From the beginning, I gave my business a name and a logo hoping those things would stay with me when I went legal. I saved money in a shoebox the entire time I was on tour. I never spent any on myself. I saved all of it to go into this.”

In 2009, Twirling Hippy became one of Colorado's first locally licensed MIPs, operating out of a commercial kitchen in tiny Idaho Springs. After opening with just four clients, the business grew to serve more than 60 retail outlets in an era of rapid expansion for the industry. Then came House Bill 1284. LeRoux sighs so deeply when I mention it that I can hear her dream deflate.

She describes making a delivery to one of her clients' medical marijuana centers shortly before the bill was first proposed, and finding the owner engaged in backroom discussions with a state senator. They were going over likely new regulations, including “vertical integration” of marijuana growing, which requires retailers to produce at least 70 percent of their own product. LeRoux says that when she raised her hand to ask a question, she was escorted from the room.

“They didn't want to have an open-minded, free-hearted hippie in there with them while they planned how to push all the baby birds out of the nest.”

When it passed, 1284  charged Colorado's Department of Revenue with overseeing the nation's  most tightly regulated medical marijuana industry, including creating a special Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division to serve as the pot cops.

While proponents within both the industry and the wider activism community pushed for 1284 and its much vaunted “seed-to-sales” tracking requirements as a necessary defensive action, designed to avoid a looming total ban at the state level, while keeping federal enforcement out of Colorado, LeRoux saw the well-capitalized among the cannabusinesses conspiring with amenable lawmakers to create an expensive set of burdensome regulations designed to crush the little guy in favor of consolidation.

“What we need are more small mom and pop owner-operators, who are at their dispensaries, in person, really putting their energy into the space—instead, all of these people with no love of cannabis, once they invested in huge warehouse spaces and realized they didn't know how to grow, the only thing they could do to protect their investment was to push the small timer out of the market. They needed vertical integration to protect themselves from those more talented than themselves.”

While the bill's intentions remain up for debate, 1284 shook the marketplace. Tripp Keber at Dixie estimates that from a high of more than 300 MIPs, the industry now supports approximately 20 distinct manufactures making “edibles,” even as the overall market share for infused products has grown from 8 percent to 25 percent or more. Of course, he's got a free-market solution for those feeling the squeeze.

“Small businesses will always come up with new and innovative product lines. The reality is that I watch those companies very closely. We're acquiring a company every six to eight weeks.”

But despite suffering through disappointments  disillusionment, and narrowly-avoided financial disaster, at least one still-twirling hippy says she ain't selling. Instead she'll stay and fight for a cause that only later became her career, even if it means working 80-hour weeks, canceling her cable, and eating far more rice than she'd prefer, all while attending every government meeting on marijuana, medical, or otherwise. She's also tried rallying together with the more idealistic among her colleagues, but they're all down to stems and seeds and political influence don't come cheap. Particularly when you sell all-natural, locally-produced, eco-packaged cheesecakes—with vegan and gluten-free options—that just happen to contain a Schedule I narcotic.

“We're going to have a hell of hard time holding on to what we fought for unless we start fighting together, but if you don't have the money to hire an executive director for your lobbying group, you just can't accomplish as much. I will say this for Mike Elliot. He's a douchebag, but he gets shit done for his members, because that's all he has to do.”

THE POT LOBBYIST

Mike Elliot is Executive Director of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group (MMIG), a trade association founded in 2010 “to help protect and promote the Colorado medical marijuana regulatory framework, serve as a responsible resource for policy makers, and protect the rights of medical marijuana patients.” They were integral in drafting House Bill 1284, the “seed to sales” law that made the nice hippy lady sigh.

To reach MMIG's headquarters on the 16th floor of a non-nondescript office building less than three blocks from the state capitol, I brave a raging late-Spring snowstorm. A sign directly outside my destination reads: Corporate Advocates. Inside, there’s a historical map of Denver dated 1908 and an empty candy dish.  Followed by the most neutral conference room imaginable.

“Most trade associations advocate for less regulation at all times, and I could see our group being in that position. We’re it not for the fact that this is a federally illegal substance,” Mike Elliot responds, when I pose a few pointed questions about MMIG's role in passing 1284. “We've known that by creating this tight, comprehensive framework, it would be burdensome. It's locked a lot of people out because of the financial obligations, and I can see why they would be frustrated with that. Our primary concern, however, has been creating a program that withstands federal scrutiny. And that has meant having a tough, restrictive program.”

He sees his mission as building bridges between the cannabis industry and the powers-that-be.

“A lot of people, for as long as the Drug War has been going on, they've been anti-government. And for good reason. But MMIG is not anti-government, because now, at least at the state level, we don't need to be. We can be partners.”

Elliott makes his best case for 1284 when comparing subsequent federal enforcement efforts in Colorado to those in California, where there's still no statewide regulation of medical marijuana. While California has endured a coordinated crackdown on commercial growers and dispensaries, with armed raids and cash grabs galore, the worst that's happened in Colorado was when a few dozen cannabusinesses received a rather polite letter from the US Justice Department instructing them to either close up shop within 45 days or move to a new location at least a 1,000 feet away from a school .

Which sure sounds like progress when you consider the case of Denver's own Samuel Caldwell, the first person ever arrested under federal law after the Marihuana Tax Act passed in 1937. The FBI and local police set him up on the very day the new law was enacted, in fact, busting him for selling two-joints in the lobby of the Mile High City's seedy Lexington Hotel. Caldwell would serve every day of his four-year sentence in Leavenworth Prison, and die less than a year after his release.

GROWTH INDUSTRY


Inside Medicine Man's on-site cannabis cultivation facility. Photo courtesy Andy Williams.

Had poor Mr. Caldwell only lived long enough to see the Medicine Man medical marijuana center on Denver's east side, a single 20,000 square-foot facility housing a small but extremely busy retail operation and a state-of-the-art cultivation set-up efficient enough to stock the shelves entirely in-house. Something about the place just feels right the moment I walk inside. I've visited many such establishments, in several different states, and you can always tell two things quickly: “Does somebody here care deeply about cannabis?” And “Does somebody here know how to run a business?”

It's all too rare to get both right.

Even the straight-laced MBA's I've talked to seem to understand this dynamic. Brendan Kennedy, for instance, started Privateer Holdings to focus on investment opportunities in the emerging legal marijuana business only after graduating Yale Business School, forming and selling a software company and enjoying a lucrative stint evaluating investment opportunities on behalf of venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. He also holds an engineering degree and has finished six Ironman Triathlons. So hardly a light-weight, and yet he's the first to admit that no amount of spreadsheets and analytical evaluations could ever have adequately prepared him to enter a surging business sector that remains an ongoing criminal enterprise in most of the country.

“Cannabis is a more complicated industry than anything I've ever looked at by orders of magnitude,” he informs me with apparent wonder. “I've never worked this hard in my life, and I've never had this much fun.”

To get themselves up to speed, he and a partner began their new venture with a magical mystery tour, or what Kennedy calls “old-fashioned, boots on the ground research,” meeting with growers, lawyers, activists, dispensary owners, and other thought-leaders of the trade, to pick their brains while looking for “smart, nice people” to work with down the road.

They found most companies to be immature and unsophisticated, all of them competing under the looming threat of federal law in a fragmented market with no real standards, poor marketing, and terrible branding. “There were no institutional players. No Wall Street, no banks, no private equity, no venture capital. And yet annual revenues were still $18 to $40 billion, with rapid growth.”

Privateer has already raised more than $5 million in capital, though that may prove the easy part. The real trick will be spending it wisely. So far they've made only one acquisition, a Yelp-like application called Leafly that allows users to rate marijuana businesses, comment on their favorite pot strains, browse dispensary menus, and interact socially.

They're currently seeking additional brands with a mainstream aesthetic that can become trusted advisors for consumers. The kind of companies that will help ensure Washington and Colorado's experiment with legal pot proves successful. In fact, Kennedy says his investors are as motived to end the “ridiculous” War on Weed as they are to make a profit, and he for one sees no potential conflict in Privateer pursuing a financial return and a social return simultaneously.

Meanwhile, after gazing longingly at Medicine Man’s display glass of buds, I head into a private office in the back to meet the odd-couple Williams brothers, who co-own  the entire operation. As you might have guessed from the set up, one is a former military man who spent years as a project portfolio manager with a Boeing-owned aviation management firm and doesn't smoke pot; the other's been dreaming of legal marijuana his entire adult life, and recently spent 4/20 at the High Times Cannabis Cup—dressed from head to toe as Willie Wonka.

“You don't say 'dude' to Andy,” the grower, Pete, tells me by way of explaining his brother. “Well, now you can, but in the beginning you didn't say 'dude.'”

When Medicine Man first opened, in addition to feeling like a fish-out-of-water (or rather one swimming in bong water), Andy also had recurring nightmares about the police raiding his house and taking his kids. Staying in “painful adherence” to state law therefore became an obsession. He also kept his day job the first two years, which meant spending mornings, nights, and weekends in a “constant scramble to adhere to whatever new rules were coming out.” He estimates their facility cost around $1.5 million to complete, with up to 10 percent of those expenses directly related to 1284 compliance, including complex video surveillance, carbon-filtered ventilation, and state-mandated computer systems and security measures.

The brothers originally started up with $125,000 in seed money, and thought it would be more than enough. Half a million bucks later, they finally turned a profit. Andy says they've been well in the black ever since, “but if we hadn't been able to get that extra funding, we'd have been out of business. And so many people didn't have that ability.”

Even now, because they deal in a federally illegal drug, Medicine Man can't get a bank loan. Many cannabusinesses struggle to even acquire or maintain a bank account, so much so that the ones who do have one will never tell you where.

“Anybody else with our financials would have no problem raising capital for expansion,” Andy laments. In two months, Medicine Man will take over a 20,000 square-foot facility adjacent to the one they already own, and another $1.2 million would allow them to build it out all at once, perhaps even in time to open a new recreational marijuana operation on the day such sales become legal. Instead they'll have to save the money up over time, while pursuing other opportunities.

“We're building a franchisable brand,” Pete says, taking the idea of expansion to its logical conclusion. “People think it takes a lone mystical grower, some guru, but it doesn't. It takes a standard operating procedure.”

When they broach the subject of a corporate buyout, I ask what would happen if a new management team took over, charged with maximizing profits at all costs. Andy frowns. It's clearly something he's thought about enough to know he doesn't want to think about it.

First, he says, you'd have to automate watering and trimming, slashing labor costs. Medicine Man's growers water each plant by hand to assure that they're all spot checked for any potential pests, diseases or growth problems before they can spread or get worse. It's hard to imagine some outside consultant/efficiency-expert seeing the value in that. Nor would any competent corporate personnel manager continue to employ the eight experienced, full-time bud manicurists who make up to $15 an hour transforming a perpetual harvest of raw stalks into shelf-ready miniature bonsai trees. Certainly not when a machine can do the job nearly half as well at a miniscule fraction of the cost.

Next, why not cut salaries and bonuses across the board? And is it really cost effective to produce organically grown medicine? The endless possibilities are a serious bummer.

HIGHER IDEALS


Kris Krane in an SSDP shirt holding his baby in an SSDP onesie. His shirt says "Dare to Resist the War on Drugs" and hers says "Babies for Sensible Drug Policy." Photo by Jenny Janichek.

I first met Kris Krane about 10 years ago, when he worked at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), the nation's oldest and largest marijuana law reform organization. Later, as Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, he helped inspire countless young people to begin fighting back against a War on Drugs that targets them so disproportionately, while transforming the organization into one of the fastest-growing nationwide student groups in the country. And now he's Managing Partner at 4Front Advisors, an Arizona-based consulting firm backed by billionaire University of Phoenix founder and drug-law reform funder John Sperling that's focused on helping prospective dispensary operators nationwide open in full compliance with state and local law, while serving as a positive model for the industry.

Kris tells me he misses activism in many ways, but sees what he's doing now as an effective extension of those efforts. Both by providing a skeptical public with working examples of responsible marijuana distribution, and by helping create a new class of drug war reformers—those with a vested interest in victory.

“Every day,” he says, “we're taking people who never would have been advocates for this cause, and getting them engaged, out of necessity, because of their bottom line.”

In the next room, he's got a one-year-old daughter. My old friend and I share a dream that she will grow up in a world entirely without a drug war. Where addicts aren't brutalized. Families aren't torn apart. And the violent cartels die off like the bootleggers before them.

No more Samuel Caldwells, even if it takes corporate pot to get there.

“Capitalism is definitely going to change cannabis, because it's been completely in the shadows and totally unregulated,” Kris agrees, after I describe the story I've been working on. “At the same time, while I'm not idealistic enough to believe that legal cannabis will change the way that capitalism works and people behave, I do hope that within the cannabis industry, the way that things are rolling out will provide us with a buffer period to get it right. Obviously, if cannabis were made completely legal at the federal level and in every state all at once, the big alcohol and tobacco companies would swoop in and dominate the market by resorting to the same tactics they use in their core businesses, but that's not what's happening. Instead we're seeing cannabis legalized state-by-state, while remaining federally illegal, which keeps those kinds of players largely on the sidelines.”

So call it a grey market. Or better yet call it a chance to nurture a new American industry from the green shoots up. One that breaks the Wall Street greed mold by embracing the higher ideals so many of us associate with getting high. Like cooperation, compassion, creativity, empathy, innovation, inclusion, tolerance and a feeling of interconnectedness that transcends the bottom line.

If that happens, from the masters of high finance to the twirling hippies, we can all have our THC-infused cheesecake and eat it too. 

To read more of David's work, visit: davidbienenstock.com

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