As the state-regulated cannabis industry has matured beyond its awkward infancy in the last decade, I’ve noticed certain commonalities among the entrepreneurs pursuing business interests in legal marijuana.
And yet entrepreneurs the world over (myself included) are risking their freedom and fortunes to get involved in legal weed.
In my five years covering drug policy, I’ve heard the story untold times: These businesswomen and men saw an opportunity for a potentially lucrative business, a specifically meaningful endeavor, a purpose-driven mission, an exciting pivot in their career path. And risks be damned, they wanted in — and they did whatever it took to make it happen.
But what sets these entrepreneurs apart from their colleagues in more traditional industries? Here are four traits shared by many of the visionaries I’ve known in the cannabis industry — and while some of these are generally applicable among entrepreneurs of different stripes, they have a unique resonance among those creating new businesses and ideas in the marijuana space.
While most modern businesses place tremendous value on the rare customer who is an early adopter, it’s fair to say that all of today’s most successful cannabis businesses are run by early adopters themselves.
Many of these individuals were paying close attention to the slowly changing legislation of the ’90s and ’00s and the swiftly changing public perception of the ’10s when they made their first moves toward opening a cannabis business. These early adopters knew that the passage of California’s Prop 215 in 1996 meant an opening for semi-legal cannabis businesses — America’s first. They also knew that the Colorado legislature’s move to regulate that state’s medical marijuana market in 2009 meant an opening for the world’s first state-legal cannabis businesses, which explains why many of the OGs first incorporated their dispensaries, labs, cultivation facilities and production plants in ’09 and ’10.
Mind you, these early-entry entrepreneurs did not enter a fully protected marijuana business, which brings me to my next point.
The cannabis trade today still carries with it significant risks for everyone who chooses to make a living in and around marijuana. Back in California in the late ’90s and in Colorado in the late ’00s, those risks were amplified significantly — and before that? Well, before that these transactions existed entirely underground, when weed was the federal government’s Enemy No. 1, and we all know how that ended up.
And just think: Some of these entrepreneurs have been here since the ’60s and ’70s, quietly growing in the hills and distributing their harvests to patients and recreational consumers in parks and on street corners.
But even today in 2018, the responsible entrepreneurs growing and processing and selling marijuana in regulated markets from Oregon to Maine are doing so with fewer protections than they were afforded even one year ago. These individuals are now working without the federal guidance of the Cole Memo, which was rescinded by Attorney General Jeff Sessions in January. And even when faced with the unknown, they persist and move forward, knowing that this industry — and the still-divisive policy of legalization — will soon be considered normalized and mainstream.
Despite the many hardships, inconveniences and risks currently associated with working in this industry, today’s most successful cannabis entrepreneurs trudge forward each day because of their passion for the plant.
Whether they themselves have benefitted from marijuana as medicine or a tool for wellness or they’ve witnessed its life-changing impact on a friend or family member’s life, every one of these businessmen and women has a story to tell — if not hundreds.
And given the federal government’s wildly successful anti-pot propaganda campaign, these entrepreneurs know the importance of sharing these stories, which fly in the face of everything we learned from D.A.R.E., Just Say No, Hugs Not Drugs and every other well-meaning but nonsense-peddling youth education campaign of the 1980s.
It took the information age’s greatest invention, the internet, to educate the masses on marijuana. And while we still have a long way to go in learning more about this plant and spreading fact-based information (and getting past the reams of misinformation we’ve been sold over the years), it is this passion that will carry us through to a time when “post-prohibition” is a more accurate descriptor for where American drug policy actually resides.
While it is, of course, possible to be a successful cannabis entrepreneur and not an activist, many of today’s most ubiquitous business owners are also proud activists.
The link between the two certainly makes sense. To truly succeed in legal marijuana, you need to understand the entire life cycle at play — and I’m not referencing the seed-to-sale system alone.
This is something I regularly tell my colleagues: To know cannabis is to know the plant, yes, but it’s also familiarity with the substance’s history, with what is known and what is not known about marijuana, with modern policy and regulations, and with the miracles and myths of its medical capabilities. It’s a lot, but as you develop this deeper relationship with the cannabis plant, it’s difficult to not become something of an activist on its behalf.
Just think about it: Everybody roots for the underdog, and perhaps there has never been a more maligned and misrepresented botanical than cannabis.
Think about what you were taught about marijuana, and think about how it’s still being discussed in schools the world over. Of course, I’m not arguing that youths should use cannabis (outside of physician-recommended situations), but I am demanding that we start educating our children on the realities of cannabis and other drugs.
And because of our pockmarked history with marijuana, cannabis activism has no limits. From social justice to education campaigns to remedying the wrongs of prohibition, these causes are all infinitely important — and they’re best when funded by money earned in the legal and regulated industry, proving to those holding out against legalization that this industry is here to make a positive impact on our communities.
Originally published in Issue 32 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE
TELL US, what do you think sets cannabis entrepreneurs apart?