By Jay Fox
Brooklyn, NY, USA

Part I of this article looked at the opportunities the cannabis industry presents to investors, the science of the plant, and the difficulties that have arisen because of the clash between state and federal laws regarding cannabis. Many of these difficulties pertain to the legal obstacles facing researchers trying to study the effects of cannabis and the various cannabinoids on humans. However, scientists are not the only ones who are struggling to keep up.

One of the first things you notice when you enter the cannabis space is that there is a lack of knowledge everywhere you look, and that even the more seasoned veterans
Jay Fox
seem to be flying by the seat of their pants. This is not willed ignorance. This is what happens when an industry is springing up around your feet not unlike a weed. Unforeseen circumstances arise and you have to deal with them. It’s the kind of thing that gets a lot of the serial entrepreneur types off, but it’s also the kind of thing that keeps practical businesspeople and investors from joining in the green rush.

Despite the declining stigma surrounding cannabis among the public and in state capitols throughout the country, the federal government still views it as a menace. Consequently, there continues to be a high degree of uncertainty within the industry because federal agencies are simply refusing to fulfill their functions; to do so would be to grant the industry some degree of legitimacy at the federal level, which would contradict one of the underlying premises of the War on Drugs—that there are no “hard” drugs or “soft” drugs because all drugs beyond the realm of those produced by the pharmaceutical industry are categorically bad. Private industry is attempting to fill this void left by the feds, but no one knows if the companies contracted out to fulfill these functions are totally legit or not, or if they have either a surreptitious agenda of their own or conflicts of interest. Without an independent arbiter, it is difficult even for the most educated among these consumers to tell fact from fiction.

A prime example is organic certification. To receive organic certification, a grower needs to be evaluated by the USDA. However, because the USDA is a federal agency, and cannabis plants that are defined as marijuana are illegal according to the federal government, the USDA cannot award organic certification to said plants. Similarly, the FDA needs to establish guidelines about what kinds of fungicides, pesticides, and herbicides can be used on hemp and at what levels they can be present. They also need to begin validating the claims made by companies selling things like CBD. At this point in time, no one is actually evaluating these products because the rules that would regulate this process have yet to be written.

This would be a concern even if CBD were a fringe supplement as it once was, but this is no longer the case. There are a lot of consumers taking CBD, according to Gerald Pascarelli, a research associate at Cowen, a multinational investment bank and financial services company. During his keynote address at the Sixth Annual Cannabis World Congress & Business Exposition at the Javits Center in New York in late May, Pascarelli told the audience that 6.9% of people who participated in a January survey said they used CBD. That may not seem like a lot, but it is approximately double the number of people who are using a product that has become ubiquitous recently: the electronic cigarettes made by Juul. Only between 3% and 4% of those surveyed said they were users.

This reoccurring problem—that one often finds a blank space where regulations, legislation, laws, and research should be—is not only bad for consumers; it’s bad for business, as well. It’s even bad for federally chartered banks who may want to get into the industry. As Brent Johnson, a managing attorney at the Colorado-based Hoban Law Group told me following the second day of Benzinga, “It’s not that it’s illegal to bank with cannabis. Marijuana is illegal.” For federal banks, he continued, “it’s just too much of a risk for them. Their FDIC insurance is at risk. The FDIC has said that they’re not going to provide insurance for banks who bank in this space. So that’s why all the big banks haven’t done it.”

Though Merrill Lynch and Bank of America are now beginning to cover some cannabis companies, the majority of the lending is coming from smaller, state-chartered banks. Because they are chartered at the state level, and not the federal level, they are free to operate in the cannabis realm so long as the state allows it, but there is still the somewhat remote possibility that the federal government could just freeze these assets because cannabis remains illegal and because former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded an Obama-era memo issued by US Deputy Attorney General James Cole (hence the reason why this document is commonly referred to as the Cole Memo), which stated that the federal government would not enforce prohibition in states with regulatory and enforcement systems. To offset the risk, these banks are charging relatively high fees that push the costs of starting a business into a realm that many people can’t afford.

Even without these additional costs, deciding to form a company takes a lot of money and requires one assume a lot of risk. On the one hand, new owners typically have to spend money on things like rent, equipment, and employees. On the other, new businesses tend to take a few weeks, months, or years to take off. Receiving a line of credit through a small business loan allows normal people to cover these costs and to survive from the time the company is founded until it becomes profitable. These loans are one of the only ways middle class people can start a business, and they are vital the economy. When you can’t get a small business loan, chances are you can’t start a business. Furthermore, when the only loan you can get comes with some pretty thick strings attached to it, this can present a significant deterrent when you’re doing your cost-benefit analysis.

Those who decide to eschew banking entirely face additional problems. Christian Hageseth, the CEO of ONE Cannabis Group and the founder of Green Man Cannabis in Colorado, told an audience at the CWCB Expo that he did not initially have a bank when he opened his first Green Man dispensary in Denver a decade ago. This meant he had to operate as a cash industry, pay for heightened security, design vault procedures, and pay his staff (and taxes) without the use of checks. He said that performing these types of tasks inhouse, rather than relying on a bank, was costing him upwards of $20,000 in labor each month. Even after he began banking with Safe Harbor, he still faces heightened scrutiny over his financials and continues to be unable to accept credit cards due to prohibition at the federal level.

Another cost of starting a business that deals with marijuana, and not hemp, is that these entrepreneurs cannot deduct general operating expenses due to a little-known part of the federal tax code known as 280E, which was drafted in 1982 to keep people who traffic illicit drugs from writing off their expenses. As Mr. Johnson told me at Benzinga, “280E is a code of the tax section that basically says you cannot deduct general operating expenses for an illegally run business.” Because cannabis is still a controlled substance as defined by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, 280E applies keeps cannabis from writing off many of their expenses.

Not being able to write off these expenses would be a pretty significant kick in the pants to any startup. Think of a hypothetical media startup. To get the business off the ground, you need to hire a few writers and get computers, desks, and a space in which to work. Writing off these expenses will likely save you from paying thousands of dollars in taxes. When you’re attempting to acquire serious amounts of acreage, security systems, and all the components necessary to grow thousands of cannabis plants, not being able to write off these expenses means millions in additional tax liabilities. Even though you may earn profits that dwarf whatever is earned by the hypothetical media company above, the startup costs are astronomical by comparison and the inability to deduct these items may prove to be an insurmountable hurdle.

Some states have additional financial barriers to prevent people from entering the industry. New York requires a $200,000 registration fee; applicants in Utah need to show they have $500,000 in liquid assets when applying for a license to cultivate; and large cultivators in Ohio need to pay $200,000 in annual renewal fees after shelling out $20,000 for an application fee and $180,000 for a license fee. In Connecticut, meanwhile, licensed producers may be required to “maintain an escrow amount in a financial institution in [Connecticut] in an amount of two millions dollars.”

Even though most jurisdictions do not have requirements this daunting, cannabis entrepreneurs still face difficulties when applying for a license. Dr. Chanda Macias, a cannabis entrepreneur and molecular biologist by training who has been in the industry since 2012, described the process of applying for a medical dispensary in the District of Colombia as having three obstacles. Writing the application, she told me during an interview at the expo at the Javits Center, “was literally sixteen-hour days, for a matter of three months.” Following this, she said, “I had to show proof of funds, so that was a little hard, but I had my house that I could say is worth this much value and I could always cash it out. The last thing I had to have was the real estate.” Oftentimes, the license is tied to a piece of real estate, and “you actually have to sign a lease and pay for the lease even while you’re being evaluated, even though you don’t have the license.” In other words, you have to pay rent on a space that you can’t use.

As a black woman, Dr. Macias told me that she faced additional problems. “It’s hard even for a black woman to get a loan for a small business, period,” she said, “so then you think you put on the financial risk of cannabis, which is still illegal, it’s almost impossible for minorities to get access in this industry.”

Ultimately, Dr. Macias went into foreclosure because of the difficulties she faced. However, she persevered and is now the owner and general manager of the National Holistic Healing Center Medical Marijuana Dispensary, as well as the chairwoman of the Board of Managers for Women Grow, a for-profit organization that works to increase the influence and presence of women within the cannabis industry. She’s also one of the loveliest people you may ever meet, a hugger, and operating in three states. She hopes to soon be operating in two more—Maryland and New Jersey.

Not everyone fares as well as Dr. Macias, unfortunately. The financial barriers that have been put into place require cannabis entrepreneurs to assume massive amounts of risk with their own money, incur significant fees from smaller banks, or have friends who are rich enough to be willing to make a multimillion-dollar gamble. Consequently, many never take the plunge.

This reveals how integral investors are to the cannabis industry. Without them, many will deem entry into the industry too risky or, worse, won’t be able to get their business off the ground. Capital largely decides not only who wins and who loses at this game, but who even gets to play.

Furthermore, as it becomes more costly to enter the cannabis industry and more difficult to start a business without connections to serious finance, there is a concern that the very people who have suffered the most from the War on Drugs are effectively going to be locked out from participating in this once-in-a-generation business opportunity because they don’t have access to capital. Another group who has been locked out are felons. Not only does a felony charge make an individual ineligible for loans and licenses; it may keep them from obtaining a job within the industry, as hiring a felon may jeopardize a company’s ability to work with a bank. This is a particularly bitter pill to swallow for people who were active in the cannabis industry while it was still an illicit market and were charged with felonies as a consequence.

While there are organizations, such as Women Grow, that run clinics to guide people through the process of getting charges either sealed or expunged, it is still a long and arduous process. According to Dr. Macias, it can take six to twelve months. For an industry that is moving at light speed, this is simply untenable for any potential entrepreneur.


“A Bunch of Irrational People Gave Me a Bunch of Money”

Arguably the most successful cannabis entrepreneur as of this moment is Bruce Linton. The first time I saw him it was the week after Benzinga and the announcement that his company, Canopy Growth, had merged with Acreage Holdings for $3.4 billion. There is a quiet confidence about Linton that suggests a razor-sharp intellect, as well as a the kind of audacity to do mighty things that brings to mind the words of Teddy Roosevelt (“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure … than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”). He also looked like the cat who caught the canary, largely because the Acreage merger was the single largest deal in the history of the industry. He had spent the morning at the New York Stock Exchange, which is where his company will soon be listed, but is still not allowed to be photographed with or to touch the hallowed bell that announces the opening and closing of trading for the day.

Linton sits before an audience of several hundred people in the Prince George Ballroom in New York City ready to respond to a series of adulating questions from Josh Weinstein, the founder of CannaGather—a company created five years beforehand to host networking and educational events revolving around the cannabis industry. Linton talks about the importance of buying properties in communities that need investment, of putting resources back into these communities, of practicing sustainability, of paying employees exceptionally well in terms of both salary and equity, and of running a company with a generally left-leaning outlook.

He also touches on the birth of his company and his arrival in the cannabis space. Prior to the switch, he was a self-described “tech nerd.” Specifically, he designed networks to ensure that packets of information did not get lost when people made purchases on Wall Street. In other words, his expertise was based on collecting and not losing vital pieces of information.

Due to a landmark case in Ontario Superior Court that was initially decided in 2011 (R. v. Mernagh), it became clear that Canada’s medical marijuana industry was going to be reformed. By 2012, Linton could foresee that Canada was eventually going to need a platform to regulate and oversee the supply chains of medical cannabis throughout the provinces. At this time, he thought to himself: If I can design a network for invisible bits of information, I can probably design one for cannabis.

Unfortunately, the Canadian model didn’t require just a design. Linton needed to fully build out his operation, which required several million dollars that he, of course, didn’t have. Investors, however, were willing to take a risk, and, as he puts it, “A bunch of irrational people gave me a bunch of money.” Those irrational people are probably pretty happy with their decision. The initial value of the stock was $0.29. Shares now hover somewhere between $45 and $50. In other words, a $25,000 investment into Canopy six or seven years ago is now worth somewhere between $3,879,310.34 and $4,310,344.83.

This kind of payoff, while great for Linton and cannabis, is large enough to attract opportunists, and there is a nagging suspicion among some cannabis activists that this could spell trouble. Some are concerned that a great deal of the money flooding into the space may be coming from the same people who profited off prohibition and the War on Drugs, whether through prison construction, the privatization of prisons (the Federal Bureau of Prisons spends approximately $1 billion, or 14% of its budget, on “contract confinement”), the militarization of the police force, or something as seemingly benign as investing in a rehab center or a lab to test drug tests. While the latter two seem like the kinds of things that we should applaud and demand more of to combat the opioid crisis and to get people the help they need, shady facilities can gouge addicts and make millions from insurance fraud, thereby allowing them to reward their investors handsomely. As Ryan Hampton notes in his recent book, American Fix: Inside the Opioid Addiction Crisis—And How to End It, one particularly unethical facility in Florida charged one patient $300,000 on urine tests alone.

The concern is not merely that these shady investors are going to use their ill-gotten gains to profit from cannabis. It is an issue, since, in most cases, their profits are perfectly legal, and the companies or individuals who made them are free to take their money and invest it in the green rush. Furthermore, it’s not possible for Linton or any publicly traded company to monitor who purchases shares of their stock and tell unethical people who have not violated the law to buzz off. Love it or hate it for incentivizing unethical actions and the mass incarceration of black and brown people whose entrenched poverty is only made more severe due to their living in a police state amidst the ruins of deindustrialized urban centers that lack opportunities or funding for programs or schools or anything that might increase the likelihood that more people can manumit themselves from a vicious circle of despair and prison, that’s just late capitalism.

The concern is also that these same individuals who made untold millions off a tremendously unjust drug war will serve as the angel investors for people within their network of friends or, far worse, for shady ventures that will blink in and out of existence only for long enough to reap the benefits of operating in an underregulated industry. Whether these cannabis carpetbaggers are investing in or starting their own shady cannabis companies is irrelevant. The results are the same: their ventures could both frustrate the industry’s attempts to create a more respectable image and chase out legitimate companies whose pockets aren’t so deep.

However, this process of becoming more respectable (and by this, it is usually meant more corporate) has its own problems. The cannabis industry is starting to look a lot more like other industries in terms of the makeup of the executive staff—more white and more male. To attract larger investors and look more corporate, many companies are hiring executives from industries like Big Pharma, Big Tobacco, and the beverage industry, and the pool of executives from these industries is predominately older white dudes. In other words, this is not an explicitly sexist or racist development (wherein someone is saying ‘We need a white guy in here, stat’), but it does lead to the exclusion of women and people of color because it perpetuates disparities in representation that exist on the executive level in these other industries. An anonymous survey of 567 founders and executives conducted by Marijuana Business Daily found the number of female executives fell from 36% in 2015 to 27% in 2017, which is more in line with the dismal 23% average for businesses in the US.

Anecdotal evidence is also piling up about the changes in the industry. While speaking on a panel at the CWCB Expo, Dr. Macias described how she still has wakeup calls about what she described as the “reality of the situation now.” “I’ve been in the industry since 2012, operational in multiple states, and I went into a room of about thirty to forty-five white men and … six women.” Four were support staff. Only Dr. Macias and one other woman were there for business.

“A gentleman walked up to me and said, ‘Excuse me, ma’am, can you go get me a cup of water?’” The crowd gasped before falling to a restrained murmur of indignation. “So, for me, in New York City, in 2019, to still have that impression about a woman’s role in this world is totally obscene. And that is what I told him, and I paused, and I said, ‘Excuse me, sir, I don’t know where the water is, but when you find out, please get me a cup, as well.’”

No surprise, this was met with enthusiasm from the crowd. “And that’s why I need you,” Dr. Macias continued. “I need you all here in this industry because we have to revolutionize it or it’s going to be a world where #metoo is still very common, our issues and our rights will be taken away, the glass ceiling will be amongst us in every job opportunity. But if we’re in those leadership roles and we create this industry, we can create a new narrative by women who believe in men,” she said. “Because we have children, too; we love our sons, we love our husbands. We’re not saying we’re leaving them behind, but it’s time that we rightfully claim our place in this industry and many others.”


Won’t Someone Please Think of the Children?

The woman next to me is petite, pleasant, and professional. To my surprise, she is also quite friendly. Before the plane has even taxied away from the gate at LaGuardia we begin talking and don’t stop until we deplane in Detroit. She tells me that she had been in the city on business. I tell her I am returning to Detroit because my friend’s dad has passed away and that I want to be there to support him.

Throughout the initial exchange of questions about where we’re from, where we’re going, and how often we travel between New York and Detroit, we both attempt to glean one another’s political leanings like two dogs sniffing one another’s asses. The hurried dive into politics has become a common occurrence during this stage of the culture war, and the process can quickly become ugly if one’s not capable of hearing things with which they disagree. Had either one of us been more hot-tempered we probably would have ended up as the unfortunate stars of some viral video that becomes proof of rightwing bigotry or leftwing bullying. Luckily, this was not the case. Despite our differences, we have a civil conversation that lasts the entire flight.

This woman is the embodiment of the kind of suburban conservativism that I was very happy to leave behind when I moved to New York City almost eighteen years ago. This is not to say that she is mean or rude or arrogant or dogmatic or a bad person. She just happens to believe, as most conservatives seem to, in a value system that places a greater emphasis on the observance of tradition and the belief that we should be helping “our own.” This class of “our own” is not defined in racist terms, but it does tend to preclude those who are deemed too lazy to succeed, and it is clear to whom this class of people is in reference even if it is never overtly said. Like other conservatives, she also has a healthy distrust of the media because of a perceived liberal bias and seems genuinely surprised when I tell her that most of the news outlets in New York City despise Mayor Bill de Blasio even if he has tried to tout himself as some kind of progressive superstar. (If you’re openly hostile to the media, as both de Blasio and the White House have been, then their enmity toward you is more self-fulfilling prophecy than bias.) She is also more than just a little reluctant to believe the hype when the conversation eventually gets around to cannabis.

Even though a Gallup poll from late last year found that a majority of Republicans now support the legalization of recreational cannabis (albeit by a narrow margin), I have noticed a generational divide. In my experience, younger Republicans oftentimes see it as a civil liberties issue and perceive prohibition as an extension of the nanny state, while many older Republicans think of it as a gateway drug or a one-way ticket to psychosis largely because of how it was demonized during the initial rumblings of the War on Drugs during the Nixon years and the all-out assault on drugs (and urban communities) during the Reagan Revolution.

As she is of an older generation, distrustful of the mainstream media outlets that have recently begun celebrating all things cannabis, and so staunchly opposed to all drugs that she has not bothered to learn much about them besides they’re categorically bad and that you can avoid them by just saying no, she says she was not in favor of Michigan’s decision to legalize recreational weed. Even if she acknowledges that it has benefits and that it may be useful in certain contexts, the idea that we should just unleash another drug with the potential for abuse on the world is irresponsible. She is particularly upset about how dosages are not consistent and, in the case of edibles, that delayed effects can lead individuals to either take more and have a very bad experience or think that they can safely drive when they initially get behind the wheel. “What happens when it kicks in and they’re on the freeway?” she asks. Furthermore, she finds it disgusting that so many edibles are made in candy form. To her, this is clearly an attempt to market to children.

I am told not to get her started about giving drugs to dogs, so I do not.

As much as I may have disagreed with this woman, she did have several valid points. Many companies package their edible products in a manner akin to the packaging of candy, giving THC to dogs is a shitty thing to do, and treating cannabis as if it is completely harmless is irresponsible. After all, it is a drug and there are a lot of ignorant people out there who may make terrible decisions when they consume cannabis.

In Marijuana: The Unbaised Truth About the World’s Most Popular Weed, Dr. Kevin Hill (an addiction specialist based at Harvard University) echoes the sentiment expressed by the woman and provides evidence to back up his claims rather than moralistic finger wagging. Cannabis can impair your ability to drive. Cannabis can have a negative impact on the brains of adolescents. Cannabis can induce a psychotic episode in individuals who are prone to certain mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and so on. Cannabis can be addictive—even if it is less addictive than cocaine, nicotine, alcohol, heroin, or any of the opioids that regularly get prescribed for pain management. As it is addictive when one is a heavy and regular user, cessation can produce symptoms of withdrawal.

Despite these downsides, Dr. Hill is quick to point out that this does not negate its potential medicinal and therapeutic benefits, nor does it mean that criminalization is necessarily wise from a policy standpoint. Furthermore, it does not present significant risks of overdose—which is most certainly not the case with opioids, cocaine, or alcohol—and he deems occasional use as “unlikely to be harmful in the same way that drinking in moderation is unlikely to be harmful.” Consequently, Dr. Hill says he supports decriminalization, but does not believe enough research has been done to effectively regulate legalized recreational cannabis at this time. There are still too many dangers. “I am forced to balance a set of risks and benefits,” he writes, “and while they lean against legalization at the moment, they may shift in favor of legalization as we gather more data. … As much as is possible, this should be a decision based on evidence.”

This is not a ringing endorsement for or against cannabis by any means; it is, instead, the kind of tenuous conclusion that comes from a reasoned look at the facts without the use of hyperbolic language or a strawman whom he can demonize (or “blast”). Advocates for legalization may believe that Dr. Hill’s approach is overly cautious, but no one can accuse him of acting in bad faith, relying on outdated beliefs about cannabis, or using the kinds of scare tactics about how drugs are corrupting “the children” that have been employed since at least the 1880s, according to H. Wayne Morgan, author of Drugs in America: A Social History, 1800-1980.

I wish I could say that the conversation with the woman went in this direction—toward an evidence-based and moderate position. It didn’t. While she will continue to think that medicinal cannabis is acceptable so long as it is recommended by a doctor, she will continue to view recreational weed as a gateway drug, and she will continue to incredulously read about the virtues of CBD in the “lamestream media.” (She’ll probably also continue to think that it’s clever to characterize sources like the Washington Post, the New York Times, and CNN in this way.) Though she seemed less inclined to view recreational cannabis as a menace that can only be eliminated through strict policies that are meant to restore law and order, it will continue to have a stigma to her, and I honestly have no idea what could ever make her give up this view.


“Edibles have been a godsend,” my friend Liam tells me. It’s now a few hours after the plane landed in Michigan and we’re at a bar a few blocks from my mother’s house in Birmingham. Technically, it’s Royal Oak, as the bar is on Woodward Avenue just south of 14 Mile. We’re both keeping our eyes firmly upon the third period of Game 7 of the Hurricanes/Capitols series. The bartender, Chris, keeps studying me because he can recognize my face and demeanor, but it takes him until the first overtime to place me and ask if I’m the brother of one of his regulars. I am.

Liam adds that the edibles allowed his mother to sleep after she’d spent several nights staring at the ceiling and being bombarded by the plague of emotions and thoughts that follow the death of someone close to you. For her, it was her husband of several decades.

“You know, Colleen texted me. She said, ‘Welcome to the club.’”

It’s an unenviable club to belong to. I know because I’ve been a member since 2016. Colleen joined in 2018. Liam joined in April. It’s the reason I’m back at the Mt. Chalet II, the bar to which I’ve been coming whenever I’m back in Michigan since these trips morphed from visits home from New York to visits to Detroit from home, sitting next to him and sharing a plate of nachos over a few beers.

In those initial days when you first become a member, you experience long bouts of remorse, visitations of regrets, and the overwhelming feeling that there will eventually be an opportunity to say things that, unfortunately, can never be said. You find yourself staring at their picture and missing the kinds of idiosyncrasies and familiar stories that seemed, at the time, to age more like bread than wine. But now they almost seem like a certain literary device, like Homer’s “wine-dark sea” or Kilgore Trout’s “so it goes” that serve as a kind of refrain to a song that you no longer get to hear, and the sudden disappearance of the familiar leaves you feeling alienated and alone and unable to do more than focus on that picture or, if in bed, the stretched shadows that come creeping through the blinds. It’s oftentimes all you can do once the house is quiet and the lights are out and the extended family members who’ve traveled from near and far have paid their respects and gone back home and you’re left with a pinecone-sized knot that turns just below your diaphragm no matter how tightly you close your eyes or try to hypnotize yourself into oblivion with informercials for stronger abs or nonstick cookware. Eventually, you realize that you’re not getting to sleep without an aid.

In my experience, that aid was alcohol. It’s a difficult thing to admit, but it was my crutch of choice in the direct aftermath of my father’s death and the death of friends who either took their own lives or had them savagely taken from them due to a war that continues to this day even though it stopped making regular headlines almost fifteen years ago. I’m certainly not alone. I have met no shortage of people who have used booze as their temporary numbing agent or sleep aid of choice following a death or a divorce or some other cataclysmic event.

Most people can put it aside after a while. Eventually, they can sleep without being kept up by the memories of the recently departed or haunted by the far too salient recognition that everyone eventually dies and all those additional existentialist musings that come along for the ride. They make it through the stages of grief successfully and do not carry the type of baggage that sees them knock back ten or twelve or twenty drinks every day. They can once again enjoy it in moderation.

Others are not so lucky. What begins as a means to get to sleep or to cope gradually becomes a vortex that exacerbates one’s existing problems while creating new ones. One’s raging hangover is allayed by more drinking, by more mistakes, by more hangovers, and so on. As the disease manifests itself, it terrorizes families, destroys relationships, and leads people to make remarkably bad decisions—like getting behind the wheel of a car when they’re so shitfaced that they can’t tell where one lane ends and the other begins, and end up bulldozing head-on into pedestrians, homes, and cars driven by people like my sister. She survived. Once again, others are not so lucky.

The notion that this poisonous vortex could be avoided with a drug that is significantly less addictive than alcohol, produces virtually no hangover unless one uses it regularly for months or years, and poses virtually no risk of overdose, is yet another reason why prohibition seems so misguided. Self-medication is certainly not going to be recommended by any doctor, but it is how many people choose to exercise their right to use recreational cannabis when it’s legal. Not everyone is writing stream of consciousness poetry or jamming along with live recordings of “Dark Star,” “Harry Hood,” or “Red Clay.” A lot of people use it to quiet the nagging pain from a minor injury, to get to sleep, or to simply unwind. That one needs a doctor’s note to obtain a drug that can take care of these things does not seem reasonable.

Of course, it does present risks. It does impair one’s ability to drive. It can be addictive. It can be abused. However, the same things can be said of alcohol, opioids, antihistamines, tranquilizers, benzodiazepines like Xanax or Valium (most likely the infamous shelter of the mother’s little helper), muscle relaxers, caffeine pills, diet pills, and over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol and Dramamine. The kind of mental gymnastics that one must perform to believe that all these drugs will be used responsibly, and that cannabis will not, strains credulity.

However, even if one wants to admit that the risks outweigh the benefits, even if one wants to stop short of supporting legalization for recreational use, there is no point continuing the criminalization of cannabis or treating it as a Schedule I drug. In the case of the latter, it frustrates entrepreneurship, creates a labyrinth of red tape that even seasoned compliance officers can barely understand, and suppresses job growth in an industry that could revitalize many parts of the country (such as the Rust Belt) that have been decimated by globalization. The case against criminalization is stronger. It wastes police resources, has cost billions (if not trillions) of dollars, destroyed communities already ravaged by things like AIDS and deindustrialization and institutional racism, locked away tens of millions of non-violent people in the byzantine world of the criminal justice system and labeled many of them as felons, torn apart millions of families, and made it more difficult for kids from the underprivileged and vulnerable communities that have been the target of the War on Drugs to crawl out of entrenched poverty.

For those who want to think of the children when the subject of cannabis comes up, please, quit the sanctimonious pearl clutching and think of them.


Concluding in Michigan

My time in Michigan was brief, only a few days, and my last stop before the airport was Birmingham Roast, a coffee shop just on the outskirts of downtown. I was slated to meet two friends. It was a typical early Saturday afternoon in late April: breezy and bright, though stubbornly cold for the season.

For the entirety of our time in high school, we had referred to the town as “The Bubble.” At the time, we understood that it was a kind of plastic fantastic utopia that didn’t seem real. Had it been the 2010s rather than the late 1990s and early 2000s, we probably would have understood this “bubble” concept as it pertains to white fragility. Birmingham is about as diverse as a hockey team and, in the words of Robin DiAngelo, an “insulated environment of racial privilege.” It also perpetuates itself. The probability of success for us was extremely high, and this is now reflected in the status of many of my friends who plan to raise families in Birmingham (or a place like it) for the same reasons their parents came to Birmingham in the first place. The public schools are great, it is safe, and most of the streets are lined with large leafy trees and well-manicured lawns.

Despite all this, most of the people with whom I went to high school regularly used drugs. A lot. A major reason was because of availability. It was easier to get an eighth of weed during middle school or my freshman year of high school than it was to get a six-pack of beer. Ecstasy, mushrooms, acid, and cocaine were a little bit more difficult to procure, but, if you knew the right people, they were readily available so long as you had money. And these kids had money. Consequently, when I recently read the statistic that young white kids are more likely to use drugs than any other demographic group, I was hardly surprised.

Because drugs and alcohol were (and almost certainly continue to be) so common, many of my friends were busted for possession or charged with a Minor in Possession due to underage drinking (at the time it was referred to as getting MIPped). Though a handful had to spend a few weeks in either county jail or some kind of bootcamp, most faced no serious consequences for their actions because they came from families with enough resources to hire private attorneys. Felonies became misdemeanors, misdemeanors became slaps on the wrist. A lot of lives were not ruined because of what were characterized as youthful transgressions.

These same mistakes would have landed us in a mass incarceration system from which it is extremely difficult to emerge and virtually impossible to do so without seriously diminished prospects had we grown up in a less privileged community. A lot of those people I see following the footsteps of their parents and moving into suburban manors, making six figures, and raising kids in stable homes would be in and out of jail, unable to land a decent job, struggling to survive, and raising kids who would inherit the same lack of opportunity they faced if they grew up just a few miles down Woodward in Detroit. A lot of lives have been ruined because of what is typically characterized as a need for law and order, even if it seems more appropriate to label it, as Michelle Alexander has done, the new Jim Crow.

Because the lives of the kids in my town were not ruined, many had the chance to leave the area for college after graduating. I moved to New York City to attend NYU, and then remained in the city where I worked in local politics before taking on a less demanding day job that afforded me the opportunity to spend my nights writing. Some of our other friends eventually made their way back after years away and are now firmly a part of the professional class in Metro Detroit. They are doctors, lawyers, financial consultants, and politicians. We’re waiting on one such person: Rep. Haley Stevens (D).

Like me, Haley also left Michigan following high school. She got her BA from American University in DC, and then quickly began working in politics at the national level. She took a job with Hilary Clinton’s 2008 campaign before joining the Obama team following Clinton’s defeat in the primaries. She continued working in government and once again joined Clinton’s staff for her 2016 presidential run. In November 2016, Haley found herself resting an arm on the stage at the Javits Center on Manhattan’s West Side as Clinton gave her concession speech—this time after losing to Donald Trump. Two years later, Haley was one of the many women riding the blue wave into Congress as a member of the moderate New Democratic Coalition. Not only does she now represent Michigan’s 11th congressional district; she is also the chairwoman of the Research & Technology Subcommittee of the House Science, Space & Technology Committee.

Despite her new position, she’s still Haley to us. We’ve established a level of comradery that hasn’t managed to fray much despite our differences or the fact that we only see one another a few times per year. It’s strange how this group of friends doesn’t miss a beat or feel awkward about how much time has passed since we were all floating through the doldrums following the last year of high school and spending our nights debating politics and revolution and philosophy in local parks or hanging out in the house of our friend who’s dad frequently worked the graveyard shift at a Downriver Ford plant.

Throughout this time, we often talked about forming a think tank—more as a joke initially, but the idea had legs and it seems to have influenced most of our lives. There was a certain imperative that each of us felt about the state of the environment, the state of the economy, the state of the political divide (the 2000 election was still an open wound), and the state of our culture. We had a responsibility to not simply let the status quo continue. While some of us were more radical in our beliefs about the extent of the change that needed to take place, each one of us felt a degree of urgency that I’ve rarely found in other people our age who share our socioeconomic background. Most tend to think that pontificating on social media or perfecting the art of posting a dank meme counts as direct action. Others pride themselves on the fact that they vote every two or four years.

Once Haley arrived, we talked about the changes to the town; the fact that we’re all getting old; new relationships, marriages, births, divorces, deaths. We made tentative plans to play a game of Risk in her congressional office and asked her how her reelection campaign is going even though she had only been sworn into office a few months beforehand. She asked about work and I told her I was in the process of writing a long article on Benzinga and cannabis.

Eventually, politics came up. She wanted to know what I thought she should focus on. “What is important to you?” she asked.

I thought for a second. “We need to legalize weed … I mean, there’s just so much potential there.”

The synapses stalled out. She nodded.

Further Thoughts

It’s foolish to assume that the complexity of legalization and the cannabis industry can be summed up in a few sentences or even a more robust 15,000 words. Legalization at the federal level will require the creation of a massive web of infrastructure to oversee the cultivation, distribution, and taxation of cannabis. It will require hiring more federal employees, expanding the power of federal agencies such as the USDA and the FDA, drafting legislation that is extremely verbose and tedious, and spending tax money—four things Republicans are notoriously opposed to. Even removing cannabis from the list of scheduled drugs (often referred to as “deschedulization,” and distinct from “reschedulization,” which would mean demoting cannabis from a Schedule I drug to another Schedule) will demand the rewriting of the law in a way that facilitates research on cannabis and grants federal licenses to growers and dispensaries. If done in a way that benefits pharmaceutical companies—which would likely happen if it were reschedulized because these companies already have decades of experience complying with regulations whereas companies that deal exclusively with cannabis have none—the entire industry would be absorbed by Big Pharma. If done in a way that discourages oligopoly and the influx of shady money into the cannabis space, while also promoting the creation of new businesses by members of communities who have historically been the target of the War on Drugs, then legislation will need to be written that provides incentives and access to loans for new entrepreneurs, especially those whose companies would qualify as minority- and/or women-owned business enterprises (MWBEs).

Unfortunately, the probability that it would be deschedulized or legalized in a responsible way by the current administration seems extremely low. On top of being unwilling to support regulatory expansion and approaching every problem as though it can be solved by a few orders barked by a senile executive and translated into workable law by a legal staff of C- and D-list attorneys, the current administration won’t support these policies because it won’t appeal to “the base.” Even though the legalization of cannabis for strictly medicinal purposes is supported by 93% of Americans according to a Quinnipiac poll released in March of this year, such a policy would probably be characterized as a victory for “the libs” in the press. A similar thing could be said of requiring background checks for all gun buyers, something the same poll found is supported by 93% of Americans (and 87% of gun owners). As petty as this may be, pettiness will continue to be a weighty currency in Washington for the foreseeable future.

Legalization would also disturb the ecosystem of the prison-industrial complex. It would mean fewer people going to jail (close to 600,000 of the more than 10 million arrests in 2017 were for possession of marijuana). It would also mean that many of the more than 2 million people currently incarcerated would be stuck behind bars for doing something that is no longer illegal. What would happen to them? Would they remain there to appease the rural communities where these penitentiaries (and the jobs and Census numbers they provide) are based, or would they be freed? Would those who had been convicted of felony possession charges cease to be regarded as felons and suddenly be eligible to vote and receive government assistance for things like Pell grants and housing? Would those who have been evicted and banned from federal housing projects for drug possession be allowed to return? Would they still have to check the box?

I’m not asking these questions to make it seem as though legalization and deschedulization are insurmountable problems that we should ignore. Far from it. I think it’s important to recognize that the act of dismantling prohibition will require organization, years of strategy, and a team working behind the scenes to understand how a federal program should be implemented. If it were to just happen without adequate planning, it would probably be a tumultuous affair. This is a critical point. Because any initial hiccups will inevitably be used as ammunition to either torpedo the policy or defund regulation to the point that its failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy—the modus operandi of those in favor of smaller government—the rollout cannot be stymied by mistakes.

It is absolutely vital that we get this right, which is perhaps why I hesitated when Haley asked what I thought she should focus on. If there is one lesson that I’ve learned from the Trump Era, it’s that creative destruction at the federal level rarely achieves its stated goals and that the bull in a china shop approach to policy that has guided the executive branch—from the days of the Muslim ban to whatever massive snafu they’re manhandling as you read this—tends to do more harm than good. Failure to act may not be an option, but this does not excuse a failure to think.

As we were walking to our respective cars, I said I wanted to ask Haley one last thing about the article on cannabis I was writing.

“Yes,” she said without turning around. “Of course, I’ll read it.”



Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.