As legalization ushers in the corporatization of the marijuana industry, from PotCoin to NASDAQ-listed stocks, frictionless delivery services bring a variety of strains to your doorstep. The new big business co-opts stoner culture and refers to the product exclusively as “cannabis,” in an effort to foreground its medicinal qualities and sweep an ugly history of discrimination under the rug. But will the plant’s healing properties outdo even greed?
ARTWORKS: SUCUK UND BRATWURST
In 2018, a video went viral of a white woman in San Francisco calling the police on an eight-year-old Black girl for selling bottled water without a permit. When the Internet identified the video’s antagonist, it was all too appropriate that Ms. Alison Ettel, dubbed “Permit Patty,” made her living selling CBD to dogs. Ettel—whose claim that she only pretended to phone the police was invalidated by audio of her 911 call—soon resigned from her position as CEO of TreatWell Health, a cannabis start-up for pets. Following a slew of racist encounters in the rapidly gentrifying Bay Area, including “BBQ Becky,” who called the cops on a Black family grilling in an Oakland park, the specifics of the incident involving Ettel underscored the parallels between shifting neighborhood demographics and the changing face of cannabis. It’s disturbing that a woman who wants to criminalize a Black child, putting her in contact with a justice system that literally puts humans in cages, is so invested in pampering dogs and cats with specialty wellness treatments—but it’s telling of the direction the legal weed industry is headed.
Cannabiz has arrived. The trend toward legalization has ushered in the corporatization of the marijuana industry, from PotCoin to private equity investment to NASDAQ-listed stocks. Legal pot is already worth billions, but it’s only growing: by 2021, a global revenue of $20 billion per year is expected. But while it’s clear the US government lost the War on Drugs, it’s worth considering who’s winning in this new era of above-board recreational and medical cannabis. “After 40 years of impoverished Black kids getting prison time for selling weed, and their families and futures destroyed, now white men are planning to get rich doing precisely the same thing,” expounds Michelle Alexander, prison reform activist, professor of law, and author of The New Jim Crow.
While the US government still classifies weed as a schedule-1 substance, contradicting legal state programs, finance bros hoping to cash in big on the green rush are confident that if they transform cannabis into a commodified product for American capitalism, then it’s bound to become fully legal. “We think that the right professional brands and the right companies in this industry can be effective as any activist,” argues Brendan Kennedy, CEO of the private equity firm Privateer Holdings, which boasts a multimillion-dollar investment from Peter Thiel’s venture capital firm Founders Fund and is structured as a holding company encompassing three pot-centric businesses. Kennedy doesn’t smoke weed. He just wants to make a lot of money off of it.
The new legal industry likes to refer to their product exclusively as “cannabis.” It’s a return to the plant’s formal name, which was used throughout the 19th century in almost every news report or medical journal article. Pre-1900, the majority of references to the drug relate to its medicinal qualities or use as an industrial textile. Then, around the time prohibition efforts started up, it suddenly became associated with violent crimes and social deviants. For example, a New York Times headline from 1925 reads "Mexican, Crazed by Marihuana, Runs Amuck With Butcher Knife." The semantic shift to marijuana came along with a campaign to underscore the drug’s “Mexican-ness,” playing off anti-immigrant sentiment to achieve prohibition. In 1937, then-US Narcotics Commissioner Henry Angslinger testified before Congress, as reported in the Daily Courier, explaining “what a small marihuana cigaret [sic] can do to degenerate Spanish-speaking residents.” There was a broader racial dynamic to this anti-cannabis sentiment: the period’s propaganda included associating it with Black Jazz musicians and Hindu immigrants. A return to the name “cannabis” signals leaving behind the discriminatory policing which continued into the 20th century, with African-American and Latinx populations being unevenly prosecuted for drug-related offences. Using the botanical genus name for the flowering plant also suggests a shift to a perspective that looks at science instead of racial stereotypes. But when legalization comes without reparations for the damages made to these communities it feels like the name change is part of a larger effort to sweep this ugly history under the rug.
Outside the US, start-up culture is transforming other newly legal markets in Canada, Jamaica, and European countries like the UK and Portugal. Meanwhile, in other places like Mexico and Belgium, personal use has been decriminalized—possession of up to three, six or ten grams is okay, but growing and selling remains illegal. Even in Amsterdam, where it’s long been okay to smoke in coffee shops, generating a huge stoner-tourism industry, cultivation remains partially prohibited. While there’s not the same sleek branding and venture investment as in fully legal markets, there’s still a trend toward the bougification of black market weed. Drug dealers in the past had baggies of one type of weed. Now, thanks to the diversity advanced in part by Marc Emery’s mail-order seed business and the culture of Amsterdam coffee shops, it’s the norm for sub-rosa sellers to have a backpack or briefcase full of different indicas, sativas, and crossbred hybrids. As with craft beer or natural wine, people love to nerd out over distinguishing the flavors and effects of strains like Tropicanna Banana, Lemon God, Sour Diesel and Dogshit Orgasm.
Distribution is changing in the black market, too. As prohibition becomes less and less enforced, even in states like New York, where recreational use remains illegal, the way sellers connect with customers is becoming more formalized. In a movie like 2008’s Pineapple Express, the pot dealer is a burnout you have to go sit and smoke with on the dirty couch in his living room. It’s not a time-efficient transaction. Then HBO’s High Maintenance, which first aired in 2012, illustrates the bike messenger delivery dealer, who’s got to manage cycling between boroughs to meet the needs of impatient New Yorkers—but “the guy,” as the show refers to him, is still an independent operator, fielding calls and expediting drop offs himself. In 2020, there’s a plethora of delivery services that work more like Seamless, where messengers work hourly shifts and different employees handle dispatch and delivery. High Maintenance offers a window into the twilight of an era when you had something of a relationship with your dealer. Most of the episode’s heart-warming plots—like "the guy" helping a lesbian couple kill a mouse or smoking weed with two older women one of whom is experiencing chemo-induced loss of appetite—wouldn’t work with an anonymous delivery person who’s in and out of your apartment in less than five minutes.
It’s not just weed. Doorstep delivery is available for almost everything, from groceries to mattresses to eyeglasses, making these depersonalized transactions more and more pervasive. Delivery services signal the gentrification of weed, but frictionless delivery also helps to accelerate physical gentrification, also known as “white infill.” It makes it more convenient for newcomers to move to neighborhoods that might not have the kind of brick-and-mortar stores that carry the stuff they want to buy, since they can just order online Blue Apron or Caspar or Warby Parker. The effect is two-fold, because neighborhoods change over faster when the new residents don’t invest in longstanding local businesses.
While they’re newly optimized, these weed delivery services still function based on referrals: to make sure you aren’t an undercover cop, another customer has to refer you. In fully legal markets, of course, anyone can walk in off the street and buy weed at a dispensary or order it like a Domino’s pizza. The move away from referrals has its roots in the medical marijuana movement, which emerged in the early ‘90s at the height of the AIDS epidemic. For the first time, dealers sold to customers without social ties, a claim to illness instead of a referral offering access to the drug. (This got perverted in the early millennium, with certain doctors in California signing recommendations to get medical marijuana ID cards for pretty much anyone who said they had a headache.) Still, there was an underlying logic to the market other than capital accumulation. Dennis Peron, a gay rights activist who’d previously sold weed on the black market, is credited as the founder of one of the first medical marijuana buyers’ clubs in San Francisco. After losing his partner to AIDS-related illness in 1990, Peron recounts, “I set upon a path...for people like him…. It was my personal eulogy to him.” The fledgling medical market was driven not by money, but by compassion, morality and social justice. With today’s green rush, greed seems to play a bigger role.
Behind the shiny marketing of so many emerging cannabis and cannabis-adjacent companies, there’s a lot of bullshit and snake oil. CBD was the best-selling herbal supplement ingredient in 2019, and there’s growing evidence of its health and wellness benefits, treating everything from anxiety to epilepsy. But there’s no regulations to ensure the gummies or tinctures that you’re buying actually has any, or any effective, quantities of cannabidiol oil. There’s greenwashing going on, too. While state regulations for properly labeled and child-resistant packaging make it unfeasible to use environmentally friendly options like reusable jars or tins, deceptive marketing strategies span brands like Eleaf and Greentime, who incorporate a green leaf into their logos—not the marijuana symbol, but a more general leaf that implies eco-friendliness, even when their products are destined to rot in landfills. Companies like ABC Packaging Direct even claim that their disposable plastic bags have a positive impact on the environment. Meanwhile, as cannabis cultivation becomes more industrialized, it’s also becoming more of a glutton for fossil fuels. Rather than harnessing the power of sunlight, big grow-ops depend on high-pressure sodium lights. In the US, marijuana production accounts for 1% of the country’s total electricity use; in states like California, it’s up to 3%. The environmental toll of cultivating just a few pounds of pot equals driving across America seven times. (Grow-ops concerned with their carbon footprint are experimenting with more eco-friendly options, like LED lights.)
Meanwhile, there are people who want to make sure that the legalization of cannabis doesn’t only benefit corporations and white male CEOs. Currently, Bernie Sanders is running on a presidential platform that includes full federal legalization and expunging the records of people with past marijuana-related charges. During a recent debate, he pledged, “We are going to provide help to the African-American, Latino and Native American communities to start businesses selling legal marijuana.” Oakland is one city that’s introduced a Cannabis Equity program, prioritizing licenses for people with past drug charges or from neighborhoods disproportionately policed by the War on Drugs. Damien Marley is turning a 77,000-square-foot former prison into the headquarters of a legal cannabis empire, turning a space that once locked up people for possessing and selling the drug into one that offers the community job opportunities.
While cannabis remains in a grey zone, where it’s still prohibited federally while legalized in many states, there’s one area where it hasn’t yet been completely incorporated into mainstream American capitalism. Many big banks still refuse to work with cannabis companies; for the most part, it’s credit unions like Washington’s Numerica Credit Union and Salal Credit Union who are taking the risk. In Oakland, there’s a movement pushing for a city-owned public bank, motivated in part by local marijuana businesses’ banking problem. The billions from the legal industry going into credit unions rather than banks could have a significant impact on America’s financial landscape. Credit unions are for the people, not for Wall Street; they are structured as not-for-profit financial cooperatives whose earnings are paid back to members (rather than for-profit corporations, whose earnings are paid back to stockholders), and they tend to invest locally in things that benefit their communities. Marijuana has healing properties. Even while big business co-opts the hippie culture associated with the drug that proliferated under prohibition, maybe its restorative character can be applied to capital accumulation as well. Even if the new breed of cannabis businessperson doesn’t care about anything other than their own greed, banking restrictions might nevertheless force the industry towards a more collective model of financial distribution.