MJNN: Your book Weed the People is a NY Times bestseller, and you recently authored a cover story about Marijuana for Time Magazine. Why has the mainstream media finally started paying attention to cannabis?
BB: The mainstream media is paying attention to cannabis because it’s become a movement too big and too legitimate to ignore–and because guilt and shame are becoming decoupled from the subject.
This is no longer a story about a goofy little subculture. Marijuana legalization represents a major historical shift that’s taking place across America. The repercussions and opportunities are enormous, and they cut across politics, economics, medicine, race relations, social mores, and cultural expression. Nearly half the states allow some form of medical marijuana. 55 percent of Americans believe cannabis should be legal for adults 21 and older. The old reefer madness myths about marijuana have been replaced by peer-reviewed science–and that’s been critical in terms of serious mainstream coverage. Journalists (and their editors, and publishers) crave hard evidence. Thanks to the Internet, and especially medical research databases, that evidence is finally available.
As a writer who works in this area, though, I can tell you it’s still not easy to get a cannabis article published. The old taboos are fading, but they’re not completely gone. Editors don’t like assigning stories about cannabis, and few writers are eager to cover the issues. Why? Because everybody’s afraid of being typecast as the “stoner journalist.” Sanjay Gupta’s public about-face on cannabis two years ago was truly a watershed moment. When he said, “I was wrong” about medical marijuana, he opened the door for dozens of journalists to take cannabis seriously. I say dozens. It should be hundreds. One day soon it will be.
MJNN: What is the future of legal marijuana in America? How long before we see federal legalization?
BB: Marijuana prohibition will ultimately end like alcohol prohibition ended: with tortured language and a whimper. The federal government didn’t fully legalize booze in 1933. The language of the 21st Amendment actually prohibits the transport or use of intoxicating liquor in any state “in violation of the laws thereof,” which was a backward-ass way of getting the feds out of the prohibition business and allowing the states to set their own liquor laws.
I believe the same sort of thing will happen with marijuana. The feds will get out of the pot prohibition game and allow each state to handle its own business. But that won’t happen for years.
Between now and then, I think we’ll see a number of smaller bites at the apple. Banking reform will pass in the coming year, allowing financial institutions in legal states to work with state-licensed companies without fear of violating federal banking laws. The CARERS Act may not pass in its full clean version, but many of its parts — getting the DEA out of the dispensary-raiding business, allowing legitimate research to flourish — will find their way into law in the next two years.
Two years from now the entire West Coast will be state-legal. Ten years from now 20 states will allow legal, regulated cannabis. Twenty years from now nearly all states will. There may be some holdouts, just as there still are dry counties here and there. But legality will be normal.
MJNN: Will Pot play a major role in 2016 Presidential politics?
Even among Republicans, the only candidates seriously pushing an old-school war on drugs marijuana crackdown are Chris Christie and Bobby Jindal. Their positions are giving those candidates no traction. A new poll just found that 64 percent of Iowa Republicans believe states should set their own marijuana laws. Those are Republicans. In Iowa.
So: I don’t think it will play a major role in the 2016 election. I think Presidential politics will play a major role in passing legalization measures, though. California’s ballot measure is aiming at Nov. 2016 precisely because younger voters turn out for Presidential elections, and not off-year elections.
MJNN: How is the rollout of legal marijuana in the Washington State going so far?
BB: It’s proceeding at a slow and cautious pace. That’s frustrating to a lot of people in the cannabis industry, I know. I often say Colorado has embraced legal marijuana; Washington State has allowed it. There are cultural and historical differences between the two states that account for that.
That caution has allowed us to avoid some of the trouble that Colorado’s caught. Colorado went through its early problems with edibles, for instance, which allowed Washington regulators to revise edible rules and perhaps avoid some of the same unfortunate outcomes. And it’s still very difficult to obtain basic banking services in Colorado, whereas Washington has at least a dozen credit unions and smaller banks willing to serve state-licensed clients. That happened because our rules are tougher, and they give the financial industry and its regulators more documentation and assurance.
Our first-year “two track” system, where we allowed both 502-licensed businesses and medical marijuana dispensaries, was a bit of a mess, but thankfully the state legislature sorted it out and we’re on our way to bringing the medical side under state regulation.
Our law is the beta version of cannabis legalization. We’re stuck with 1.0. Even Alison Holcomb, who wrote the law, has admitted that it wasn’t written as the perfect law; it was written to be as good as possible while still giving it a chance to actually pass.
The Liquor and Cannabis Board, and the state legislature, continually bring out little tweaks and upgrades, but they’re more like 1.1.2, and 1.1.3, rather than 2.0. I had hoped that other states would learn from our experience and craft far superior laws–but watching what’s going on in Ohio right now, I’m realizing that may not always be the case.
MJNN: What will your message be to the event’s audience of cannabis attorneys, investors and business people?
BB: Be open, and be nimble and flexible.
Be open about entering the business and working with clients in the cannabis space. By that I mean talk about it. Talk about it to colleagues, to friends, to neighbors, to relatives, to ministers and rabbis and priests. Talk to your cat about it. Bore people. There is still entirely too much stigma attached to this vegetable matter and the people who work with it. I’ve found that when it comes to cannabis legalization, the most powerful weapon is conversation. Talking about it, calmly and rationally and without embarrassment, disarms people. It opens their mind. Eventually it may change their mind.
Be flexible, because this industry, its rules and politics and people, changes ridiculously fast. Your foundational product might be banned next week by a tiny little change in an LCB regulation. Roll with it. Change now. A year ago I wrote about a handful of women in the cannabis industry who were making inroads in a dude-dominated business. Two days ago Newsweek ran a cover story wondering if marijuana will be the first billion-dollar industry run by women. This is an industry being invented every day, and that invention happens fast.