On April 20 in 2018, Canna Communication—a multifaceted, women-owned communication agency serving cannabis businesses in Michigan—welcomed to downtown’s Gallery Divani Bruce Barcott of Leafly—a cannabis news and research site.
Bruce Barcott—a Guggenheim Fellow in nonfiction and the author of "Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America
" — arrived in Grand Rapids to celebrate 420 Day with an informative lecture “Everyday Wisdom from an Extraordinary Industry: Ten Hard-Learned Business Lessons from the First Year of Legal Marijuana.”
Since late 2015, Barcott has served as Deputy Editor of Leafly, the world's most popular cannabis information resource. At Leafly, he oversees the site's news and cultural coverage and chronicles the global evolution of cannabis legalization.
Barcott's work in journalism includes features and cover stories in TIME, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Outside, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic, Harper's, Mother Jones, and other publications.
Last year, in advance of his arrival in Grand Rapids to celebrate 420 Day, Barcott spoke with Rapid Growth's Publisher Tommy Allen about the challenges, impact, and advances of weed culture in contemporary America. Then in November 2018, Michigan voters legalized weed in a landslide decision.
Since its passage, local groups like the West Michigan Cannabis Guild
have been working to support citizens and business owners as they attempt to enter as well as navigate this new industry.
(This interview by our Publisher Tommy Allen was previously published in April 2018. However, Barcott’s comments are still relevant as it relates to the work currently being enacted in and around our state and cities.)
Tommy Allen: As an ice breaker at the start, I have to ask this one. When I was a younger lad during my Grand Rapids college days, there seemed to be only two kinds of marijuana offered locally: weed or the mysterious unicorn option referred simply as Thai Stick. So I am curious, what the heck is it?
Bruce Barcott: I grew up in the 70s and early 80s as well and Thai Stick was always this very mysterious product that I never actually quite saw. I'd catch glimpses of various types of joints and ask, "Is that a Thai Stick?” I don't think anybody actually sells a Thai Stick in legal markets now-a-days. I would have to consult an expert because it is so much a part of that former era.
TA: Having seen images online, it seems to me from memory our area’s Thai Stick was not that a finely crafted item but something akin to a desired and distinct strain. It raises the issue, has the modern weed movement moved beyond just having two options now?
BB: The products that are offered nowadays in legal adult use market out here on the west coast are incredible. We have thousands of brands. From traditional joints to vape pens, edibles, and topical that you can rub onto your skin. They even have patches that you place on your skin that works for a number of hours to provide pain relief.
TA: …and the strains offered?
BB: We have hundreds of strains in the leafly.com
database and have people on staff who do nothing but research and catalog new strains of cannabis. Back in the day, the only kind of strain you might have to choose from would be like an indica or a sativa. But it was then mainly based on geography or point of origin as seen in strains like Maui Wowie or Acapulco Gold. But you had no way to tell for certain if what you were paying for was what they said it was or just Mexican brick weed.
TA: The sheer level of diversity of products that are coming forward begs the question: are we creating a new industry organized around this emerging market?
BB: We're not creating a new industry, but are bringing an old industry from a illegal form into a legal licensed registered form. We're not creating a new drug here. We're not creating a new form of medicine or a new mild recreational intoxicant. Weed has been around in our culture for more than a hundred years and actually goes back thousands of years. Often it is a misnomer that we creating a new industry.
TA: So what made you after years of a career in environmental journalism made you want to take on the topic of cannabis to write “Weed The People?”
BB: I've been writing about science and the environment for 20 years and I found myself living in Washington State at a time when we were forced to come face to face with this issue. Our vote in November 2012 was historic: the ballot asked if you were for or against it.
TA: How did you arrive at your vote in 2012?
BB: At the time I was leaning against it. The sale was not my thing. We had two young teenagers at home and I wasn't aware of the enormous story behind cannabis in the United States.
TA: What moved you to vote in the affirmative?
BB: What changed my vote, and really changed my life, was a conversation I had with a friend who's a lawyer. She works on social justice issues and said nobody really cares what you think about pot one way or another. This is a social justice issue; it is a civil rights issue. She said, "Generations of people are in prison for this substance that is safer, less harmful than alcohol, and that's wrong. We need to change it right now.” So I held my nose and voted yes.
TA: And it did pass so what happened next for you?
BB: The next day after we voted I asked, "What in the world did we just do? Is this going turn out to be a embarrassing disaster? Or is this going to be a real pioneering effort that we're going to look back on back on with pride? So I decided to write the book that would come out in 2015.
TA: Recognizing that your book covers a lot of ground and much has happened in 2012 as more states look to legalize weed or place it on the ballot, what have we learned from those who pioneered into this new area?
BB: Here in Washington but also Colorado, we were really testing these laws because nobody had really done it before. Our laws were well-intentioned, but very raw. We learned something right off the bat.
TA: Such as…
BB: Number one was regarding edibles and how you need to regulate those very tightly, especially as it relates to dosing and packaging.
The other thing we learned was that when you legalize and then regulate, the state starts issuing licenses for growers and retailers. They determined that there has to be some sort of scoring system here in Washington state; we want to be very fair to everyone, so we basically held a lottery.
TA: And what was wrong with that?
BB: People who put their names in for a license and we would discover after their selection that they had no experience in retail, no understanding of cannabis, and no access to money. You've got to have some serious capital to buy inventory, to redecorate a space, to comply with all the regulations. So we ended up with a lot of ghost licenses just floating around out there with no way of being able to open a store. So there are things that each state goes through that we can learn from after.
TA: Our local Grand Rapids Chamber issued a statement opposing legalization for recreational use. They wrote, “The chamber is concerned over the negative impacts this proposal would have on the economy, talent, public health, and the fact that marijuana is still illegal under federal law." Do you find this to be a correct assessment of how state leadership folks have responded in other states and how has it maybe shifted in a post-legalization landscape?
BB: I read that statement as well and will try to be kind, but it is a very naive statement because I challenge you to look at any list of booming cities in the United States over the past five years and not find Denver and Seattle on it. These are cities that have a thriving and growing economy. We’re attracting a lot of ambitious younger people from all over to come work here. These are demanding jobs wherever you are in Seattle with hiring competitive cities looking for employees.
TA: Some local leaders have shared privately with RG that they are concerned about our workforce issues as the Chamber statement reflects. Are folks showing up to work zoned out since legalization?
BB: This notion that once it's legal everybody's just going to be wandering around in a haze of marijuana smoke is just ridiculous. Nobody comes to work drunk. And if you do you, then HR is going to talk with you because it is problem. It's the same thing with cannabis.
So yeah it's not it's not going to crash anybody's economy. In fact, in Denver we've seen it have the opposite effect.
TA: What kind of message is being sent to the average voter in this country when we see a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives (and also third in line for the Presidency) join High Street Capital’s Acreage Holdings—a cannabis business group?
BB: The message is this is a bipartisan issue. We saw that for the first time in the election of 2016 where you had many traditionally red states voting heavily in favor of medical marijuana. Younger Republican politicians, who are coming out in favor of cannabis legalization, are not supporting it because they love or hate cannabis itself, but mostly from a purely libertarian perspective—like, “don't tell me what I can or can't do with substances that go in my body,” such as those substances that are shown to be not as harmful alcohol.
TA: Locally, I believe we often do our best when we work together across party lines. What is it like to watch folks who rarely agree these days actually work towards a solution?
BB: It is an amazing breath of fresh air. It’s like getting dogs and cats to actually come together to work on an issue.
TA: It is probably more fun working on policy with “cookies.” Understanding that West Michigan is a place where folks are used to the practice of home brewing beer and then found a way to create and sell award-winning internationally desired beverages, will the future of weed become just about the big guys who race in to dominate the market? Or will we see big weed agriculture existing along side craft weed culture like we’ve watched with other industries?
BB: I think ultimately you will have your Budweiser's, your Coors, and Millers. But you'll also have your local craft and micro-craft beer. The key is to raise the educational level and expectation of the cannabis consumer.
TA: Can you give us an example of what you mean here?
BB: Right now in the early stages of the market, the market tends to be dominated by traditional cannabis consumers who are looking for a big bang for their buck. They want it cheap and with a high amount of THC. I'm much more in line with the emerging market buyer where I am not consuming all that much, but when I do I want it to be the best experience possible. So I am willing to pay a premium for that product as a result.
TA: Communities of color have paid a much higher price over the years as the culture continues to move forward towards greater use and acceptance of cannabis in our country. How has your experience in the book maybe shifted your opinion about these social justice matters and how can states be prepared to hold dialogue about what we might need to revisit from our past in order to move forward?
BB: I think writing the book and then working at Leafly really opened my eyes to the over-incarceration problem in America. First, it opened to me the daily racism that people of color face on a daily basis. In America, you are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession of cannabis if you're a person of color versus a white person.
TA: In Kent County you are seven and a half times more likely to be arrested if you are a person of color, according to the ACLU of Michigan. (Source: http://www.aclumich.org/sites/default/files/Michigan_TheWaronMarijuana.pdf )
BB: This has led me to a firm belief in the first steps that need to be taken to reform that and make progress. A the first thing is to legalize statewide. We saw in Washington but also in Colorado that once legalized, those numbers crash down since we are no longer incarcerating citizens. In Washington after legalization we went from 12,000 arrests [for cannabis-related offenses] per year to 220. That is a massive reduction in people being arrested.
TA: We see in the news recently that California’s San Francisco or Oakland have addressed folks who have a past record for minor marijuana charges in their past be expunged.
BB: In California we see (via Prop 64) that they voted to allow people to apply for expungement. But these other cities are taking a much more proactive stand by assigning someone in the city office to go through past arrest records and expung them on their own for their citizens.
TA: And it cannot be cheap to expunge a record much less navigate the process.
BB: If you are a citizen trying to expunge your record, it will take a lot of time and a lot of money.
TA: There are a lot of barriers to be certain due to Federal law about funding as there is no bank funding available in the U.S. This often keep folks back who do not have massive amounts of capital needed to enter the industry from beginning. And yet, these entrepreneurs could really energize the entire industry to enact innovative new ways of doing business if we could find a place for them to enter the industry. Is there anything happening out there that you have seen that addresses this area?
BB: We're seeing a building up of investment capital in people that involves entrepreneurs of the cannabis world who are further along and more experienced as they mentor entrepreneurs who want to come into the business. They are working with people of color and those individuals who are negatively impacted by the war on drugs. We’re running a story in Leafly in a couple of weeks on a couple of startup incubators in Oakland who are doing exactly that. They are bringing people already working in the cannabis industry and pairing them up with younger entrepreneurs who have good ideas but don’t quite know how to get it all done.
TA: Our city is full of folks who use it both illegally and legally (via our state's medical marijuana laws) with even a local hospital—while not prescribing treatment paths—does share with parents where locally they can acquire such items like CBD oil that we know dramatically improves the quality of life for patients with epilepsy. Does weed need a “coming out” moment in society with more folks who imbibe or medicate talking more openly about it in society in order to dispel these age-old myths and rumors about cannabis?
BB: It’s a powerful piece of data for other people when you can come from your own experience and can say, "Look, here's what I have found.” It may not be for everybody. But for me, I like having a vape pen with a cannabis cartridge that really helps me with my insomnia to get a good night’s sleep. I am not a grand champion to get everyone to come and consume cannabis, but it works for me. I know what works for me but you might find something different so it is best to go in with your eyes open.