A couple weeks ago, I was invited to an event that looked pretty interesting: a gathering of marijuana entrepreneurs in New York City. It was hosted by one of the most influential American marijuantrepreneurs, Steve DeAngelo, who was plugging a new book called “The Cannabis Manifesto.”
I wasn’t sure what to expect. In my wildest dreams I imagined some sort of cross between a typical industry event and the fabled High Times parties of the 70s. But it was more like Corporate America paired with a strongly progressive vibe. It could have easily been a meetup for solar panel suppliers.
The event was held at Impact Hub NYC, a shared office space in Lower Manhattan that’s exclusively for companies trying to change society or the environment. There was a modest spread that included heros and cheap wine. The vibe was a little awkward, the dress code was faux-causal and the average age was about twice what I expected. Most attendees seemed to be in their mid-40s, having stopped by after work.
The crowd was a motley crew of investors, activists, and entrepreneurs from marijuana’s many cottage industries. A lot of them were there to find someone with money to spend, whether by investing in a company or by supplying a juicy contract. At one point, I found myself talking to a bro-ey head of sales for an insurance company.
I caught the occasional whiff of green, but there was a noticeable lack marijuana smoke in the air for this kind of party, and the brownies were tasty but tame.
DeAngelo, deemed by the International Business Times as one of the most influential people in cannabis, claims to have been born at 4:20. He got into the business long before it became legal in California, in 1996, and it seems fair to say that the growing movement for legal weed has been good to him. DeAngelo now runs the largest dispensary in the state, Harborside Health Center, which he says generates $30 million in annual sales. (It operates as a non-profit.)
Today, recreational marijuana is legal in four states, along with Washington, D.C. Medical marijuana is legal in another 20 states. And another 11 or so are said to be considering some form of legalization next year.
New York is a funny place when it comes to weed. While the state was one of the earliest to decriminalize marijuana, until recently, authorities used a legal loophole to aggressively punish citizens—often people of color—who carried even small amounts of it. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has taken steps to reverse that policy and its injustices, and last year made medical marijuana legal in the state.
Culturally, though, New York doesn’t feel like California or Colorado just yet. You don’t see dispensaries—medical or otherwise—speckled on city streets, and if you smell something sweet in the air, you still wonder whether the person brazenly smoking pot in public is courageous or dumb.
For New Yorkers who aren’t trying to become marijuantrepreneurs, it may be surprising to know there’s a burgeoning industry here. City Councilman Mark Levine, an advocate for total decriminalization, said his views aren’t shared widely in the City Council.
“There remains a fear among some leaders that favoring a tax-and-regulate system would make them appear soft on crime,” he said.
DeAngelo’s book party was meant to be a place for people who want to change that mindset—and get pot to be big business in New York—to come together and discuss how to make it happen.
Many of the attendees I spoke with felt that the government wasn’t acting fast enough and that the rules aren’t very clear. It’s difficult to put blood, sweat and tears, not to mention all your savings, into a business within that regulatory setting. Some even argued that New York’s medical marijuana law, the Compassionate Care Act, had actually become an impediment to innovation because it requires the use of expensive vaporizers and has strict limits on the number of dispensaries that can open.
I sat down with DeAngelo for a few minutes to hear what he thought about the state of the weed industry in New York, and where things may be headed.
In his view, marijuantrepreneurs need to figure out what they can sell legally. There are plenty of weed-related things you can make that people will buy. Until 2012, the investment firm where DeAngelo serves as president, The ArcView Group, exclusively funded companies that make marijuana devices or software, rather than selling the drug itself. He noted that products can be made in New York, then sold anywhere.
"You don't need to live in Colorado to make jars, you don't need to live there to make software," he said.
That was also how Chelsea Buttner and Lauren Miele looked at the situation. The two recent FIT grads founded Kush Kards, a greeting card company with clever marijuana jokes, in New York and launched earlier this year, on 4/20, naturally. But they travel frequently to Denver to sell their products to dispensaries. Also at the event was NYC-based Herbsafe, which sells canisters for commercial and personal use that are sold across the country.
In our conversation, DeAngelo blended a Dude-like desire to “cure stoner shame” with the pragmatism of a seasoned political operative. He argued that a company can’t be part of the American mainstream until it’s a substantial part of American commerce. But even as he’s promoting his new book and inspiring marijuantrepreneurs, he’s defending the legality of his Oakland shop in courts, which the federal government deemed a “superstore.”
In short, DeAngelo said New York marijuantrepreneurs need to be more optimistic and stop focusing on the barriers to their business.
“No legislation is perfect,” he said. “Get over it.”
James is a writer from New York City who has worked for startups, and now works at a brand consultancy focusing on tech startups. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Investopedia, The Street, BlackBook and AmericaBlog.