Growing pot

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Nazrul Islam Ripon/Wikimedia Commons

The legal cannabis industry has gone through a lot these last few years — from prohibition into the light; from nascent industry to startup free-for-all; from the birth of a market to rapid product innovation. After it all, it seems like Colorado’s market is on the brink of realizing a mature market.

But just as the business owners who made it happen start to loosen their belts and let out their stomachs, a new and unusual threat arrives as wealthy investors and companies recognize the stable profitability achieved by our tireless entrepreneurs.

No, those intrepid business owners still can’t put their money in a bank or trade cannabis across state lines, thus limiting the potential of their markets, but as President and CEO of Constellation Brands (a spirits company that most notably sells Corona, among dozens more brands) Rob Sands said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal: “We think it’s highly likely [that will change and national legalization is coming] given what we have seen at the state level.”

On Oct. 29, Constellation Brands announced they are set to invest $191 million in Canopy Growth Corp., a Canadian marijuana company and the world’s largest publicly traded cannabis company, to acquire 9.9 percent of its stock. They plan to work with growers to develop and market cannabis-infused beverages.

The possibility of the federal repeal of prohibition of marijuana is in sight. Not only do more than half of U.S. states have some form of medical or recreational legalization, but for the first time, a majority of Republicans support marijuana legalization, too. According to a recent Gallup poll, 51 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats support legalization.

It’s not just a number representative of constituents, but it’s one reflected in Republican leadership as well. In late September the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana released its 2016 congressional scorecard on marijuana policy. While the report does not indicate there is enough support to generate votes for significant reform, it does plot an important point along a trajectory in that direction. With only 16 members from each house staunchly against reforms, most senators and congressmen are at least open to the idea.

In Southern states especially, it seems our right-leaning politicians are defying their stodgy conservative stereotypes as they step forward to successfully champion the legalization of medicinal-use cannabis in red states like Louisiana, West Virginia and Ohio.

While the upward trend is encouraging, and makes money-thirsty investors lick their lips, the current market is looking pretty good, too, even without the still far-out promise of prohibition repeal. Some estimates value the 2018 U.S. market at $10 billion and the 2018 Canadian market at $7.5 billion, and that’s plenty large enough to attract big money.

While outside investors and corporations wrestle for positioning in the cannabis industry (with Constellation Brands currently at the head of the pack), state level cannabis companies are doing what they can to lobby local governments for regulations that will allow them to compete for deals like the one recently bestowed on Canopy.

It is not unusual for individual companies in Colorado to employ their own lobbyists to work on ensuring city, country and state regulations that allow for sustainable company growths. But recently, several of Colorado’s most prominent businesses have banded together for discussions of forming an industry lobby, one that would fight for the state’s companies to become publicly traded or to accept money from outside investors, like Constellation Brands.

It’s tempting to rejoice at how far we’ve come in generating public and political acceptance for the cannabis that has been so taboo for so long. But there is also something sad about the inevitable arrival of big money and corporate suits to the once humble and personable world of weed.

I’ve always found the idea of corporate personhood bogus, but maybe in this case there’s something to be learned from looking at the maturation of the cannabis industry through the lens of personal development rather than through that of the industry life cycle.

In its nascency, the cannabis industry was born helpless; it couldn’t talk or walk, let alone do its own taxes, and so it mimicked the business around it, observing and adopting accepted cultures until it behaved in a way that was considered acceptable by society, just like a two-year-old.

Then, in stage two, it entered a phase of self-discovery. Through a lot of trial-and-error, it figured out who it was on its own terms and became less reliant on external benchmarks to determine its own success.

Now, having found its own identity, the cannabis industry is firmly committed to its own success and so arrives at stage three, analogous to “business maturity.” At this point it stands at a crossroads at which it can either be co-opted by the economic way of the world or preserved through a commitment to the unique aspects forged in its coming of age.

Can the industry continue to insist on a new way of doing things — on organic production, social-justice, personal liberties — while intersecting with business as usual? If it can, will it?

The answer lies in the seminole question of the fourth stage of human life, one that doesn’t even make it onto the charts of the industry life cycle — legacy. As humans, we have a deep need to feel as though our lives mean something. The question now facing the cannabis industry, as more and more and more money pours into it, is no different.