Pioneers and "Potpreneurs"—Inside a Triumphant Gathering of the Marijuana Movement

Jun 22 2016

Pioneers and “Potpreneurs”—Inside a Triumphant Gathering of the Marijuana Movement

June 22nd, 2016

The influence of Keith Stroup was everywhere at the Cannabis World Congress and Business Exposition (CWCB) in New York City last week. Stroup is the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML.) He started the movement in 1970 and he’s never stopped; his entire adult life has been committed to making recreational use of marijuana legal.

In a keynote address, Stroup said, “I didn’t think I’d live to see it [marijuana legalization], but I’m sure as Hell glad I did!” He was dressed in faded blue jeans, a colorful tie and a black sport coat with a cannabis plant lapel pin. As his long, white hair spilled onto his face, the 72-year-old lawyer declared, without apology and to much applause, “I smoke pot and I like it a lot.”

Stroup “confessed” to getting high for 50 years, and he encouraged everyone in the audience to “come out of the closet.” He recounted the movement’s history, beginning with the 1972 Shafer Report. It recommended that the use and possession of marijuana not be a criminal offense. Then-President Nixon ignored the report, but Stroup toured the country to publicize its recommendations.

In 1973, Oregon decriminalized marijuana—making possession a mere misdemeanor, like a parking ticket—and 11 other states followed. But then a marijuana backlash set in, thanks largely to the Reagans, who touted “Just Say No,” and as Stroup put it, “Eighteen years went by without a victory, until 1996 and medical marijuana passed in California.”

Growing awareness of the efficacy of marijuana for medicinal use began to transform public opinion. Legal cannabis bought by people with a certifiable illness at a dispensary in the largest US state cut through many of the myths, hysteria and lies about the plant. Stroup said, “It was a genius move.” But he continued to campaign for the recreational use of marijuana, eschewing the idea that “all marijuana use is medical.” He argued, “People aren’t smoking because they are sick. You shouldn’t have to go to a doctor and fake it to get it.” California is finally expected to legalize recreational use this November.

Stroup acknowledged the critical role of “Pot Pioneers” and said we owe them a tremendous debt. They are the people who continued to cultivate, transport and sell marijuana despite its illegal status and a vicious, unrelenting War on Drugs that disproportionately targeted them. “Some people were given 10, 15, 20-year sentences. We have to get them out of prison and expunge their records,” Stroup added, to another round of applause.

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Keith Stroup speaking with a delegate. [Photo: Helen Redmond]

Out on the massive expo floor under harsh fluorescent lights of the Javits Center in Manhattan were the heirs to the Pot Pioneers. But now, they’re called “Potpreneurs.”

The catchphrase of the CWCB Expo was, “Cannabis means business.” The slogan is trademarked.

Legalized cannabis is a multi-billion-dollar industry already, and could top $35 billion by 2020, but only if marijuana was fully legalized in all 50 states, which isn’t likely. But business is booming in most states that have legalized medical marijuana and marijuana for recreational use.

The exhibitors, it must be said, were largely balding white men in blue suits. Many of them were hawking anti-aging creams, botanical oil extraction systems, child-resistant and smell-proof packaging, corporate and civil litigation services, horticultural digital lighting, pain sprays, “True Hemp Dog Chews” (also trademarked) and vacuum sealers.

But the men staffing the Shimadzu Scientific Instruments stall who sell cannabis testing and analytical instrumentation wore white lab coats and shiny, green necklaces festooned with blinking marijuana leaves. They handed out the necklaces and silver pens with a rotating, plastic marijuana leaf on top. It was hi-tech meets kitsch. William Orlando explained that in Shimadzu’s labs, they test cannabis for different strains, mold and potency, which he said, “has gone way up.”

Women did have a small presence at the CWCB Expo. Women Grow is a national network of more than 30 state chapters that encourages and supports women to enter the cannabis industry at all levels. At the Women Grow booth, the all-female staff stated that the cannabis industry is “a little more inclusive” because it’s new and expanding rapidly. Still, they acknowledged that sexism exists. Women Grow member Lisa Martinez said, “There is oversexualization of women in the advertising and marketing of cannabis and we have to get rid of it.”

People of color were grossly underrepresented at the event—an industry-wide problem that Shaleen Title has written about for The Influence. There is a nascent movement to pay reparations to the African-American community, which has been disproportionately impacted by the racist war on marijuana, and make sure it is represented in the burgeoning industry.

The most astonishing thing about the expo was how the legalization of cannabis has unleashed an explosion of creativity and innovation. For example, CannaKorp, which designs technology for medical marijuana patients has developed a single-use, dose-controlled pod that contains a cannabis flower called “CannaCups” and an automated filling machine called the “CannaMatic. Think coffee, think Keurig.

PotBotics, a biotech company, identifies and quantifies the effects different cannabinoids have on patients with various symptoms and health conditions. The goal is to eliminate the need for patients to experiment with different strains. The company’s main products are called PotBot and BrainBot.

Cannabidiol, known as CBD, is used to treat seizures. Not much was known about how to use CBD to stop seizures or the best way to deliver the drug. But in just a few years, in the spirit of DIY, the company called CW (Charlotte’s Web) Hemp has figured much of it out. The strain was named after Charlotte Figi, a little girl who was in a hospice, suffered over 300 seizures a day and was expected to die. Now, thanks to CBD, she is a normal kid in the third grade. The Stanley Brothers, owners of CW Hemp, have created dietary supplements, vaporizers and topical ointments to deliver hemp-derived CBD to children.

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Attendees talk details. [Photo: Helen Redmond]

Dotted among the Potpreneurs were advocacy organizations committed to legalizing marijuana for recreational use, increasing access to medical marijuana and lowering the price of the drug.

Medical marijuana is still only legally available in 25 states (plus DC). Many of the programs also have severe restrictions on who can obtain it. Meanwhile, thousands continue to be arrested for possessing marijuana all across the country; the vast majority are black and Latino.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, last year in New York City, still the marijuana arrest capital of the world, 17,000 people were arrested for low-level marijuana possession. That’s down from a high of 51,000 in 2011. There is no excuse for this.

Realm of Caring is an organization that advocates for policies that would make medical marijuana more accessible to those who need it the most. Sam Riggio, their director of operations, left his job as an electrical engineer and moved to Colorado so his daughter Franny, who has Dravet’s Syndrome, could have legal access to CBD. The move changed his life and Franny’s.

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Sam Riggio; the girl pictured on the left is his daughter, Franny. [Photo: Helen Redmond]

Riggio said, “Her seizures are down to four minutes, her cognition has improved and she hasn’t been to the hospital in three and a half years. But she still has a ways to go.” He believes there is still a stigma attached to using cannabis products medicinally and Riggio explained, “We talk to people about the science of cannabis to challenge the stigma.”

Realm of Caring also works to ensure that cannabis products are tested for quality and safety. Colorado recently passed a law that made testing mandatory. Riggio wants to see more diagnoses added to the list of those that qualify—in particular, autism and PTSD.

For the New England Veterans Alliance (NEVA), adding PTSD to the list of qualifying diagnoses is a no-brainer. Veterans have exceptionally high rates of the disorder. They won a major victory this year when Congress voted to lift the ban on VA doctors discussing medical marijuana with patients in states that have legal medical marijuana programs.

NEVA is also working to lower the price of medical cannabis, according to David Hedrick, a member. Hedrick said, “In Massachusetts the price of an ounce is $350 to $400. Most vets can’t afford that… The corporations and the government want to make as much money as possible.” NEVA members help veterans navigate the medical marijuana system. They provide individual testimony of the benefits of using the drug for pain at a time when opioid-related deaths have increased dramatically.

Hedrick said of medical marijuana, “It seems right in every way: The cannabis community, the products, the jobs the industry creates and the therapeutic healing from growing the plants.”

Keith Stroup would agree.


Helen Redmond has written for Al JazeeraAlterNetHarpers and the Socialist Worker. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and adjunct faculty member at the Silver School of Social Work at New York University. She is a documentary filmmaker and is currently working on a documentary about methadone. Her last piece for The Influence was “It’s the People Who Harmfully Attack E-Cigarettes Who Need to Quit.”