By JESSE McKINLEY
Published: April 23, 2010
OAKLAND, Calif. Like hip-hop, health food and snowboarding,
marijuana is going corporate.
As more and more states allow medical use of the drug, and California
considers outright legalization, marijuana's supporters are pushing
hard to burnish the image of pot by franchising dispensaries and
building brands; establishing consulting, lobbying and law firms;
setting up trade shows and a seminar circuit; and constructing a
range of other marijuana-related businesses.
Boosters say it is all part of a concerted effort to trade the drug's
trippy, hippie counterculture past for what they believe will
inevitably be a more buttoned-up future.
"I don't possess a Nehru jacket, I've never grown a goatee, I've
never grown my hair past the nape of my neck," Allen St. Pierre, the
executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of
Marijuana Laws said. "And I don't like patchouli."
Steve DeAngelo, the president of CannBe a marketing, lobbying and
consulting firm here will not even use the word "marijuana."
Calling it pejorative, he prefers the scientific term "cannabis."
"We want to make it safe, seemly and responsible," Mr. DeAngelo said
That extends to his main dispensary and headquarters, the Harborside
Health Center in Oakland, with its bright fluorescent lights, a
clean, spare design, and a raft of other services including
chiropractic care and yoga classes. On a recent Friday, the center
was packed, with a line of about 50 people waiting as the workers
behind the counter walked other customers through the various buds,
brownies and baked goods that were for sale.
"If we can't demonstrate professionalism and legitimacy, we're never
going to gain the trust of our citizens," Mr. DeAngelo said. "And
without that trust, we're never going to get where we need to go."
The ultimate destination, for many supporters, is legalization.
Californians will decide in November if that is where they want to
go, when they vote on a ballot measure that would legalize, tax and
Regardless of the outcome, CannBe says it expects to expand its
business model nationwide to become what admirers say will be "the
McDonald's of marijuana."
The for-profit company is made up of four proprietors of nonprofit
dispensaries and their lawyer. Mr. DeAngelo calls them an "A-team of
In late March, it helped lobby the City Council in San Jose, the
nation's 10th-largest city, to pass ordinances regulating
dispensaries, a crucial step toward a legitimate industry. And last
week at a cannabis conference in Rhode Island, Mr. DeAngelo was
diversifying his product line, introducing a kind of "pot lite" with
less psychoactive agents than regular marijuana and thus popular with
what he calls "cannabis-naïve patients."
John Lovell, a California lobbyist who represents two major police
groups that oppose legalization, scoffed at the notion that marijuana
proponents were cleaning up their act or gaining traction with the
public, citing a recent decision by the Los Angeles City Council to
sharply curtail the number of medical marijuana dispensaries there.
"They are a neighborhood blight," he said. "Here you have
dispensaries that have cash and dope. So, duh? Is it any surprise
that they've been magnets for crime?"
But advocates call that characterization unfair and outdated.
"This is an emerging business opportunity, as it would be in any
other area," said Ethan Nadelmann, the founder and executive director
of the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors legalization.
In California, dispensaries already employ all manner of business
gimmicks to survive in an increasingly competitive market. West Coast
Cannabis, a trade magazine, has dozens of advertisements for daily
specials, free samples, home delivery, gift certificates, scientific
testimonials, yoga classes, hypnotherapy, Reiki sessions, coupons,
recipes and, of course being California free parking.
There are also new schools and seminars that can be used as credit
for required continuing education classes for doctors and lawyers.
That includes the Cannabis Law Institute, which was certified last
month by the California state bar. It was co-founded by Omar
Figueroa, a graduate of Yale University and Stanford law school, who
is hosting a seminar in Sonoma County in June that promises to teach
attendees about "this fascinating area of the law."
Mr. Figueroa, who said he was voted "most likely to fail a Senate
confirmation hearing" at Stanford, said he was earning a good living
in marijuana law, but was in it for the experience. "My passion has
always been cannabis," he said. "It's the world's most interesting law job."
But it is not just California. Business is also booming in Colorado,
which has seen an explosion in the number of dispensaries in the last
year. That rapid expansion has alarmed some authorities and sent
legislators scrambling to pass new regulations, but has been a boon
for law firms like Kumin Sommers L.L.P. in San Francisco, which has
merged with Warren C. Edson, a lawyer in Denver representing about
300 Colorado dispensaries. Mr. Edson said many of his clients were
curious about decidedly staid fields like workers' compensation, tax
withholding and occupational safety.
"There's this real Al Capone fear that they're going to get our guys,
not on marijuana, but on something else," Mr. Edson said, referring
to how Capone was eventually charged with tax evasion rather than
The federal government continues to oppose any decriminalization of
the drug. And while the Obama administration has signaled some leeway
when it comes to medical marijuana, raids on dispensaries and growers
by law enforcement agencies are still common even in California,
where the industry effectively began in 1996, with the passage of the
landmark Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana.
Today, rules vary widely in the 14 states that allow medical
marijuana, and a final vote on legalization is pending in the
District of Columbia. Some states require sellers to prove nonprofit
status often as a collective or cooperative and all states
require that patients have a recommendation from a physician. But
even those in favor of medical marijuana believe that the system is
ripe for abuse or even unintentional lawbreaking.
"Almost all the dispensaries in California are illegal," said William
Panzer, an Oakland lawyer who helped draft Proposition 215. "They're
sole proprietorships, not collectives."
Mr. Nadelmann's organization, the Drug Policy Alliance, says it does
not take a position on whether those who sell the drug should be
nonprofit or not. But he added, "The key people involved are not
becoming personally wealthy."