Photo: Heather Cabot photo courtesy Kevin Abosch.
In the spring of 2017, award-winning journalist Heather Cabot was surprised to learn that several women in her network were investing in cannabis companies. A product of the “Just Say No” generation, she was intrigued and amazed: How had it became okay – socially acceptable, even – for mature adults to partake in something once so forbidden? Resolving to find out, she took a once-in-a-lifetime chance to ride along with a handful of ambitious entrepreneurs chasing the “green rush.” The result is The New Chardonnay: The Unlikely Story of How Marijuana Went Mainstream, a fresh, illuminating, character-driven narrative through the Wild West of legal weed.
A page-turner filled with compelling characters and rich stories, The New Chardonnay is a timely and objective look at an astonishing rebranding. “Cannabis ballot initiatives are sure to be a hot-button issue at both the state and federal levels in the elections this fall,” says Heather. “I wanted to give people not only a riveting read but insights about the business and its history to help them make up their own minds about it.”
Following Heather answers questions about her journey writing The New Chardonnay.
Why did you decide to write about book about marijuana?
As a kid who grew up in the “Just Say No” generation, at the height of Reagan’s War on Drugs, seeing marijuana suddenly being sold in gleaming stores and promoted as an upscale wellness elixir to help Whole Foods and Equinox devotees unwind was unbelievable to me. When long-time marijuana foe and former Speaker of the House John Boehner made forays into the industry, Martha Stewart joined forces with Snoop Dogg to star in a pot-humored TV show, and O, the Oprah magazine started featuring THC-tea parties, it was an Alice in Wonderland moment: curiosity got the better of me. As a journalist, mom and Gen-Xer, I wanted to understand how it all happened: how the “gateway” drug of my youth had shed its stigma so rapidly.
What were some of your biggest misconceptions when you started researching the book?
I imagined everyone selling marijuana to be right out of Central Casting – a “Narcos” scenario, a menacing drug dealer on a street corner, a red-eyed truant. I had no idea who was really behind this new industry, or how it had changed as it emerged from the shadows. I wasn’t aware of its roots in social and racial justice. And I didn’t realize how professionalized the business had become – with fancy trade shows, corporate recruiters and focus groups. I didn’t know about the tension between the longtime medical marijuana activists and the new guard of white-collar, Ivy League-educated prospectors rushing in after Colorado and Washington legalized recreational sales in 2012. Most of all, I did not fully grasp the magnitude of the impact America’s war on marijuana had had on mass incarceration. Nor did I realize how this lucrative industry built atop that unjust legacy would end up sidelining the communities and people harmed most by racialized drug policies.
As a person uninitiated with cannabis culture, what about consumption did you find most surprising?
One of the most interesting things I did was go to “budtender” school at two dispensaries – essentially a training program for sales associates in these new stores. Prior to that experience, I wasn’t aware of the array of products that are “micro-dosed” and meant for just a slight buzz, or even products that don’t get you high. I didn’t know there were products targeted at Chardonnay moms or senior citizens. And I didn’t understand the complexity of the science and how the mix of cannabinoids and terpenes can produce effects ranging from something you would take to sleep to something that would give you a boost for a workout or going dancing or even cleaning the house. I wasn’t familiar with all of the new forms of consuming cannabis, like skin patches for pain and CBD infused-tampons or intimacy products. I was also really surprised by the depth of expertise needed to grow a bountiful and potent crop and turn a harvest that will bear reliable and consistent effects – and all the things that can go wrong.
How did you decide how to tell the story?
I knew from my television reporting days that a complex story like this one needed unforgettable characters to drive the narrative. Luckily, there was no shortage of them in the cannabis industry. When I started meeting some of these entrepreneurs racing to cash in, I was completely swept away by what they had put on the line and why. For some, the motivation was personal redemption. For others, it was a passion for plant medicine and a belief in the medical promise of cannabinoids. And for others, it was about repairing the damage the war on drugs had wrought on communities of color.
When I met Beth Stavola, I was captivated by her stories about the criminals she faced when she went to Arizona and the Mexican border, alone, to start her business. Once she told me about the bodyguard and private investigators she had to hire to protect her family; the ex-Secret Service agent she hired for security; all the red and blue politicians she had to charm; the Vegas kingpins she had to go up against, and all of the potentially perilous mistakes she made along the way, I was seriously hooked. The fact that she was this glamorous mom of six kids who had built an office with a trading floor inside her waterfront mansion near the Jersey shore made me realize that the characters who inhabited this new world would make for a book that could appeal to anyone – not just people who had a point of view on legalization. She was just plain fascinating.
What was the light-bulb moment that made you want to start digging?
The “aha” really hit home when I attended the Marijuana Business Convention and Cannabis Expo in Las Vegas in the fall of 2017. Honestly, I was a little nervous to go (and my husband and parents were a little freaked out). I had written about a few female entrepreneurs in the space but didn’t have a huge network of contacts yet, so I was really flying solo. But Jeanne Sullivan, an early and well-respected investor, told me that if I really wanted to understand the business and see what was happening on the ground, I needed to get myself a ticket to the expo and just walk the floor. So I did. That week in Vegas, I ended up finding some of my very first leads for the stories I would end up telling in the book.
What’s a marijuana convention like?
MJBizCon (as it is known) is the largest legal marijuana trade show in the world and is serious business. I had attended the Consumer Electronics Show – also held at the Las Vegas Convention Center – before, and this was surprisingly similar. Everyone was wearing official lanyards with nametags and handing out business cards. You might be picturing tie-dye and Birkenstocks, but actually it was lots of sweater vests and sport coats. Even though it was all about selling weed, there was no smoking or consumption allowed. No one was walking around dazed and red-eyed; these were serious business people. And as I soon found out, a lot of them were there because they had missed out on the tech boom and saw pot as their once-in-a-lifetime chance to get rich quick. Many of them would end up losing a lot of money when the stocks took a nose-dive in the summer of 2019.
Is the legal side of cannabis an easy business to break into?
Definitely not. First of all, the competition from the underground market is strong and has not gone away. Many politicians, policymakers and businesspeople vastly underestimated how hard it is to change the behavior of consumers who have gotten used to buying from illegal dealers – many of whom can provide the same array of edibles and vapes and tinctures one could buy legally – but at much lower prices. Of course, the argument is that if you buy it in a legal dispensary it is safer since the states require extensive tracking and testing and labeling. Regardless, in the U.S. and Canada, the unregulated market has continued to thrive. In California, it’s estimated that 70% of marijuana consumers buy from illegal operators.
Moreover, starting a legal marijuana venture is incredibly capital-intensive, especially if you are working in what’s known as the “plant-touching” side of the business: the growing, manufacturing and selling of the drug. Startup costs can easily add up to more than a million dollars before a business has even opened its doors. But because these businesses are federally illegal, they can’t just call up a bank to secure financing or apply for a federal small business loan. That’s why in the U.S. the big companies that now operate in multiple states were founded by people with independent wealth and/or a network of wealthy private investors. And it’s also why the industry has continued to grapple with a gender and racial diversity problem. It’s historically tough for women and people of color to raise venture capital, but even tougher in this world that is still highly stigmatized. Social equity programs put in place as legalization has matured have not moved the needle much at all, but at least people are talking about these issues much more today than ever before.
What were some of your most memorable adventures?
The Friday night after Canada ended pot prohibition, I found myself inside a candlelit Victorian mansion at a woman-only sex and cannabis party with sex therapists, mystics and even a workshop involving sound baths and orgasmic manifestation. It was wild, and it was packed. I learned a lot about how these edgier new cannabis companies were hoping to market products to women.
A few months later, I was in New York City sitting elbow-to-elbow with Chicago Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara and 28 other NFL players, including several Super Bowl winners, at the first NFL Business Combine: the weeklong training for the pro athletes transitioning into post-NFL careers. Ted Chung, Snoop Dogg’s right-hand man, had invited me to hear him speak to the group – and, of course, he was talking about business opportunities in cannabis. I had lots of adventures with Ted and his crew – I went to Snoop’s soundcheck at the Apollo Theater and hung behind the velvet curtain with his inner circle while Snoop was emceeing at the Mandalay Bay in Vegas. I spent one very eye-opening evening riding around with Ted in L.A. He also took me to rural Canada to meet Bruce Linton – the Willy Wonka of Weed – and to visit the former Hershey’s factory where Bruce started Canopy Growth, the biggest legal pot company on the planet.
I never imagined I would meet a mensch like Chef Jeff, who welcomed me into his cannabis kitchen in the spring of 2019. That was just plain fun. He is like a mad scientist with all of his concoctions, and his passion for his craft is contagious. He wanted me to taste everything but was mindful that I couldn’t be in an “altered state” while I was reporting, so he prepared all of his delicious dishes for me without THC.
What was it like to write a book about marijuana with teenagers at home? How did you talk to them about it?
I had mixed feelings about it and so did they. But in the end, my project opened the door for us to have some really important conversations about criminal justice reform, racial justice, substance use and abuse and the risks of marijuana use on developing brains and bodies. We talked about seriously ill children like Charlotte Figi who have found relief in CBD, and I was able to explain to them the difference between CBD (which doesn’t get you high) and THC. I think they have come away with an understanding that unless a doctor prescribes it, marijuana is a substance for adults only – and that there are lots of reasons why experimenting at a young age is not a good idea, just as with alcohol. Furthermore, we live in New York, a big deterrent since recreational use is not legal here. And the vaping crisis gave us a very real and practical example of why getting drugs from the illicit market can be a fatal mistake.
You finished writing the book before the coronavirus pandemic. What’s been the impact on the cannabis industry and all of those people with Green Rush dreams?
Like everything with this story, nothing is ever what it appears to be. Cannabis was declared an “essential business” in many places around the country and dispensaries were permitted to stay open during shelter-in-place orders. Sales initially soared. But the economic pain from the pandemic is definitely being felt by the legal marijuana industry. Supply chain issues due to social distancing are slowing down inventory. These businesses are not eligible for SBA loans and federal assistance. They are vulnerable to crime because they are still by and large cash-driven. And the illegal market is still very much alive and well and offering a much cheaper alternative to the taxed and regulated legal products. These businesses were already under pressure because investors had been cooling on cannabis in the late summer and fall of 2019 due to the vaping crisis, missed revenue projections across Canada and the U.S., and the continuing strength of the illegal market. And legalization efforts have stalled in 2020 in many states as governors and lawmakers stay focused on the pandemic.
About the Author
Heather Cabot is an award-winning journalist and serves on the alumni board of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. A former ABC News correspondent and anchor and former digital lifestyle editor for Yahoo!, Cabot has appeared on Good Morning America, Today, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, and dozens of local TV and radio stations. She is a contributor to Forbes, the host of The New Chardonnay podcast and is the co-author of the acclaimed book Geek Girl Rising.