Pot Is Coming, Philadelphia!
It’s a Saturday morning a few months ago. I’m in Atlantic City, sitting on a folding chair in a medium-size conference room at Bally’s, along with maybe 75 other bleary-eyed semi-note-takers. I’m here for day one of a four-day horticultural seminar — cost: $995 — in which the only plant that will be discussed is marijuana. The event is being run by Oaksterdam University, a college in Oakland, California, that behaves like it’s in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. (Sample course — “Methods of Ingestion: Vaporizing 8701.”) Oaksterdam, founded in 2007, has only been raided by federal agents once.
Among the first speakers is a handsome young New York lawyer named Adam Scavone who specializes in deconstructing the incomprehensible mishmash of local, state and federal laws that govern pot consumption in this country. “Let me ask you a question,” Scavone begins. “Are there any law enforcement officers in the room?” Four very silent seconds pass. “All right, good. That doesn’t mean there’s not. So just keep this in mind. We don’t know who might be here.”
So Scavone’s a little paranoid. But this four-day weed seminar, sponsored by a weed university, has been publicly sanctioned by a casino at the Jersey Shore. And this, in and of itself, is significant. State-sponsored weed culture has been in bloom on the West Coast for almost two decades now, starting with barely regulated medical shops and progressing, more recently, to full-blown legalization. Oaksterdam’s first-ever East Coast trip is a product of the fact that this side of the country — and the Philadelphia area in particular — is rapidly catching up.
In late 2012, New Jersey’s first medical-marijuana dispensary opened shop. In September of this year, a few weeks after Oaksterdam’s grow-your-own tutorial, the Pennsylvania state Senate overwhelmingly passed its own medical bill. A month later, Philadelphia became the largest city in the country to decriminalize the drug.
Writ large, the growing cultural acceptance of marijuana consumption is due to at least a handful of factors. First, as the overdose death toll hovers between zero and two — depending on which German study you believe — the medical benefits of the plant, from pain and anxiety relief to the easing of symptoms of multiple sclerosis, have become increasingly obvious. Second, the feds — by insisting that marijuana be classified as heroin-level dangerous while reinforcing racial inequities through selective arrests and prosecution — haven’t earned their ’80s-era drug policy much goodwill. Third, as the Republican Party scales back its social conservatism and embraces civil libertarianism, marijuana legalization — along with gay marriage — appears to be one of the safer bipartisan bets these days. There’s also a generational shift at play: Two-thirds of Pennsylvanians under 30 favor legalization. (The Social Security-eligible crowd opposes it by the same margin.)
Philadelphia, laggard in all things avant-garde, has surprised even itself by joining the parade. “Philadelphians are the most wonderful people in the world, but they are not early adopters,” says Claudia Post, a 67-year-old Northern Liberties businesswoman who’s fashioned herself into something of a ganjapreneur. (More on Post later.) “Coming from where I came — as an old hippie, buying a nickel bag from a parking attendant — to today, you’re talking about a tremendous leap.”
Weed is fully legal in Colorado and Washington. Soon Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., will join them — to varying degrees — following a slate of successful ballot initiatives in the November midterm elections. Pennsylvania, as it was with gay marriage, figures to be in the middle of the pack when it gets on board. According to recent polling, 85 percent of the state’s population favors legalized medical marijuana; somewhere between 35 and 50 percent favor outright legalization. And Philly can’t become Boulder-on-the-Schuylkill until Pennsylvania, its leaden-footed older brother, gets with the program.
But a number of local entrepreneurial types see the boldfaced writing on the wall — a multibillion-dollar industry slowly opening its doors to Greater Philadelphia — and are itching to capitalize. The local cannabusiness scene has already attracted a diverse crew. On the not-at-all surprising side of the ledger: the prominent Philly chef trying to sell high-end edibles, and the stoners in NoLibs gunning for a weed-infused television channel. On the starched-white-collar side, though, there’s equal interest. One Delaware Valley heir to a prominent philanthropic family is looking to grow the stuff on an industrial scale. Another heiress, her father a local billionaire sports mogul, is heavily invested in a financial-sector weed start-up. Oh, and The Wolf of Wall Street factors into all of it, somehow.
“Pot is coming,” reads the title of this story. More accurately, we should point out, it’s already here.
TWO FEDERAL CONVICTS and a suburban mom walk into City Hall …
The story of how Philadelphia decriminalized weed begins like a bad joke. Let’s start with the two criminals. One of them, Chris Goldstein, is an earnest 38-year-old activist and former public-radio broadcaster who co-chairs the city chapter of the national marijuana lobby NORML. The other, Nikki Allen Poe, whose real name isn’t Nikki Allen Poe, is a 35-year-old comedian and occasional joke City Council candidate. Both are serious potheads.
I meet Goldstein on a Thursday in late September. Standing in the courtyard at City Hall, he’s giving me a history lesson. “Oh yeah, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson used to trade herbal blends for their pipes,” he says. “In fact, in 1794, Washington penned the famous line, ‘Make the most of the Indian hemp seed, and sow it everywhere.’ He was the first president, living right at the corner of 5th and Market when he wrote that, to his gardener at his plantation in Virginia.”
Two hundred-odd years later, with hemp (and weed and all cannabinoid substances) mostly banned by the federal government, Goldstein finds himself heartened once again by our political overlords. “I have friends who work on all kinds of social issues: homelessness, anti-war, environment,” he says. “When do you actually see a tangible victory? This is a tangible victory.” Goldstein’s dressed in his trademark pin-striped suit with marijuana-leaf lapel pin — the outfit he wears when there’s official weed business to attend to. This happens to be one of the rare days he can travel into Philly from his home in South Jersey; his probation officer has kindly allowed him to witness City Council’s vote to approve the decriminalization bill, for which, after all, he is largely responsible.
Wandering west, into the new Dilworth Park, he explains how the decrim process began in full, at Occupy Philadelphia three autumns ago. “The City of Philadelphia gave us one power cord from City Hall,” Goldstein recalls, pointing at a first-floor window. “And with that, we strung lights around the camp, we ran our computers, our wi-fi, our cellphone-charging station, and I smoked a tremendous amount of marijuana.”
At Occupy, he met Poe, a.k.a. Richard Tamaccio. Goldstein taught Poe how to be an activist. Poe, who would later cut an ad for his 2014 City Council campaign in which he delivered a stump speech sitting on a toilet, had a knack for absurdist political theater. So after Occupy fell apart, the two devised a plan to hold monthly weed-smoking rallies, dubbed “Smoke Down Prohibitions,” on Independence Mall. Independence Mall equals federal property, and the two ringleaders got convicted of marijuana possession. Soon, they were peeing in cups.
Stunned, indignant, and no longer permitted to set foot anywhere near the Liberty Bell, they needed a new plan. “After that,” Poe says, “we were like, well, what the fuck are we going to do? Let’s take a shot at decriminalizing marijuana in Philadelphia!” Goldstein and Poe had recruited a friend they met at Occupy — Anne Gemmell, the mom from the ’burbs, a 44-year-old political organizer and ex-Philadelphia School District teacher who now lives in Whitemarsh. “These guys were willing to take an arrest for this,” Gemmell says, “and that, to me, indicated that it’s much more than a YouTube comic trying to build his brand or, you know, a bunch of people asserting their right to get high publicly. It’s bigger than that.”
A recent article in Vice portrayed Poe and Goldstein’s partnership as the stuff of buddy-flick dreams. In truth, Poe gets annoyed at Goldstein’s “marijuana Jesus Christ pose,” and Goldstein makes it clear he’s more interested in the social-justice element of legalization than is his recreation-minded partner. Still, they made for an intriguing “good cop/weird cop” pair. With the help of Gemmell, who possessed political connections they didn’t, they scored their first meeting in City Hall in the fall of 2013, with Councilman Jim Kenney.
Kenney, a 56-year-old Irish Fumocrat and veteran Mummer, has transformed himself into an unlikely champion of all issues millennial. “A friend of mine was a friend of theirs and said they wanted to come in and have a conversation,” Kenney says, referring to Gemmell. “They made sense and they were intelligent and they were articulate. They had their numbers. I mean, they weren’t all — they didn’t look like stoners.” Poe and Goldstein’s presentation boiled down to: Marijuana arrests are both discriminatory and a waste of police resources. Kenney was sold. “I mean, look, it’s been around for years, and I’ve seen all kinds of people use it, myself included. I mean, I grew up and matured and became, hopefully, a productive, tax-paying citizen. It’s youthful indiscretion.”
The meeting became a bill, the bill got passed, and after some protracted hand-wringing by the Mayor and the police commissioner, the bill became law. Beginning on October 20th, the Philadelphia police were instructed not to arrest anyone caught with less than an ounce of weed. An arrest for possession of under an ounce became a $25 fine. An arrest for smoking in public became a $100 fine. That’s it.
Demographically speaking, the progenitors of the bill — Kenney, Poe, Goldstein, Gemmell — have little in common with the population that will be most affected by the change. In 2013, 4,336 Philadelphians were arrested for marijuana possession. Eighty-three percent of them were African-American, despite numerous studies demonstrating that whites smoke marijuana as much as or more than blacks. None of them should see arrest now. The bill could also save the city somewhere in the neighborhood of $4 million a year — by Kenney’s estimate — and advances the agenda of District Attorney Seth Williams, who in 2010 reduced marijuana prosecutions by offering defendants the option to pay a $200 fine and attend a class rather than go to court.
Where other decriminalization efforts have failed, this one is designed not to. In 2012, Chicago passed a similar bill, but with one massive loophole: Cops could choose whether to arrest or fine. Chicago police are still slapping misdemeanor charges on close to 10,000 people a year. Last month, New York City announced that officers could issue tickets instead of making arrests for small-scale marijuana possession, but stopped short of full decriminalization.
In January, a tweet reading LEGALIZE NOW was sent from Kenney’s account in response to an article demonstrating support for legal weed consumption in the city. It was quickly deleted, and Kenney claimed he had no idea who was responsible. When we met in his office in September, I asked him where he stood on legalization. “Yeah, I was a little iffy,” he admitted. “But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really the only way to go.” After all, he said, “George Washington and his guys — they smoked hemp.”
The blessing of the founding fathers, however, isn’t enough to LEGALIZE NOW here in the Cradle of Liberty just yet. So as the city sits in legal purgatory, the question remains: What next?
ED SNIDER, OWNER of the Philadelphia Flyers, is an 81-year-old inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He’s a founding contributor to the Ayn Rand Institute and recently helped bring to the screen a (mercifully concluded) tripartite film version of Atlas Shrugged. He’s worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $2.5 billion. He is, in other words, the definition of conservative establishment. So it’s perhaps surprising that one of his six children is a budding ganjapreneur.
“This is not something that he would do,” says Lindy Snider, 54. We’re talking by phone one day in September as Snider roams her Bryn Mawr neighborhood, tracking down a stray dog. “I think there’s a certain generational aspect to this.” Tall and with straight golden Ann Coulter hair, Lindy Snider runs a skin-care company for people undergoing cancer treatment, called Lindi Skin. She has also plunged headlong into the marijuana business, as an investor in several weed ventures. “It was a big leap. And risky, because, look, this is still a business that is controversial,” she tells me. That said: “I lost my mother a couple months ago to cancer — her pain was unbelievable. Her anxiety. And there was very little to help her. We ran out of options with traditional medicine.”
Snider has other motivations, too. One of those businesses, if all goes as planned, has the potential to transform the entire weed industry — and become insanely profitable in the process. Founded by another Philly native, 42-year-old ex-real estate developer David Dinenberg, the start-up hasn’t fully started up yet, due in part to a daunting regulatory thicket. Its goal: to fill what many consider the single biggest need in the anticipated $3 billion market for recreational and medical marijuana — financial services.
“KindBanking is the first full-service financial solution for the legal cannabis industry,” Dinenberg says, delivering his elevator pitch. Tanned, wearing designer jeans and sockless loafers, he is sitting in the Cosi at 30th Street Station, just back from a meeting with Snider. Before flaming out during the recession, Dinenberg was, among other things, a real estate broker who worked with Donald Trump (and an occasional character in the Daily News gossip column). “There’s probably less than 15 banks in the whole country that will touch this industry.” It’s true: If you run a dispensary right now in Denver or Seattle, you’re almost certainly a cash-only operation. As one operator told the New York Times earlier this year, that business model is “a terrible risk that freaks me out because there is a fear in my mind that the next car pulling up beside me could be the crew that hijacks us.”
The problem is that weed is a federally banned substance, and banks would rather not do stuff that’s illegal (at least not openly). In February, the Department of Justice sought to assuage their fears by releasing how-to-lend-money-to-dispensaries guidelines, but none of the major banks have bitten. Dinenberg, ergo, sees an opening. Unafraid to spoil his billions of dollars in non-weed-tainted cash reserves, because he doesn’t have any, he plans to cater only to pot-related interests. (He also plans to release a debit card for the industry, the Kind Card.)
Dinenberg no doubt qualifies as one of Philadelphia’s major ganjapreneurs, but there’s one problem: He’s not based in Philadelphia anymore. In 2013 he moved to California, used his anxiety disorder to obtain a medical card, and founded KindBanking. Dinenberg repeatedly assures me that this is, at its heart, a Philadelphia company — he thought of it in his old garage in Penn Valley! He’s setting up a Philly office! Lindy Snider! — but right now, if it takes off at all, it’ll do so in L.A.
Closer to home, a couple of pharmaceutical companies appear to be on slightly more solid ground. In October, Radnor-based Zynerba announced that it has raised $13 million to develop synthetic marijuana compounds — delivered using a patch — to treat chronic pain. KannaLife Sciences, run by (and this may not be a good omen) Dean Petkanas, the former CFO of Stratton Oakmont — the real-life firm that crashed and burned in The Wolf of Wall Street — recently won an exclusive license from the National Institutes of Health to develop a cannabis treatment that could help football players recover from traumatic brain injury; one of the company’s labs is in Doylestown.
Of course, all these ventures exist in an industry so young and unproven that it hasn’t even had time to balloon into a bubble. To that end, another local pooh-bah, Democratic political consultant Michael Bronstein, is working on bills and ballot initiatives around the country, in hopes of passing more cannabusiness-friendly legislation. The 35-year-old is the lead consultant for a nascent lobbying group called the American Trade Association for Cannabis and Hemp (ATACH). “If you’re in a state that’s legal,” says Bronstein, “you don’t understand why in other states it’s illegal. As someone who lives in Pennsylvania, I completely understand that. I understand what it is to get some of these things through.” (Bronstein got this particular gig through another local guy, Chris Herghelighu, a 40-year-old Frankford native who nominally runs a mortgage brokerage out of Huntington Valley, recently co-produced the Audrey Plaza flick Life After Beth, and insists to me that 100 percent of his time is spent on the weed business. Herk, as he’s known, is not only in charge of ATACH; he’s also the CEO of a somewhat nebulous company that “develops intellectual property” for cannabis-industry products.)
But Bronstein, who says his lobbying efforts have mostly taken place out of state, his business partner Matt Weaver, and Herk, whose company is technically based out of Colorado, have created less than a handful of local jobs: their own. Other area businesspeople see dollar signs in ganja but are similarly ambivalent about the local possibilities available to them. David Tuttleman of Wilmington, 53-year-old scion of the late philanthropic power couple Stanley and Edna Tuttleman, has received a conditional license to construct a 28,000-square-foot marijuana-growing facility — in Las Vegas, where medical marijuana is legal. Claudia Post, the 67-year-old founder of ground transportation behemoth Diamond Transportation Group, recently began offering sales and marketing advice to other ganjapreneurs through a new firm she calls Smokin’ Hot Consultants. (The logo features a lit joint.) But save for the Front Street Gallery — currently exhibiting an Angry Birds-esque piece — her clients tend to be elsewhere: “If I were starting out,” she says, “I would pick up and go west, young girl.”
Post, who was introduced to the business by her glassblower son, straddles the divide between weed enthusiast trying to monetize and boardroom suit who sees a growth market. She tells me she’s in talks with Ben Frank, who heads the Center City Proprietors Association, to host a panel discussion on the marijuana business. She’s also in touch with guys like Marc Brodzik, a grizzly, bearded 47-year-old painter (who, to make money, does work in pharmaceutical advocacy). Brodzik is the progenitor of Scrapple TV, an irreverent and surprisingly well-produced Web TV channel. (N.A. Poe is a frequent contributor.) “I’m a huge pothead,” Brodzik tells me, sinking into a couch in his sprawling studio at, yeah, 420 Green Street. “But I don’t want to be, like, blasting it into the paper. Well … now that it’s decriminalized, I guess we can talk about that.” Brodzik’s master business plan — modeled after an all-black TV station based in Atlanta — is to turn Scrapple TV into nationally syndicated television programming marketed to stoners.
“The decrim has made it so that we can brand ourselves as stoner TV,” says Johnny Zito, Scrapple’s 32-year-old operations manager, who looks like a ’70s-era Neil Young and sounds like a present-day Steve Buscemi. It’s one thing to speak openly about Scrapple’s stoner ambitions. It’s another, though, to host shows that involve the consumption or brandishing of weed on-air. (One especially promising talk-show pilot: Wake ‘n Bake, “which is, like, two chicks, and it always starts an hour late.”) For that, they’re thinking about skipping town.
Still, the critical mass of talent that has whipped itself up into an entrepreneurial frenzy suggests fertile ground for the sort of regulatory environment Bronstein is pushing for. What’s more, strange bedfellows — the hallmark of any thriving industry — have begun to ramp up, based on a mutual interest in producing another kind of green. When I was leaving Herk’s office, I saw a piece of paper bearing the logo of Scrapple’s production company, Woodshop Films, peeking through a clear binder. I asked Herk if he was planning on partnering with Brodzik. “I’m going to visit Thursday,” he told me. “I think I might buy them.”
IN JULY, MONTGOMERY County State Senator Daylin Leach went to Denver, took a couple tokes on a vape pen, giggled along to I Love You, Man, and then conked out in his hotel room. Oh, and he also visited dispensaries, laboratories, and a couple of enormous grow facilities. Colorado, he concluded in an op-ed for the York Daily Record, “has not turned into a state full of stoners.”
Leach, for as long as anyone can remember, has been Harrisburg’s leading proponent of marijuana legalization. The Colorado trip, which earned him a not unreasonable degree of criticism — getting high on taxpayer money, etc. — was framed as an educational mission to prove to himself and his constituents the economic benefits of legalization. “People in two, three years will fully absorb what Washington and Colorado are gaining from this — that in fact civilization didn’t end,” he says. “And demographics, as older people are replaced by younger people.”
Denver was a shrewd choice for Leach’s pot pilgrimage. Of the two states that legalized pot prior to November — Washington and Colorado — the latter has been far more successful. Colorado has raked in roughly three times more monthly sales revenue than Washington. (Both states began allowing sales in 2014 — Colorado in January, Washington in July.) That in turn has produced more tax revenue: $8 million per month vs. $3 million. Here’s one reason for the discrepancy: Colorado’s recreational dispensaries operate within the regulatory framework established for the state’s medical pot sector, helping weed out illegitimate players. Washington, whose medical market is essentially unregulated and untaxed, can’t provide the same vetting; it also disincentivizes consumption of the recreational stuff, which is more heavily taxed than Colorado’s. All of which suggests that a close look should be given to New Jersey’s and Pennsylvania’s crummy and soon-to-be-crummy medical programs before either state attempts anything more ambitious.
New Jersey’s medical program is, put simply, a disaster. Four years old now, it features only three dispensaries statewide. (Los Angeles alone has 1,000.) Since opening in October 2013, Compassionate Care Foundation of Egg Harbor, South Jersey’s legal pot mecca, has served fewer than 900 patients out of about 3,800 registered statewide. (New Jersey was supposed to provide for up to 50,000 patients.) Why the lapse? For one thing, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper to buy pot illegally. Jersey’s medical marijuana, according to a Star-Ledger analysis, has the steepest price tag in the nation — about $500 an ounce. (Street price is about $300, depending on quality.) And undergirding that high cost is a bureaucratic hellscape that critics of the program say Governor Chris Christie intentionally created, by appointing do-nothing cronies to regulate the program and limiting the available strains of weed.
Pennsylvania, under the stewardship of incoming governor Tom Wolf (who, unlike his predecessor, supports medicinal marijuana and decriminalization for small amounts), can avoid those mistakes. When a bill passes, that is. Leach scored a big win in September when the state Senate — thanks largely to the support of Republican co-sponsor Mike Folmer — overwhelmingly passed a medical marijuana bill. But the Tea Party-dominated House hasn’t indicated that it plans to vote on the bill. And for all of the problems facing our neighbor to the east, Leach’s bill is weak sauce compared to Jersey’s. Smoking or inhaling medical marijuana would still be prohibited — learn how to churn weed-butter, people! — and many classes of patients, including those with AIDS, glaucoma and muscular dystrophy, would be ineligible. (Cancer, Parkinson’s and ALS patients — among others — would qualify.)
Still, Leach defends his bill as an act of politically necessary compromise and predicts it will land on Wolf’s desk as early as March 2015: “We have the House votes to do it, privately and publicly.” With Corbett gone, he argues, the lower chamber doesn’t have to worry about casting a politically risky and functionally useless vote. As for a completely pot-legal Pennsylvania? That will take longer. All the states that have legalized thus far have circumvented their legislatures — and the lobbying pressure to which they’re subject — by using ballot initiatives. Pennsylvania, of course, doesn’t permit popular referenda. “It’ll happen here,” says Leach. “Pennsylvania is always a bit of a lagging indicator. … My guess is that in about five years we’ll have full legalization.”
SEVERAL FRIDAYS AGO, not long after Philly’s very first marijuana citation (and $100 fine) was handed out on October 20th, N.A. Poe and Chris Goldstein emceed a decriminalization bash at Dobbs on South Street. Here were some immediate indicators of weed’s aboveground arrival in Philadelphia: The bar was decked out in green, and serving ironic (and drug-free) munchies, as a notable local chef arrived with an oversize plastic bag full of smaller baggies, which were in turn filled with marijuana-infused popcorn. (With weed not yet legal here, said chef asked to remain anonymous.) Outside, more significantly, a medical-marijuana patient from New Jersey passed around a joint on the sidewalk, with total impunity.
But even at their pot coming-out party, Poe and Goldstein betrayed some anxiousness about the future of the movement. Goldstein told me that the KannaLife guys in Doylestown were, fittingly, to be regarded as the “Wolves of Weed Street.” “They’re a bunch of investment bankers,” he vented. Poe, usually more laid-back, was no less anxious: “A guy like me, who’s been trying to make it a reality, why should I be cut out of the profit side of it?”
Indeed, perhaps the better indicator of weed’s cultural staying power in the city isn’t that people were doing and saying whatever the hell they felt like on South Street — no stranger to consequence-free weed consumption — but that Goldstein and Poe are already fretting that their beloved universe is going to, well, pot. However long it takes for weed to become legal in Pennsylvania, or for local players to set up shop in their backyards rather than westward, the inevitable battle for the future of the movement here — and control of the industry — has already begun.
Originally published as “Pot Is Coming” in the December 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.
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