From pioneering entrepreneurs to investors and legalization leaders, numerous individuals could reshape the marijuana industry this year
The cannabis industry is moving at the speed of light, and so are the professionals behind it.
Some entrepreneurs are building the next generation of companies that may one day rival the nation’s top corporations in size and scope, while others are pioneering new business models, products and services. A growing number of individuals – including researchers, advocates and even politicians – are helping to promote a better understanding of marijuana’s health benefits, push legalization forward and loosen cannabis laws, which will in turn benefit the industry.
These people will all play key roles in what could be the most important year in the industry’s history. An unprecedented number of states are poised to legalize medical and/or recreational cannabis by the time 2016 comes to a close, and other countries appear ready to move in a similar direction as well. The business of marijuana will also continue to grow and evolve, pushing the industry into the mainstream, boosting revenues and moving it forward on the path to legitimacy.
With that as the backdrop, Marijuana Business Magazine’s editorial staff has picked 20 individuals that could make waves this year. These are people who could very well change the course of the cannabis tsunami, or help it become even bigger, in a number of different ways.
Choosing such a small pool of individuals was not an easy task, and this list should by no means be considered comprehensive or complete. There are many others in the industry who will make waves of their own, and we hope to tell as many of those stories as we can down the road. These are just a handful of individuals we think are worth watching this year.
Al Foreman – Chief Investment Officer & Partner, Tuatara Capital
Tuatara Capital made headlines in 2015 by becoming one of the first New York-based private equity firms to not only exclusively serve the cannabis industry, but to do so openly and publicly.
It successfully closed a $26 million round of fundraising in August as part of its larger goal of $100 million. As the firm’s chief investment officer, Foreman is directly responsible for making decisions on how those funds will be put to use within the cannabis industry. The exciting news? Foreman and his three partners are currently most interested in cannabis-touching companies, where investment dollars have been sparse.
The attention of a private equity firm on the industry will only continue to draw bigger, professional investors interested in funneling huge amounts of money into the industry, which will in turn only hasten its journey toward full legitimization. The big question surrounding Tuatara going into 2016: How will Foreman deploy that investment money?
Deirdra O’Gorman – CEO, The Fourth Corner Credit Union
Banking, or a lack of access to it, is arguably one of the biggest hardships cannabis companies face. That could change if The Fourth Corner Credit Union wins a legal challenge against the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, which denied the startup firm a master account and access to the nation’s central banking system.
O’Gorman will lead the fight – and could revolutionize the cannabis industry along the way. Should the court decide in favor of Fourth Corner, similar banking institutions that serve the cannabis business community could sprout in other states with legalized medical or recreational marijuana. That would go a long way in helping solve the industry’s banking issues.
The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City argues that this case is about marijuana’s federal illegality. But Fourth Corner counters that the decision is about whether state-chartered banks – which Fourth Corner is – all have equal access to the federal payments system.
If Fourth Corner loses the case, the firm’s model of banking the industry will likely go up in smoke.
But O’Gorman feels confident, once saying, “We wouldn’t have gotten this far along in this project if we believed failure was an option.”
Rob Kampia – Executive Director, Marijuana Policy Project
There could be a record number of marijuana legalization referendums in 2016, and the Marijuana Policy Project as well as its long-time executive director Rob Kampia will be behind many of them.
Kampia and MPP spent months telling ResponsibleOhio that 2015 was not the year to try legalization – and were proven right. Now MPP is actively backing at least five recreational marijuana legalization ballot measures that could be before voters in five states in 2016: California, Arizona, Nevada, Massachusetts and Maine. MPP is also trying to flip votes in Nebraska, where the legislature has twice passed medical marijuana legalization but couldn’t come up with enough votes to override a gubernatorial veto.
However, if those campaigns sputter at a time when a majority of Americans have come out in favor of legalization, Kampia and his famously volatile personality could end up taking the blame.
John Morgan – Attorney, Morgan & Morgan
In 2014, Orlando-based trial attorney John Morgan almost single-handedly made Florida the first southern state to legalize a workable medical cannabis program. That measure failed by a razor-thin margin, capturing well over 50% of the vote but coming in just short of the 60% needed under Florida law.
Now, the millionaire litigator is taking a second shot. Morgan and his law firm put over $4 million into the first campaign, and he’s committed to funding the 2016 campaign as well – in fact, he’s already contributed over $1.8 million as of October 2015.
If Morgan and United for Care (the official name of the campaign) are successful, as many observers expect they will be, Florida could quickly become one of the largest marijuana markets in the country. The state has 20 million residents, which – depending on the list of qualifying medical conditions – could translate into hundreds of thousands of MMJ patients and hundreds of millions of dollars in sales. Entrepreneurs will have Morgan to thank if this situation plays out. Given the strong support for the 2014 MMJ measure – coupled with the fact that 2016 is a presidential election year, which will draw more voters to the polls – there’s a good chance that will happen.
Sean Parker – Backer of California Legalization Initiative
Dale Sky Jones – Chair of ReformCA
These two could be the most pivotal figures in the 2016 campaign to legalize recreational marijuana in California.
Parker is a billionaire who’s funding a high-profile initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in California, which would be a massively important development for the cannabis industry. The former Facebook president has deep pockets and organizations such as the Drug Policy Alliance on his side. Many in the industry think his proposal – which doesn’t have an official name yet – stands a good chance of passing.
Jones, meanwhile, is the head of a competing legalization campaign. As of press time, however, her group was considering throwing in the towel, as a majority of its board members jumped ship for Parker’s campaign late in 2015
But Jones – who is also the executive chancellor of Oaksterdam University – still could play an important role in legalization, given her extensive network of activists and politicians. If she chooses to back Parker’s campaign – and bring her supporters into the fold – California could very well legalize this year. If Parker and Jones don’t join forces, however, the chances of rec legalization dip. Jones also has hinted that ReformCA might help oversee the crafting of statewide medical marijuana industry regulations – yet another reason to watch what she’s up to this year.
Justin Trudeau – Prime Minister of Canada
Making the announcement to legalize marijuana was easy. Making it a reality will be hard. Trudeau, who unabashedly vowed on the campaign trail to legalize marijuana in Canada if elected, will look to follow through on his promise, and much of the groundwork will be laid this year.
Marijuana activists, industry insiders and present and future entrepreneurs heralded Trudeau’s election as the dawn of a new era for cannabis businesses in Canada, and it could lead to billions of dollars in revenue. Legalization could spawn scores of new business opportunities – not just for Canadians, but also for American companies looking to expand internationally. The market would explode from roughly 28,000 patients currently registered with the country’s medical cannabis program to possibly include any adult in Canada who wants to purchase marijuana. Allowing tourists to purchase while visiting could send sales to another level entirely. Trudeau’s plan also could spur other nations, including the United States, to relax federal laws around marijuana.
It’s a gargantuan task, though, and it might take a few years to play out. And of course there are questions about whether Trudeau can actually push through legalization, as there are many challenges. Either way, how Trudeau proceeds on this front in 2016 will provide a good indication of whether Canada can fully legalize.
Retail, Cultivation, Infused Products and Ancillaries
Steve and Andrew DeAngelo – Co-founders, Harborside Health Center
Steve and Andrew DeAngelo are two of the most well-respected names in the cannabis industry, with their staple medical marijuana dispensary Harborside Health Center still standing as an example of how to set up a model cannabis business. The DeAngelos are now working to bring the company’s best practices and brand to other states around the country, which means they’ll likely be active in most up-and-coming medical and recreational states this year.
Aside from that, the brothers have both been trying to influence the industry and angle it towards a more professional health care atmosphere. They emphasize community involvement, compliance with government oversight, bolstering patient services, and operating above board in every legal sense. But they have also set a standard of not giving an inch when it comes to fighting government crackdowns in court. The DeAngelos are currently involved in a lawsuit with a district attorney’s office that is trying to shut down Harborside. The result of that suit could have large repercussions nationwide.
The DeAngelos will also likely look to get heavily involved in helping California craft its new statewide MMJ regulations in 2016.
Isaac Dietrich – Co-founder and CEO, MassRoots
After he finished high school in 2011, Dietrich decided to pass on getting a bachelor’s degree. Instead, he used $17,000 in credit card funding to found the social networking site MassRoots.
The company is now one of the biggest and fastest-growing tech companies in the cannabis industry, and Dietrich is trying to get MassRoots listed on the Nasdaq.
That’s no small feat for a twenty-something millennial whose only higher education was 22 credit hours at a community college. In building his company, Dietrich is helping cannabis – and the industry that specializes in it – move more towards mainstream acceptance. MassRoots hit 625,000 users in November and has generated plenty of buzz in the industry. As it grows in both reach and reputation, its ripple effects will almost certainly be felt across the marijuana industry, and MassRoots is now poised to become one of the leading tech-focused companies in the space.
Snoop Dogg – Iconic Rapper, Cannabis Entrepreneur/Investor
Arguably the best-known celebrity among several famous names who have started cannabis businesses, Snoop has come to symbolize the wave of mega-stars merging their names with marijuana. The list now includes country legend Willie Nelson, who launched his own line of marijuana strains, and singer Melissa Etheridge, who has a line of marijuana-infused wines, among others.
But none is more visible and has his hands in more marijuana businesses than Snoop. The rapper helps run a canna-centric venture capital firm, Casa Verde Capital, and is behind the web portal Merry Jane – which he started with mainstream media entrepreneur Ted Chung – and a custom line of cannabis products called Leafs by Snoop. He has also invested in or partnered with Eaze, an Uber-like marijuana delivery service, and FunkSac, an odor-lock packaging company that won praise for bringing jobs to Cleveland.
How he and his fellow celebrities fare will have an impact on the industry. If their businesses succeed and avoid any embarrassing missteps, they and the rest of the industry will enjoy added legitimacy – the kind that helps the industry gain acceptance in mainstream America. Their success might also encourage more celebrities to get involved.
If Snoop and other celebrities struggle, however, the industry will have to reevaluate whether these personalities add value or reinforce negative marijuana stereotypes.
Tripp Keber – CEO, Dixie Brands
One of the most media-friendly executives in the cannabis space, Keber has made Dixie into one of the industry’s largest brands.
Keber has embarked on an aggressive expansion strategy – both in the U.S. and abroad – and will continue down the same path this year. In 2015, Dixie expanded outside of its home base in Colorado to Arizona, California and Oregon. It also inked a deal with a company in Australia, becoming one of the first U.S.-based infused products companies to lay down the groundwork for overseas expansion. Under the deal, Dixie-branded products that are derived from industrial hemp and infused with CBD will be sold in Australia. If the country legalizes medical marijuana as many expect, THC-based products will be added to the mix, and possibly even be sold in New Zealand as well.
Expect Keber to develop similar relationships in other states and countries this year.
John Lord – Owner, LivWell
Lord is part of an elite group of marijuana barons in Colorado, which is a massive accomplishment given the size and scope of the state’s MJ industry. His chain of medical and recreational cannabis shops is among the largest in Colorado, and Lord has made a practice of acquiring smaller shops and adding them to LivWell’s roster.
He’s also not stopping there. In November, rapper Snoop Dogg revealed a new branded line of marijuana products that launched exclusively in LivWell shops. Lord has also spent years experimenting with LED lights and growing technology to perfect a recipe for cheaper and more efficient growing methods, and at the end of 2015 had the largest indoor grow facility in the state. He’s also the target of a first-ever pesticide-related lawsuit due to tainted products sold in LivWell shops. The outcome of the suit is far from certain, but it could be a landmark case either way. Lord will likely continue to expand in new ways throughout 2016.
Raj Mukherji – New Jersey Assemblyman/CEO, Garden State Dispensary/General Counsel, CannaPharmacy
Mukherji is perhaps the first sitting state lawmaker in the country to take an active role in medical marijuana businesses. If he can straddle the political and cannabis worlds effectively, he’ll give the industry both legitimacy and leadership.
Although only 31, Mukherji already has an impressive resume inside and outside of the marijuana industry. The Democrat legislator and former U.S. Marine Sergeant is the incoming CEO of New Jersey’s largest licensed cultivator and dispensary, the Garden State Dispensary, and General Counsel for CannaPharmacy, Inc., a national medical cannabis startup. How Mukherji, a healthcare lawyer and investor who has represented Fortune 500 clients, runs Garden State, and what kind of visibility he brings as a public figure, could do a lot for the industry in one of the most influential and biggest potential markets in the United States.
For Mukherji, the battle is personal. His father was the first patient member of the Medical Marijuana Advisory Board for Compassionate Care Centers of American Foundation. Mukherji worked on the successful application of the dispensary, which was one of only six awarded in the state.
Anthony Rivera – Co-founder, CannaNative
If Rivera is successful, marijuana companies may be able to find banking services this year on Native American lands. His company, CannaNative, last year announced a strategic alliance with the National Indian Cannabis Coalition, a group that has been working in Washington DC and in numerous states to help tribes enter the marijuana industry. And both Rivera and Jeff Doctor, the executive director of the coalition, are very interested in getting tribes to set up a new sovereign banking system for cannabis companies.
Rivera could bring a new banking solution first to southern California, given that CannaNative is based in San Diego and there’s a huge concentration of Native American reservations in that region. In addition, CannaNative is going to be doing everything it can to restore cannabis cultivation and a “cannabis-based economy” to all 566 Native American tribes in the United States.
Lynnette Shaw – Owner, Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana
If there was ever someone to root for in the cannabis industry, Shaw is it. After a brutal 15-year legal battle with the Department of Justice that resulted in seven-figure debt and four years of government-imposed exile from the marijuana industry, Shaw emerged victorious in 2015 when a California judge ruled the government had no right to spend money going after medical marijuana businesses in states that have legalized. The ruling sets a critical precedent that could help marijuana businesses in California and other areas of the country.
Now, Shaw – who opened one of the first licensed dispensaries in the country before it was forced to close – wants to reopen her storefront, the Marin Alliance for Medical Marijuana. And the 61-year-old may do it in two locations.
Shaw has applied for a dispensary license in western Marin County, which she said is the shortest but more uncertain path to regaining her dispensary. But Shaw also hopes to reopen her old location in the town of Fairfax, which she closed in 2012 after the government threatened to take away her landlord’s rental property under the auspices of asset forfeiture laws. Her legal strategy? Use the same Congressional law – the Farr-Rohrabacher amendment – that helped her win in 2015 to declare unenforceable the government settlement that prevents the landlord from renting to Shaw.
Brian Trani – CEO, Martra Holdings
Trani may revolutionize Colorado’s commercial marijuana growing scene. With his upcoming 332-acre site in the southern part of the state, Trani will be set next year to become a major landlord to the cultivation sector.
Though he won’t be growing commercial cannabis himself, he will be offering growers from across Colorado the option of using space at his site to cultivate. The sheer size of the site – along with the option to grow either in a greenhouse or outdoors – will likely be enough to have a serious impact on the industry. Some expect existing growers to shut down their pricey warehouse operations, which suck up enormous amounts of electricity, in favor of a less-expensive greenhouse at Trani’s site, which will rely mostly on sunlight to grow cannabis.
Trani’s operation will also almost certainly be cheaper than renting or purchasing warehouse space around the Denver metro area, which has been in record-high demand for years now, due to the burgeoning marijuana trade.
Nicholas Vita – Chief Executive, Columbia Care LLC
Vita made a name for himself in the cannabis industry as an ex-Goldman Sachs banker who now runs one of the largest plant-touching medical marijuana companies in the country from a geographic standpoint. Under his watch, Columbia Care has won cultivation and dispensary licenses in Arizona, Nevada, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington DC and New York. While other dispensaries and cultivation companies have moved beyond their home states, most are still only in one other market, or perhaps two.
Columbia Care will open its flagship New York dispensary this year in one of the most high profile areas of Manhattan: Union Square – which would be no small feat for any kind of business, never mind a highly regulated marijuana company. If Union Square doesn’t keep the reported workaholic busy enough, Vita has two vertically integrated businesses under the Patriot Care brand in Massachusetts that he needs to shepherd to retail opening.
Vita has also supported university cannabis research and is collaborating with Mount Sinai Health System in New York on sharing patient data. That effort could lead to clinical trials, which when completed could offer the industry much-needed scientific evidence.
Research and Nonprofits
Jesce Horton – President, Minority Cannabis Business Association
Prohibition has disproportionately affected minority and low-income Americans, who are also now frequently locked out of the new opportunities within the legal cannabis industry because of the impact of those very same policies.
Under Horton’s leadership, the Minority Cannabis Business Association is working to reverse this trend and help build an inclusive industry that reflects the diversity of the country and larger business community. The association is the first organization of its kind in the cannabis industry, and it is sorely needed to help get more minorities involved in marijuana-related companies. The association will do this by educating community members, lawmakers, entrepreneurs, investors and patients through community outreach programs, networking events, industry resources and business partnerships.
Horton’s focus is on helping individuals empower themselves and advocating for an industry with fair and sensible business policies and regulations. This puts him and the MCBA in a position to make a big impact on the future of the cannabis industry itself and the role of minorities in it.
Dr. Sue Sisley, Independent Researcher
Dr. Sisley is regarded as a leader in cannabis research – and on efforts to remove barriers to cannabis research. Her battle to secure funding and federal approval to implement groundbreaking research she designed to investigate the plant’s efficacy at treating post-traumatic stress disorder in combat veterans has generated a lot of buzz.
Now, she finally has all the pieces in place and expects to begin her study soon.
Though the full study is expected to take three years to complete, her work has the potential to have a profound impact not only on understanding specifically how cannabis can be used to treat PTSD, but also in proving it has an accepted medical use. Convincing lawmakers that marijuana’s current classification as a Schedule I substance is invalid would lay the groundwork for it to be rescheduled or even descheduled entirely, completely changing the landscape for marijuana businesses.
President Barack Obama
Obama leaves the White House for good on Jan. 20, 2017. But before then, he could make history with an executive order on cannabis, and many in the industry have their fingers crossed that he’ll choose to do so.
Specifically, Obama could direct his cabinet to either reschedule marijuana on the Drug Enforcement Administration’s list of controlled substances, or to remove it altogether. While some see it as a long-shot, it’s not unheard of for second-term presidents on their way out the door to make surprising – and possibly controversial – moves on policy that they consider important. Obama could do certainly do so with cannabis. He’s already taken a hands-off approach at the federal level and allowed both the medical and recreational industries to flourish, and he could solve a lot of the marijuana trade’s woes, from banking access to tax deductions to scientific research. Even shipping cannabis over state lines could become possible if Obama makes marijuana a last-minute priority.