A New Leaf: A Post-Legalization Cannabis Reading List

Five stories demonstrating how the green rush nurtured the best and worst that U.S. capitalism had to offer

By Peter Rubin

If you were a pot-smoking teenager in the ’90s, chances are you heard the same urban legend I did. Marlboro’s just waiting for weed to be legalized, man. They’ve got the tobacco fields ready to repurpose; they’ll even use their green menthol pack when they start selling joints. Someone’s sister knew a guy whose college professor had seen the mockups! What’s weird about this particular wish-fulfillment conversation isn’t how dumb it was; it’s that even a stoned 16-year-old could grok the conflict brewing in the fantasy. Sure, the idea of walking into a store to buy a spliff seemed so far-fetched that imagining it was akin to arguing about who would win a fight between Batman and Boba Fett. But if that day ever did come, we sensed, it would become a commercial battlefield.

Surprise: that’s exactly what happened. After California allowed medicinal use of marijuana in 1996 — and then truly after 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis for recreational use — a new industry sprouted. The “green rush,” as it immediately became known, wasn’t just a financial opportunity; it nurtured the best and worst that U.S. capitalism had to offer. For every underdog, a huckster; for every scrappy botanist, a shadowy billion-dollar concern; for every newly minted entrepreneur, a stinging reminder that even legal cannabis has a way of perpetuating inequities. Whether or not the devil’s lettuce ever becomes legalized at a federal level (and Marlboro finally gets involved), the journalism compiled below makes clear that the stories of post-legalization America are in many ways the stories of the nation itself.

1) The Great Pot Monopoly Mystery (Amanda Chicago Lewis, GQ, August 2017)

Few journalists have been covering the weed beat longer or better than Lewis; she’s knowledgeable, well-sourced, and has reported on everything from how Black entrepreneurs have been shut out of the cannabis boom to how the company Weedmaps has cultivated a booming business with a selective attention to legality. But my favorite work of hers might just be this feverish jaunt down the rabbit hole of BioTech Institute, a company that reportedly struck fear into the heart of the industry by trying to issue utility patents on the cannabis plant itself. Sounds dry? Not when it feels like the plot of a noir movie, with Lewis as the dogged detective:

Outside of these patents, BioTech Institute barely exists. The company has no website, manufactures no products, and owns no pot shops. Public records for BioTech Institute turned up two Los Angeles addresses—a leafy office park an hour northwest of downtown and a suite in a Westside skyscraper—both of which led to lawyers who didn’t want to talk.

A source familiar with BioTech Institute’s patenting process estimated that the company had spent at least $250,000 in research and legal fees on each of its patents. I knew that if I could figure out who was paying for the patents, I might learn who held the keys to the future of the marijuana industry. But I hardly knew where to start.

There’s no definitive aha twist in this movie — no moment that the camera skews to a Dutch angle and the violins screech in the score — but its shagginess is kind of the point. Watching a reporter follow bum leads, spool out her own thinking, and otherwise externalize her shoeleather fact-finding turns this from a Shadowy Conspiracy saga to something somehow far more satisfying: a process story.

2) Half Baked: How a Would-Be Cannabis Empire Went up in Smoke (Michael Rubino, Julia Spalding & Derek Robertson, Indianapolis Monthly, August 2021)

In November 2020, Indianapolis Monthly ran a small item on Rebecca Raffle, a woman who had moved to town and opened two CBD bakeries in the city. A few fact-checking bumps aside, the piece was uneventful, the kind of local-business profile that pops up in two dozen city magazines every month of the year. But as 2020 turned into 2021, those fact-checking bumps turned out to be the first in a long saga of upheaval and deception, exhaustively recounted here by a team of journalists that would expose Raffle’s business talk for what it truly was: talk. 

None of this seemed in line with the chill entrepreneur with the bubbly personality and perpetual ear-to-ear smile. A gay, Jewish, California-transplanted working mom, Raffle conveyed an endearing underdog quality and a compelling girl-boss backstory. A lot of people bought right into it.

We bought right into it.

Self-mythologizing is nothing new; people often believe what you tell them, and many a business owner has scraped through the lean times by acting as though their aspirations are already reality. But the meta-wrinkle in this particular story — the writers grappling throughout with the role they and their magazine played in elevating this particular mythologist — makes “Half Baked” much more than an exercise in grifter-gets-caught schadenfreude. Whether Raffle’s a Fyre Fest-level charlatan or just a woman whose ambitions outpaced her expertise, you won’t get to the end without a hefty sense of emotional conflict.

3) The Willy Wonka of Pot (Jason Fagone, Grantland, October 2013)

Once upon a time, weed strains were like broadcast TV networks: there weren’t many, and everyone knew all of them. But nothing Acapulco Gold can stay. These days, Maui Wowie and Panama Red have given way to Blueberry Kush, F-13, Azure Haze, and a seemingly infinite repository of other strains — and a great many of them, it turns out, originated with a press-shy breeder from Oregon named DJ Short. In this shining gem of a ridealong feature, Jason Fagone connects with Short at what might just be the apotheosis of his long and accomplished career: the first Seattle Hempfest held after Washington legalized recreational cannabis.

“DJ Short’s here!” said a large man in a tie-dyed tank top. He was sitting next to Short on the dais at Hempfest. His name card said STINKBUD. “I was growin’ his Blueberry back in the ’80s,” Stinkbud said. “One of the most famous guys in the entire world! DJ Short! This guy’s a legend.”

The panel’s moderator, a Canadian researcher, said, “I’ve been moderating this panel for seven or eight years. I’ve never seen Stinkbud so humbled.”

It’s not all stoner sycophancy, though. Fagone portrays Short as a man who knows how much he’s contributed to the current state of the cannabis world — and yet finds himself unable to stop that world from roaring by, leaving him behind in its rush to monetize his lifelong passion. Whimsical headline aside, there’s a real melancholy lurking here, even as Short accepts his laurels. A portrait of the artist as a forgotten craftsman.

4) Is Cannabis Equity Reparations for the War on Drugs? (Donnell Alexander, Capital & Main x Fast Company, April 2018)

A 2020 study by the ACLU found that in the U.S., Black Americans are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession. That same year, 94% of those arrested for cannabis offenses in New York City were people of color. Clearly, legalization has not alleviated the disproportionate burden that low-level drug enforcement has historically placed on the Black community, nor has it prevented Black entrepreneurs from getting shut out of the space. That’s why, in California, a number of cities have attempted to enact cannabis equity, reserving up to half of their marijuana business permits for those living under the median income line or who have a previous cannabis conviction — and in this piece, Alexander chronicles how Oakland’s equity program can set a model for others.

No state has a relationship dynamic remotely like the one between California and marijuana. We officially consume 2.5 million pounds of the drug each year, more than any other state. California produces more than 13 million pounds annually. This means that, even before dipping its toes into the uncharted waters of restorative justice, the legal weed market must contend with vast market and political forces. 

Those forces culminated in a near-failure for Oakland’s program; while the city had set aside millions in no-interest funding for these startups, it was having a difficult time facilitating the necessary partnerships between white and Black applicants. The solutions — or people, as the best solutions tend to be — don’t provide much in the way of narrative tension, but they do offer a necessary perspective on what it’s really like trying to change the system in a fundamental way.

5)  Inside the Underground Weed Workforce (Lee Hawks, The Walrus, October 2018)

Legal or not, all the cannabis that enters the supply chain starts with the same thing: human labor. Trimmers, those who take scissors to plant to free the psychogenic flower, have long been the backbone of the industry. Yet, as the workforce swells and legalization drives prices down, the livelihood isn’t as dependable as it once was. A blend of reportage and the pseudonymous Hawks’ own experience — numerous trips from Canada to work California’s harvest season — makes his account of “scissor drifter” culture an urgent one. 

In 2017, when Willow last went to work in California, trimmers were expected to buy and cook all their own food. There was one outhouse and an outdoor shower, and she slept in a tent. She was paid $150 (US) per pound. When she checked around, she discovered this was the new status quo. In fact, there were rumours of trimmers being paid as low as $100 per pound. Some trimmers will work in exchange for weed and are just happy to have a place to stay and be fed. Every year, there’s a new crop of trimmigrants with lower and lower expectations. Unfortunately for Willow, the harvest was subpar, and she struggled to finish a pound per day. She left after two weeks, staying just long enough to recuperate her costs. A poor crop can make any situation intolerable.