After decades of prohibition the cannabis industry is, to quote truth teller Steven DeAngelo, emerging from the shadows and coming into the light. As legalization slowly starts to materialize across the United States so much has changed for those mavericks who have been proponents of cannabis during its darkest days. Elevate spoke with three of the industry’s trailblazers to find out how much the world has changed for them since cannabis became a recognized emerging industry.
Imagine toiling on your life’s work in total darkness. Tending to its growth and cultivating its development in a vacuum for 40 years. Every step of the way looking over your shoulder and sleeping with one eye open due to its illegality.
“We are coming up on 10 years that it’s been that I have been comfortable out in the open now,” reflects DJ Short, who is perhaps the most prolific cannabis breeder in the U.S., of the country’s state by state legalization of cannabis. “It is becoming a reality, we are just coming out of that fog now. I am still reflexively kind of functioning as though it is still back in the day.”
With four decades of cultivating cannabis to his credit, America’s most noted breeding luminary is “tickled pink” yet not terribly surprised by this turn of events. “I made this prediction decades ago in the ’80s, I said legalization will happen and when it does it will unfold in a way that nobody can predict.”
It was over 35 years ago that Short first recognized there was a future in cannabis in spite of the circumstances. “In ’81 or ’82 someone had given me a copy of one of the first seed bank catalogs. It was basically a number of mimeographed pages, but when I saw what they were charging for what they were crossing, I realized then that this was going to get much bigger.”
Short’s forecast has come to fruition. “I see great opportunity here. We have a fully developed industry. It’s about to become above water level, doable, that people are going to actually make happen. The demand is going to increase incredibly.”
Although sunny in his outlook, Short does caution fellow mavericks of the industry about the perils of monopolization and capitalism. “The decent members of our community have an opportunity to show the world how to do capitalism right. I am vehemently opposed to the monopolization of anything.
“Good luck to the people trying to do that. I don’t know where their head is at. If the last 80 years have taught us anything, it’s that you cannot control this plant. Anytime you are going to try and monopolize on it, it will just cause the black market to thrive.”
Quick to say he “sucks” at capitalism, Short’s own future plans include seeds, writing and speaking. “I want to do R&D. I have only released about 30 or 40 percent of my library. I have a bunch of other things that are completely unique, not related to anybody else’s work. They have pedigree. My intent is to lease or sell strains. Also, my focus will be on extraction. So I am going to breed plants strictly for extraction.”
Even though Short has released less than half of his library, they are bountiful. Phylos Bioscience, a research and diagnostics company in Oregon focused on cannabis genomics, has shared with Short “that 80+ percent of hybrids out there all have my genetic marker in them. I have been releasing genetics since the late ’70s early ’80s so it is not a surprise.”
Short’s activism will also play a role. He references Open Cannabis Project, which is building an archival record of all existing cannabis strains to ensure they remain in the public domain. “I am for it, a huge proponent,” enthuses Short of making cannabis public domain. “For me, it’s the only way to protect myself from a Monsanto-esque situation in the future.”
It’s telling that Short will go from protecting himself from government DEA busts to protecting his legacy from corporate monopolization all in his lifetime. But like he said, no one can predict how things will unfold.
CEO of Dixie Brands
“The one thing I have been accused of often is delusional confidence and that can work for you or against you,” Tripp Keber, CEO of Dixie Brands, conveys with a chuckle. “Sometimes as Kenny Rogers says ‘you got to know when to hold ‘em and know when to fold ‘em.’ But I will not quit.
I am all chips in.”
Keber quickly went from “just dabbling” which is how he describes lending money to cultivators in 2009 to going all in on a brand that has enjoyed exponential growth. In less than five years, Dixie’s lines of cannabis-infused chocolates, carbonated drinks, topicals, tinctures, and mints has grown to approximately 155 products, and just last month the brand announced its foray into the international market.
Although relatively short, Keber’s cannabis journey had its share of bad hands in the beginning. “My intention was really to be just the money and be completely invisible, behind the scenes, and unfortunately many people were more interested in medicating than manufacturing,” explains Keber of how he ended up taking a bigger role than he originally had intended.
The idea that started it all was to make cannabis into a drinkable format called Dixie Elixir. “I had no idea how to make a pot soda. But these team members of mine thought it would work. The reality was it was good, it just needed to get better. In 2010 there was no testing facility, there was no dosing, no packaging requirements.
“If you look at the evolution of my brand it starts off pretty janky. Our product was a glass bottle with a big marijuana leaf on it and we were literally buying grape soda from Wal-Mart and pouring into a vat,” Keber admits. But packaging and ingredients were the least of Keber’s challenges.
“One day I showed up at my facility, which was basically a 400-square-foot kind of a drug house, and they (his staff) were all either intoxicated from marijuana or alcohol and I had to make a decision right then and there as to how my business was going to evolve and without consulting my business partner I fired everybody.”
Keber says after firing his entire team he “literally broke down” and that he “was terrified because I had crossed the Rubicon and burned the boats.”
With the die cast, Keber was forced to make his gamble a success. It would seem the gambling gods were on his side though — especially with the unforeseen enthusiasm for cannabis-infused products which is the Denver-based company’s wheelhouse.
“The future of cannabis is obviously my tagline, but not because I believe so supremely in my brand, although I do, it is because the future of cannabis is oil. It’s infused products,” forecasts Keber, who lays out the past, present and future of cannabis-infused products.
The Dixie CEO explains that cannabis-infused products were “five percent of a $60-million-dollar marijuana market in 2010. Last year it was a $700-million-dollar market in Colorado of which 45 percent of the market was infused products. This year we will sell darn close to a $1 billion dollars in revenue as an industry, both medical and recreational, and more than 55 percent are going to be infused products. So we went from a $2.5- to $3-million-dollar market in 20ı0 to what is now going to be a $500-plus-million-dollar market in 2015.”
From a 400-square-foot wood shed to a state-of-the-art 30,000-square-foot manufacturing facility, Keber has put all his chips on the table, noting that he believes Dixie has some of the most sophisticated delivery systems, packaging platforms, labeling that there is on the market.
“I am not going to make any grandiose, irrational statement but I fundamentally believe that we are going to win.”
activist and co-founder,
Harborside Health Center
For four decades and a variety of roles later, ranging from activist and entrepreneur to dispensary owner and angel investor, Steven DeAngelo, who prefers to be just known as a truth teller, has undoubtedly been one of cannabis’ most vocal advocates.
“I actually knew it (cannabis) was going to play an important role in my life as soon as a consumed it. I didn’t think it was going to be my life’s mission because I didn’t think it would take this long. I thought it would only take five or 10 years and then I would be on to other things I wanted to advocate for,” relays DeAngelo, who is 57.
DeAngelo was confidant it would be a short-term gig because in the ’70s 15 states had passed decriminalization bills under President Jimmy Carter and so he and his fellow activists “thought we had it in the bag.”
But along came President Ronald Reagan and his much ballyhooed War on Drugs. “Up until the 1980s we made pretty steady progress. We didn’t envision the landslide win of Ronald Reagan and his steady rollback of all the progress we had made,” recounts DeAngelo.
DeAngelo’s transition to entrepreneurial ventures was a means to his activist ends. “I am equal parts activist and entrepreneur, I have always been both. I found that I really hated asking rich people to fund my activist work. I have found a niche business that allows me to simultaneously support my family and pursue my goals,” he explains.
Over the years, DeAngelo’s businesses have included industrial hemp company Ecolution, Harborside Health Center in Oakland, California, cannabis testing firm Steephill Lab Group, and ArcView Group, an angel investor network funding cannabis businesses. With his attention focused on so many cannabis-centric interests, DeAngelo is easily able to predict cannabis’ next big thing, much like he did in 2006 when he shifted the paradigm on what a dispensary should look like or implemented lab testing in 2007, long before it was required.
As for the future, he is quick to list off a few shifts he foresees such as a move from raw flower to infused products as well as a change in edible dosing. “Up to now the most popular edibles have been high dose. We are now seeing a demand for a lower dose edible that would taste better, allow people to eat more, and have a lower level of cannabinoids.
“You are also going to see a lot of new adopters. A lot of people who were not going to consider using it when it was illegal will now consider it because it is legal.”
This is not to say DeAngelo has not experienced a few surprises. “I think the biggest shock for me was to discover the powerful preventative and curative properties it has for grave diseases. I knew it was a good plant and I knew the world would be a better place with cannabis in it but I didn’t know about its ability to help those with Alzheimer’s or that it could cure cancer or that it would be the medicine to cure hundreds of thousands of children with epilepsy.”
He also concedes that prohibition still amazes him. “I just continue operating in a state approaching disbelief that the federal government and state governments still, with the abundance of scientific research, continue to be obstructionists to this plant,” he says incredulously. “It is just as inexplicable to me now as it was when I started this 40 years ago. It was and continues to be an ever-present daily shock for me.”