Thinking Man’s Marijuana

America’s least illicit drug gets the business-book treatment
Illustration: Dan Stafford

In fall 2012, Bruce Barcott, a Seattle native who hadn’t touched a joint in decades, checked “yes” on the Washington ballot initiative to legalize marijuana. When it turned out that a majority had voted with him—not only in his state but also in Colorado—he began to wonder what they’d done. His attempts to answer that question grew into Weed the People, a chronicle of America’s ongoing experiment with legalization (and not, as the title might suggest, a eugenics manifesto). For a century, grass has been a political lightning rod and cultural badge. With legalization, it’s also a commercial enterprise, and not only for the Chapo Guzmans of the world. Weed the People is, in other words, a business book.

But marijuana isn’t just any business. The cast of characters in its story includes Pancho Villa and Fiorello La Guardia, Richard Nixon and Dr. Sanjay Gupta. Millions of people are in prison today for selling or transporting or simply possessing it. Much of this has been covered before, but Barcott adds his own twists. He suggests it’s no coincidence that gay marriage and legal pot have gone mainstream at the same time. The two issues have been linked for decades: Gay-rights activists were early proponents of medicinal marijuana, fighting to give the drug to dying AIDS patients.

Most of the book is about legalization’s entrepreneurial land grab. Barcott spends chapters following the clean-cut executives from Privateer Holdings, a private equity fund in “the cannabis space,” as they look for companies to invest in. He talks to longtime growers as they jump through the regulatory hoops that magically transform them from criminals to would-be members of the chamber of commerce. He tracks the antic efforts of Pete O’Neil, a former dog salon manager, to start a chain of Seattle pot shops. By the end of the book, Barcott has placidly settled into his own moderate marijuana habit: “I have my vape pen, and I use it a couple times a month, usually late at night.”

One of the difficulties in writing about business—and not, say, drug trafficking—is that so much of the day-to-day practice is boring. It turns out that’s true even if you’re selling pot. Among proponents of legalization, that’s exactly the point. They want the drug to be seen as a safe, regulated product. They want it to be boring.

That’s a challenge for the book, though, and Barcott never gets past it. Much of Weed the People is full of detailed scenes of people sitting at tables haggling over contract terms, arguing about zoning, or taking calls and glad-handing in convention centers. And the flatness of this material is, if anything, highlighted by the book’s occasionally overbaked prose. There are passages of hazy grandiloquence: “Somewhere in his head the ghost of the future moved.” And lots of pregnant periods: “The glandular miasma of marijuana. Weed. Cannabis sativa.” The word “bro” is used a lot.

Still, as legalization spreads—California is looking likely next year—it’s easy to imagine Weed the People being passed around by campaigners and entrepreneurs. It has a lot of useful information. It also paints the growers, distributors, marketers, and investors trying to get in on the new market as heroes. “My two-year expedition into the marijuana world left me more suspicious of government authority and more hopeful about the common sense of most Americans,” Barcott writes. A self-described coastal liberal, he’s written a love letter to cannabis capitalism that Rand Paul could endorse.

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