by Ben Larson
I had the honor of taking the stage at this year’s Tech Open Air in Berlin to open the minds of the audience about our potential future with a legal and de-stigmatized cannabis industry. You can view the video of the talk here on YouTube, but I thought I would take the time to provide my thoughts in written form. I truly believe that we are entering a brave new cannabis world.
When Aldous Huxley authored Brave New World in the early 1930s, he took a bold leap into our distant future. The year 2540 that he paints is a dystopian existence based on the evolution of technology, drugs, and human proclivities. I’m not convinced that our future is so bleak. I believe that the same penchants that Huxley exploits, combined with technology and our thirst for knowledge, will actually lead us to a more positive reality. A reality that will be greatly influenced by the evolution of the cannabis industry.
We don’t have to look 500 years into the future. Let’s just take a short leap to the year 2040 - 500 years short of Huxley’s projection - a not too distant future, but a future that has greatly evolved from the state of affairs in 2016.
Imagine being happy, stress free, pain free, and feeling like your 2016 self, or perhaps even better.
A manageable morning is no longer reliant on a hefty dose of caffeine. No, because we have come to know that consuming this drug first thing in the morning artificially lowers your body’s cortisol production; which, in fact, is not very healthy and leads to an addiction and an ever-increasing reliance on a drug to merely operate at your body’s natural equilibrium.
Instead, you wake up in the morning. You stretch. You ask Siri, or Alexa depending on your AI allegiance, to conduct your full body diagnostic scan. You then simply decide if you will be keeping yourself accountable with your morning workout, or if you’re going straight into the office to prepare for your busy day, or if you’re going to play hooky and take a day off to relax and recoup. Whatever you decide, your personal pharmaceutical unit will produce a single gel cap perfectly calibrated to your body and your desired state of being.
You take the pill. You begin your day. Balanced. Healthy. Optimized.
Now, not only do you start your day off right, you have a healthy solution to many of life’s ailments and a reliable path to your desired mental and physical being. Be it achieving an elevated state of concentration, unleashing your creative potential, decompressing after a hard day’s work, recovering from an intense workout, or curing a debilitating bout of insomnia, you now have a healthful answer.
This will have all been made possible simply because cannabis has returned to its original state of legality, de-stigmatized, and widespread. Only now, we have had the benefit of technology and a vast amount of research.
This is not the future I necessarily desire; rather, a future that I see as inevitable. To understand where we are going, we need to discuss a bit about where we’ve been, and where we are today.
A Very Brief History of Cannabis
Cannabis has not always been illegal. If you go back far enough, it was widely used around the world as medicine, as part of religious practices, and yes, just for fun. After all, it is a prolific, versatile, and naturally occurring plant. Unfortunately, its shear ease of access is likely what has made it an easy target to be used as a weapon in classism, racism, sexism, and probably many other –isms.
People of power, like Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, and Richard Nixon, the 37th President of the United States, were two of the biggest offenders in our country’s history. Both have been directly quoted in egregious offenses of racism, sexism, and classism. However, it’s not just the US.
In China, cannabis use dates back to 3000 BCE and was used to alleviate nausea, as an anesthetic, for Gout and Malaria, and to treat other ailments. Similar to the US, cannabis was made illegal in China in the 1930s.
In India, they celebrated the beautiful Ganja since 2000 BCE. When the British took control of India, the colonialists attempted to make cannabis illegal throughout the 1800s. The deal was sealed in 1961 with the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs treaty.
In Mexico, the Spanish Conquistadors arrived to find the native Aztecs using it for medicinal and religious purposes. They did not understand the religion; they did not understand the use of the plant. They immediately declared it the Devil’s weed, regardless of the fact of its widespread use in the creation of the ropes and sails used in their very own naval fleet.
In the US: There were two major turning points in US history that really drove prohibition. Conveniently, it occurred on the heels of the repeal of prohibition of another drug – alcohol. Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics launched a campaign that was essentially used to re-employ his displaced agents after the end of alcohol prohibition. From this point on, it was used to disenfranchise Mexicans near the southern borders, blacks in urban centers, and even hippies during the Vietnam war.
For a detailed account of its storied history, I recommend a quick read through Steve DeAngelo’s The Cannabis Manifesto. DeAngelo deftly describes the fabrication of the stigma against cannabis over the millennia.
Year after year, there have been scientific studies proving the efficacy of cannabis as medicine. Yet, the UN and the federal government have persisted in their classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug. Year after year, cannabis is proven to be non-lethal, less addictive, and less harmful than alcohol and other legal substances, yet the stigma remains.
Well, the tides are turning.
State of the Industry
In the US, we now have 4 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized cannabis for adult use. That means you can walk into a retail store, show your ID (if you’re 21), and purchase cannabis products. We have a total of 25 states that have approved some form of medical use. The interesting thing with medical use is that there is a litany of approved symptoms in which cannabis is considered a treatment. This basically makes the mere act of getting your doctor's recommendation the barrier to entry for purchasing cannabis; and even that can be accomplished nearly as easy as calling an Uber.
This year, because it’s a big election year, we have 9 states up for some sort of transition to legal cannabis, whether it’s medical or adult use. This includes our beautiful state of California, whose legal medical cannabis industry already accounts for fifty percent of the legal cannabis sales in the United States – a $5.4B industry in 2015 (cash sales of cannabis alone; does not include ancillary services).
What complicates matters is that the Federal government still declares cannabis a Schedule I drug. This means that they deem it to have no medical applications and it is completely illegal at the federal level. This means no access to federal bank wires, federal banking insurance, or cross-state commerce. This results in a largely cash based economy that has complicated jurisdictional operating constraints.
The sentiment, however, is quickly changing. Approval of legalization is at an all-time high: 58% among the general population, and 71% among our younger generations (18-34 year olds). The re-, and hopefully de-scheduling of marijuana has not only been discussed at the Federal level in the US, but on the global level by the UN.
The rest of the world is witnessing a similar transition with what seems like an accelerated pace towards legalization. A historically conservative Australia has recently approved a legal medical marijuana program, and even in Germany, parliament is discussing how a legal system might look.
As Bob Dylan once said, these times, they are a changing.
As the sentiment changes, as laws become more favorable towards cannabis consumption, it allows for more research and innovation. In just the last few years, we’ve learned amazing things about our body and how it interacts with the compounds of the plant.
We now know that we all have a complex endocannabinoid system that weaves throughout our body and has receptors all over - from head to toe. And it’s not just us, but our furry counterparts as well. Products like Treatibles - a portmanteau of treats and edibles - has shown to have great benefits for man’s best friend; or Lame Away, a THCA spray for horses with injured legs.
It is because of this very complex system, and this complex plant, that when you consume cannabis, you may feel hungry, happy, relieved, relaxed, sleepy, focused, creative, or even … stimulated.
I say complex plant because, as some of you may have experienced in the past, no plant is created equal. This is due in part to the 85+ unique cannabinoid compounds found in the plant. Each of which comes in a different quantity and has a different effect on our body. Even the terpenes, that until recently were thought to simply be part of the flavor profile, play a significant role in the effects of the plant on the body. To complicate matters, the combination of these various compounds may result in yet different effects.
Let’s talk about a few. The most prevalent cannabinoid is Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. It is best known for causing the high you get from smoking marijuana. However, it also seems to have a number of medical applications, such as pain relief and the ability to improve appetite.
The second most prevalent cannabinoid, generally seen in lesser quantities than THC, has no psychoactive effects (i.e. no high), but provides pain relief, stress relief, is an anti-inflammatory and an anti-depressant. Cannabidiol (CBD) has received a lot of attention lately because of its antipsychotic effect that calms the nervous system. Studies suggest that it may help with epilepsy, schizophrenia and a number of other ailments.
Cannabinol (CBN) is created from THC when cannabis is exposed to air — through a process called oxidization. CBN on its own provides a mild psychoactive effect, but when combined with THC can make you feel drowsy and induce sleep. A quality found in most Indica strains.
Cannabigerol (CBG), a non-psychoactive cannabinoid, is the building block for THC and CBD. It has been shown to reduce intraocular pressure, making it ideal for glaucoma patients. Glaucoma is one of the most well-known medical applications of cannabis.
I want you to take a moment to imagine me describing the individual and unique characteristics of each compound. Over 85 compounds that have unique properties that have been linked to affects such as cancer cell reduction, appetite suppressant, neurogenesis, and then I’ll remind you how our bodies may react differently to them based on our own biology, the combination of the compounds within a given plant, or the consumption method of those compounds. Can you comprehend how much we have yet to discover about this plant and what knowledge research may unlock in the future?
As we isolate the compounds and find more efficient methods of cannabinoid production, outside the growing and extracting from plants, we’ll be able to quickly produce products that result in a very specific and desired effect. These innovative production methods are already in development. Simply Google “cannabinoid production through genetically modified yeast.” Mind blowing.
Every strain, every plant, every body, every consumption method, presents a unique combination of cannabinoids that are reacting with your unique endocannabinoid system, resulting in various outcomes. It is for this reason that I think we’ve found ourselves in this very polarizing situation. Human beings love categorizing things. We put things into buckets, with labels, and once they’re there, we have a difficult time seeing them in other buckets. There’s a vitamins bucket. There’s a medicine bucket. There’s a recreational substance bucket. There’s a food bucket. The problem is, people lose their damn minds when something comes along that spans many buckets. They keep trying to force it into one, but that system just doesn’t always work, and it especially doesn’t work with cannabis.
The beautiful thing that is happening now is that we have people and organizations fighting the system on all fronts. They’ve realized that it has to be proven as medicine, that we have to prove it can be responsibly consumed similar to alcohol, and that it can be used for things other than personal consumption. And if you’re friends with me on Facebook, you will clearly see that social media has had a very positive impact on the proliferating of these truths.
The Future of Cannabis
After legalization occurs, and after the stigma has been washed from the plant, and after adequate research has been done on the compounds within the plant and how they interact with the human body, I believe that like tech, cannabis will find its way into many different aspects of our life. Instead of every startup talking about the $5.4B US cannabis industry and it’s eventual growth to $100B in 2029, founders will pitch their products for the true market they’re competing in and how it’s differentiated through the use of cannabis or cannabinoids.
We launched Gateway because we understand that this industry doesn’t stop growing at a $100B. We believe that cannabis is the next great industry that the world will share in and it will transform our economy as we know it. Cannabis is the "next Internet" and it will be positively impactful for all of us.
If you are working on the next great idea for the cannabis industry, apply for the upcoming Gateway cohort. GTWY02 begins in October.