This season on Slate’s podcast Working, host Jordan Weissmann is focusing in on an emerging industry: marijuana. In this Slate Plus members-only podcast, Chau Tu talks to Weissmann about what he’s learned, why the pot industry might be more responsible than tech, and whether we really can credit President Trump for improving the U.S. economy.
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This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Chau Tu: So since we last spoke, you’ve taken over as the new host of Slate’s podcast Working. You’re in your second season now—what are you trying to bring to listeners?
Jordan Weissmann: I am on my second season, it’s been a lot of fun hosting the show. The first round was me sort of getting my sea legs. It was just like a grab bag of Jordan’s various interests, that was Season 1. I talked to a tattoo artist and the guy who does Wes Anderson’s soundtracks and an art auctioneer and archaeologist at one point. It was sort of all over the place, but people who I would just personally want to have a chat with.
This season has a theme, and it’s a fun theme, I think. I went to Colorado to talk to people who work in the state’s legal cannabis industry, everyone from the CEO who runs the dispensary company to the guy who literally trims the marijuana buds before they go on sale. I’ve talked to a lawyer, a marijuana researcher at a university, a chef, a baker, all kinds of folks just kind of all over the business.
There are a few reasons I wanted to [do this theme]. I talked about the first one, I think, at the beginning of the first episode, so forgive me if you’ve heard this already, but the inspiration came at a wedding I went to recently. For some reason, every time I have gone to a wedding in the past couple of years, I’ve ended up in a conversation with somebody who is working in the marijuana industry. And I think it has to do with the fact that I keep going to weddings in Colorado and California—
That might be it!
Or it might be very specific to my circle of friends, I don’t know. But like, one person was a private equity guy who is working with marijuana startups. And another person works at a tech company that essentially provides point of sale systems to a dispensaries that also help them keep track of different regulations so they don’t accidentally break the law, which is kind of easy to do in this industry. And they were all just like really fun, interesting chats with people, which is kind of notoriously difficult at a wedding, where you’re kind of stuck eating canapes and making small talk. And I thought, if I can have this much fun talking to random folks about this I meet at a party, I think it’d be great to do a podcast about it. And so I got Slate’s permission, and I went and did it.
And just aside from what sparked it, I think it’s a really good time to talk to people in the business. Because it seems to be at this sort of inflection point where everyone realizes it’s probably going to be legal in the long term. Jeff Sessions is not going to come and stamp out all these dispensaries now. It looks like the Trump administration is going to let it just kind of do its thing. And a lot more money is starting to flow in and you’re beginning to see the green shoots of sort of the corporate marijuana business. So it seems like a good time to meet people and talk to them before things get too corporate. When it’s becoming more respectable, when it’s becoming more mainstream but hasn’t quite become big weed yet.
What are you finding about the people that are in the industry right now?
It was really a fun season to put together because of just the vast array of personalities I encountered. Some people traveled to Colorado to get into the industry, moved there because they wanted to work in marijuana. Some kind of fell into it. I talked to people about their backstories. And that’s kind of the fun thing about Working in general is not just finding out about the minutia of people’s days, but it’s finding out about their lives and who they are. It’s kind of a way to see the person. So it’s everyone from the corporate chef I met who actually doesn’t have any taste buds.
Yeah, right? It’s a really great chat I had with her and learning how in some ways that may actually make her better at her job. Which kind of makes sense when you learn how you have to cook with marijuana and on a kind of mass production scale.
Talking to the trimmer I mentioned before, I wasn’t quite sure exactly what to expect going into that conversation because how much is there to say about sitting over a table and just cutting the leaves off marijuana and it actually may have been my favorite interview I’ve done in the course of doing this show. It was just a fun, fascinating conversation about his life and how he looks at his job and why he gets excited about that kind of work and labor and the things you learn in the course of it.
And you get a combination of sort of the slightly stereotypical stoners, but also some really just like business-minded motherfuckers. The last episode that went up was with the CEO and he basically got into the business through a series of acquisitions with family money. He convinced his family to go in on this business right as it was kind of gaining steam in Colorado and they’ve been successful. And he’s just very much about like, how do I get my energy costs down? And if you get him to talk about weed, his favorite weed, he will. But that’s really not where his focus is.
Another, I won’t say surprising thing, but I think a theme you’ll notice in the episodes that some people might not expect, is how—obsessed isn’t the right word—but how conscientious people are about regulations and not breaking the law and wanting to not seem like a bunch of irresponsible stoners. They want everyone to know this is a legit industry. And of course you talk to anybody in any business, they are going to try to present themselves in the best way possible for the most part. They are going to say, “Oh yeah, we care about the law and we’re careful about not breaking it,” but it wasn’t just when people were on tape or when I was interviewing them. It was also just like inside conversations when I was walking into dispensaries or walking into a greenhouse, just every little thing you could tell that was really the forefront of people’s minds. Yeah, I’m the media, but it seems like people, at least my impression, is that people are really determined to not step over the line and to do everything by the book so that they can convince people that this industry deserves to exist and thrive and grow.
It was funny because, when I was there, it was the week that there were some controversies over Facebook and Twitter and responsibility for fake news and Alex Jones and all of that. And I was having a conversation with a guy who was staying with, a friend who actually works in tech and had actually sort of been part of what you might call a socially responsible, social media startup at one point. And we were having a conversation about whether or not Twitter and Facebook even are capable of being responsible, right? Like if it’s in their DNA to be responsible or if it’s just like not in the business model. And I had this thought that, at the very least, the marijuana industry strikes me is a lot more responsible than tech. At the very least, these people all seem like they’re coming in and really care about doing everything by the book and they’ve sort of been trained to because they know all hell will come down on their heads if they don’t. Whereas you got these other industries where it’s sort of like, “eh, social business responsibility, legal responsibility, meh.”
That’s interesting. It’s like they’re more disciplined already.
Yeah, just because they are so highly regulated. Everything, they are walking on eggshells to some extent. There has at least been one kind of widely reported, well-known incident in Colorado where a dispensary was breaking the law and essentially selling people more marijuana than they were supposed to and those people were taking it across state lines and unloading it. And they got the death penalty, they got shut down. That’s kind of hanging over people’s heads is that they know, oh yeah, if you mess up, you’re out of business. It’s not a slap on the wrist. This is not to say that the people in this industry are saints, because obviously ...
And I expect that as it grows and becomes more corporate, you’re going to get bad actors and you’re going to get controversies and scandals and people doing things that they shouldn’t be purely for profit and you’re going to get them lobbying for things that, that may not be in the public’s best interest, but for now at least, my early impression is that the people getting into it really do have a sense of conscientiousness.
And it must be fascinating just to see like a new industry kind of at its infancy, right?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, yeah, people already say it’s getting kind of crowded, right? But these are early days, it’s not even fully legalized. It’s not very often that you get to see an infant industry, like you said, sort of take its first steps.
Yeah, figure it out on their own.
It’s not quite a toddler anymore, it’s maybe like a 3- or 4-year-old, they’re learning to talk. But it’s really still early days and it’s fun to get a picture of it at that moment.
Although it’s funny, I talked with a guy who essentially heads cultivation for one of these dispensaries, he’s like a marijuana farmer. He works now in this 120,000-square-foot greenhouse, which is, it’s big for marijuana. It’s not big agriculture though. And he’s already talking about how he kind of misses the good old days working in the small, like converted warehouse, downtown—
In a closet.
Yeah, exactly, it wasn’t good for growing weed really. The environment and the production process is infinitely better now. But he’s already looking back at the old days and I’m like, you guys have barely begun. So there’s already a sense of nostalgia for some people for when it was really just getting started and they were all kind of pirates. And there definitely was a period clearly when everyone was kind of a pirate.
I talked to a marijuana lawyer. He co-leads the weed practice at this fairly large law firm with an office in Denver. And he said “Early on, my clients were basically drug dealers.” That’s effectively what they were. And now he spends all of his time doing M&A. Like that’s how it’s already changing. Now it’s all mergers and acquisitions because that’s where the industry has started to go. And he’s become totally corporate. But there was a few years back.
So how are you choosing the people that you’re talking to?
Some of it was just doing some research into the industry and saying, well, I need to talk to this kind of person, I need to talk to this kind of person. The trimmer, for instance, I had been reading about that job and thought, that seems like a person that no one thinks about. I should talk to a trimmer. Obviously you need to talk a dispensary manager, or a bud tender, as the cashiers are called—they’re the face, they’re the person you meet when you walk in. I wanted to meet someone who cooks with edibles, a baker or a corporate chef because I like to cook. So, what is it like when you’re doing it with a controlled substance? And some of it was just kind of you stumble into, you talk to one person, they say, oh, you should, chat with X person at this dispensary, and that leads you.
There’s gonna be a bunch of stuff on the cutting-room floor by the end, unfortunately. But we ended up doing about 14 interviews in the three days we were there. So we just met a lot of people and we tried to pick some of the best of it for our episodes.
So what do you think you were most surprised by in your reporting?
Everyone was extremely conscientious and I didn’t find that shocking. There were points where I was a bit surprised by just how corporate some of the folks seemed. In the episode that’s up right now, I talked to the CEO of one of the larger dispensary chains in Colorado, a guy named Alex Levine who owns and co-runs Green Dragon. And when I walked into their dispensary, one of their dispensaries, I looked over to the left and there was like a conference room right next to it. Like I guess it was sort of corporate headquarters, but it’s like, to the right, there’s the marijuana, to the left there are the PowerPoint presentations. And he’s admitted that sometimes they get compared to negatively to Starbucks.
But I was a little taken aback by how businesslike they were. In retrospect, probably I shouldn’t be because those are the businesses that are going to succeed. It’s not the guys who are running around wearing tie dye and kind of spaced out, it’s going to be the ones who treat it like a business. The way you treat beer like a business or anything else.
Is there anything else that you want to mention about this season or about the podcast?
Yeah, so I think that it’s going to be really fun for anyone to listen to, even if you’re not a stoner. Even if you’re not really into marijuana, which frankly, I’m not. My wife’s a prosecutor; I do not have marijuana in my house. But I do think it’s just as a portrait of an industry, it’s really interesting. I think it’s a great time just to talk to these people. And I think you’ll find some really great human stories in it if you give it a listen.
Great. Well you can find that at slate.com/working. And meanwhile you’re still reporting on business and the economy for Slate. And this week, the White House had a presentation about how the economy has supposedly improved under Trump. So what happened there, is that true?
I mean yeah, the economy’s gotten better under Trump, but the White House wants to make a very specific argument, which is not that Trump has improved the economy some or that the economy’s getting better under Donald Trump. It’s that things changed dramatically when Trump was elected. That’s the argument they’re making. It’s like, there was one trend. Things were kind of not going so well under Obama. And then things got better after November 2016.
And Kevin Hassett, who’s the chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, got up with a bunch of graphs and try to make this presentation. And I have a piece up on Slate about why it’s sort of lying with pictures. And I’m not going to bore you with a lot of the wonky stuff. Again, it’s online if you want to read it. But this is the thing to keep in mind: Again, Donald Trump probably deserves some credit for the state of the economy right now. Why? Well, among other things, he signed a giant fucking tax cut, and he increased government spending. And even if you don’t think tax cuts are going to have the long-term benefits for workers and the economy that Republicans suggest, that they’re not going to raise wages quite the way that conservatives have a predicted they will. It’s still just adds a bunch of money sloshing around the economy. Same with the increased government spending. Just like if you believe in the idea that the government can stimulate the economy, you got to believe there’s some stimulus going on right at this moment. So yeah, Donald Trump has probably given the economy a little bit of a boost just through being really loose with the budget.
Is it possible other things he has done may have helped the economy around the edges? Yeah, it’s possible. Small business optimism at least by some measures skyrocketed after the election because a lot of small business owners, at least the ones that get surveyed, tend to be Republicans. And so they were just like happy. And it’s possible that maybe they made some investment decisions based on being happy. Maybe having Donald Trump in the White House just like gave them a little boost and they decided to buy a little extra equipment for their business or something like that. Again, we’re talking about things around the edges.
So the idea is not to deny Donald Trump any credit whatsoever for what’s going on right now. In so far as things are good. It’s just, it’s how you need to push back, again, what you should be skeptical of is this idea that everything changed when Donald Trump became president. A lot of the things that we are experiencing now or just the continuation of trends that were happening under President Obama, and have to do with just sort of the natural healing of the economy after the great recession.
And so Trump also recently mentioned making that trade agreement with Mexico, which would basically rebrand NAFTA. So what’s going on there? What should we take away from this agreement and what he’s trying to do here?
Yeah, so this gets a little bit complicated, but a couple of weeks back, Donald Trump announced that he had come to a preliminary deal with Mexico. Obviously he has been trying to renegotiate all of NAFTA, which involves Mexico, United States, and Canada. They have not reached a preliminary deal with Canada yet. However, essentially the Trump administration needed to submit a notice to Congress with 90 days lead time saying that they were going to sign a new NAFTA. It’s for legal reasons, but they needed to do it that week because if they didn’t, that means that the next Mexican administration was going to come in before have a chance to sign it and they want to sign the deal with the current administration.
So that that’s like the technical reasons why it had to hit that deadline. It’s a little bit self-imposed. It wasn’t necessarily a hard deadline and you can see it wasn’t totally hard deadline because essentially they submitted the notice to Congress saying “We’ve got a deal with Mexico and we’re gonna sign one with Canada too, if they agree to participate. If Canada says they’re on board, they can sign as well.”
The Trump administration has worked out the two ways issues with Mexico, now they’re back to negotiating with Canada. And my take is generally that this is all eventually going to fall in line. There will probably be a three way NAFTA deal. NAFTA does not look like it’s going to be broken up. We’re not going to withdraw from NAFTA. Again, this is me predicting, who knows with Trump, things can always go wrong at the last minute. But in a lot of ways, yeah, it looks like he is going to put his stamp on this deal.
And some people have said it’s merely rebranding. I think that is actually a little bit unfair. In the end, if you’re going to renegotiate NAFTA, you’re not going to totally change the core of the deal because the core of the deal is like low tariffs, what he’s renegotiating are things like, the use of arbitration panels in investor and state disputes, which are a really hot topic on the left. He’s renegotiating how much of a car has to be made within North America for it to count for low tariffs. And the new deal would require that a certain amount of a car he produced by workers that make at least $16 an hour to qualify as tariff under NAFTA, which is a first. It’s sort of like a minimum wage for auto workers essentially, or like a kind of a loose minimum wage.
These are substantive changes. Again, it’s not totally changing the nature of the deal, but it’s more than a tweak. So, some things will make it better. Some things people might be less happy with. There are I think a lot of people in the left may be displeased with the new protections for intellectual property that are in there.
But we could end up with a new NAFTA under Trump and as I wrote a couple of weeks back, I think if this actually does happen, if he actually does sign a new version of the deal, his ultimate accomplishment might sort of be ending the NAFTA wars. For all these decades we’ve been fighting over this trade deal, which in a lot of ways was much less economically significant than say, trade with China. In terms of its effect on manufacturing and wages and workers. But it’s always been symbolically extremely important. And NAFTA has always been this rhetorical punching bag, people forget that both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008 promised to renegotiate NAFTA or withdraw and that didn’t really happen. But still, it’s always been just the target of so much ire. And if Donald Trump actually renegotiates it, it leaves us in this interesting situation where Democrats have kind of come to embrace free trade, partly as a reaction to Donald Trump and partly just because of who makes up the Democratic Party now, and Republicans are, I’m guessing, are going to kind of support the new NAFTA just because their guy negotiated it. It’s going to be Donald Trump’s big accomplishment.
So people might finally just stop arguing about this. It’s possible that NAFTA will no longer be controversial. I think. Anyway, that’s my guess. And so it’s weird, but I think—and this is what I’ve argued, and God help me if I turn out to be wrong—but I think it’s possible that Donald Trump is actually going to end up being the guy who saves NAFTA in the end. And who the fuck would have thought?
I guess we’ll see. What other stories do you think you’re going to be keeping your eye on for the rest of the year?
For the rest of the year? Oh, I mean, who knows? I’m really interested in what’s going to happen during the lame duck session, if anything, right? Like, if Republicans lose control of the House or Senate or both during the midterms, I am deeply interested in what they’re going to try to do at the last minute while they still have power. What kind of wacky shit they try to pass, if anything. So that’s one thing that I’m intrigued by and that’s like looking way forward. I don’t have an answer to that. Some people were wondering if they would try to take another stab at healthcare, but so far it looks like they’re not going to do that. So, cross your fingers. But I don’t know, that’s one thing that sort of in the back of my mind: What last minute hijinks will the Republican Party do if it loses last grasp on power on Capitol Hill?