On a busy day, the alliance office sees about 30 patients. They don’t have to pay for cannabis.
The collective stands in stark contrast to the mainstreamed, high-tech, profit-driven model that’s become so popular in the emerging cannabis market.
According to the ArcView Group, a marijuana-focused venture capital firm, the cannabis market grew 74 percent last year to $2.66 billion, up from $1.53 billion in 2013. Legal marijuana is the fastest-growing industry in the country, according to ArcView.
If legalization spreads to all 50 states, it could become larger than the organic food industry. By 2019, all of the state-legal marijuana markets combined could generate an overall market worth of nearly $11 billion a year, according to ArcView.
From gourmet marijuana-infused chocolate to 24K Gold Rolling Papers to $8,000 bongs, cannabis and cannabis-related products have become more diversified. Cooks, accountants and teachers have joined experienced growers in this new industry.
“You're seeing software developers, and you're seeing biotech companies. You're seeing all sorts of expertise from other industries that are now moving into the marijuana market,” said Alex Thiersch, co-founder of Salveo Capital, a small financial firm that funds cannabis businesses.
At the Nor-Cal Cannabis Cup, vendors included bakers, activists, veterans and doctors. More than 415 stalls displayed everything from joints and edibles to industrial driers.
Although organizers would not disclose how much revenue the event generated, it wasn’t cheap. The smallest booth cost vendors $3,500 for the two days. Participants paid $90 for a regular two-day pass, and a Gold Leaf VIP ticket cost as much as $999.
As people like teachers and cooks get involved with the cannabis industry, the movement takes on a different vibe.
“It gives (the movement) more respectability, it shows legitimacy,” said Conrad, the professor. “As long as it was only hippies talking about it, it was easy to ignore it. Now that we've gone mainstream, it’s meaningful to people.”
Corral said she recognizes that money has gotten the movement to where it is today. But at the same time she, like many other activists, is wary of this shift toward big industry.
She said the new culture is moving away from the ideals of love and compassion on which the ‘60s and ‘70s cannabis movement was built. It’s moving away from personal relationships towards empty, professional, corporatized interactions, she said.
“It could be diamonds, it could be oil. It's turned into the greed market,” she said. “If the bottom line is profit, then what is the cost?”
Advocacy groups become larger, more sophisticated
Dennis Peron devoted his life to legalizing medical marijuana after he said he lost hundreds of friends to the AIDS epidemic. He worked to pass three ballot initiatives, landed in jail, had his home and club raided and got shot.
“Most of my life has been war,” Peron said. He returned home from the Vietnam War “to a bigger war: the war on drugs. Where I've been a prisoner many times over. For 27 years I have struggled, here in San Francisco, to change the world and the laws.”
In the early ‘90s, Peron started the Cannabis Buyers’ Club, the largest of its kind in the nation. Activists like Valerie Corral, Chris Conrad and the founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws drafted California’s Proposition 215, which legalized medical marijuana.
Peron and his network of California supporters hit the streets to gather some 600,000 signatures to put Proposition 215 on the ballot. They collected roughly 175,000.
A few months before the deadline, a number of wealthy investors funded the collection of the remaining signatures.
Dennis Peron is a 69-year-old San Franciscan, and “warrior for marijuana rights.” He opened the first marijuana dispensary in California and worked with other activists to put Proposition 215 on the 1996 ballot, which legalized medical marijuana.
Today, advocacy groups like Marijuana Policy Project, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and the Drug Policy Alliance work to reform state laws by keeping a constant presence in media, offering tools for people to participate and tailoring messages for each state.
Advocacy groups spend millions to push marijuana policy: They hire teams of consultants, conduct polls and execute marketing strategies.
“We want to make people think about this issue, and we want people to talk about it so we really need to not only get people’s attention, but do it in a way that inspires people to think, and talk about the subject,” said Mason Tvert, the director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Many advocacy organizations produce blogs and send out news releases. NORML has sent out weekly news releases since 1992.
Marijuana Policy Project recently posted grades for presidential candidates based on their support for marijuana policies. Tvert said sometimes it takes something controversial or funny to grab people's attention.
But today’s advocacy groups don’t necessarily have the same vibe as in years past.
At the Nor-Cal Cannabis Cup, organizers had sectioned off a handful of booths for advocacy groups.
People walked past them. As they rushed by, they ignored petition requests and campaign buttons.
Instead, they flocked to the booths offering free bong hits, the booths providing $100 medical recommendations and that main stage – where the crowd grabbed at that cannabis caviar, joints and dollar bills.