In the latest episode of 'Cannabis & Main,' host Ricardo Baca is joined by Michael Miller, cannabis editor and evangelist at LA Weekly, as well as an author and podcaster. Join us as Ricardo and Michael discuss the world's largest cannabis market, weed around the world, as well as Michael's personal journey with the plant.
This season of 'Cannabis & Main' is brought to you in part by Fluent Cannabis.
Ricardo Baca: Hello and welcome to Cannabis & Main, a Civilized podcast where we extract one element from today's cannabis scape and go deep. I'm your host, Ricardo Baca, founder of Grasslands: A Journalism-Minded Agency, and it's lovely to be here with you today. You can learn more about this show alongside the marijuana news and cannabis lifestyle coverage you crave from Civilized, found on the world wide web at Civilized.life. Now, this week we're going to dive deep into cannabis in Los Angeles with a guest whose job it is to cover LA weed, AKA the world's largest legal marijuana market for the city's 41-year-old alt-weekly.
Ricardo Baca: Now, a quick glimpse at recent headlines only tells a small portion of LA's current cannabis climate. Black market cannabis shops thrive in LA, even as city cracks down. Legal weed can raise the roof on home prices. Pot smuggling arrests at LAX have surged 166% since marijuana legalization. Pot bust, California dramatically cuts marijuana tax revenue projections. LA County votes again on locking out unlicensed cannabis owners. There are definitely common themes and through lines in this recent coverage. While many of these headlines are almost identical to 2014 or 2016 coverage in markets like Seattle and Denver, some of these stories are uniquely Los Angeles. Of course, California is still suffering from the brutal shock of the implementation of a regulated marketplace. LA is very much ground zero for this metaphorical earthquake that has industry stakeholders and state regulators alike questioning the very roots of proposition 64 and its regulatory framework.
David Dancer: The goal and part of the de-stigmatization strategy from MedMen is to make this like any other retail experience. When you're on Abbot Kinney going to grab a Blue Bottle Coffee or you're buying Tom shoes, you can also stop in MedMen and make your purchase.
Ricardo Baca: Cannabis in Los Angeles, let's talk about it right here on Cannabis & Main.
Ricardo Baca: Michael Miller is an author, podcaster and cannabis editor and evangelist at LA Weekly and a 30 year ex-Wall Street lawyer banker who is organizing a $200 million investment fund focused on cannabis biotech. Michael, welcome. Let's start with this, cannabis editor and evangelist, that's your job title at LA Weekly. It seems like that last part, evangelist, is very intentional and important to what you do.
Michael Miller: It is because it's part of my personal story. The reason I'm in this space is not for an internal rate of return. I'm like many others who have a personal attachment with the cannabis plant because it's a plant that I say saved my life as a result of almost 25 years of opiate use due to 3 near fatal accidents that kept me in almost a lifetime of chronic pain, but for a dear friend 5 years ago who gave a stigmatized individual who had never smoked cannabis in his life, from Cincinnati, Ohio, a tincture under his tongue.
Ricardo Baca: Wow.
Michael Miller: To feel that sense of not feeling pain for the first time in 25 years without taking a pill was something that will remain with me the rest of my life.
Ricardo Baca: Jeez. Once you felt that pain relief, did you just feel the need to shout it from the rooftops so others knew about this?
Michael Miller: Yeah, beyond shout, I also wanted to pound the walls and also pound certain people, including the medical establishment and the United States government. The most shocking thing to me now that I'm able to sit back is that in that 25 year period, not one medical professional suggested an alternative, any form of alternative. Everybody was willing to write prescriptions for Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycontin, you name it, to take away that pain. Everybody knows now today it's established that those opiates are excellent for acute pain, but they do not work well for chronic pain, but as a result, simply to get through my day in a five to eight pain threshold, I would take those pills with my vitamins. That pain would be neutralized and I could function and I could make fiduciary decisions and I could be a father to my children, but obvious side effects from taking that type of medication, terrible situation.
Ricardo Baca: Yeah. God, I remember how furious I was back when I first dived into this realm of medical cannabis and recognizing how much I had been lied to over the last entire lifetime. I was just so furious that principals and teachers and parents and presidents, and granted, many of them didn't know, but my God, the lies that have come out about this and now you can just tell it's going to take a long time to get past that misinformation campaign, that drug war.
Michael Miller: It really is and that's a really important term that you just said, the drug war, but that stigma goes beyond just the plant, right? The term alone, marijuana, is a word of racism and biased at some. It's a word that I don't use in my print. It's not a word I use in my speech, because as you know from the mid 1800s to 1937, the word was cannabis. Cannabis was the second most recommended medicine given by doctors for everything from fever to whooping cough for children. It only became marijuana under the Marijuana Tax Act, to attack everybody that was using cannabis.
Ricardo Baca: Of course.
Michael Miller: It has become a truly racialized word, as we know. The purpose and the issue about the drug war goes beyond just America. I just returned from Columbia. Just the mere mention of the word Columbia creates a visual optic that has its own stigma, one of the many countries, one of the few countries that has its own stigma by just mentioning the name. You think of Columbia and you think of narco war. Imagine that as a citizen Colombian, everybody in the world thinks that you are just a narco country.
Michael Miller: They are now one of the dominoes that has fallen to create a legal medical community. It's fascinating there because it was the first country where legalization was not done by vote. It was not done by the people. It was not done by the president, who is actually conservative and against it. It was done by the judiciary, the Supreme Court. Why? Because in the constitution of Columbia, it talks about the right to public health and it is deemed a health issue. The Supreme Court deemed it to be the right of every Colombian citizen to medicate how they see fit. That's why it's so intellectually interesting.
Ricardo Baca: I love these various paths that the different localities have taken to this ultimate point of medical or adult use legalization. I mean, Supreme Courts in Canada and Mexico and Colombia have played major roles in expanding access. Of course, that's what this conversation is about. It's about access. I love that you have this personal story too, this personal connection to the plant, because I always think that it makes for a more compelling interview and a compelling relationship with the cannabis plant. Michael, you do a lot of things, including Columbia, and we're going to talk about the event you just helped produce down there, but I want to start with talking about your gig at LA Weekly. I was the original marijuana editor at The Denver Post. You are the cannabis editor at LA Weekly, right here in the world's largest cannabis market. How does one person cover the world's largest cannabis market? Where do you start?
Michael Miller: You start with having a great team, as simple as that. By editor, it's more a strategic and an oversight and a visionary role of what the Weekly is going to be and what its optics are going to be to the readership in the community. We're actually revamping now the website and the section is going to be called what we've done a few times in print, The LA Weedly. We are no longer going to be calling it the marijuana or the cannabis section, so it would be almost a magazine within a magazine.
Ricardo Baca: Sure.
Michael Miller: We then bring in some of the top journalists like yourself who are on the beat in different parts of the city and who write periodically. We also have beautiful visuals and optics with respect to different things that are going on in the community as far as not just news. What's interesting about the Weekly, we don't want to be the LA Times. We don't want to cover direct news.
Ricardo Baca: Sure.
Michael Miller: People come to the Weekly for the culture, the arts, the food, the music, and now cannabis and The LA Weedly to hear about what is happening in the biggest domestic market. 62% of US consumption is in California. If you throw in our neighbor to the north, you knock it down to the high 30%. That's still pretty remarkable and amazing for any country that would be deemed a global leader. If you're in the heartland of Los Angeles, you're pretty like the heartland of California, the number one market in the world, as you are with yourself. It's just so exciting because, as I say, what is cannabis, if somebody asks me, right? It's not just the plant, it's agriculture, it's chemistry, it's botany, it's science, right? It's employment, it's education, it's medicine, it's health and wellness. It's transformational.
Michael Miller: If I was a 22-year-old kid graduating college today, there would be no other industry that I would be looking at because you could pick a job in any one of those categories, agriculture, technology, right? This is going to be a plant that replaces, most medical providers and scientists and researchers think, most opiates and most central nervous system drugs. The extraordinary things that are happening on a daily basis, it takes hundreds of people to truly write about and understand that. We're only touching a mere fraction of that information. We just try to strategically find the best and most compelling that we believe our readership would be most interested in.
Ricardo Baca: Hold that thought. We're going to take a very quick break, but in the meantime, hit that subscribe button, and if you'd be so kind to leave us a review, we'd really appreciate it. Thanks.
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Ricardo Baca: Hey, thanks Derek. Remember to follow us on Instagram. I'm @bruvs, B-R-U-V-S, and Civilized at @Civilized.life. Now, back to the program. I read some of these headlines at the top of the show. Legal weed can raise the roof on home prices, or LA County votes again on locking out unlicensed cannabis owners. This is an unsettled marketplace. As I said, it's kind of like a metaphor for all of California. What are you seeing here in mid 2019? Are we settling into a regulated framework in Los Angeles or are we not there yet?
Michael Miller: We are not even close. The challenges are daily. It's not unusual with an emerging market. This is an emerging industry in an emerging market and a newly legal industry after 80 years of near prohibition. There are severe growing pains. I would say we were all teenagers and have both emotional and physical growing pains in this arena. There are more factions in the cannabis industry than the Catholic Church, meaning that you think Protestants and Methodists and Lutherans have issue with Catholics? Walk into a room where you have a me too cannabis group. You have legislators, you have researchers, academics, people in ties and coats now putting money into the arena.
Michael Miller: There are differences of opinion. There are those that were disenfranchised or arrested more than Caucasians, people of color who have a place at the table and should have a place of table with social equity issues, but if you go to a meeting in that situation, be prepared to wear Teflon and be prepared to be open to other people's opinions if you want to create a collaborative result, a solution. That is one of the many things I do because initially you would go to meetings and people are yelling and screaming at each other. People are unwilling to listen to another's position. There are so-called haters out there. If you aren't one of them, you are not good enough.
Ricardo Baca: So-called haters.
Michael Miller: This is not just Democrats and Republicans. This is 12 to 15 different coalitions of groups who are fighting for their turf. The small family cultivator who may or may not have been illegal, who is now fighting with the big corporation who is buying land in Humboldt or Emerald. Every day where economics are affecting individuals' lives and we need more collaboration. We need more openness. We need more caring and compassion for everybody's interests. I believe we're going to get there, but the challenges are immense.
Michael Miller: I'm an evangelist because I believe passionately in what I'm doing. It's a cause. It is a religion, taking away suffering from people, being involved in that process. Everybody else that comes to the table, they're also evangelists in their own way because they're talking from a point of not just their head, not just their pocketbook, but their heart. That's one of the most beautiful things about this industry. Steve DeAngelo, great person, great icon, great friend, something he always said to me ... He's been a mentor. I'm a newbie in this, just four years. I'm coming in and people have taken me under their wing.
Michael Miller: He says, "Michael, when you go into a bar and you don't know anybody, nobody's going to offer you a beer, right? Nobody's going to certainly offer you a sip from their beer. If you're in an area and people are consuming cannabis, there's generally a circle. It's social. If you walk near that circle, that circle is going to open up and they're going to offer you what they're consuming." That metaphor has always stuck with me, that circle bringing everybody together, not withstanding the color, race, religion, and sharing with somebody that you don't even know. That's such a beautiful thing.
Ricardo Baca: I've heard LA too described as like the commercial epicenter of California cannabis. Is that an accurate description?
Michael Miller: When I think about commercial, I think about money. Right?
Ricardo Baca: Sure.
Michael Miller: Is that accurate? I would say that it's probably accurate. I have not seen the data or the numbers, but I would argue that there is a greater amount of so-called Wall Street or white collar money in this city, willing and eager to invest in some aspect of the cannabis space than in northern California. I think that there's no reason other than that it's more traditional here. Traditional in northern California is science and technology, right? There's whole roads dedicated to dollars and offices focused for those industries. There is not a cannabis valley yet, right?
Ricardo Baca: It seems like something's kind of developing over there in the East Bay, but yeah, sure.
Michael Miller: Well I sure hope it happens here. I hope it's the cannabis beach and I think it should be here and I'm pushing hard to make that happen.
Ricardo Baca: Michael, you're talking a lot about economics. You mentioned your book earlier, Weedonomics. You're writing this book, and right now you're raising $200 million. Are you raising a lot of that capital from southern California?
Michael Miller: The concept of Weedonomics was more like a tongue-in-cheek Freakonomics type book. It was fascinating to me that this is the first commodity in the history of the world that is legal at a state level and not at a federal level, that it was legal at one point and then illegal and now legal again. I thought wouldn't it be fascinating to tell a story of what it's like to be a cartel boss and the things that you have to think about on a daily basis and the costs on a balance sheet. What is a life worth? What is a limb worth? What is additional security worth to protect your stash versus being a CEO of an actual legal cannabis business?
Ricardo Baca: Right.
Michael Miller: That's how that happened, but with respect to the fund itself, that sort of happened organically, right? I got involved, having that Wall Street experience, going from my personal story, helping people raise money, advising on a certain level, and then it just takes too much time. A friend needs a few million dollars. You have to have 30 cocktails to find that few million dollars. It was important to be able to have a checkbook so that if I heard something I liked, we could just write a check.
Michael Miller: I was also noticing that the existing private equity funds were focusing primarily on one thing, and that was consumer, right? There had been a lot of issues and mistakes about that. If they weren't focused on consumer, they were focused on the other seat, Canada. Let's take a stock from $5 to $300 even though the company is losing money. That's not something that I'm a fan of or something that I really like to look at. My general thesis was, why would you invest in a commodity that's going down in value every day? Especially, why would you invest in a commodity that's growing in $100 million building in the coldest country on the planet, Canada, when the entire movement is going to equatorial countries that can grow 4 times a year outside at 4 cents a gram instead of a $1.40 a gram in Canada? Crazy.
Ricardo Baca: They're growing for Canada in some of these cases.
Michael Miller: Crazy.
Ricardo Baca: Yeah.
Michael Miller: The other side, with dispensaries, and 82% taxes under 2AE, just doesn't make sense.
Ricardo Baca: That's -
Michael Miller: I wanted to look at verticals that a lot of people weren't focused on and that was medicine, focusing on the next patent or the next Epidiolex that are going to help people, creating legacy situations and replacing opiates and central nervous system drugs with those 144 cannabinoids discovered to date, health and wellness, being proactive. It's not just important that we're living longer as a country, but we want to live longer, healthier. That is a focus that we must take a look at. It's not great if you live to 100 but you're suffering for 20 years. Let's take that 80 year to a 100 year and make those people like my mom and dad that are 90 and 91 years old who I taught to vape last year and are now off different medications and are the funnest people I've ever had in my life.
Michael Miller: Health and wellness, number three, agriculture technology, right? We're in a more crowded world, but a country like Israel that turned the desert green and now basically a country without water, exports water in the form of fruits and vegetables. If you can make broccoli grow better and cheaper with less nutrients and less light, you can do that with the cannabis plant. I'm very confident that this cannabis plant has the capability to save the world. Why do I say that? If you grow cannabis, whether with THC or hemp-based, my big thesis is that can replace the poppy plant. There is no country in the world that this can't grow and provide jobs to everybody who wants a job, can treat women equally and put them in a position of power. The money raised from that can be used for schools, for hospital facilities. I see this plant being rolled out literally globally from the Gaza Strip to Africa to third world countries and China, which is the number one cannabis grower in the world. Most people don't know that, with hemp.
Ricardo Baca: Lots of hemp, yeah.
Michael Miller: This is a plant that can do for people what we need, a roof over everyone's head, food on the table, a job. One thing I've learned is if you have food, if you have a roof, if you have a bed for your kids, you're probably not going to hate your neighbor. You're probably not going to want to blow up your neighbor. You're probably not going to want to fight with your neighbor. I'm working on a 100 hectare test strip in the Gaza Strip with multiple countries involved to have Jews and Palestinians and any other culture work together in the fields, including women who have been subordinated. If we can do that there, we can do it everywhere in the world. That's what's so extraordinary about this plant. The hemp plant allegedly has 30 to 50,000 different uses industrially, and protein.
Michael Miller: Columbus would not have discovered this country without cannabis. When you go to Barcelona and you look at the statue of Columbus high on his pedestal, most people focus on that statue, but next time you go, my friend, take a look at the vines curling around the pedestal. It took me this year to step after jet lag with the moonlight shining on it to say, "Oh my God," and I went back and googled, and what do you know, the sculptor of that pedestal put bronze hemp leaves growing up that column.
Ricardo Baca: Really?
Michael Miller: Why? Yeah, it's fascinating. I couldn't believe it. Spaniards don't even know this. I talked to government officials in Spain. They didn't know that. The very foundation of their country was based upon cannabis. Why? Because the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa Maria, the sails on those ships were made out of hemp.
Michael Miller: The riggings were made out of hemp. The clothes that Columbus' sailors wore were made out of hemp. The protein source in the bottom of that ship was made out of hemp. Columbus could not have gotten to America without cannabis. My thought was we need to go to Washington and right next to one of the memorials, put the biggest leaf possible because we would not be here without the cannabis plant.
Ricardo Baca: That's a good move for activism and you'd get some good PR out of that.
Michael Miller: Isn't that fascinating? That's right. That's right.
Ricardo Baca: Michael Miller with LA Weekly, thank you so much for joining us today. I really appreciate it.
Michael Miller: Oh, I'm humbled to be here. I'm a big fan of yours for many years. You are a big reason folks like us can do what we do today. I come in your footsteps, so thank you for paving the way and thank you for allowing me and mentoring me and having open arms to allow me to come into this space in general, but come here today and talk to you.
Ricardo Baca: Oh, I really appreciate those kind words. This is Ricardo Baca with Cannabis & Main and we will see you guys next week.
Thank you for listening to Cannabis & Main. Please rate, review and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and your app of choice. For transcript, show notes and more of the cannabis lifestyle coverage you crave, go to Civilized.life. The voice you heard at the beginning of the podcast was David Dancer, chief marketing officer for MedMen. This episode was edited and produced by Jeremiah Tittle of Native Creative Podcasts, executive producers are Derek Riedle and Katie Labrie. Your host is Ricardo Baca.