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Will We See the Starbucks of Pot as Corporations Eye the Lucrative Legal Pot Business?

A burgeoning class of weed elite is hoping to turn marijuana into the next great American industry. But at what cost?
 
 
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Three fifths of Americans are okay with legalized weed, a high point reached after a precipitous rise in public approval over the last year. If pot sales continue without a hitch in Colorado, and later in Washington, that figure is likely to rise and lend more momentum to the seemingly inexorable march toward a regulated market for the plant: currently, 20 states plus DC permit either recreational or medical marijuana use, and cannabis industry experts predict that 14 more states will be added to that roster in the next five years.

Marijuana prohibition has roots in neither healthcare consensus nor scientific consideration; rather, it was sparked by white Americans' xenophobic resentment of Mexicans living in the Southwest, who had grown the plant in the region since before the United States forcibly seized it from Mexico. Locking up Mexicans (whom the nation’s first drug czar, Harry Anslinger, called "ginger-colored niggers") was a convenient way to bar them from taking white jobs in Depression-era America, and the US government made marijuana possession and sale illegal in 1937. Over time, the justification for pot prohibition morphed into a moral argument tied up in the cultural wars of the 1960s, and then successive Republican presidents sold the public on the idea that marijuana was anathema to the industrious American way. By the end of the 1980s, 80 percent of Americans opposed its legalization.

There has never been a legitimate reason for outlawing cannabis. The shift in favor of legalization owes some of its momentum to generational change and expanded access to information. But if the sudden support for legalization still confuses our understanding of America as a nation steeped in Puritanical conservatism—a tradition that, at one point, helped elevate the criminality of marijuana possession higher than child sex abuse—then we can reconcile the apparent contradiction by identifying another tradition that even more profoundly captures the essence of America's ethos: big business capitalism. The United States has incubated more multinational corporations and enriched more moguls than any country in the history of the world, and a burgeoning class of weed elite is hoping to turn marijuana into the next great American industry.

The ArcView Group, a network of cannabis businesses and investors, estimates the current national legal marijuana market (including medicinal and recreational) at $1.44 billion, a figure that is projected to rise to $2.14 billion next year and soar to $10.2 billion over the next five years. Separate attempts at estimating the total market value of the combined lawful and underground business have clocked numbers as high as $100 billion (by comparison, Facebook's market capitalization reached the same value in August 2013). Entrepreneurs have rushed into the increasingly legitimate business of cannabis, some with steeled lucidity wrought from years spent working with medicinal marijuana, others more bumbling and fresh-faced. All are united not only by stratospheric expectations of success, but also by an idea of what it will take to get there.

Troy Dayton, CEO of the ArcView Group, believes that large-scale corporate ventures will be "absolutely" necessary to legitimize cannabis in the eyes of the law and sophisticate the consumer economics of pot.

"The market represents people's desire; the market is what leads to products," he told Truthout over the phone, and in the market for marijuana, "bigger companies with more mass appealed products will certainly get a big piece." In a May 2013 feature from Vice, Dayton was quoted as saying, it is "so much better to have large investors and corporations involved in this industry, because when you have big business behind something that creates jobs and tax dollars, it becomes completely untenable to keep putting people in prison for it."

 
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