What do smoking marijuana and voting Republican have in common? I have never done either, nor will I ever. Yep, I love marijuana as much as the next white Christian Southerner. Its legalization seems the same to me as filling up your water cup with Coke at Chipotle; it’s benign but unsavory. It may surprise you to learn, then, that I spent April 20, the feast day of Saint Reefer, not guffawing contemptuously under my breath at all the 4/20 references in my Facebook feed, but rather re-evaluating my perception of the marijuana industry as a wasteland populated by unserious drug addicts. This prayerful contemplation was triggered not by a vision of an animate joint wearing a pope hat (though I am sure some stoner somewhere did experience a hallucination exactly like this), but by an enlightening conversation I had with Marissa Medansky ’15, former opinion editor for the News, a Yalie now working in the cannabis industry.
Marissa graduated from Yale two years ago and has joined an increasing number of recent college graduates in entering the cannabis industry. She works as a public affairs associate at Privateer Holdings, a private equity firm in Seattle that invests in, according to its website, “the future of cannabis.” Neither her nor her company are pothead caricatures. At the office, you will not find a bunch of stoners wearing tie-dye and sitting at their desks, gazing at lava lamps while they munch on Cheetos and fret over their rapidly degenerating short-term memory. Two of Privateer’s founders are graduates of Yale’s School of Management, and its culture is more aligned with that of Silicon Valley than “Workaholics” and Cheech and Chong. It’s “not as sexy as some people would expect,” Marissa said, though she herself exudes the professionalism her company strives for, steering away from the flippant, devil-may-care attitude of some marijuana legalization advocates who have hijacked public discourse. After speaking with her for an hour, the message was loud and clear, though a bit confounding in its simplicity and self-evidence – the marijuana industry is a serious one filled with serious people doing serious things. That’s right, they don’t even make weed puns. (Thankfully, I do.)
In 1937, Congress passed the Marijuana Tax Act, the federal government’s first step toward marijuana’s prohibition. By levying an excise tax on marijuana sales, the government’s aim was to outlaw marijuana in a form more likely to be upheld by the judiciary. A mixture of fear tactics and racism (in America? No!) sparked political interest in marijuana regulation. Such sentiments were exemplified by Harry Anslinger, the first commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and a tireless proponent of marijuana prohibition, when he related this anecdote in an anti-marijuana polemic: “Two Negros took a girl fourteen years old and kept her for two days under the influence of hemp. Upon recovery she was found to be suffering from syphilis.” Indeed, what more terrible scourges could cannabis visit upon midcentury America than venereal disease and miscegenation? (Perhaps real plagues like Reaganism.) In 1952, the Boggs Act established mandatory minimum sentencing for drug-related offenses, with a first-time conviction of marijuana possession bringing a prison term of two to 10 years. And, of course, in 1972, the Controlled Substances Act classified marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, right along with bath salts, a drug which turns its users into cannibalistic zombies. Crystal meth, on the other hand, is a Schedule 2 drug. Remember, please, that smoking marijuana has never made anyone’s teeth fall out. These laws have disproportionately affected minorities to the point that, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, “despite roughly equal usage rates, blacks are 3.73 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana” related offenses. But if 1972 marked the zenith of marijuana prohibition, then 2012 signaled its denouement. It was then that Washington and Colorado became the first states to legalize recreational marijuana use. Six more states have since followed suit. This reform coincides with growing popular support for marijuana legalization, a position 60 percent of Americans agreed with in 2016, according to Gallup. Compare this to the 12 percent who supported marijuana legalization in 1969, when Gallup first began tracking the issue. It’s amazing how quickly morality decays! (I kid.)
By examining this love triangle between Americans, the government, and cannabis, one can discern the history of our nation. “It informs how we see medicine,” Marissa said. “It informs how we see criminal justice and punishment. It informs how we see morality and pleasure and all of those things.” This relationship was what first attracted Marissa to a devoted study of drugs (only in an academic context, of course) and drug policy. She dedicated much of her time here at Yale, where she majored in political science, to examining, as she put it, “drugs and drug use in political, cultural and social contexts.” Aided by supportive professors like her senior thesis advisor Walter Shapiro, Marissa discovered that drugs, and particularly cannabis, are an excellent lens through which to view American history, with or without bloodshot eyes. She wrote essays about psychedelic therapy for veterans, harm reduction in needle exchanges, and a senior thesis on how presidential candidates have responded to allegations of cannabis use (spoiler: it didn’t trip them up one bit, not even a little).
To flex her argumentative muscles, Marissa wrote for several publications on campus. Most importantly, she was a staff columnist and an opinion editor for the Yale Daily News. Even before she came to New Haven, Marissa served as the opinion editor for her high school newspaper. She is, if you cannot tell, very opinionated. In one 2015 column published in the YDN, she measuredly criticized Yale’s campus drug policy by writing, “Even though researchers are increasingly studying how drugs like MDMA and LSD can be used in medical contexts, a truly candid school-sponsored drug education program still seems the stuff of distant fantasy.” One anonymous sage/troll retorted in the comments section, “Do all YDN opinion writers want the University to become some hedonistic bastion of substance abuse, or is that just you?” Marissa considered such a response a compliment, though. It meant she had accrued a reputation as an advocate, both through her writing and her classwork. “I always felt as though I was proving to people, I was showing to them that it [cannabis] was a legitimate thing to study,” she said. “It motivated me to do good work and make it professional and serious because you want to show them it’s a legitimate academic interest.”
Despite the time and effort she invested in studying drug policy, Marissa thought she would be a journalist upon graduation. She secured a fellowship at The Wall Street Journal after receiving her diploma, but even as she observed up close the feculent turmoil of the presidential primary season, she continued to search, albeit not very seriously, for positions in the cannabis industry. She found her current job online, proving that the internet can now provide you with not only true love (shoutout to Singles-With-Food-Allergies.com), but also a comfortable living. She moved out to Seattle, a city much different from her childhood home near Chicago, namely in that Donald Trump has yet to threaten federal intervention there. She said more Yalies should move to Seattle, not just so she can have more friends, but also because it is “a great city with so much art and culture and life and nature.” She forgot cannabis.
Besides Washington’s abundance of living organisms, nothing has really surprised Marissa about her job. She stressed that it is not a foreign world, not a continuous and vivid psychedelic experience like some may assume/hope/acutely fear. The challenges she faces are the same as any recent college graduate working in their first truly professional job. “I’m sort of learning how to be an adult working professional,” she said, “and I’m also doing it in this complicated great unknown of this industry.” Thanks to her company’s dependence on the ever-changing regulatory climate regarding marijuana, each week is entirely unpredictable, and attempting to extrapolate into the future requires a formidable vision I don’t smoke weed enough to possess. The culture Marissa works in is essentially that of a startup, because, as she explained, Privateer is “operating in a fast-moving puzzle, jigsaw of regulations that is never the same in any given moment.”
But her day to day duties are fairly unremarkable. She sends updates to the entire company about developing news in the cannabis world, events she researches and helps Privateer react to. She’s in charge of social media for Privateer and she manages the company’s ultraclassy website. She provides public relations support, she pitches to journalists and she tries to convince prudish college reporters that marijuana is not, in fact, the devil’s flower. Indeed, the sheer normality of her job strikes me as its most unusual aspect. Though she toils in an industry with a reputation for amateurism, incompetence, and indulgence, the environment she works in at Privateer is probably not much different from that of, say, the consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
Ah, McKinsey and marijuana have more in common than either of them realize, including my eternal skepticism. (One more so than the other, I must note, though I’ll let you use your formidable critical thinking skills to figure out which. Yes, that was sincere and not condescending.)
In an April 2016 Senate hearing, then-Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions pronounced in his always disarming Southern drawl, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” Sessions is now, of course, the attorney general, and as such is in charge of federal law enforcement regarding marijuana regulation. His ascension, as well as that of the generally anti-marijuana Republican Party, would seemingly not bode well for marijuana’s legalization prospects. But Marissa remains hopeful, though she may place too much confidence in the current administration’s capacity for logic. Due to widespread public support for marijuana reform, as well as an accelerating reform movement worldwide, Marissa argued, “It would be very unwise for the federal government to reverse the Obama era policy on cannabis.”
I will reserve judgement on Sessions’s assertion that “good people don’t smoke marijuana,” but I will exclaim, forcefully and obnoxiously, that good people do actually work in the marijuana industry and that Marissa Medansky is one of them. She is absolutely lighting it up at her job, weeding out all doubt as to whether Privateer Holdings, and the marijuana industry in general, is a substantive business. When I asked her whether smoking marijuana could help me sleep (I have a hard time falling asleep because when I close my eyes I am left alone with my thoughts; they torture me), she succinctly explained the differences between several strains of marijuana and which would induce sleep and which would agitate me to eat pizza. She then pivoted so masterfully into a compelling talking point I wished that Sean Spicer had been listening in and taking notes: “If that person is legally purchasing cannabis, they’ll know what type of strain it is, which is why you should legalize and regulate cannabis, because consumers will be able to make informed choices and not purchase little plastic baggies.” Wow, I thought, she’s good at talking about pot.
I don’t plan on smoking marijuana anytime soon (I’ll stick to washing my problems down with wine, thank you). But I can appreciate those who advocate for marijuana legalization with rational, fact-based arguments, rather than half-baked appeals to some drug-infused pseudo-Swiss utopia. And I can certainly appreciate young professionals laboring in an emerging, exciting industry. Yes, I have a budding admiration for these trail blazers, and, to be blunt, I will readily roast anyone who does not.