Priming the pot
Published by Volte Face (9th September, 2016)
During almost five years on the beat as a police officer, patrolling some of the roughest parts of London, Mike Abbott arrested dozens of people for drug offences. As a young recruit he picked up people carrying cannabis on the street in areas such as Brixton, later participating in undercover operations against major suppliers and peddlers.
‘The stench of hash was becoming more prevalent,’ he said. ‘My job was to uphold the law and cannabis, like other drugs, was illegal.’
Three decades later, Abbott is a high-flying businessman. Yet given his background, there is a certain irony that his latest venture has seen him emerge as among the biggest legal cannabis dealers in the United States.
For this former member of the Metropolitan Police now runs Columbia Care, the largest player in the emerging market for medical marijuana in the United States. Sale of the drug for such purposes is now permitted in 25 of the nation’s 50 states.
Abbott’s fast-growing firm – set up with a friend and former colleague from Goldman Sachs – has opened dispensaries from small towns in Arizona to major cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York.
These outlets are sober in appearance. But the goods on sale would once have led to instant arrest by the firm’s boss: potent buds from marijuana plants, cannabis cookies crafted by some of the 211 staff and specialist inhalation equipment.
Supplies come from a string of high-tech greenhouses and warehouses. The firm has thousands of plants growing in seven states, assisted by experts in more traditional forms of agriculture and scientists developing techniques to boost production.
Amid bold claims for the curative powers of the drug, demand is rising so fast that Columbia Care is rapidly expanding cannabis cultivation. It expects to grow more than fives times as many plants next year, producing at least ten tonnes of the crop to harvest for more than 200,000 patients.
The success of Abbott’s three-year-old firm – already profitable despite tens of millions of pounds investment – underlines the astonishing pace of cannabis reform in the country that launched and for decades led the global war on drugs.
Another eight states ballot voters in November – three more for medical use and five, including California, questioning whether to join a quartet already backing legalisation. It is estimated sales in the Sunshine State alone could top $7bn a year.
As firms and investors rush to cash in on the ‘pot goldrush’, today’s critics are as likely to be hippies alarmed by ‘breadheads’ and commercialisation of the counter culture as they are to be conservatives worried about encouraging drug taking.
Abbott is focused on the medical market. Yet he argues his police experiences helped influence his unlikely change of direction, selling cannabis products to patients with conditions such as cancer, epilepsy and multiple sclerosis.
‘Why should people with a medical need risk being arrested?’ he said. ‘This allows them to go to a safe and regulated environment rather than a street dealer, avoiding a colossal waste of crucial resources and helping criminals.’
Certainly it is a long way from the days in 1983 when a school leaver from Liverpool joined London’s police force at a time of intense industrial and racial upheaval. ‘I loved serving with them but it was a very difficult period,’ recalled Abbott.
He found himself on the frontline of the miners’ strike as a member of the Special Patrol Group, bricks and bottles raining down on their heads as they protected men returning to work – and patrolling Brixton, where cannabis use inflamed tensions.
Bizarrely, he met his wife Jana on an undercover operation when he fell for the then student, who was enjoying an innocent drink in a Chelsea pub under police watch for suspected dealing.
Today the couple have three kids. The two oldest, both teenagers, asked their nine-year-old sibling last week what he would tell teachers at a new school if quizzed over what their father did. ‘I’ll tell them he makes medicines,’ came the response.
Yet Abbott, 52, admits most business friends thought he was ‘crazy’ when he told them he was entering the marijuana industry after a career in top-level finance that saw him work for banks and a hedge fund after leaving the police. Old pals from those days on the beat just made jokes about dope dealing.
One key person was supportive: his elderly father, a former hospital doctor, who told him that if he could collect data on any medicinal properties of marijuana then he would be doing a wider service to society.
It was Abbott’s business partner Nick Vita who first heard about a medical marijuana firm at a birthday party. He tracked it down and was impressed after giving cannabis cream to his mother, who found it alleviated crippling rheumatoid arthritis.
The pair began as passive investors but now run the firm. Vita says he has never smoked pot; Abbott admits trying it a few times at university after leaving the police.
The fledgling firm made some mistakes at first such as hiring people who had grown illicit cannabis in basements. ‘It did not take long to realise the hippies were wrong for us,’ said Abbott.
Today they use academics from the Mid West to advise on farming techniques and staff have been sent to study tulip growing in Holland. Technicians test advanced lighting systems to speed plant growth and boost potency, while using a major pharmaceutical maker to formulate products.
I found tight security when visiting the firm’s New York production centre in a former Kodak plant near the Canadian border. Inside the first room a woman was carefully watering hundreds of female plants in varying stages of growth, each worth $5,000.
It was strange at first to wander round rooms filled with cannabis sprouting up under bright lights. But that feeling soon dimmed as I strolled past mesh baskets laden with drying buds and watched high-pressure machinery extract the precious oil for processing into tincture.
I estimated there were 2,500 plants at this single 50,000 sq ft centre, which opened in Rochester after Columbia Care won a licence last year to trade in New York. The site is being prepared already for fivefold expansion over several floors.
Another in Massachusetts cost $6m to open. It has 60 strains such as ‘California Dreaming’ and ‘Strawberry Amnesia’ growing in 8 ‘flowering rooms’, the pungent plants kept at constant heat and humidity with extra CO2 pumped in to aid growth.
Afterwards I ate lunch in a local Rochester restaurant, then chatted to its middle-aged owner. When I explained my visit, she confessed that a relative had started obtaining cannabis for her to cope with insomnia caused by the menopause.
‘I don’t ask questions – I’m a businesswoman and a single mother,’ she said. ‘But it sends me straight to sleep with none of the grogginess from other medications.’
She is unable to access the drug in New York, which has strict regulations including a ban on leaf sales and only 10 permitted medical conditions signed off by doctors. This contrasts with Massachusetts that has a catch-all ‘debilitating’ qualification and leaf is sold alongside rolling papers and cookies; users there seemed far younger.
Elsewhere, medical tests to access the drug are so loose and easy to meet that they have come in for criticism for effectively decriminalising the drug for stoners.
Yet although it is 20 years since California became the first state to permit sale of medical marijuana, this is still a grey commercial environment since federal laws remain unchanged despite wide-ranging reforms at state level.
So it is illegal to transport the drug across state lines, tax laws are hazy, banks are reluctant to handle cannabis cash for fear of money-laundering charges and even insurance is difficult to obtain with just one European firm agreeing to provide cover.
A major processing company in California – licensed by authorities in San Diego – has just closed after raids by armed drug squad officers. They used federal asset forfeiture laws to freeze and seize £1m in cash and cannabis oil cartridges.
Last month, however, President Barack Obama loosened laws blocking research into marijuana. The move was seen as a significant step towards ending federal prohibition and comes as Canada prepares to legalise the drug.
Recent polling found almost nine in ten Americans back the idea of people being allowed to use marijuana for medical purposes. A narrow majority support legal recreational use, although it remains controversial with 41 per cent still opposed.
The burgeoning cannabis sector is reportedly the fastest-growing industry in the United States, with legal sales expected to climb 25 per cent to $6.7bn this year. Denver alone has 421 shops and commercial cultivation sites.
This is astonishing expansion given that retail outlets for recreational use only started opening 32 months ago in Colorado. The first legal buyer in the US was an Iraq War veteran named Sean Azzariti, who suffered from post-traumatic stress.
The state now raises almost four times as much from cannabis tax as from alcohol. Analysts ArcView Markets predicts the national market will more than triple in size by 2020, forcing traditional financial firms and investors to start to taking cannabis seriously.
Already celebrities such as rapper Snoop Dogg and country star Willie Nelson have backed weed-related ventures. Marley Natural, a startup funded by private equity cash, has launched branded products in the name of reggae icon Bob Marley.
Silicon Valley is also showing great interest. An investment fund founded by Peter Thiel, billionaire co-founder of Pay Pal, put money into the specialist firm behind Marley Natural while Leafly, a website for users, gets 8 million monthly visitors.
But there is still fierce debate over the consequences, with concern from parents over sales near schools and a sharp rise in cannabis-related emergencies in hospitals.
There are also suspicions criminal drug cartels, seeing profits fall from cannabis, are promoting harder drugs with more vigour. Studies have also linked regular use in adolescence to depression and schizophrenia.
Abbott aims to build a big pharmaceutical company based on cannabis, arguing that he operates in a different market to the recreational one emerging in parts of the US. ‘I’d love to bring some of the lessons we have learned here to Britain,’ he added.
There are indications of impressive results among people with genuine medical concerns – such as Fr Joe Quinn, a 63-year old Franciscan monk who used to obtain the drug from grandchildren of parishioners to curb agonising stomach pains.
Quinn suffers from a rare condition that led to seven major operations last year. ‘The other friars could hear my screaming from two floors below,’ he said. ‘It was like someone sticking a knife in your stomach – and the pain never went away.’
Quinn is allergic to conventional opiate-based pain relief – but found cannabis dulled the pain enough to snatch some sleep. He started secretly puffing on pipes in his bathroom before bed after discovering the drug following a tip from a friend.
His 30 fellow monks soon found out but, seeing his distress, supported him. And the brown-robed priests proved a powerful lobby when there was debate over opening one of Abbott’s dispensaries nearby – even winning over the sceptical mayor, a recovering alcoholic who sometimes attended their church.
When I visited the building beside the alleged birthplace of Benjamin Franklin, all the ‘patients’ visiting appeared to be young men. One rotund tattooed man in his 20s told me he had attention deficit disorder; another spoke vaguely of ‘pain.’
Leaflets described the goods on sale: the strains available along with descriptions of their psychoactive contents, flavours, effects -‘happy’, ‘euphoric’ and ‘creative’ were typical – and uses, such as depression, pain, insomnia, sickness and stress.
Although cannabis has long been thought to have medicinal qualities, Abbott’s company is careful not to over-claim while funding research projects. The average age of the 2,500 patients attending the more stringent New York outlet is 57.
Chief pharmacist at the Manhattan dispensary is Tricia Reed, a softly-spoken Mid Westerner. She joined the firm after becoming fed up doling out thousands of the highly-addictive opiate painkillers blamed for fuelling America’s heroin epidemic at a leading chemist chain.
She admits she did not tell friends for several months, such was the stigma. ‘Now I think we’re on to something major from the anecdotal evidence, although clearly we need more research,’ she said.
She says she has seen patients get off opiates, seizures end for children with complex epilepsy and cancer patients given fresh lease of life. As one insider said, even if cannabis just boosts appetite and aids sleep that is often half the battle.
Reed’s most memorable case was a woman in her 30s suffering brain cancer whose weight had plummeted to seven stone and was preparing to go into a hospice.
She says the patient’s tumour shrank 40 per cent after taking cannabis, her weight rose and she was given several months extension of decent life. ‘I’m not saying it’s a cure but it can improve quality of life,’ said Reed.
Big claims for a drug more commonly associated with giggling student stoners. But they help explain why a former London copper has become perhaps the world’s least likely cannabis baron.
‘Of course we want to build a profitable business,’ said Abbott as we travelled back from seeing thousands of his plants. ‘But I think we can also do a tremendous amount of good for people with serious health problems. That’s the real challenge.’