The suits are coming! The suits are coming!"
That premonition has grown in recent years from a whisper to a peal among some cannabis activists, small farmers and behind-the-curtainists, and the conspiracy theories are true (sort of). No, Phillip Morris hasn't unleashed additive-laden joints onto the mass market, but venture capital and ensuing corporate structure are flooding into Colorado, Washington and other marijuana-friendly states.
Is it as scary as the back-to-the-landers think? It's hard to say what the long term effects will be. But one activist-cum-entrepreneur thinks a balance can be found.
Alex Rogers is the executive producer of the International Cannabis Business Conference, a two-day event "aimed at the high echelon of cannabis entrepreneurs," as Rogers described the Portland event to the Oregonian last year.
Indeed, the conference's website, global logo and panels of activists and celebrities is a symbol of the slick commercialization of the pot industry, and an indicator of the growing acceptance of marijuana as legitimate business.
Among the speakers slated for the Feb. 15 conference and VIP reception, held this year at the San Francisco Hyatt Regency: travel author and TV star Rick Steves, Orange County coastal bourgeoisie Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, as well as preeminent marijuana entrepreneurs, activists and journalists.
The conference, with its $599 early-bird ticket price, must strike fear in the heart of any dedicated counterculturalist.
But Rogers, who speaks rapidly and excitedly, isn't some silver-tongued fat cat. "We believe in the consciousness of the plant," he said over the phone last week. "We believe in that hippie-dippy shit still."
Rogers said he cut his teeth advocating for marijuana with Jack Herer and Dennis Peron in late '90s Northern California; pre-215. At the time, Rogers said, Herer opposed medical marijuana because he feared it would derail full legalization, which he saw as a civil liberty issue. Rogers sees that as a realized premonition, noting that there wasn't another concerted effort to fully legalize until the country was thrown into recession.
"All the activists, they thought, 'Oh my gosh, a window of opportunity. We can push legalizing pot because of the commerce of it.' People forgot where they came from and the true meaning of the plant. They got greedy."
Rogers said he put on a veneer in order to gain traction in the industry. After eight years living in Europe, he returned to Oregon where he founded what he says is the third largest medical marijuana clinic in the state, licensing 5,000 people a year. (Oregon legalized medical marijuana in 1998, two years after California.)
He appeared in network TV ads — "Clean cut Alex," he said. "That was really important back then. Now that I'm successful I'm letting the world see the real me, which is more of a revolutionary activist than a prominent businessman. And it feels good."
Rogers says he spent tens of thousands of dollars promoting marijuana legalization in Oregon last year, despite his prediction that it would mean fewer people seeking medical recommendations (aka customers). Now, he's throwing his energy into the ICBC.
It's a stigmatized industry, Rogers said, so it's important to be professional — thus the conference's slick presentation.
With an expected 1,000 attendees, Rogers says there are only 21 vendor booths — a distinction from the more party-like cannabis events of recent times. "I have the luxury of not having to accept everybody's money," he said, instead focusing on creating an event that was "real, gritty and informational," with a day committed to culture, politics and advocacy and a day committed to business.
"If you're not down with the cause and you just want to make money ... if you don't care about the plant or the rights or the cultural revolution that was supposed to go along with legalizing [marijuana]," Rogers isn't interested.
He envisions legalization that ensures people can grow and possess marijuana and have successful boutique farms that can weather inevitable Big Marijuana, and he sees the ICBC as a way to get the smartest people together to make that a reality.
"If you're not hip to what's going on and understanding some of the nuance of the culture of the cannabis industry, then you're swimming uphill."