The legal-marijuana industry still has some legitimacy problems--as this weekend's viral outrage demonstrates.
On Saturday, a video showed a white woman apparently calling the cops on an 8-year-old black girl, who was selling water bottles on the sidewalk in San Francisco. The woman, dubbed #PermitPatty by the Internet, was soon identified as Alison Ettel, founder of a weed-for-pets startup called TreatWell. Ettel later told the San Francisco Chronicle and HuffPo that she had only pretended to call the cops on the girl.
She didn't respond to my request for comment this weekend, but I remembered Ettel--because I interviewed her almost two years ago, as I was starting research for a feature story about women starting legal-marijuana companies. I spoke to dozens of entrepreneurs for that story, including stereotypical stoners, legalization advocates, wellness-and-lifestyle specialists, and seasoned business executives. But I particularly remembered my conversation with Ettel because--spoiler alert--it was kind of bonkers!
TreatWell, which Ettel officially launched in 2015, makes cannabis-based tinctures for dogs, cats, and humans. When we spoke on the phone in October 2016, Ettel claimed that:
--Marijuana helped her recover from a meningitis-induced coma, which she "wasn't supposed to survive." (She told the same thing to Get Leashed magazine, which this weekend took down its interview with Ettel; Heavy.com has excerpts.) When I pressed Ettel for a little more detail on those claims, she said she didn't know who her doctor was or the name of the hospital in Vancouver where she collapsed from meningitis.
--Ettel's business partner, who she said has "been growing and extracting [marijuana] for over 20 years," had been "dying from an auto-immune issue" before moving to Humboldt to start growing weed. Ettel would only identify her partner by his first name, Harry; an interview last year in Emerald magazine says "he prefers not to use his full name." A caption with a BBC article from December identifies him as Harry Rose.
--"We give away about half of our medicine for free," yet Ettel claimed that her business was doing well and provided some off-the-record specifics. (Indeed, this weekend, as one Oakland dispensary cut ties with Ettel, it said TreatWell made "one of our best-selling products.")
--Ettel also made several sweeping claims about how well her business was doing, and about how "doctors and nurses are sending us patients ... and now I'm starting to educate some of those doctors and nurses," although she had no medical training.
Some of this struck me as typical entrepreneur myth-building bullshit--the grand claims and dramatic origin stories that many startup founders tell reporters to try to get them interested. But so much of it was weirder-than-usual and just plain unverifiable, enough so that I got off the phone planning to give Ettel and her business a wide berth in my reporting; I didn't quote her or name her company in my eventual stories.
She wasn't the only founder who pinged my bullshit radar during the course of that reporting, or who's ever pinged it in general. There are plenty of founders with verifiably legitimate businesses in legal marijuana, and plenty of founders with dubious-to-fraudulent claims in more established industries. (Elizabeth Holmes, anyone?)
But stories like Ettel's strike me as counterproductive, at best, for an industry that's still struggling to win over lawmakers, regulators, and potential customers. Legal marijuana is a serious, fast-growing industry, one that's estimated to have generated almost $9 billion in U.S. revenue last year.
Yet marijuana is still illegal federally, and will likely carry the whiff of grey-market activity until and unless the federal government changes its mind. Until that happens, the industry's reputation rests on individual founders and businesses--and stories involving miraculous recoveries from comas, or white women appearing to call the cops on children of color, are exactly what that reputation doesn't need.