It seems cannabis has won the culture war in this country.
More than half of Americans think the laws regarding marijuana are more detrimental to society than the plant itself is, leading to votes in many areas of the country to decriminalize pot use. Cannabis has also become more visible in the mainstream media, gracing the pages of magazines like Vogue and Elle, and providing the basis for the web series "The Marijuana Show," "High Maintenance," and "Get Doug With High," as well as a recent episode of Saturday Night Live .
This week also brought a remix of Afroman's hit song "Because I Got High," touting the socioeconomic benefits of legal cannabis. The musician recorded the new version of his Grammy-nominated song with the support of National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and Irvine, California-based Weedmaps, a Yelp-like directory of marijuana businesses.
The partnership is a natural one for Weedmaps CEO Justin Hartfield, who is also the treasurer of NORML and a relentless champion of the weed industry. Six years ago, after he couldn't find listings for cannabis dispensaries in California, he built Weedmaps, giving pot enthusiasts a platform to rate businesses, check out menus, and rate strains of cannabis. With more than 4,000 businesses paying to be listed, the company made $25 million in 2013 and expects to increase revenue by 60 percent this year.
In 2012, Hartfield co-founded venture capital firm Ghost Group to act as a holding company for his other weed-related businesses. Ghost owns online community Marijuana.com (the oldest weed-related domain on the Internet, dating back to 1996); MMJMenu, a free point-of-sale software company for Weedmaps customers; and Safe Access MD, which helps doctors prescribe marijuana for cannabis card holders safely and accurately.
Hartfield is in business to make money like any other entrepreneur, but he also is using Weedmaps as a platform to push what he sees as a civil rights issue. Weedmaps is slowly becoming a comprehensive repository for articles, state petitions, and videos aimed at educating people about cannabis, its history, and why it should be legal. In an interview with Inc., Hartfield talked about his love of pot and how he plans to build a billion-dollar business by making it legal under federal law.
Inc.: As the treasurer of NORML, what are you doing to reverse the stigma of marijuana that's still widely held among much of our society, government, and law enforcement?
Hartfield: NORML is the oldest marijuana reform nonprofit. They are the only people who speak for the marijuana consumer, the adult marijuana user. With their interests in mind, NORML has been fighting against 80 years of prohibition, 80 years of propaganda. They have been one of the first groups to speak the truth about the issue. In the '70s, '80s, '90s, it was really hard for an anti-prohibitionist to get on the air and debate a prohibitionist. But now throughout the 2000s, largely due to NORML, the dialogue has changed.
As a business, how do you get over hurdles of an 80-year culture demonizing the drug?
H: Basically, our business model is inherently tied to political loopholes. The most important thing we can do is remove those loopholes and make them full-fledged rights like they did in Colorado. Voters actually added a constitutional amendment to the state of Colorado, giving them a constitutional right for adult recreational use of cannabis. It's an incredible first step, but federal legalization is the only way to accomplish my dream, which is to build a billion-dollar business. That is why I spend a lot of my time with NORML and that's why Weedmaps spends a million dollars a year lobbying for the Marijuana Policy Project and others. Even though the dialogue is changing and we're winning the culture war, it's not over. I still think there needs to be the recognition of marijuana as a civil rights issue, like gay marriage has done. We're going to be applying this in California for 2015, then New York in 2016.
Why is New York state so important to your cause?
H: The interesting thing about New York is that it was the first state to end the prohibition of alcohol. New York was openly rebellious of prohibition and as the first state to break it, they had the opportunity to set an example for the rest of the country. Today they have a similar opportunity to lead the rest of the East Coast. And it's not like there's not enough pot in New York City.
What is the motivation behind Weedmaps TV?
H: We wanted to create the highest-quality marijuana-related content, starting in 2010. We have so far succeeded with over 100,000 subscribers. Our content is still getting better, but it's still hard to monetize video within a niche. We have plans to expand it. We have a beautiful new studio that we have built in Irvine, California. The ultimate goal would be a 24/7 cable news channel. We started with a series, "Weed Ventures with Gil," which is an Anthony Bourdain-style show that follows our guy Gil around Colorado, Seattle, and different cities while he smokes weed and eats food. We're trying to dabble with doing more serials and partnering up with artists and filmmakers to do collaborations.
Do you think the mostly illegal status of marijuana helps your company be successful?
H: On one hand, everything would be a lot easier if it were federally legal. But on the other hand, it would provide huge corporate competition--Anheuser-Busch-style competition. We think we are ready for that, but those types of companies are very well-funded. Marijuana is a great attention-getter and it leads to a lot of press and other opportunities that something more mainstream like a 'Cookiemaps' wouldn't provide. It's a double-edged sword, but at the end of the day I can compete with the legal guys so I'd rather it be all legal. We know and love marijuana more than anyone else and we're positioned uniquely inside the space.
Why did you choose to start an ancillary business instead of growing weed yourself?
H: It came down to my specific skill set. I am into technology, building websites, and Internet marketing. I didn't create a marijuana business, I started a technology business. At the end of the day, Weedmaps is just software. This was a conscious decision. I'm Jewish, I can't go to jail [laughs]. I didn't want to do something that was completely illegal. I'm knocking on wood, but High Times has been doing their thing since 1974, so we feel like we're protected under the First Amendment.
As a smoker, has pot taught you anything you've brought into the business world?
H: Oh, absolutely. It definitely gave me the idea for Weedmaps. I was definitely high when I came up with the idea for it. It was responsible for Weedmaps, for sure. It is something that really works for me--it helps me focus and concentrate. It's something that when I first did it, I felt like it's what I was missing. Some people have a totally different reaction and get paranoid and introverted, but it's worked for me and it leads to incredible insights when used correctly.