Bob Marley couldn't legalize weed. Willie Nelson and Jack Herer couldn't either. And President Obama hasn't touched it. But maybe visionary tech investor Peter Thiel can.
Silicon Valley loves erasing friction. And if Silicon Valley can erase a point of friction while simultaneously tapping a market of 25 million active users in America, you better believe it will.
The fact that Thiel's venture capital firm Founders Fund invested in the marijuana industry with Privateer Holdings, which owns cannabis information resource Leafly.com, New York-based recreational cannabis company Marley Natural, and Canada's medical marijuana grower and e-commerce site Tilray, signals that the herb may someday soon lose its 80-year-old stigma.
So, why did Founders Fund invest millions of dollars in the private equity company's $75 million Series B round?
"I don't believe in prohibition. People should be free to make their own choices. The reality is that people already choose to use cannabis. They should be able to use it safely and in a way that it is clearly labeled and regulated," says Geoff Lewis, partner at Founders Fund who studied Privateer for almost two years before investing.
Marijuana, which was made illegal in 1937, is currently a Schedule I drug under federal law. This classification, which it shares with heroin and LSD, means the government believes it has no medical value and cannot be used safely. About 693,000 people get arrested per year for marijuana possession, according to legalization advocacy group Norml. Crystal meth and cocaine, against all common sense, are Schedule II and technically deemed less dangerous than weed by law. But with Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, and Washington, D.C., legalizing recreational use of marijuana and 24 states legalizing medical use, Thiel's firm's investment may bring the rest of the apprehensive business world along with it.
Considering that Founders Fund is a venture capital firm, ending prohibition is only the second part of its reason to invest.
"The goal is to invest in a company that becomes a multibillion-dollar company in the space and in a small way helps to bring about the end of prohibition, which would be a good thing for society. We think a professionalized company that builds brands that consumers can trust will help bring that about in the United States," Lewis says.
The idea to invest in the marijuana industry started two years ago. Lewis had a friend who got a serious illness and her doctor prescribed cannabis. To find out which strain of the herb would be best for her symptoms, she went to Leafly.com and found a few that helped her cope.
"I always have my investor hat on and she was telling me how she found cannabis to be more helpful than any of the medications she was on," he says. Lewis then reached out to Brendan Kennedy, CEO of Privateer. After a series of meetings in Canada and seeing Tilray's 60,000-square-foot growing, packaging, and distribution facility in British Columbia, which grew and sold 9,000 pounds of weed in 2014, Lewis knew he had to continue down the rabbit hole.
"We were blown away with how fast they got their facility up and running. They are the dominant medical cannabis business in Canada," he says. Canadian medical users go online and make their order per their prescription number, and their medication gets sent out that same day. "When I saw Tilray, I thought, 'I am seeing the future,'" he says.
Lewis then met with Marley Natural, which is run by Bob Marley's family and will be selling "heirloom cannabis strains, including some of Bob's Jamaican favorites," according to its site. He also met with Leafly.com. After comparing many of the companies in the field, Lewis says he found two different types of businesses:
"One was a short-term gold rush mentality to make a quick buck and the other [is run by] people who have been in the industry for 15 years who were operating illegally up until recently," he says. "As a venture capitalist, those types of companies were non-starters for us."
Looking again to Privateer's companies, he realized they stood apart. "The long-term vision the team has, the professionalism, the diverse set of experiences, and the diverse set of businesses are doing really well," he says. They're also primed to serve a nationwide demand.
Lewis, a newcomer to the marijuana industry, stands out as much for his thoroughness as for his buttoned-up demeanor. But at the end of the day, he says he's just like the majority of Americans:
"My view is the same as the majority of the American public: eight out of 10 people are in support of legalization for medical purposes," he says. "The majority of Americans are supportive of full recreational legalization. I share that view."