Skip to main content


April 23, 2015

Christian Hageseth on America’s Relationship with Marijuana and Why the Industry is on the Brink

Christian Hageseth is the CEO of the Denver, Colorado, firm Green Man Cannabis and the author of BIG WEED: An Entrepreneur’s High-Stakes Adventures in the Budding Legal Marijuana Trade, which is now available. According to Hageseth, the marijuana industry is on the brink of a revolution. Here, he explains how America’s perception of pot has changed since the ‘30s and why it’s high time we start taking the drug seriously.

In the mid-1930s, the first moviegoers to catch a film entitled Tell Your Children had no idea that they were partaking in what was to become a lopsided national conversation on cannabis. The film, which would later come to be known as Reefer Madness, purported to tell the story of what happened in a squeaky-clean American town when dope pushers foisted “marihuana” on innocent, white, middle-class American teenagers. By modern standards, the film is laughably bad, but it must have scared the pants off its early viewers.

In the course of the film’s 68-minute running time, viewers learned that anyone who smoked this dangerous weed was liable to shoot sweet teenage girls in the back, run over pedestrians in the street, engage in immoral sexual activity, commit suicide or become criminally insane.

That was the pat story American pop culture wanted us to absorb about marijuana, and for a good chunk of the ensuing 80 years, many Americans were conned into believing that message.

When I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, pot was criminal, illicit, dangerous --- and absolutely wonderful. Smoking pot was a ritual certain risk-taking teenagers like myself, my brother and his buddies indulged in, deep in the basements of our parents’ homes.

The ’60s were a not-so-distant memory. When I walked into record stores, jeans shops or quirky mall gift shops, I would catch leftover glimpses of those hippie days gone by. The marijuana leaf --- a beautiful gift of nature --- graced the covers of many a vinyl album. Artists worked that imagery into concert posters, T-shirts, keychains, souvenir trinkets and tattoos. The films of “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong gave the impression that marijuana was the domain of long-haired comedians. One toke and you were likely to become a drug-addled fool, capable of hilarious hijinks and seized by an insatiable case of the munchies. Hollywood gave us a pantheon of stoners from Jeff Spicoli (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) to the Dude (The Big Lebowski), further cementing the notion of pot-smokers as abysmal underachievers. Pot, in other words, was a joke, not an intoxicant for serious-minded adults. Pot was a dangerous and stupid underground commodity.

At the same time, American culture was sending a vastly different message about tobacco and alcohol. Yes, I heard the message that these two substances were strictly off-limits for kids. The way I learned it in health class, alcohol could lead to addiction, violence and car wrecks. Cigarettes led to lung cancer.

But if you bought a mass market paperback book in the ’70s or ’80s, you were likely to find a glossy advertisement smack-dab in the center of the book depicting a gorgeous man and women sunning themselves on a beach or else sailing into a distant horizon made all the more exotic by the presence of tobacco in those beautiful people’s lives. TV sporting events were always sponsored by insipid mass-market beers, which theoretically enhanced the clean, thrilling, American experience of athletic competition.

The way I see it, I grew to maturity, and so did my nation. In the span of 14 years, voters heard one presidential candidate (Bill Clinton in 1992) make the laughable claim that while he experimented with pot he did not inhale, while another candidate (Barack Obama in 2006) stated, “When I was a kid, I inhaled,” adding, “That was the point.”

Today, 51 percent of the American populace lives in a state where marijuana is medically or recreationally legal.

Entrepreneurs like myself who run businesses catering to this new economy invest in their communities and pay state and federal taxes. Institutional investors on Wall Street and elsewhere are taking meetings to talk about how they can intelligently position themselves to profit from an America where marijuana dispensaries are as normal as a cigar bar or microbrewery. My inbox and mailbox are filled with letters and résumés from people --- accountants, massage therapists, fitness instructors, attorneys, medical practitioners --- who wonder how their skills will translate to this new world.

On the pop culture scene, I see celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg, Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey openly talking about marijuana as not-a-bad-thing. Michael Jordan, Willie Nelson and the Bob Marley brands have all announced they are investing in up-and-coming weed businesses.

Earlier this year, I spied an article in the New York Times about a marijuana bed and breakfast in Denver. Vacationers who stayed at this beautiful retreat could freely indulge in the innkeepers’ homegrown weed. The article ran a photo of them enjoying a soak in their hot tub. The image could have come straight out of those paperback cigarette ads of the ’70s.

The nation has changed, and so has the conversation.