Enterprising NYU Students Learn How to Navigate the Legal Cannabis Industry

A student at the 2014 NYC Cannabis Parade
A student at the 2014 NYC Cannabis Parade
Emily Tan for the Village Voice

Not too many panel discussions at NYU include speakers who say things like, "Cannabis is my god. I worship it like Jesus." But then "Cannabiz: Exploring the Cannabis Industry," organized by the NYU chapter of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), was not a typical university panel.

About 30 students came out to the event on Wednesday night, held in a lecture hall at NYU's Global Center, on the southern edge of Washington Square Park. The brainchild of Ericka Persson, the NYU SSDP vice president, "Cannabiz" featured a panel of four speakers who put forth a message of encouragement to students seeking knowledge of — and, potentially, employment in — the burgeoning cannabis industry.

Those speakers — Scott Gianotti, founder of the New York–based Cannabis and Hemp Association (CHA); Adam Scavone, a lawyer and the co-founder and director of the New York Cannabis Alliance; Michael Zaytsev, founder of the community organization High NY; and Dylan Schwartz, a drug policy reformer and CEO of a cannabis consulting firm — found a captive audience in the members and supporters of the NYU chapter of SSDP, a nationwide network of student groups that advocate for a more lenient drug policy. But the students in attendance were less interested in finding easier ways to get high. They wanted nothing short of a revolution.

Persson, a 21-year-old senior majoring in political communication, organized the event in order for students to ask questions about the changing drug laws and hear from some of New York's most informed advocates. Since December, Persson has been interning at Ideal 420 Soil, a company that sells soil for the purposes of growing marijuana — a position she got with the help of Schwartz, whom she met in September while lobbying for prison reform in Washington, D.C.

"It's not just, like, blazing," Persson said of her interest in the cannabis industry. "I'm not a stoner. It's a social justice issue, and it's also a business issue."

It's also a very complicated issue. Adam Kurtz, a 37-year-old entrepreneur who recently had trouble finding investors for a New York–based medical marijuana start-up, came to the event for the same reason as the students: to learn.

"Every day in this business is like a week or a month in other industries," he said, adding that information changes constantly. "You have to be nimble."

After each speaker introduced himself, Persson opened up the floor to questions. And the students had a lot of questions: how legalization will affect the real estate market; how lucrative the marijuana business is and will be; if the drug will still have a place in the counterculture; what a commercialized marijuana market will look like; what sources to consult for information on cannabis; where to get started in the business.

For Schwartz, the recreational side of the business is less important than the medical. Schwartz became interested in the marijuana industry when his mother contracted a terminal illness. He is now working with New York State to ensure that organ transplant patients will have access to medical marijuana when it's available in January.

"There were no medications that could help her," Schwartz said of his mother. "In New York, we're finally going to see relief for people in January." He sees the drug as having enormous potential in medicine: "Cannabis is the 21st century's penicillin."

For Gianotti — the panelist who confessed to worshiping weed like Jesus — cannabis is everything. "This is really God's work for me," he said. "I think cannabis is the mother of all plants, and it should be in all of our lives." He urged students to "come out of the closet" and be "militant" about their support and advocacy for cannabis legalization.

"Anybody here never smoked cannabis before?" Gianotti asked at one point. One man raised his hand. "OK," Gianotti said. "I'll see you after the event."

But no one seemed to be at the event to party. Ashley Frenkel, 21, the president of NYU SSDP, said that her personal interest in marijuana quickly became a political interest. "I realized how many aspects of society this feeds into," she said, citing areas like jobs, health, prison reform, and taxes. She said she took exception to President Barack Obama's recent comment arguing that young people should find causes besides legalizing weed to support. "It's not just about wanting to smoke," she said.

Scavone — whose New York Cannabis Alliance co-founder, Evan Nison, was once president of his university's SSDP chapter — congratulated the audience for coming to the lecture rather than going to a bar. He stressed that the cannabis industry would require the same kind of professionalism one would expect of any young person starting a career: "It's a new industry but the same principles: Do what you say you're going to do, show up on time, and people will respect you."

The panelists reminded the students that they were getting in on the ground floor of a colossal trade. "Be your own advocate," Schwartz said. "This industry is still new enough that if you take your time and develop professionally," you'll succeed. And most of all, the panel urged the students to connect with other people in the industry. They're a friendly bunch, they said, and for now, it's a relatively small world. "That's the benefit of an industry started by activism," Scavone pointed out.

As the evening drew to a close, Gianotti asked if anyone present was hoping to get into the cannabis business. About six hands shot up. "Come to CHA meet-ups," Gianotti said. "I'll help you."


Lara Zarum reports for the

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