Standing Up: A Personal Journey To The Legal Cannabis Industry

I never imagined I’d be writing about this topic. For 25 years, I’ve enjoyed an amazing journey as a serial entrepreneur building companies and brands, leading companies in the beer, wine and spirits, distribution, and technology industries. The alcohol industry has been good to me and to my family.

Other than a little exposure in college, I have not been around marijuana. A few years ago, I met a bunch of U.S. Marines. Travis McVey created Heroes Vodka and I helped him launch the brand. His friend Stephen told me a story that has stayed with me. Stephen Cochran served as part of the 2nd (LAR) Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. He served in Iraq and Afghanistan and was severely injured on patrol. Stephen spent nearly a year in hospitals paralyzed, unable to a walk. After undergoing an experimental procedure at Vanderbilt, he was miraculously able to walk again. Stephen said,

“In recovery, I suffered from extreme pain and Doctors prescribed me every prescription medicine you could imagine. The pain meds nearly killed me. That is when I turned to cannabis. Today I’m raising my family, writing, and performing music. I give back to veterans wherever and whenever I can ( Semper Fi Fund). Medical cannabis is the reason I can do these things today. It saved my life and the lives of many of my fellow veterans.”

This conversation opened my eyes to the many benefits of cannabis. There are more than 50 medical conditions for which cannabis is legally recognized as some form of therapy or medicine including Alzheimer’s, anorexia, arthritis, cancer, chronic pain, epilepsy, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I’ve come across people suffering with chronic pain and others going through cancer treatment. Cannabis allows them to live their lives without the destructive side effects of opioid based pain medicines. The more I learned about the benefits of cannabis to people suffering, the more research I did to understand the industry. Based on this, I’ve come to believe that its place in society needs to change.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA – FEBRUARY 15: Al Harrington (L) and Viola Harrington arrive at exNBA Star Al Harrington Launches New CBD Business at Wolfgang’s Steakhouse on February 15, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by FilmMagic/FilmMagic)

Al Harrington is a 16-year NBA great and cannabis entrepreneur. I used to watch Al at Pacer’s games. Al found his way into medicinal cannabis and CBD to treat his pain from a botched knee surgery. He tells a funny story about recommending medical marijuana to his grandmother Viola. She suffered from multiple ailments, and after some initial resistance, she tried it and immediately felt better. His cannabis brand, Viola, was soon born. He also has his Harrington Wellness line of CBD. Al’s story is genuine. In an interview with Al, former NBA commissioner David Stern pronounced that the laws and rules need to change around cannabis (See Al Harrington and David Stern). Al, and my friend, musician, and NFL great Kyle Turley, have been outspoken advocates for awareness and change. It’s clear, cannabis prohibition and the aggressive pursuit of its enforcement have also particularly ravaged the African American community.

The opioid epidemic is destroying lives, families, and devastating whole communities. I personally have more than one friend who has lost a (grown) child recently, due to accidental overdose or tainted product. We must do something to stop this epidemic. Doctors overprescribing opioids is one of the primary causes. Many patients start out with legal prescriptions and become addicted. They then turn to the illegal market to meet their addiction needs. Cannabis can be used to help wean people off these destructive drugs. Ideally, it could be prescribed to avoid opioid abuse in the first place. It is a legitimate part of the solution. Given this, I decided to find out how I could make a difference.

I attended the MJ Business conference in Las Vegas and networked with Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and other friends. I wanted to figure out how I could play a positive role in this emerging industry. I did some research to understand what led to the abrupt prohibition of cannabis in the US in 1937. I learned that Indianapolis pharmaceutical powerhouse, Eli Lilly was in the cannabis business until the prohibition. Cannabis prohibition seems to have been motivated by a combination of racism and the business interests of a few that had political influence (Why Is Marijuana Illegal). I learned that many feel the ratcheting up of cannabis to a Schedule I drug (the same as Heroin) in 1970 also had racist motivations. It was certainly not based on science.

The American public now overwhelmingly supports cannabis legalization, with over 64% in favor according to Gallop. It is more popular than any current politician. State by state, citizens have made local option the law of the land. There are now 30 states plus Washington DC where medical cannabis use is legal. There are 9 states where adult recreational use is now legal. This is a prime example of the importance of state’s rights leading the way.

As the industry has come out of the shadows of illegal activity and into the light of permitted activities in many states, incredible entrepreneurial spirits have been unleashed. I feel the excitement of being at the forefront of another Repeal of Prohibition. This time though, we have the added dimension of extraordinary medical benefits. Drawing from my 25+ years in the beverage alcohol business, I see many parallels to the industry I know well. The legal framework around local option, licensing and taxes are similar to alcohol beverage laws in many respects. Constellation Brands [STZ] recent $191 million investment into Canopy Growth [WEED] further convinced me that this developing industry is going mainstream.

Legal cannabis is likely to rival the Beer, Wine and Spirits categories and exceed $50 billion annually in the coming years. Some analysts predict the US industry over $100 billion. Regardless of the number, it is and will be massive.

I met my partners Todd Kaplan and Courtney Dorne through YPO last year. I joined the team at Vertical Companies as a partner, President of Distribution and Chief Marketing Officer in January 2018. I could not be more excited in this venture, building a large scale new enterprise in the emerging cannabis space. One of my objectives will be to play my part in bringing the right coalitions together to address and correct the State vs Federal conflict that exists today.

Giving Thanks To Mentors: My Gratitude To Andy Paine, Jr.

As we live our lives, we all lose family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Sometimes, we lose someone who meant something very special at some point along our life’s journey. For me, that someone was Andrew J Paine, Jr., “Andy” who passed away this week after a battle with cancer. Andy lived a full life, raised a great family and has many great accomplishments as one of The Business Leaders of the Indianapolis community for decades. The Indianapolis Business Journal did a nice job in their tribute here Banking titan Andy Paine dies at age 80

Andy was one of the first people I met when I moved to Indianapolis after Cornell University. He was warm and inviting and we immediately connected on some of his work in the community. He was leading an effort with the Japan America Business Council which led us to long discussions on international business and relations. At that first meeting at my father-in-law, Jim Lacrosse’s house, Andy invited me to join him for lunch at his office. Little did I know that lunch would transform my life.

Andy and Jim were close friends. Indiana National Bank was one of two leading Indiana banks and Andy was, by then, the President (INB is now JP Morgan Chase). But when they met, Andy was the loan officer who ended up pushing through the loan that allowed Jim to buy the $11 million National Liquor Company (Later $1 billion National Wine & Spirits and now part of $8 billion RNDC). Needless to say, they were close, but Andy and I hit it off independently.

When I arrived at the Indiana National Bank tower, I was unaware that we’d be dining in the CEO’s private dining room. At 22, I was wet behind the ears in business, but possessed high ambition and the willingness to do whatever it took to make my mark. I think Andy sensed that and somehow felt a connection and the desire to help channel my raw energy. That’s what mentors do.

At that lunch, Andy said to me,

“Smoke, you need to get involved in the community early on.  Don’t wait until later, do it now. I want you to meet David Hicks (then president of JA of Central Indiana). JA is something you can help with now. I also want you to go through the Stanley K Lacy Leadership Series, but you will have to wait until you are at least 27.”

He talked about the importance of giving back in the community and getting involved early. That it’s an obligation for each of us who do well and thrive in our communities to give back to those communities and to people who need a leg up. Andy appealed to the best in each of us and translated that into action for me.

When I applied to business schools, Andy wrote me recommendations. When I led the Distinguished Lecture Series at Vanderbilt Business, Andy helped me recruit speakers (Hank Schacht CEO of Cummins Engine and later Lucent Technologies and James Baker, CEO of Arvin Industries). When I applied to the SKL Leadership series, Andy was my sponsor. When I later became Chairman of JA of Central Indiana and won a national bronze leadership award, Andy was there encouraging and supporting me at each step along the way. Andy supported my selection as “Forty Under 40” by the IBJ. As we grew our business and NWS, I became CFO to restructure our financing amid a torrid pace of acquisitions and growth. Andy was always around.

I reflect back now on the impact he had on my career and life. The advice he gave me at the first lunch and the later encouragement and support, although infrequent, came at critical moments in time that helped me make better decisions and ultimately become the person I am today.   For all of you who take the time out of your busy schedules to counsel an up and comer from your business or community, I say thank you. Know that a lunch with a bit of coaching and encouragement can make all the difference in someone’s life. Don’t ever think of it as a waste of time or unnecessary. Indeed, it may well be one of the greatest responsibilities we all have as leaders in our respective worlds.

Thank you, Andy. I will never forget you and your legacy continues.



Courtney Dorne, J. Smoke Wallin bring significant executive experience in Food and Alcohol Beverages to one of country’s leading medical cannabis companies

Los Angeles, CA (January 25, 2018) – Vertical, one of the country’s leading vertically integrated medical cannabis companies, announced today the addition of Courtney Dorne and J. Smoke Wallin to their leadership team.  Dorne is an entrepreneur and food industry leader who joins Vertical as a partner and President of Vertical Brands Co.  Wallin is a serial entrepreneur and thought leader in the beverage alcohol industry and has joined as a partner, Chief Marketing Officer and President of Vertical Distribution Co.

Vertical was founded in 2014 by entrepreneurs who saw the potential created by the transition of cannabis to a legitimate and legal business. Drawing from results-driven expertise in a variety of industries, the Vertical team has a synergistic energy that offers proven experience from seed to sale.

“I’m thrilled to welcome Courtney and Smoke to our executive team,” said Todd Kaplan, Founder & CEO of Vertical.  “Smoke’s deep knowledge of alcohol distribution and scaling new businesses in highly regulated industries, combined with Courtney’s perishable food distribution and extensive network strengthen our competitive advantage in the rapidly evolving legal medical cannabis industry.”

According to The Arcview Group, the U.S. legal cannabis industry represented over $6.7 billion 2016 and is expected to grow to between $22 and $50 billion over the next 10 years. Legalization of the medical cannabis industry began in 1996 with California’s passage of the Compassionate Use Act.  Since then it has operated in a quasi-legal environment with conflicting laws throughout the land, while growing exponentially.  2014 marked the beginning of adult recreational cannabis legalization with Colorado and Washington leading the way.  Today there are 29 states that have legalized either medical only or medical and adult recreational cannabis production, distribution, retail and consumption.  Gallop recently reported 64 percent of Americans support cannabis legalization nationally. In this vibrant space, Vertical is a pioneer and is the first to offer fully integrated services from legal compliance and operation of cultivation to extraction, product development and marketing.

Dorne brings literally a lifetime of experience in food services and the restaurant industry to Vertical. From her family’s restaurant to founding the giant Fresh and Ready Foods, Dorne has a proven track record in food manufacturing and perishable packaged food distribution and has built an extensive network of customers ranging from airlines and hospitals to convention centers, the military and convenience stores, all the while working under the rigorous scrutiny of FDA and USDA regulations.  She is a member of the YPO Global One chapter and is the current Chair of the Women’s Network (WYN).

“After years of suffering from debilitating pain and crippling migraines as a result of extensive surgical procedures, I learned first hand about the efficacy of cannabis on pain management,” said Dorne. “All too often our culture is quick to treat pain with a pill and we’ve all seen what that has gotten us. I believe that legal cannabis can be a part of a legal, safer and healthier alternative and I’m thrilled to join the team that can help make this happen.”

Wallin comes to Vertical by way of Taliera, a company he founded in 2005 to create, acquire, manage and advise brands in the beverage space. His career in beverage alcohol has included serving as Chairman & President of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) and EVP and CFO for National Wine & Spirits (now part of RNDC/Breakthru). He is also active in YPO as Chair of the Beer, Wine and Spirits Network and has been active in legislative and regulatory affairs.

“I have always loved innovating, doing deals and building enterprises to scale, particularly in the beverage alcohol space,” Wallin said.  “I’ve been studying high potential growth brands and companies, and Vertical and is at the forefront of the rapidly growing legal medical cannabis industry. Both industries are highly regulated and for some time I have been expecting them to converge. The recent investment by Constellation Brands[STZ] in Canada’s Canopy Growth [WEED] validated my premise, and I couldn’t be more excited to be part of the team building brands and distribution in a market worth $100s of billions globally.”

Wallin continued, “I can’t help but think of Sam Bronfman in 1933 at the Repeal of Prohibition who went on to build Seagram into the alcohol industry leader it became before selling to Diageo and Pernod Ricard. Vertical is positioned to achieve that level of success.”

About Vertical™

Vertical is one of the first and largest vertically integrated companies in the legal medical cannabis industry. It’s operations in CA, AZ and OR combined with strategic partnerships in CO, MI, and NV position it well to take advantage of the rapid legalization and normalization of cannabis globally. Vertical is led by an executive team of entrepreneurs and business leaders from the alcohol beverage, agriculture, CPG, distribution, entertainment, food and medical industries. Vertical’s operations include planning, permitting, development and operation of cultivation, extraction, manufacturing, distribution and retail facilities.  It has world class capabilities in product development, co-packing, branding, marketing, education, and legal compliance, Vertical does Everything Pertaining to Green. For more information visit

The Power of Choice: A Boy Named Smoke

“Well my daddy left home when I was three And he didn’t leave much to Ma and me Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze Now, I don’t blame him ’cause he run and hid But the meanest thing that he ever did Was before he left, he went and named me “Sue”” – Johnny Cash “A Boy Named Sue”

My whole life I’ve been asked if Smoke is my real name. Born John Smoke Wallin, I’ve been Smoke since memory. This might seem a trivial question, but explaining my name has been a reality for me since as long as I can remember. I attended a Young Presidents Organization (YPO) event last night in West Hollywood and met another member with an equally unique name. We connected on the issue of growing up with an unusual name and the challenges that presented each of us. He explained his story of growing up hating his name, wishing to change it, and then being given a choice by his family. He was offered a color TV or name change and picked the TV. He went on to describe the pivot that happened for him when he chose not to change his name and owning the decision for the rest of his life. “The day after my choice, someone called me a name and we fought. I stood my ground. From that moment on, I owned my name and it empowered me.”

I immediately realized he described my own experience. Growing up in multiple towns, from Hoboken, Boston, Siesta Key and ultimately Longboat Key. I changed schools and moved 4 and 5 times before entering high school. Each move provided the usual challenges of meeting new kids, introducing myself and getting asked (aka challenged) about my name. Kids generally want to be liked and fit in. Having a weird name always came with this challenge up front. As I’ve described it many times, kids can be very mean and I remember this being very upsetting. I can remember coming home in tears. I always felt like an outsider.

I entered yet another school for 7th grade and declared to my mom, “I’m sick and tired of getting made fun of, I am going to use my given first name at my new school”. Declaring that, and having mom’s full support, I entered Sugg Middle School in Bradenton, FL as John Wallin. The first day of school and throughout my 2 years there I quickly realized 2 things: 1. I did not respond to the name John. 2. There were 7-10 John’s in every class. No one made fun of me and I fit right in and yet realized I did not feel like me.

As I prepared to enter Bayshore High School I declared to my mom, “ok, I’m going back to my real name, Smoke”. I’ve owned my decision ever since. Having a unique name from HS through college through my business career is now a source of strength. I embraced the unique gift my parents gave me at birth. Proudly explain my American Indian heritage (very small) and my likely semi-hippie parents at the time. Everyone remembers my name and me. It is a part of what makes me me.

The power of choice in our lives is all powerful. Deciding something for oneself means you own the decision. The greatest gift my mom gave me was to let me choose.

If you are facing a challenge or problem great or small, think about the choices you have made to be in your situation. Realizing that there are many things outside our control, think about the choices you can make going forward that you do control. Worrying about things outside your control adds no value. Remember, once we have identified a problem or issue we all have these choices: to change it, to solve it or to live with it. Doing nothing is a choice. Once you realize this, you empower yourself and own the decision. No one can take it away from you.

By A Boy Named Smoke.

Finish What You Started

It was the Summer before my senior year in High School when I ran into my Scout Master. He was also our neighbor in the small fishing village of Longboat Key, FL, where I grew up. “Smoke, good to see you. You going to finish what you started?” he asked. Of course, I knew exactly what he was referring to. You see, a few short years before, I was one of the founding scouts of Troop 44 on Longboat Key. As a new troop, I had the opportunity to immediately become a leader. It didn’t take long for a rapid ascent through the ranks; from Scout, to Tenderfoot, to 2nd Class, to 1st Class, to Star, and on to Life Scout by age 16. I only had a few more requirements to achieve my goal of becoming an Eagle Scout, the Boy Scouts highest rank. While Scouting and camping remained something I cared about, sports, school and social activities had begun to take most of my time.

On that hot Summer day while on my way to catch some Mullet with my cast net, Mr. Carmen reminded me, “Smoke, you know that only 4% of boys who start scouting ever achieve the rank of Eagle?”. This had been grilled into us from the first days of scouting. He was reminding me, that in less than a year I would turn 18 and no longer be eligible for advancement. He also knew there was a very good chance I would not finish as he’d seen this happen to many scouts over the years. Wrestling was my priority and I was about to head to Dan Gable’s 28 Day Intensive Training Camp in Iowa. Once the season started, this meant 3 hour practices, 5 days a week and meets and matches on many weekends. Juggling this with school work and applying to colleges would be a challenge as it was, add on all the social distractions that come with senior year in high school and it would be a real challenge to put the necessary time into Scouts. It was a moment of truth. Do I make the commitment to finish what I set out to do or do I take the much easier path and let other things take priority? I remember looking myself in the mirror and asking, “What matters to me?” I decided then and there that I would not let anything get in the way of my goal of Eagle. Looking back, I had no idea of the impact the answer to that question would have on my life.

Eleven months later, I completed my Eagle project. We cleaned up part of the beaches on Longboat Key and built a small foot bridge at the LBK Youth Center. I finished right before my 18th birthday. My brother Clay followed suit, earning his Eagle rank a short time later (but also right under the wire). In the end, it was up to me to do the hard work and complete the requirements. I never would have made it without the support and encouragement of my family and the adult leaders in the Troop, when I needed it most.

Today, I reflect on this story to share one of the many lessons I have learned: finish what you start.

Building the internal fortitude to bear down is hard when there are many other distractions. This is something you cannot teach, but rather one must learn from experience. Looking back on my years since, finishing my Eagle changed my whole life.

The willingness to step up and complete what one begins is an essential element for success in business, industry and community activities. I moved to Indianapolis upon graduating from Cornell University and read about an Eagle Scout leadership dinner in town. This is where I met some of the community’s biggest business and community leaders at the time, including then Senator Richard Lugar. At 22 years old, I was networking with a Senator and CEOs of some of the biggest businesses in a town. Prior to this, I only knew a handful of people in Indianapolis. Being an Eagle Scout has opened many doors for me along my personal journey. A few years later, when I was in position to hire talent for my businesses, a candidate with Eagle Scout on their resume would always make my interview list regardless of other experience. It’s the one thing from childhood that has come up time and again throughout my adult life. This would not have happened had I not finished. No one recognizes a Life Scout.

When my two sons Skye and Cameron joined Scouting, I told them this story. We had many adventures in Scouting together including hiking on the Appalachian Trail, Rocky Mountain National Park, Philmont Scout Ranch and the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska. As they got older, when time was running out for their Eagle, I had to remind them of it. There was a good chance they would not finish, but fortunately there were many adults and fellow scouts who helped push them when they needed it most. (Scoutmaster Clifton, Mr. B, the Johnsons, the Stewarts, and other parents, in particular Diana Church). When one starts anything new, it is easy to say, “I’ll finish and reach my goal.” It is a lot harder to actually do it. I’m proud that both sons also went on to earn their Eagle rank.

Throughout my career in business as a serial entrepreneur, I’ve encountered many setbacks and roadblocks to achieving my goals. It is how one responds to adversity that determines success. There is a confidence one develops knowing whatever it takes and no matter how difficult the situation one can persevere.

When you have the opportunity to give an extra push or words of encouragement to someone you know who is struggling or has lost sight of their goal, do it, even if it is not what they want to hear. Your encouragement could be the thing that gets them over the top to rededicate themselves to achieve their potential. It takes caring people to bring out the best in each of us. Sometimes, one person asking, “are you going to finish what you started?” is the final catalyst needed for action.

At the end of the day it is up to the individual to do what it takes. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. When you feel most like giving up, that is the time to bear down and do what it takes to finish what you started.

If you enjoyed this read, please follow me on twitter @smokewallin or on and you can read more on my personal website If you know someone how needs to hear this message, please share.


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