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.

Cannabis, Crypto — Craft Beverages & DOT.Com Observations


I spent a fascinating week learning about two of the hottest investment and business opportunity spaces right now. The block chain, crypto and initial coin offerings (ICOs), and the cannabis industry are literally on fire. Given this, I wanted to get an understanding of what’s really happening. I’ve been following the development of the block chain/coin movement along with the emergence of the legal cannabis business as these both are displaying signs of developments that may cause massive disruption (and therefore potentially big opportunities). Venture capitalist Tim Draper has been an outspoken proponent of the block chain and crypto offerings (see Exclusive: Billionaire investor Draper to participate in blockchain token sale for first time), while Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan Chase has been dismissive (see CNBC).

Constellation Brands (STZ-B) announced recently that it had agreed to take a 9.9% minority stake in the $2 billion Canadian medical marijuana company Canopy Growth. The stake is worth about $191 million, though Constellation will have the option of purchasing additional stakes in the future. This aggressive move marks a significant milestone with the first publicly traded US company making a material investment in the cannabis space. For the industry in which I have spent much of my business career — beverage alcohol (beer, spirits and wine), it’s also a taboo shattering wake up call. The financial community apparently agrees with the financial analysts, giving high marks for Constellation’s vision and the market supported it with a gain of over $1 billion in STZ’s market cap (essentially more than paying for the investment). Visiting Colorado frequently, I’ve seen how quickly the legal use of medical and recreational marijuana has ramped up with the state of CO taking in over $550 million in tax revenue as of July 2017.

To learn more about each of these rapidly developing industries and to test my hypothesis of potential disruption, I attended the StartEngine ICO 2.0 Summitin Santa Monica followed by the MJBizCon in Las Vegas which together gave me an interesting perspective. Here I will share some of my observations.

General Observations

First, I met a number of really smart people pursuing these industries with a wide range of business and investment strategies. I had the good fortune to join up at YPO meeting-in-meetings at both events and, as usual, learned a great deal from these informal gatherings and met some of the people leading the way in both industries. I cannot say enough good things about the YPO network and the ability to quickly get to the movers and shakers in any industry or geography, globally.

The hype around these industries surpasses the craft alcohol craze and matches in 1997–2000. I know both of these booms well having participated by investing and starting my own DOT.Com raising over $55 million (Tim Draper’s Dad, Bill Draper, invested see Forbes) and my multiple ventures in the craft beverage space. The bright light inevitably attracts all kinds of people and as in both of these examples, there are a ton of people who have limited or no business skills coupled with business ideas/plans/ventures with little to no chance of scaling to success. The cannabis side has more similarities to craft beverages in that it appears that 95% of businesses currently in or entering the space are really “mom and pop” operations that are more lifestyle businesses than scalable enterprises. However, what is absolutely clear to me is that, this is changing rapidly with the addition of serious investors and business operators.

Block Chain — ICO What is it?

The technology of the block chain is real and big. I’m convinced over time, it will fundamentally change the financial side of all industries. This MIT Sloan article does a pretty good job of discussing the potential. Its potential is hard to overestimate but not without controversy. See John Battelle’s discussion of it here Alien, Dismissible, Dangerous, Greedy, True and the fights going on inside Venture Capital firms here CRYPTOCURRENCY MANIA FUELS HYPE AND FEAR AT VENTURE FIRMS .

For my non-technical friends, I’ll try to define it here in my own way. For my expert friends, let me know what I get wrong as I’m still learning. The best simple explanation I’ve found so far is A Blockchain Explanation Your Parents Could Understand. Essentially, instead of a central party (think a bank) keeping track of everyone’s money and transactions with each other, the record keeping takes place in public (without revealing names) with 1,000s or more independent operators verifying the information and agreeing on its accuracy before securing it. While banking and financial transactions are the first use, there are many other uses being worked on and many more to come.

The ICO “Initial Coin Offering” market is booming with new business ideas for the application of this technology. Over $2.8 billion has been raised using ICOs thus far in 2017. These have been unregulated and range from real businesses to potential frauds. The ICO 2.0 Summit put on by StartEngine was really about bringing the ICO market into the regulated security market in the US. It is clear to me, from the many presentations, that an offering for a coin to fund a venture is an offer for a security, and therefore falls under the SEC. There are many in the crypto world who dislike this and will fight it, but governments are not going to simply sit back and allow investments outside their mandated oversight just because they are called “coins”. Given that, I agree with StartEngine’s CEO Howard Marks that the crowd funding Regulation A and also traditional Regulation D exemptions are the proper way to issue an ICO in the US.

Lou Kerner gave an excellent presentation based on his article, Is Crypto (Like) A Religion? & 6 Other Crypto Thoughts .

He followed this with a very interesting fireside chat with Michael Jones CEO of Science who is serious about the space and currently has an ICO in the works.

We heard from 17 companies planning to do ICOs of some kind. Again, I can’t help but compare this to DOT.Com days as there were clearly real business ideas and teams and others that are simply slapping the ICO label on something that is really not well thought out. What was true back in 1997–2000 in DOT.Com is true today — there are and will be billions of dollars invested in the block chain space, some of it will go into real business ventures and some of it will go into not-so-serious business ventures. Sorting these out will not guarantee your investment is the next Google or Amazon, but is absolutely the key to avoiding almost certain failure.

Cannabis — Marijuana Industry — Where is it now and where is it going?

From a story in Fortune Magazine regarding Constellation’s investment — “The wines and spirits conglomerate has no intention of selling cannabis products in the U.S. until it is legal nationwide. But the company is betting that legalization is just a matter of time, according to the  Journal . However, Constellation may soon sell the marijuana drink product in Canada, where legalization of edible and drinkable cannabis products is expected by 2019.

The move comes amid signs that suggest some consumers are reducing alcohol usage in favor of cannabis . “We believe alcohol could be under pressure for the next decade,” Cowen analysts led by Viven Azer wrote in an April note. “Consumer survey work suggests [about] 80% of consumers reduce their alcohol consumption with cannabis in the mix.”’

Given the above, what is the current state of the legal cannabis industry and where is it going?

The legal industry today is estimated at $5–6 billion and expected to grow to $12–17 billion by 2021. While this is only a fraction of the US alcohol market which stands at $200+ billion today, it could take some of that business (especially in beer in my opinion). So it’s big already and its going to get much bigger quickly. State legalization started with medical use and they are rapidly adding recreational. Cassandra Farrington, CEO and Co-founder of Marijuana Business Daily who put on the conference gave a great presentation on the history of the industry. Basically, the timeline she presented is as follows:

· 1996 California passes first medical marijuana law

· 1998–2008 other states follow

· 2012 Colorado, Washington pass recreational cannabis laws

· 2014 OR, AK add recreational. Canada liberalization takes root.

· 2016 11 legalization ‘wins’ in the US — 4 medical and 4 recreational via ballots and 3 medical via legislative action. Importantly, CA adds recreational in January 2018

Here is a map showing the current state status:

Over ½ the US population lives in states with legal marijuana use — with 30 states + Washington DC allowing legal medical use and 8 states plus Washington DC allowing recreational use. That being said, it is still 100% illegal at the US federal level. This means there are significant risks and hurdles for investors and businesses who enter the space. Banking is very difficult as the national banks cannot conduct business in the space. Anyone contemplating investing in the space needs to be aware of these issues. In spite of these challenges and an uncertain regulatory environment, many investors and business owners are jumping in with both feet.

One of the best presentations I heard was by Patrick Rea, the managing director of Canopy, an early stage fund that has made more than 100 investments in the space. He breaks the business down into four investment buckets:

  1. Public Stocks — these are the Canadian companies like the one Constellation invested in.

2. Real Estate — this is the buildings for dispensaries and the land for farms

3. Touch the Plant — these are the actual growing, processing and selling businesses

4. Ancillary Products & Services — these are all the things around the business from software to equipment to banking to marketing.

Canopy is focused on #4 exclusively but there are certainly opportunities in all of these.

From a branding and stage of industry development perspective this is literally a “green field”. I saw some interesting but nascent offerings given the time businesses have had to think about and try to develop brands. With new entrants, this will of course change, but right now I can’t help but think it is like the days when Sam Bronfman and Lewis Rosenteil were at the cusp of the repeal of Prohibition ready to launch Seagram’s and Shenley’s whiskies into the US respectively.

Where is this headed? It’s hard not to believe there will be continued legalization on a state by state basis. With the overwhelming majority of American’s viewing legal cannabis favorably, and importantly with the amount of tax revenue legal markets are bringing, other states will certainly follow to not get left out. Federally it will likely take longer, but like alcohol and the repeal of Prohibition, it will probably only happen if it is left up to the states to decide how their citizens want to allow cannabis regulation.

What’s clear to me is that there are huge opportunities in both these new industries. What is unclear is who will emerge as the big winners. I know from personal experience what being ahead of the market is like. The next few years will be like settling the wild west and a lot of entrepreneurial ventures will be created to try out different ideas in both cannabis and blockchain. I will come back to these topics as I learn more on both and please share any thoughts you may have. Cheers!

included in this article Howard Marks Tim Draper John Battelle Lou Kerner Patrick Rea StartEngine Constellation Brands Canopy Growth Corporation MJbizwire Jamie Skella WIRED Erin Griffith Phyllis Berman YPO Michael Jones Cassandra Farrington Seagram Fortune Magazine Jamie Dimon

Beach Whiskey Company Acquires American Harvest® Organic Vodka

Award-winning craft organic vodka highlights farm-to-bottle movement

I’m pleased to share our acquisition of American Harvest Organic Vodka from the Frank family. This is an incredible brand and we could not be more excited to add it to our Beach Whiskey Company portfolio. Our Beach Whiskey™ is taking off and we have had the most incredible reception from the trade including some of the most important national accounts in the industry. This is driving us to move faster and rollout nationally early. The addition of American Harvest fits perfectly with this effort as it was national and in most of the key national accounts under Sidney Frank Importing Company.


We believe the new branding (packaging) fits perfectly the farm to glass, sustainable nature of American Harvest. While the old packaging was unique, this new look, with American glass and recycled paper label, disclosing the source of all ingredients is on message. I hope you all like it.

I look forward to bringing both Beach Whiskey and American Harvest to market and to scale this year. Below is the official announcement:

The Beach Whiskey Company, a national spirits company, announced today its acquisition of American Harvest Vodka®, an American-made organic vodka, which merges the farm-to-bottle movement with the exploding craft spirits category.

American Harvest Vodka was created by the Sidney Frank Importing Company (SFIC) in 2011 and gained a strong national foothold by 2014. When SFIC was acquired by Jägermeister of Germany in 2015, the Frank family retained ownership of the brand. The sale of American Harvest to the Beach Whiskey Company returns the brand to one of its creators, Bill Henderson, now Chief Marketing Officer of Beach Whiskey.  Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“Organic and craft spirits have shown significant growth over the past five years, and Double Gold Medal-winner American Harvest has already shown its ability to stand apart from other super-premium vodkas,” said Smoke Wallin, CEO, Beach Whiskey Company. “Now is the time for a national organic craft vodka, and American Harvest Vodka fits seamlessly into the Beach Whiskey portfolio while accelerating our national growth plans. Distributors who previously carried American Harvest are eager to have it back, and this is creating additional opportunities for the Beach Whiskey portfolio.”

American Harvest is handcrafted in small batches from American wheat and distilled with 100 percent certified organic ingredients to yield a distinctly smooth spirit with a crisp, clean and slightly sweet hint of real agave. The wheat is estate grown from a single family farm, and the water is from a protected source beneath the Snake River Water basin.
“American Harvest is a brand near and dear to my heart,” said John Frank, former Chairman of Sidney Frank Importing Company and new member of the Beach Whiskey Advisory Board. “We went to incredible lengths to ensure purity from farm to bottle in creating this truly American spirit.  I’m pleased to see American Harvest in the hands of Beach Whiskey’s very capable team, and I look forward to contributing to their portfolio’s exciting growth.”

“Acquiring American Harvest made perfect sense to all of us at Beach Whiskey as we look to create value for our investors and bring innovation and a great marketing to our trading partners, “ said Andrew McGinnis, co-founder and Chairman of Beach Whiskey Company

“While craft spirits have taken off, so too are consumers becoming increasingly focused on the provenance of their food. They want to know who raises their beef and from which farm their fruits and vegetables are sourced,” said Bill Henderson, Beach Whiskey CMO. “American Harvest Vodka was created because we believe the same can and should be true for spirits.”
American Harvest Vodka (40% ABV) will be returning to shelves across the country and is expected to regain its national footprint in 2017. SRP: $24.99/750ml.

Here is a video on the American Harvest brand story… (old bottle):

American Harvest Organic Vodka Full Video Story from J. Smoke Wallin on Vimeo.

About The Beach Whiskey Company
The Beach Whiskey Company is a disruptive brand innovator in the adult beverage space that is building a portfolio of rapidly growing national brands. The Beach Whiskey portfolio includes Beach Whiskey Bonfire Cinnamon™, Beach Whiskey Island Coconut™ and American Harvest Organic Vodka®.

Beach Whiskey™ is a reimagined take on traditional whiskey. A line of smooth, clear, naturally flavored American whiskies made for sun worshiping, moon chasing, fun seekers, Beach Whiskey offers day-drinkable flavor profiles presented in sea glass-inspired bottles. No matter where you are, our mission is to bring the beach—”your place in the sun” —to thirsty, fun-loving whiskey drinkers everywhere. Please sip and swim responsibly!

American Harvest Organic Vodka® is proudly handcrafted in small batches from organic American wheat, certified organic ingredients and Snake River water.
For more information, please visit:


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