At San Francisco's annual TechCrunch Disrupt conference on Monday, rapper Snoop Dogg unveiled a media company that will provide users with "all they need to know" about pot. "It gives me proud honor to say that Merry Jane will be the door to bring people out of the closet, because there's so many people in the closet right now," he told a standing-room-only crowd. "Just admit it. I'm a smoker. My name is Snoop Dogg and I'm a stoner."
TechCrunch reporter Jordan Crook, Snoop's interviewer, turned to the sea of attendees: "Who enjoys smoking, uh, marijuana?"
A few hands shot up.
"It's okay, it's okay," Snoop said. "We gonna figure out a way to get you out of that closet."
"The motto is: Don't ask for permission; ask for forgiveness. That is going to be no different with cannabis."
The geek gathering famously lampooned in Mike Judge's Silicon Valley might seem like a weird place for a rapper to unveil a pot business, especially one that isn't doing much of anything that's technologically innovative. But for pot and tech entrepreneurs alike, the relationship makes perfect sense. "Disrupt is really mostly for investors, and I think they can no longer ignore investors and their interest in cannabis," Brandon Davis, the host of the interview program Investing in Cannabis, told me when I ran into him on the conference floor.
In January, Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, best known for its early investments in Facebook and Airbnb, invested $75 million in Privateer Holdings, a holding company for pot businesses. The following month, Justin Tan, the founder of the $1 billion tech startup Twitch.TV, enthused about the cannabis sector during a marijuana investment conference at San Francisco's posh Fairmont Hotel. Tan's Y-Combinator fund has invested in Meadow, the Uber of medical cannabis delivery.
The allure of pot for tech investors is as much financial as cultural. As Stanford communications professor Fred Turner points out in his book, From Counterculture to Cyberculture, the Bay Area's techie and hippie cultures have a long history of cross-fertilization—just consider geodesic domes, the Whole Earth Catalog, and Apple's countercultural marketing campaigns. Though marijuana isn't a tech product, pot-related businesses jibe with the Valley's love for outsiders and outlaws like Airbnb and Uber, both of which have succeeded by violating existing regulations. "The motto is: Don't ask for permission; ask for forgiveness," Davis points out. "That is going to be no different with cannabis."
And then there's the money factor. Investing in the pot sector helps angel investors hedge against a tech bust. And by positioning themselves as tech companies that provide services to pot growers without touching the plant, cannabis businesses can court investors who might be reluctant to invest more directly in a product that remains illegal in most of the United States.
"This year just seemed like a tipping point of sorts for marijuana companies, especially with regulation and legalization deadlocks showing signs of thawing."
Not to say it's an easy relationship. At the Disrupt NY conference in May, TechCruch interviewed Privateer's Brendan Kennedy onstage and featured the online "cannabis community" MassRoots in the exhibitor space known as Startup Alley. Businesses in the alley compete through votes from conference watchers for the right to become a "wild card" entry in the Startup Battlefield, where they can jockey for prize money and attention from brand-name investors. Although MassRoots, which is basically Facebook for stoners, won enough votes to put it in the running for the Battlefield, TechCruch's top editor, Matthew Panzarino, selected a different company. According to MassRoots CEO Isaac Dietrich, Panzarino told him that his company, which has 500,000 users, was "not significant." "I think they wanted to present a certain image of the cannabis community, a very scripted and polished image," Dietrich says, "whereas we're the true cannabis community."
Panzarino declined to comment on the incident but pointed out that, at this week's Disrupt event, two cannabis companies had already been selected to compete in the Startup Battlefield. "We do our best to include companies that represent nascent trends every year," he says. "This year just seemed like a tipping point of sorts for marijuana companies, especially with regulation and legalization deadlocks showing signs of thawing."
One of the two pot companies in the Battlefield, Leaf, manufactures a sleek, self-contained hydroponics system that looks like something from the Apple store. An accompanying smartphone app can select optimum light, water, and nutrient levels for particular pot strains at the touch of the button, streams live or time-lapse video of the grow from a built-in camera, and can even download and sync growing conditions employed by other users. Leaf CEO and cofounder Yoni Ofir envisions making money on the $1,500 device the same way Hewlett-Packard makes money on printers: by selling refill cartridges—but for plant nutrients instead of printer ink.
Ofir, who is based in Colorado and has a background in software and hardware, believes the interest in Leaf from people at the conference is more than merely professional. "I believe that at least 80 percent of the creative or technical people in this room consume cannabis," he told me as dorky-looking guys with oversized name tags milled past his booth. "But, you know, this is not a cannabis conference."
If anyone won Wednesday's GOP debate, it was probably former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who gained the most in Twitter followers, Google searches, and media chatter by positioning herself as a steadier, smarter, more mature alternative to Donald Trump. Fiorina's responses on everything from Russia to immigration and abortion seemed to project confidence and a knowledge of the issues. And she was the only candidate who managed to hit Trump with a solid punch, framing his comments about her looks as a subtle indictment of his attitude toward women.
But there's a problem with Fiorina's bid to become a Trump slayer: She and Trump may actually have too much in common.
To be sure, it doesn't matter (and may even help) that Fiorina is, like Trump, a wealthy businessperson with no experience in elected office—assuming she can position herself as a business leader with a real grasp of the issues. Yet that might be easier said than done.
Consider Fiorina's seemingly intelligent response to how she would get the Russians out of Syria:
What I would do, immediately, is begin rebuilding the Sixth Fleet. I would begin rebuilding the missile defense program in Poland, I would conduct regular, aggressive military exercises in the Baltic states. I'd probably send a few thousand more troops into Germany. Vladimir Putin would get the message. By the way, the reason it is so critically important that every one of us know General Suleimani's name is because Russia is in Syria right now, because the head of the Quds Force traveled to Russia and talked Vladimir Putin into aligning themselves with Iran and Syria to prop up Bashar al-Assad.
Contrasted with Trump's rambling, specifics-free answer to that question, her message was clear: I know what I'm talking about. But does she? Here's Ezra Klein's dissection on Vox:
The Sixth Fleet is already huge, and it's hard to say why adding to its capabilities would intimidate Putin—after all, America has enough nuclear weapons pointed at Russia to level the country thousands of times over. Her proposal for more military exercises in the Baltics seemed odd in light of the fact that President Obama is already conducting military exercises in the Baltics. And the US already has around 40,000 troops stationed in Germany, so it's hard to say what good "a few thousand" more would do. And pushing on a missile defense system in Poland is a very long-term solution to a very current problem. In total, Fiorina's laundry list of proposals sure sounded like a plan, but on inspection, it's hard to see why any of them would convince Putin to change course.
Klein found similar inconsistencies in Fiorina's discussion of immigration and Planned Parenthood.
So Fiorina is more stylistically than substantively a wonk, and maybe she can get away with that for a while. But given that she has called Trump an an "entertainer" and a "clown," it might not help that she is politically best known in California as, well, a bit of a laughingstock. During her 2010 bid to win California's GOP Senate primary and take on Sen. Barbara Boxer, she commissioned what may be the world's most bizarre campaign ad—viral for all the wrong reasons.
Even before her 2010 campaign against Boxer could get off the ground, it was poleaxed by the revelation that she had failed to cast a ballot in 75 percent of the California elections for which she was an eligible voter. She missed presidential primaries in 2000 and 2004, and the primary and general elections in 2006, including a Senate reelection run by Democrat Dianne Feinstein. She skipped the primary and general elections in 2002, a gubernatorial election year, as well as the historic recall vote that brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governor's seat.
At the time, Fiorina lamely explained that she had "felt disconnected from the decisions made in Washington" and "didn't think my vote mattered." Yet, as Hiltzik noted at the time, HP spent $4.7 million on Fiorina's watch to lobby Congress and made $390,000 in political donations. Fiorina clearly believes in the political system—just not the one regular people have to use.
And maybe that's okay, at least in the GOP primary. After all, Trump was unapologetic during the debate when Jeb Bush challenged him over his past donations to Democrats. It's just part of being a successful businessman, he insisted. Another CEO candidate could have thrown Trump's comments back at him by noting that he actually isn't very successful at all—as Kevin Drum has pointed out, Trump would have probably been wealthier than he is today had he simply taken his inheritance and put it in an index fund.
But Fiorina isn't the best person to land that punch. As David Corn notes, her track record at HP was only slightly better than pathetic:
In February 2005, she was pushed out of HP. The company's board, with which she had been battling for years, had had enough of her. The Compaq merger had not yielded the benefits—improved shareholder returns and greater profits—she had promised. At the time of her dismissal, Hewlett-Packard stock was trading at about the same price as when she first unveiled the Compaq deal. Eighty percent of the company's operating profits were coming from its old-line printing business. She had not succeeded in reviving HP as a computer-selling powerhouse. The day she was dumped, the company's stock price rose 7 percent. That was Wall Street exclaiming, Hooray. As Robert Cihra, an analyst with Fulcrum Global Partners toldMoney magazine, "The stock is up a bit on the fact that nobody liked Carly's leadership all that much. The Street had lost all faith in her and the market's hope is that anyone will be better."
None of this means that Fiorina wouldn't make a better president than Trump. But if she really is the best person to knock him off his pedestal, the GOP may be in real trouble.
California just did it again. The state that in 1996 became the first in the nation to legalize medical marijuana has once more taken the lead in marijuana policy, this time by passing a groundbreaking set of bills that could make the Golden State's huge and largely unregulated pot industry a national model for environmental and social responsibility.
For nearly 20 years, California has been unique among states for its hands-off approach. While authorizing consumption and cultivation of medical cannabis, the state's medical marijuana ballot initiative, Proposition 215, had virtually nothing to say about how pot should be grown or by whom. The result was a boon to California's backwoods pot farmers. The small-time hippie growers in Northern California's "Emerald Triangle" could supply legitimate medical marijuana patients and use Prop 215 as cover to grow and export black-market weed to other states.
For a while, California's Wild West pot economy made nearly everyone but the feds pretty happy. It supplied high-grade pot to whomever wanted it, undermined the Mexican drug cartels, and lured a lot of redwood loggers into a more sustainable profession. But it turns out a state really can overdose on weed. What had been a cottage industry quickly became a "green rush" that has, as I've reported previously, decimated forests and salmon streams.
The legislation paves the way for Humboldt and Mendocino pot to be marketed in the same way as "Napa" and "Sonoma" wines.
The Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act, which passed on Friday, promises to change that, but in a way that is uniquely Californian—which is to say, uniquely awesome. Whereas every other medical-marijuana state treats growing pot as a hazardous industrial activity, relegating it to warehouses or strictly guarded enclosures, California will basically regulate pot like any other crop, albeit with a few additional tracking and labeling requirements. That means the Emerald Triangle pretty much gets to keep doing its thing, while following the same environmental and safety rules that apply to growers of strawberries or pinot grapes.
"It's pretty groundbreaking," says Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, the region's pot-farming trade group. He's particularly stoked that the new bills outlaw vertically integrated marijuana conglomerates (opposite to the approach many states have taken). The legislation also caps cultivation permits at one acre for outdoor growers and half an acre for indoor growers—policies intended to ensure that the industry remains in the hands of small farmers.
But that's not all. The bills put California in the business of creating and regulating cannabis appellations, meaning that Humboldt and Mendocino pot could soon be marketed in the same way as "Napa" and "Sonoma" wines. They authorize the state to certify medical marijuana as organic (but only if the National Organic Program gives its blessing). And they require licensees with 20 or more employees to abide by a "labor peace agreement" that upholds the rights of workers to unionize.
"We did better than we expected, quite frankly," says Hezekiah Allen, director of the Emerald Growers Association.
Down the road, California's classification of pot as an agricultural product may open the door to marijuana sales at state-regulated farmers markets and marijuana research at state-funded agricultural universities like the University of California-Davis, whose scientists could use their expertise to breed new strains. "We did better than we expected, quite frankly," says Allen, who played a key role in negotiating the deal. "We were able to push things further in a year than we ever thought possible."
Pot growers, however, are decidedly mixed about all of this. For one, the state's regulatory and tracking system will likely crimp the black market by making it much harder for farmers to export their product. "There are going to be a lot of businesses that are not going to be able to make the transition," Allen says. "There are some that are violently lashing out against it. I certainly have taken my fair share of threats. This is the strongest possible structure to build on, but this transition isn't going to come easy."
Then again, when the changes are in place, people may finally be able to smoke pot without being paranoid about what it's been sprayed with or whether it's wiping out furry critters and making rivers run dry.
If you can't believe that Donald Trump is still the GOP front-runner, then consider this: America has elected the likes of The Donald before. There are, deep in our history, plenty of men who brazenly exploited nativist sentiments to win the White House or strengthen their grip on the office. Here are five US presidents who, if they lived today, might, in Trump's words, "make America great again."
Adams was no Trump. America's "big deal" 18th century legal scholar and Founding Father would have been worth, in today's dollars, only $19 million. And he never even mastered the comb-over. But when it comes to making BOLD political moves while socking it to our enemies abroad, the second president puts Trump to shame. Determined to quash the immigrant vote, which mainly benefited Jeffersonian Republicans, Adams and his Federalist allies in Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The bills lengthened the period of residency required for citizenship from 5 to 14 years and authorized the president to deport foreigners considered dangerous. One bill, the Alien Enemies Act, would later serve as the legal basis for detaining Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Nativists weren't always the kind of people who attended tea party rallies and watched Fox News. In the early 1900s, some of the strongest opposition to immigration came from the labor unions that helped usher Theodore Roosevelt into the White House. In his first Congressional address, Roosevelt called for requiring immigrants to meet a "certain standard of economic fitness" and pass a literacy test—a measure that would effectively exclude many Southern and Eastern Europeans. After meeting stiff congressional resistance, Roosevelt brokered a compromise that established an immigrant head tax of $4 and created the Dillingham Commission, an investigative panel stacked with nativist legislators. Its reports accused Southern and Eastern European immigrants of displacing native workers, living in crowded and unclean housing, and performing poorly in school. Unlike Trump, however, Roosevelt never signed a GOP loyalty pledge. Instead, he left the Republican Party in 1912 and formed his own.
Woodrow Wilson never had the guts to accuse immigrants of being rapists, but he did call them low energy. His History of the American People, published in 1901, complained that most immigrants to the United States no longer came from "the sturdy stocks of the North of Europe," but rather from places like southern Italy, Hungary, and Poland, where "there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence." But when those comments became an issue during his 1912 presidential race, Wilson backpedaled and earnestly courted immigrant groups—or the European ones, anyway. Like most other national candidates at the time, he remained staunchly opposed to immigration from Japan and China. "We cannot make a homogenous population out of a people who do not blend with the Caucasian race," he said. "Oriental coolieism will give us another race problem to solve and surely we have had our lesson."
Before "Make America Great Again," there was "America First!"—the slogan that in 1920 swept Harding and his fellow Republicans to power on a platform of curtailing a tide of immigrants from politically unstable parts of Europe. Harding signed the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, effectively cutting in half the number of immigrants admitted into the United States. The act also favored immigrant groups from Northern European countries while steeply limiting immigration from other parts of the world. "I don't know much about Americanism," Harding later said, "but it's a damn good word with which to carry an election."
Hoover proved that rich guys with no experience in elected office can become president and that America can be for Americans. At the dawn of the Great Depression, he issued an executive order calling for the "strict enforcement" of a clause of the Immigration Act that barred the admission of immigrants who were "likely to become a public charge." Turning away virtually all working-class immigrants, his administration slashed legal immigration from 242,000 people in 1931 to 36,000 the following year. And Hoover stepped up raids on the homes and workplaces of undocumented immigrants, causing more than 121,000 people, most of them from Mexico, to leave the United States. Hoover touted his record on immigration during the 1932 election, but it ultimately wasn't enough to keep him from getting thrown out of office by a bunch of LOSERS who had been FIRED.
No company right now elicits a wider range of emotions than Uber. The on-demand ride service has grown in six short years from an idea hatched by a couple of San Francisco tech bros to a $50 billion juggernaut that serves millions of users in 290 cities. Its name has not only become a verb, like that of Xerox or Google, but shorthand for an entire industry. Now an army of start-ups offers quick, cheap delivery of goods and services—everything from maids and mechanics to pizza and pot—by independent contractors tethered to smartphone apps. If you live in a major city, earn decent money, and know how to punch buttons on your phone, then you can thank Uber and its ilk for making your life a hell of a lot easier.
But that world as we know it may soon come to an end.
On Tuesday, a federal judge in San Francisco awarded class-action status to a lawsuit in which three Uber drivers contend they are employees, not independent contractors. If they win the lawsuit, the driversmust be reimbursed by the company for gas, workers compensation, and other benefits. Uber has said losing the suit, which could involve 15,000 of its former drivers, might force it to fundamentally rethink its business model. And maybe that's exactly what needs to happen.
Uber has disrupted not just powerful taxi monopolies but also a sizeable swath of the American middle class. By flooding city streets with gypsy cabs operating under the guise of a "ride sharing" service, Uber evaded regulators, delighted consumers, and put an end to what had once been a passable way to make a living. In San Francisco, for instance, the cabbie who leads the city's Taxi Drivers Association reported last year that his take-home pay from driving had dropped by 50 percent. Lured over to Uber by recruitment ads promising $40 an hour, many professional drivers eventually found that after paying for gas, maintenance costs, and Uber's cut of the profits, they ultimately made less than minimum wage.
The system used by Uber and its imitators is often called the "1099 economy." The people who work for these companies don't file W-2 tax forms; instead, they file the independent-contractor form, the 1099-MISC. The benefits of using 1099 contractors are obvious. You only have to pay contractors for the time they spend providing services, not for lunch breaks or vacation time. You need not provide health benefits, unemployment insurance, or retirement plans. And contract workers don't even need to be fired if they screw up, since they were never formally employed by you to begin with. You simply boot them from your app and move on.
Tech start-ups didn't invent the 1099 economy, but they've dramatically expanded it. Most companies that market themselves as "Uber for __" use independent contractors, including some that are backed by tens of millions in venture capital. The dozens of 1099 start-ups in the Bay Area include Washio (Uber for laundry); Eaze (Uber for marijuana); Handy (Uber for handymen); and Spoonrocket, Postmates, and DoorDash (Uber for food).
Last year, Kevin Roose, then a writer for New York, hired a house cleaner through Homejoy, a company backed by $40 million in venture capital funding from well-respected firms such as Google Ventures. Roose asked him where he lived. "Well, right now I'm staying in a shelter in Oakland," he said. It turned out that he was homeless, as were other Homejoy cleaners used by Roose's friends. (In July, Homejoy shut down, citing lawsuits brought by cleaners who claimed they were misclassified as independent contractors).
Most 1099 start-ups insist their approach is better for workers. They're typically allowed to set their own hours and, in the words of Steven Hsaio, the CEO of SpoonRocket, to become "their own entrepreneurs." Such flexibility and autonomy might be ideal for students, artists, and anyone else looking to earn a few extra bucks in their free time, but it's hard to see how it benefits people for whom such work is the sole means of making a living.
"If we want to live in a country where you can have a job and work 9 to 5 and have that be enough, then maybe we want to think about what these business models are doing to the larger economy," Veena Dubal, an expert on the "sharing economy," said recently on a San Francisco radio show.
"In the taxi industry, which Uber has effectively been trying to replace, at some point not too long ago, you had workers who were able to do this professionally," said Dubal, an associate professor at the University of California-Hastings College of Law. "There's something to be said for this work being professional labor and for people being able to support their families and send their kids to college and buy homes."
In fact, a backlash against the 1099 economy is well underway. Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that 2,300 FedEx delivery drivers in California were being misclassified as independent contractors since FedEx exercised broad control over their schedules and methods. And in June, the California Labor Commissioner sided with an Uber driver who challenged his classification as an independent contractor, ruling that the company had acted like an employer by maintaining substantial control over workers' behavior. Uber is appealing the ruling.
If Uber is forced to revamp its business model, it could spell the end of the low-cost service economy that many affluent urban consumers have come to take for granted—and a few venture capitalists might get slightly less rich. But on balance, the change will put the economy on a more sustainable track. Service workers might have a better shot at earning a living wage. And consumers will still be able to order $13 grilled Hawaiian tuna at the click of a button.
Several thriving on-demand start-ups, among them Munchery (a competitor to SpoonRocket) and Alfred (a competitor to Homejoy) treat their workers as employees and offer full-timers benefits such as health care. Others that had previously used independent contractors, such as BloomThat (Uber for flowers), Shyp (Uber for packages), and Luxe (Uber for valet parking), have recently made the switch.*
None of this means the gig economy is going away, of course. There will always be people like my friend James, a self-employed childrens' book illustrator who has long delivered pizzas to help pay the bills. Lured by Uber's recruitment ads, James bought a four-door Mini Cooper last spring and went to work shuttling people around. But he quickly discovered he was only making about $12 an hour, not including wear and tear on his car. So in February, James gave up the Uber gig and went back to working for the same old-school San Francisco pizza joint—where he's classified as an employee, meaning he gets reimbursed for gas.
"A lot of people are treating Uber like a full-time job but are not getting anything from it," he says. "I was often making twice as much delivering pizza as I was working for Uber."
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Shyp and BloomThat use independent contractors. BloomThat now uses W2 employees and Shyp is in the process of making the transition. Mother Jones regrets the oversight.