Embeeay is a small-time entrepreneur, turned small-time VC, turned “Amazon of weed” CEO with no real affinity for cannabis. He laid off half his team when Covid hit, but gave himself a raise. He has a boat, a Mercedes and several other douche-y signifiers.
Of course, Embeeay (Em-Bee-Ay) doesn’t exist. He’s a straw man Puffenbarger dreamt up to illustrate some of what he doesn’t like about the state of the cannabiz. It also neatly captures some of the ongoing debate, as the industry becomes more lucrative, about who gets to participate.
Within the cannabis world, there’s endless talk of equity, support for female entrepreneurs and the benefits of the plant. But at the same time, cannabis looks increasingly like other businesses, which is to say it’s increasingly controlled by douche-y white guys. And there’s every reason to believe that a federally illegal industry with nearly endless money on the table, is going to attract some unscrupulous characters, with and without M.B.A.s.
Puffenbarger is perhaps better positioned to sound off about this than most. His new consultancy GoodHighdeas specializes in due diligence research for investors. In recent weeks the group has attracted attention on LinkedIn for Project Mongoose, a social media campaign under the hashtag #grassattractssnakes to root out bad actors in the space. (Mongooses eat snakes.)
Since Project Mongoose launched in early January, Puffenbarger says it has collected 400 stories from people who felt they’ve been maltreated and used. Project Mongoose hasn’t yet shared these stories but the plan is to publish them alongside expert commentary.
In an interview, Puffenbarger cited an example of a legacy grower hired by a multi-state operator who picked his brain for a few months, got his help with the legal gray area of sourcing genetics and then fired him. “It’s the same darn story over and over,” Puffenbarger said. “You can replace cultivation with extraction, you can replace extraction with store operations.” Just look at GlassDoor, he says, where big cannabis companies do seem to rack up more than their share of lousy employee reviews.
As Puffenbarger sees it, cannabis’ quasi-legal status seems to bring out the worst in both the legacy market and the more buttoned up culture of legal business. On the one hand you’ve got cannabinoid “broker jokers” who post on social media about moving product, but actually just know a guy who knows a guy. And on the other there are efficiently run companies that can be as ruthless as operators in any other industry.
Puffenbarger is also a sharp critic of mandatory vertical integration, which is the law of his home state of Florida. In his view (and he’s not alone), the practice ensures no one but the already rich can make money in cannabis, while protecting them from a competitive market. Unsurprisingly, states which limit the number of licenses have become among the most desirable markets for the industry’s biggest players.
What is to be done?
Everyone in cannabis has heard bromides about the culture and benefits of the plant. One microcosm of this is the ongoing social media conversation about whether one has to use cannabis to work in cannabis. But nobody polices the industry in that way, and of course as these dialogues drag on, the people making money and shaping the industry’s direction are free to ignore them.
Puffenbarger is one of relatively few people drawing attention to the predatory nature of many people in the cannabis industry. But that’s how business works. At the same time, many people say cannabis can be a model better and more sustainable corporate practices for the rest of the business world. Which wins out is largely up to the individuals populating the industry.
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