Heather Cabot

Heather Cabot at an Audible presentation for her first book, "Geek Girl."

Phoenix native Heather Cabot’s recently published book, “The New Chardonnay: The Unlikely Story of How Marijuana Went Mainstream,” unwinds the complicated story of marijuana’s road to acceptability (Currency, Aug. 2020). Written with a novel-like narrative, it weaves through the personal stories of a wide array of people Cabot encountered during the three years she researched the marijuana industry.

Starting with the first chapter, Cabot pointed out that a surprising amount of her story involves Arizona in some way. She was reminded again and again how the city — and state — of her youth has changed. On the heels of the book’s release, Arizonans will vote on Proposition 207, which would legalize adult recreational use of marijuana, and it has a realistic chance of passing. She even joked about differences in the city’s geography. On the way to interviews for the book, for instance, she sometimes got lost driving around her old stomping grounds.

Her parents still live in Phoenix, and inspired by their Jewish communal service and public service in general, Cabot is involved in her local synagogue in Rye, New York. “I’m proud that I’ve been able to follow in their footsteps in a teeny way with my small synagogue here,” she said.

Now an award-winning journalist, Cabot emphasized that her career also was inspired by her mother, Vicki Cabot. “My mom is also my number one role model in terms of journalism,” she said. “I always wanted to follow in her footsteps.”

Cabot spoke to Jewish News about her book, the surprising characters she met and how they’re navigating the potholes along the road to normalizing marijuana.

How did you get the idea for this book?

I was looking around for my next project, and there was a chapter in my first book called “Feminist Financiers,” about women angel investors and venture capitalists who were making it a priority to invest in women-led tech startups. I met a lot of women who were investing in cannabis companies. These were people that had Wall Street backgrounds and seemed straight-laced, and I could not understand why they would be investing in something that was federally illegal. It just blew my mind.

I filed that away, and I started paying attention to what I was seeing on social media and in emails, and I started making phone calls and reaching out to different investors, including a woman named Joanne Wilson who invested in a company called Octavia Wellness — known as the Mary Kay of marijuana.

It was founded by Carrie Tice, whose mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s and was in a facility suffering. One particularly rough evening, one of the aides took Carrie aside and said, “I think you should try pot drops for your mom; it might really help her.”

Carrie lived in California, so she started this kind of odyssey to figure out what products were out there, and she had to get her mom a medical card. She started to realize that it just wasn’t accessible. The end of the story is that she ultimately tries some of these products with her mom, and she got better in terms of her anxiety. She’s still suffering from Alzheimer’s, but some of these other symptoms were mitigated, so Carrie decided to start this business.

She sold pot products to retired people?

The idea was to make an older population feel more comfortable with marijuana, and she started these Mary Kay parties in a very large 55-and-over community in Northern California and started recruiting seniors to be sales reps. They would have the parties in people’s homes or in senior centers, and the focus was on the wellness side of things, like CBD products.

I did go to one of her events, and it was fascinating. I met all these older people who were there to learn about different products, and many of them were suffering from the basic aches and pains of aging. I talked to one woman who said, “I’m here because I don’t want to take Advil every day, and I want to learn about something else that might help me that is natural.” It was interesting to hear from a lot of these people who are my parents’ age.

You tell this story through characters. How did you decide which story made it into the book?

Many people could have been the main characters, and there were people I wish I’d spent more time with. I could have added more in the book, but it came down to whether someone had a story that would resonate with people beyond the cannabis audience. I wanted to choose people that had backstories that were relatable in a universal sense — like the chef Jeff.

The story is very much about him coming out as a gay man after being married. He was raised in an Orthodox Jewish community and was living an Orthodox lifestyle in New Rochelle, New York, and had three young boys. When 9/11 happened it was a watershed moment, and he decided that he couldn’t live closeted anymore. He needed to tell his family that he was gay and wasn’t happy with the way his life had gone because he wasn’t being himself.

It was this whole idea of living your truth, and he has that in terms of his sexual orientation, but also in terms of his relationship with cannabis. You find out how he ultimately comes into his own and embraces who he is and then ends up going back to his Jewish roots as well, through the process of becoming a cannabis chef.

He goes back to his childhood home, and he’s cooking for his parents who are in their 70s and are dealing with aches and pains. He starts reinventing and reimagining the recipes that his mother would make when he was a boy. He always loved to cook, and there’s a chapter called “In Bubbe’s Kitchen,” and it’s about him reimagining these recipes by infusing them with THC and CBD.

Do the problems facing the industry surprise you?

I didn’t understand how complex it was at all, and I certainly did not understand how much money it takes if you’re in the part of the business where you’re actually cultivating or manufacturing some of these derivative products or owning a retail dispensary. It is very hard to turn a profit. The taxes passed on to the customers are really high, along with all the compliance costs. So the biggest problem — I found this to be really surprising — it’s cost prohibitive for consumers who are regular customers.

You can understand why people, even though it is safer when it’s regulated, go back to their own networks from the underground. At a fancy dispensary they’re going to be paying two or three times what they would normally pay. I did not understand that at all.

These companies are really struggling. People misjudged the competitive advantage of the underground market. That continues to be a thorn in the side of the industry.

You grew up in the ’80s with Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign. What kinds of things did you learn about the culture around marijuana?

When I was in high school, I didn’t know anyone who smoked pot. Even when I went to college it wasn’t part of my world or something that people in my group did. I was really ignorant about the relationship between the war on cannabis and mass incarceration and the disproportionate targeting of communities of color related to marijuana enforcement. I just didn’t pay attention to it.

That was one of the major things I discovered working on this book. Here I am covering all these people who are making all this money, and yet there are people in the same space that are still either in jail or have records that are preventing them from getting jobs or housing. It’s unjust, and it was something that really haunted me.

The whole social justice thing really has been rewarding for me to learn about and talk to my kids about. Especially with everything going on in our country right now around race, it’s really cool to have something that I was working on that I could share with my kids, and talk to them to make it relevant and help them understand some of these bigger issues of systemic racism in our country and how drug policy fits into that.

Do you think you’ll be considered a point person in explaining the marijuana industry after writing this book?

A lot of folks speaking about this topic tend to be from the industry, and people realize I’m coming at it with a more objective eye on things and a fresh eye. There really is a lot of inside baseball stuff. It took me a year just to figure things out and understand a lot of it. There’s a lot of lingo, and unless you’re an insider you don’t understand it.

It’s been really interesting to launch a book with all of this other stuff going on and to find a way into the conversation. I wouldn’t mind talking about it because I invested a lot of time.

But I don’t really see myself using this as a jumping-off point to become a cannabis reporter. I had a lot of fun and met a lot of really interesting people and learned a lot. It was intellectually challenging and stimulating, and I met some really cool people and unexpected people. But I’m excited for a new project and challenge.

Can you envision Arizona’s Proposition 207 passing?

I can because I’ve seen how the medical program took off in Arizona, and there was a backlog of people just waiting. The program was in limbo, and there were people lining up as soon as they expanded the medical conditions to get a medical card. The number of people who were applying went up significantly. The demand was evident.

From a business point of view, the program has matured very quickly. The last time it was up for a vote in Arizona there was well-financed opposition, but this time, the people who are for it are more organized and better-financed.

People have seen that the sky hasn’t fallen in states, like Colorado, that legalized it. I think people are more comfortable with it, and it does create jobs and tax revenue.

How likely is it that partaking in marijuana will one day be as common as drinking Chardonnay for most people?

I think it’s possible, but I don’t think it will be smoking. It will be some other form that hasn’t been invented yet. We’re not there yet, because the market is so fragmented, and it really varies state by state. There are no national brands. There’s no efficiencies and there’s not even any national supply chain, and you couldn’t even build a national company because there’s no interstate commerce.

I don’t know what form it will be, whether it’ll be cannabis as a commodity or just the dried flower exported and turned into chocolates or wine. I don’t even think we know what’s going to be next. The next frontier is figuring out how to make the experiences predictable and consistent. That’s where people are, and these companies are trying to figure out. When you drink a glass of wine, you have a pretty good sense of your tolerance. But people don’t have that with cannabis.

But everybody could probably agree that the stigma is falling away, and we’re really just at the beginning. We’re in the first inning. JN

Heather Cabot will be speaking about her book during a virtual event hosted by Changing Hands Bookstore on Sept. 10, 2020, at 7 p.m.

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