Michael Huttner has a résumé that extends far beyond cannabis, but his career will be forever linked to the plant. The lawyer, founder of ProgressNow, former Westword intern (back when he was in high school) and political strategist was part of early decriminalization efforts in Denver, years before Colorado legalized cannabis. After stints in New York, the Denver native’s career circled back home two years ago.
In 2017, Huttner launched Powerplant Strategies, a cannabis public relations and investment firm, and now represents Vicente Sederberg, Pax, Viceland and the National Cannabis Industry Association, among other influential pot-related brands. Huttner is also a longtime friend of Governor Jared Polis, for whom Huttner managed several campaigns before Polis ran for governor.
To learn more about Denver’s pot-activism history and what’s in store for cannabis politics and financing, we chatted with Huttner about his past, present and future.
Westword: Your history with legal cannabis dates back to Denver’s decriminalization efforts in 2005. What made you jump into this skunky, embattled world?
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Michael Huttner: During my time as a CEO, corporate and political strategist, attorney and entrepreneur, I’ve met so many different types of people who have benefited from cannabis’s medicinal value, along with other people whose lives were ruined by outdated laws. I wanted to use my skills to help the movement, the people and the better businesses, startups and associations operating in it.
In January 2010, I convened a small group of drug reform and policy leaders in Colorado, and we laid out a blueprint for how Colorado could become the first state to decriminalize cannabis in the country. Two years later, Colorado voters approved Amendment 64, which legalized adult use of cannabis in Colorado and became the model for states across the country.
Jumping into the cannabis industry continues to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be part of something extremely impactful, like helping to minimize the impacts of our country’s opioids crisis, improve patients’ and veterans’ quality of life, and help businesses in one of the fastest-growing industries in the world.
How have cannabis advocacy and legalization efforts changed since then, or after the first domino fell in 2012?
We are seeing the legitimization of a movement that has been fought over the course of decades — and one that didn’t happen overnight. Today, ten states have legalized full adult use, and cannabis is legal in 33 states for medical purposes.
The conversation is shifting, and, naturally, so are the policies and politics. More people are taking part in the conversation and coming out of the shadows, which is helping move the effort and industry forward. This is an important part of de-stigmatizing the movement, which is also helping to change the conversation when it comes to how we look at our nation’s opioids crisis or issues like compassionate care.
Global companies, along with ultra-high-net-worth investors and family offices, are moving into this space — a clear sign that the times are changing. As the cannabis industry continues to mature, our advocacy, approaches, corporate governance and the way we strategically think through issues must also continually evolve, and I think that’s what is happening now.
You have a long friendship with Governor Jared Polis. What’s it been like to see him rise politically, and how do you think his cannabis reform efforts have impacted his career trajectory?
I could not be more excited for Governor Polis and his partner and Colorado’s First Gentleman, Marlon Reis, and their family.
As a public leader, Governor Polis has been a strong champion for the cannabis industry from long before it was popular. As an example, in January of 2011, then-Congressman Polis launched the Fearless Campaign to take on issues that most members of Congress were afraid to address. For the launch, we created buttons that stated “I support Marriage-juana” to help capture his vision. His leadership on legalization of same-sex marriage and marijuana then was well ahead of the times.
His 2012 questioning of the head of the DEA on cannabis policy is a must-see; and, in 2017, he co-founded the Cannabis Congressional Caucus. During his recent successful campaign for Governor, I worked with him and his team to further develop relationships with grasstops and grassroots supporters from across the industry — more than any campaign in Colorado history.
On a personal note, Jared has been and continues to be one of my closest friends for over twenty years. I am fortunate to have run his first campaign for office, the State Board of Education in 2000 — where we won in a recount by ninety votes out of 1.6 million. In 2003, Jared helped me start ProgressNow, and he also is the godfather of my twelve-year-old son.
From the time I tried — and failed — to talk him out of first running for Congress in early 2007, I have learned to never underestimate Jared. Jared has the power of the Secret. When Jared gets an idea, he — more than anyone I have ever known — turns his ideas into reality.
How do you think the Colorado cannabis landscape will change under his leadership?
Governor Polis and his savvy chief of staff, Lisa Kaufmann, have brought together a top-notch team who are already working tirelessly to find solutions to problems facing Colorado. Governor Polis will sign the cannabis bills that our former governor vetoed, which will expand medical use as well as out-of-state investment into Colorado, and I have no doubt he will succeed in his plans to make Colorado the national leader for the hemp industry. With the recent passage of the Farm Bill, there are numerous opportunities and jobs for rural Colorado communities.
After founding ProgressNow, you’ve now branched out with public-relations work for several high-profile cannabis companies and organizations, and you’re working in the cannabis investment space. How has the plant changed your career path?
I launched Powerplant Strategies as a communications and public affairs firm focused on investments in the cannabis industry in 2016. We are working with some of the largest cannabis companies and organizations in the world. As a Denver native now living in Boulder, I am lucky that I do not need to move to Washington, D.C., or New York to be in the middle of this industry — as Colorado continues to be a world leader on how to successfully legalize and regulate cannabis.
What are some myths about cannabis investment and finance? What about some issues or obstacles in the way of cannabis investing that traditional industries don’t face?
There are great opportunities in the cannabis industry for investors that span everything from publicly traded companies, like Harvest Health & Recreation (CSE: HARV), to funds like Merida Capital Partners and private investment opportunities. I view cannabis as the newest form of impact investing — not only are there huge potential returns, but investors are also helping people with medical needs, and places like Pueblo, Colorado, are the first community in the world to provide a cannabis-funded scholarship to every graduating high school senior.
While we anticipate market volatility in the near future, that is to be expected. Danny Moses, featured in Michael Lewis’s book, The Big Short, has called the cannabis industry “The Big Long,” and I think for good reason. With any new industry, there are both big risks and rewards, so investors should be cautious, but also optimistic.
As for learning the issues on cannabis investing, I’ve had the good fortune to work with the cannabis attorneys at Vicente Sederberg, the investment bankers and brokers at Young America Capital, and also with the founders of Green Table Global, who organize amazing cannabis investor dinners across the country (their next dinner is in Aspen in early March). For those who do their homework or are in a position to work with an investment bank, trusted family office or funds with experience in the space, the benefits far outweigh the risks.
In terms of the challenges, the most obvious is that cannabis remains federally illegal, which presents real challenges for businesses trying to raise capital or obtain financing. Another hurdle is a provision in the federal tax code known as 280E, which states that a company engaging in a Schedule I controlled substance (which still includes cannabis) is barred from taking standard business deductions. These are some of the major hurdles we still have to overcome. My team and I are helping crucial advocacy organizations like the Cannabis Trade Federation, the Marijuana Policy Project and Students for Sensible Drug Policy tackle these challenges.
Where do you see America’s cannabis industry in five years? Will it still be a patchwork of individual states and industries?
Over time we will have federal legalization with various state approaches, just like we see in the alcohol industry today. Here in Colorado, I predict that cannabis sales will outpace alcohol sales within ten years.
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The thing to remember is that this industry is not just moving in the U.S. While we may see state laws on the books, the model is moving toward interstate commerce and international commerce. We just saw Canada fully legalize cannabis last November, and others around the world are looking to do the same. The U.S., and specifically Colorado, will be in a strong position, as we have many of the most experienced operators and best-quality products in the entire world.
What are some issues today in legal cannabis that aren’t being covered enough?
It is no secret that the current laws on the books have been proven to be racially biased, and that there are racial disparities among cannabis arrests. We need to take a hard look at social-equity issues, start implementing more policies that correct the wrongs and injustices that are driving these issues, and have more candid, open discussions about how we honestly address them.
As an industry, we need to see more corporate governance, transparency and training — not only at publicly traded companies, but within the entire industry. As a heavily regulated industry that is still federally illegal, we have a responsibility to implement sound best practices that help legitimize the sectors — for others and ourselves.