Team Green

Meet the Governor-Turned-Ganjapreneur

Gary Johnson, the one-time presidential candidate, is getting into the pot business. He thinks it could enhance a potential White House run in 2016.

Damian Dovarganes/AP

This is how mainstream the pot business has become: A former governor and presidential candidate has just signed on to be the president and CEO of a weed start-up.

Granted, that governor is Gary Johnson, the famously marijuana-friendly governor of New Mexico. But still: the move from governor to green-peddler is significant. Especially is Johnson’s new firm, Cannabis Sativa Inc., achieves his dream of becoming the “Coca-Cola” of marijuana products. Johnson will be paid $1 per year and receive equity in the company.

“Did you see Dallas Buyers Club, by chance?” Johnson asked me as we began our conversation Wednesday afternoon. His new company will be producing both recreational and medical marijuana, and so the issue of the availability of alternative medicine is understandably on his mind.

In the movie, Matthew McConaughey plays a rodeo cowboy diagnosed with AIDS. He discovers his health improves when he begins taking a drug not legal in the United States, and he starts importing and selling it. The plot, Johnson said, reminded him of children struggling with epilepsy who, it has been scientifically proven, can benefit from using certain strains of medical marijuana, like Charlotte’s Web, that are not yet legal in every state.

Johnson has long supported medical marijuana—even though he didn’t always believe it had legitimate medical benefits.

“I would like to tell you that when I was governor of New Mexico—and I’ve always backed medical marijuana—I backed it really from the standpoint that ‘OK, this is a ruse for people to get their hands on marijuana and not have to be criminally prosecuted for doing that.’ I backed that! I was behind that. But come to find out, and I’ve come to find out, that the medical applications [of marijuana] are enormous—enormous!”

Johnson cited high death rates associated with legal prescription drugs as all the more reason to provide access to marijuana, which is decidedly not deadly. “I passionately believe that marijuana does make the word better,” and in his new role as president and CEO, he hopes to help facilitate that change.

Comparing his company to Coca-Cola, Johnson said, “think of us as wanting to license thousands of bottlers to, in fact, produce and sell our product. We’re about to unveil our marketing, which will have an overarching, identifiable name for what we’re selling. We think that because of our products, we will be the Crown Royale of marijuana, we will be the Coca-Cola of marijuana…I think we have a real opportunity to establish ourselves as the creme de la creme of marijuana products.”

And Johnson isn’t all talk. He is a big fan of edibles, namely in the form of lozenges, which the company will produce. “Trying the product, a couple of things struck me: one is why would anybody smoke marijuana, given [edibles] as an alternative, and secondly, that it was very, very pleasant.” Johnson said the drug “brings clarity” to him. “For me, it’s like rearranging the library. It’s like putting the books in order.”

(But, he assured me, he’s not some slacker stoner. He claims to have only used the products about a dozen times over the last few years).

Johnson said he “grew up smoking marijuana” after first trying it at 17, and eventually grew tired of inhaling, which made the edibles so attractive. “I have an aversion to smoking. I think there’s something wrong with it, so I don’t smoke pot. But here it is, you can suck on a lozenge.”

Asked if he had ever had a bad reaction to edibles, Johnson said, “No. Did you read the Maureen Dowd story? This is stuff that really needs to be researched…She consumed 120 milligrams, and I want to say that a really stiff dose—a dose that probably shouldn’t be exceeded—would be 20 milligrams, and she consumed 120. Equate that to alcohol: Instead of having a margarita, she had the whole glass filled with tequila.”

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Johnson admitted that he had not actually read the column, he’d just heard about it, which explains why he thought Dowd would drink tequila and not Chardonnay. Nevertheless, Johnson advised those thinking about edibles to “absolutely, absolutely” exercise more caution than that reckless Dowd: “go low, go slow” with dosages, he said.

In 2011, Johnson announced he would be running for the Republican nomination for president. He eventually withdrew to run for the Libertarian nomination, which he won. He went on to receive less than 1% of the vote in the general election.

But Johnson said his new gig doesn’t mean he is ruling out 2016. “I would like to run for president, and that still remains a possibility.” Asked how voters would respond to the president of a marijuana company running for president of the United States, he said, “I hope it’s an attention-getter.”

Johnson laughed when asked which politicians he believes would benefit from trying some weed. “You’re assuming that none of them do it. And that’s the hypocrisy…The point is, I think a lot of them are doing it right now. How many acknowledge that? None. Zero. None of them!” Johnson said he had not tried marijuana in the company of other politicians.

Asked who was most hypocritical on the issue, Johnson said “Rush Limbaugh taking illegally obtained, legal prescription drugs…I think, for the most part, he denounces every illicit drugs including marijuana.” But, Johnson added, “I don’t know if that’s really the case.”