How a Jewish Business School Drop-Out Created a Marijuana Empire
It’s just an ordinary afternoon at Weedmaps headquarters, and Justin Hartfield, the company’s clean-cut CEO, is waiting for another potential investor to arrive.
Hartfield is 31 and boyish with black glasses, close-cropped dark hair and an easy smile. He could be a management consultant or a CPA if he weren’t sitting in his office in a black leather armchair, wearing khaki shorts and bright turquoise flip-flops.
He is drinking a porter beer from a custom-made tankard, and as he explains more about today’s billionaire visitor, the dark liquid empties to reveal the head of a bright-green alien poking up from the glass.
Hartfield says VIP guests are a regular occurrence these days, as politicians, venture capitalists, private equity types and entrepreneurs drop by to kick the tires on the cannabis industry, which in California alone was estimated last year to be worth about $1.2 billion.
Hartfield launched Weedmaps in 2007 at the age of 23, just as he was beginning an MBA at the University of California, Irvine. He dropped out a couple of years later to dedicate himself to Weedmaps full time.
As Hartfield explained to me a day earlier, he was already getting schooled in finance and accounting from his business life. And besides, what could he learn from a bunch of professors who were earning so much less than he was?
“I was just like, f—k this man,” Hartfield said, laughing. “I’m getting too rich for this shit.”
Weedmaps is a kind of Yelp for cannabis. About 4 million people use the website and app each month to find marijuana retailers as well as to review stores, menus, prices and strains.
Hartfield declined to reveal the company’s finances, but last year he told reporters that revenues were $30 million. Weedmaps has only grown since then.
In recent years, the legalization of marijuana in Colorado and Washington has grabbed national attention. But California is the hub of America’s marijuana industry, and Weedmaps, with its base in Irvine, a suburb of Los Angeles, is one of the industry’s most influential players. Don’t let the flip-flops fool you.
Earlier this year, Hartfield announced that Weedmaps was donating $1 million to establish a referendum committee and a political action committee to push for marijuana legalization in California in the 2016 election.
Hartfield says he has big donors lined up for the ensuing political campaign, though he won’t yet reveal who they are. “Some of the biggest names, the biggest billionaires in California, want this to pass,” he said. “They really do. It’s awesome.”
For Hartfield, marijuana is not just an entrepreneurial pursuit — it’s a social justice issue. He wants to stop what he sees as the unnecessary criminalization of hundreds of thousands of people. And he believes that marijuana is a medical miracle that is being needlessly withheld from patients.
But Hartfield’s financial incentive for legalization is also clear. If the measure is successful, Hartfield believes it could set off a marijuana boom in California similar to the region’s wine industry.
“You are talking about a $10 billion industry just in California,” Hartfield said.
Though Hartfield is prone to exaggeration, that figure could be conservative.
California is by far the largest cannabis producer in the country. One cannabis farmer from Northern California’s so-called Emerald Triangle, recently estimated that the wholesale crop in Mendocino County is worth between $2.6 billion and $5.4 billion.
On the retail end, Southern California has seen a proliferation of delivery services and medical marijuana dispensaries. Hartfield says there are about 1,800 dispensaries in and around Los Angeles, which is almost half of the approximately 5,000 dispensaries nationwide.
If Hartfield is nervous about his meeting with the billionaire, he doesn’t show it. As Hartfield told me, irreverence is baked into Weedmaps’ DNA.
Hartfield also draws confidence from his Jewish heritage. He never identified with the religious or spiritual aspects of Judaism. But in recent years, he has embraced what he sees as a Jewish talent for business — something that has come to form the foundation of his Jewish identity. As he explained it to me, “I had to own my Jewishness before I got good at business.”
Hartfield is excited by other Jews — or “J-Boys” as he referred to them in front of me. When I emailed him to request an interview earlier this summer, he called me within a couple of days to say that he would be glad to speak to me. “For my fellow Jews — any time,” he said.
When it looks like the billionaire is ready for the meeting, Hartfield springs from his chair and walks out of the office to a conference room. He is the youngest person at the table by about 15 years.
After giving the billionaire and his associates a quick rundown of his company’s business model — I agreed to keep the investor’s identity and the discussions confidential because this was a preliminary meeting — Hartfield takes him on a tour of the building.
The 44,000-square-foot office is light and airy, with white pillars and walls and high ceilings that reveal exposed white-painted pipes and air ducts. The staff dress code is mostly shorts and flip-flops, with the occasional nod toward sneakers and jeans.
Hartfield leads his guests past a golf simulator and a long kitchen bar equipped with free drinks and snacks, and into Weedmaps’ TV studio. At the center of the studio is a long table covered with marijuana samples, lighters, vaporizers, blow torches and rigs — a type of bong — of different shapes, colors and sizes.
Pot smoking has changed a lot since you were in college. Although many people still roll joints, vaporizing has become increasingly popular. Some people vaporize the cannabis plant, but Hartfield prefers a concentrated cannabis oil known as a dab.
If a joint is the cannabis equivalent of a beer, then a dab is similar to a shot of vodka or whiskey.
While the average joint today contains about 25% THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis, dabs range from 70% to 90% THC. (Joints from the 1960s? They were about 2% THC.)
Hartfield said that dabs, which look like a type of honey-colored resin, account for about 50% of sales at some of the biggest California dispensaries. Users take a small dab of the resin and vaporize it. A single hit is the equivalent to smoking an entire joint in a matter of seconds.
Hartfield’s dab of choice, Hardcore OG, costs $1,600 an ounce. He can burn through an ounce of that in about three weeks.
Each week, Weedmaps TV broadcasts reviews of marijuana plants and concentrates, products and paraphernalia on a YouTube channel that has 134,000 subscribers.
But Hartfield explains to the potential investor that his business is about much more than just dispensary ratings.
In the coming months, Weedmaps will launch an online store for vendors to display cannabis products and to sell ancillary marijuana products such as T-shirts and baseball caps.
Hartfield has always been careful to remain at arm’s length from growing, refining or selling cannabis — what insiders refer to as “touching the plant.”
But his dream is to sell marijuana directly to the public. He bought the domain marijuana.com in 2011 and hopes to one day turn it into “the Amazon of weed.”
Through a holding company called Ghost Group, Hartfield also owns two companies that make point-of-sale software used by cannabis dispensaries in the United States and in Spain.
Hartfield leads the investor to Weedmaps’ second floor, where teams of salespeople negotiate listings and fees with dispensaries. Hartfield says more than 95% of America’s delivery services and dispensaries list on Weedmaps, paying anywhere from $295 to thousands of dollars per month to appear on the site.
When the tour is over, Hartfield leads the investor to his office. There are cardboard boxes on the floor and posters of classic Porsche cars and marijuana on the wall. In one corner is a table covered in turtle figurines, Hartfield’s spirit animal.
The billionaire follows Hartfield through the office and into a back room which has a coffee table littered with more rigs, dabs and blowtorches. Hartfield refers to this room as “the inner sanctum.” He invites his guest to take a seat on a leather sofa. Then, he shuts the door.
Justin Hartfield isn’t like you and me. Instead of turning Hartfield into a couch potato, marijuana has turned him into a serial entrepreneur. One recent lunchtime, he drove me in his Mercedes S63 (tag price $145,000) to the Irvine Spectrum Center, an outdoor shopping mall a couple of miles from the Weedmaps office.
Hartfield’s other car is a 1989 Porsche 944 S2. But he and his wife recently had their first child, a little girl, so the Mercedes serves as the family car.
Irvine is the kind of bland paradise that only Southern California could dream up. Conceived 50 years ago, everything from Irvine’s subtly concealed beige homes to its uniformly spaced out palm trees and gently curving sidewalks has been perfectly planned. Safe, clean and easy, Irvine consistently ranks as one of the best places in America to live.
Over lunch at a Mexican restaurant, Hartfield explained that he always wanted to be a writer. During his early 20s he self-published e-books on sports betting and on blending Eastern and Western philosophy. He also covered sports for his college newspaper.
At the same time, Hartfield, who majored in computer science at UC-Irvine, worked 30 hours a week as a content manager for an in-flight entertainment company, IMS.
Hartfield said college was much harder than he anticipated. “I was more of a humanities guy,” he said. “I got A’s in those classes, but got C’s and D’s in engineering. It was really, really rigorous. I thought it would just be parties.”
To his parents’ dismay, Hartfield quit IMS in 2006 to focus on becoming a “publishing entrepreneur.” At the time, he had his financial hopes pinned on a forthcoming e-book, “The Complete Guide To Picking Up Girls on Facebook.” (Sample advice: “Women love baby pictures, so be sure to have at least one up there.”) Perhaps unsurprisingly, he still had to scrape together his monthly $500 rent by tutoring in math and science. Hartfield said his mother thought he was making a huge mistake. He told me: “A writer-entrepreneur is a long way from being a doctor. It’s not going to please any Jewish mom.”
Hartfield was born Justin Miller in 1984. He was raised in L.A. County and Orange County by his mom, Sheryl, who ran a preschool out of the family home, and by his stepfather, Stephen Hartfield, who was a CPA. Hartfield says his biological father, a used car dealer, took no interest in his life, which is why when Hartfield was 18 he adopted his stepfather’s last name.
Hartfield describes his Jewish upbringing as “uber Reform.” The only reason he had a bar mitzvah was because his paternal grandfather made it a prerequisite of paying for Hartfield’s college tuition.
Hartfield was one of only a handful of Jewish kids at the local public schools. He said growing up he had no Jewish friends and no Jewish role models to look up to.
That all changed when Hartfield met Richard Cowan, a gay Quaker cannabis activist about 40 years Hartfield’s senior.
Cowan owned MarijuanaNews.com, the country’s oldest cannabis news site. Hartfield wrote to Cowan in 2008, offering to buy the domain for $500. Cowan declined the offer, but he told Hartfield that he was welcome to use the site to boost traffic. He also invited him for lunch at Sherman’s Deli & Bakery, a kosher-style restaurant near Cowan’s home in Palm Springs.
Cowan, who now lives in Madrid, Spain, told me that during that first meeting he was struck not just by how bright Hartfield was, but also by his entrepreneurial spirit. “The key thing here is the ability to deal with a failure without being a failure,” Cowan said. “You strike out, you keep swinging. That really is the key to understanding him.”
Hartfield came to see Cowan as a mentor and started visiting him a couple of times a month. “We hit it off instantly,” Hartfield recalled. “We just had the same sense of humor and laughed at the same s—t. We’re a really weird couple, really strange together, but he’s just so full of life.”
Both men are libertarian and deeply committed to marijuana legalization. During the 1990s, Cowan was the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Hartfield joined NORML, serving for a time as treasurer.
For Hartfield, marijuana is a social justice issue.
Hartfield also served on the board of the National Cannabis Industry Association and still serves on the board of the Marijuana Policy Project. Despite his Quaker upbringing, Cowan had a deep interest in Judaism. When Hartfield and Cowan visited Amsterdam together on a business trip, Cowan took Hartfield to the Jewish Historical Museum.
The museum was a revelation for Hartfield, particularly Dutch Jewry’s mercantile roots. “It really, like, opened my eyes,” Hartfield said. “Here’s what our people have done historically — and it was amazing.”
The object that stood out most for Hartfield was a portrait of Don Francisco Lopes Suasso, a 17th-century banker whose father, Isaac Lopes Suasso, loaned William of Orange 2 million gilders for his invasion of England in 1688.
Suasso’s father is famously said to have told William that he would not demand the return of the money if the invasion failed. As a symbol of the Suasso family’s power and influence, Suasso can be seen in the painting holding an orange in his right hand.
That idea of Jewish risk-taking excited Hartfield.
He was also inspired by the way Cowan owned his homosexuality. Hartfield decided it was time he owned his Judaism in the same way.
“I love to own everything about what it is to be Jewish and it’s so empowering once you do because it’s like — you know what, I’m really good at numbers… I can own that whole thing because my people have a heritage of it,” Hartfield said. “I was like, you know what, I am good at f—king business, man. It’s in my blood.”
Marijuana has come a long way since the 1960s, when it was considered a drug for hippies and wasters. Back then, just 12% of Americans thought marijuana should be legalized.
Today, a slim majority of Americans — about 53%, according to the Pew Research Center — believe it should be legalized. Meanwhile, almost half of Americans surveyed say they have tried marijuana, and an estimated 20 million Americans use it regularly.
Marijuana is legal in Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington State. Medical marijuana is legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia. Given marijuana’s rapid rise, those numbers are only likely to go up after the 2016 election.
The National Institute on Drug Abuse maintains that marijuana is addictive and potentially harmful, affecting short-term memory and driving ability and impairing a young person’s cognitive development.
But the federally funded NIDA also acknowledges the growing body of evidence that cannabis is beneficial in the treatment of many medical conditions and diseases, including epilepsy, cancer, HIV/AIDs, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, pain and mental disorders.
At Buds & Roses, a medical marijuana dispensary on Ventura Boulevard, in L.A.’s Studio City, patients enter a waiting room reminiscent of a spa, with calming gray walls and minimalist side tables and chairs. After showing their medical marijuana card, they are escorted into a back room set up with a glass cabinet displaying an array of cannabis plants, concentrates and edibles.
Behind the cabinet, Brett Hartmann, one of several budtenders, talks through the pluses and minuses of the two different species of cannabis plant: sativas, renowned for their uplifting and energetic properties, and indicas, known for their sedating, body-numbing qualities.
Most of the plants are vegan and organic, with colorful names like Veganic Super Lemon Haze, Veganic OG Kush or Veganic Larry OG.
Hartmann doesn’t profess to be a medical doctor, but he does have training in veterinary intensive care and anesthesia. He told me he suffered from epileptic fits regularly before he started using medical marijuana about eight months ago. During the 45 minutes I spent at the dispensary, the handful of customers appeared to be mostly in their late 40s and 50s. One man sought marijuana to slow or halt the growth of a brain tumor. There’s still too little research to prove or disprove marijuana’s efficacy in fighting cancer. The federally funded National Cancer Institute announced recently that studies in mice and rats showed that cannabis can kill cancer cells and stop the spread of tumors. But researchers concluded there was still insufficient evidence to recommend human use of the drug.
That caution only frustrates Hartfield. He sees marijuana as a miracle plant. “I think cannabis is going to be the news story of the century,” he said. “This s—t can cure cancer, and the government’s been banning it. It’s just crazy.”
On my final day at the Weedmaps office, a Friday, Hartfield drove to Los Angeles for a lunch meeting with the president of the Reason Foundation, David Nott, to discuss marijuana legalization efforts.
I stayed at the Weedmaps office to speak to Dr. Bonni Goldstein, who works for Hartfield’s Ghost Group holding company as a kind of in-house medical adviser.
Goldstein is the medical director of Canna-Centers, a physicians group with five offices in California which specializes in cannabis treatment. She estimates that during the past eight years she has treated more than 8,000 people, including children, for a range of ailments, from anxiety, depression and PTSD to cancer, nausea and pain.
Cannabis was used in medicine for thousands of years before the federal government outlawed it last century. But Goldstein rejects the notion of marijuana as a miracle plant. “It’s just science,” she told me.
Scientists first discovered the way cannabis reacts with receptors in the human body and brain, known as the endocannabinoid system, three decades ago. Even so, cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug, which means that in the federal government’s view it is a highly addictive substance with no medicinal value.
That classification has held back research into medical marijuana. But Goldstein said there is still “a full body of scientific literature” pointing to the plant’s benefits.
Most of Goldstein’s patients find her after seeking out cannabis treatments on their own. But she also takes referrals from area hospitals for children suffering from severe intractable epilepsy and for adults and children with cancer. She prescribes pot to the latter both to ameliorate the side-effects of chemotherapy and to slow or arrest the growth of malignant tumors, for which she believes marijuana is effective.
Goldstein is frustrated that many doctors turn to cannabis as a last resort. “Since we know the science of how it works, choosing a nontoxic plant medicine should not be a last resort alternative,” Goldstein said. “Doctors should be embracing this medicine.”
It’s hard to argue with Goldstein or with the thousands of patients or their families who find relief through medical marijuana.
But what about recreational use?
The first thing that hits you when you enter Weedmaps’ office is the unmistakably sweet, earthy smell of marijuana.
Hartfield, his colleagues and thousands of Californians like them do not use marijuana for medical purposes.
Hartfield enraged medical marijuana advocates in 2009 when he told The Wall Street Journal that he made up symptoms of anxiety and insomnia to get a medical marijuana card. He called California’s medical marijuana system “a farce.”
The statement might have been brazen, but it was correct. It’s notoriously easy in California to register for a medical marijuana card following a brief consultation with a sympathetic doctor.
Goldstein likened marijuana to alcohol. When people are younger, they experiment and over-use the drug. As they mature, get a job and start a family, they find that the cannabis gets in the way, and they stop.
I asked Goldstein about Hartfield, who had told me earlier that he takes 10 to 20 bowls of Hardcore OG, a 90% THC concentrate, most days. Does that make him an addict?
Goldstein said that people like Hartfield may think they are using cannabis recreationally, but it’s possible that Hartfield might have a deficiency in his endocannabinoid system that he is self-medicating without realizing it.
She said that the average person would not be able to function on such high doses of cannabis. But Hartfield, like some of his colleagues, manages to be productive. He still works hard and has a healthy relationship with his wife and his 10-month-old daughter.
Hard as it is to believe, marijuana does seem to work for Hartfield. Each time he smoked in front of me, he seemed to get more energized. During our first lunch at the Mexican restaurant, Hartfield told me that he started smoking pot in high school. One day he decided to see what it would be like if he smoked “a s—t ton of weed” and then tried to write a report: He got an A, he said.
Hartfield wondered how many other things in life he could get away with while “being really, really high.” He took his SATs high. He went to work high. As his business grew, he attended events and met with VIPs high. There were never any consequences.
“Over those formative years I did everything I possibly could as blasted as you possibly can, and nothing,” Hartfield said. “Like, I just proved to myself it’s just me, nothing happened.”
Hartfield said he does go for periods without cannabis, particularly when he’s traveling overseas. But he does not feel as complete or as free when he is sober.
He told me that he already had 10 bowls that day. “I’m happier and I’m functioning at that high level,” he explained, wiggling his fingers around his head. “Lots of connections are being made very rapidly, and lots of things are flipping around in your brain.”
As I started to ask another question, Hartfield stood up.
“Let’s go back to the office,” he said. “I need one right now.”
Contact Paul Berger at [email protected] or on Twitter, @pdberger