Leslie Bocskor is a successful investment banker. He’s also the founder of the Nevada Cannabis Industry Association as well as Electrum Partners, a consulting firm that helps businesses acquire medical marijuana licenses. He has literally been called “The Warren Buffett of Cannabis.”
It’s an unlikely juxtaposition, but starting off on Wall Street before becoming a major player in the nascent legal grass industry is one hell of an American dream, no?
We talked comprehensively with Bocskor—who may or may not also be a Lord of the Rings extra—about how he got here and the future of cannabis in the U.S. and around the world.
“In states that don’t have regulated marijuana, you know where the dispensaries are? In high schools. That’s where you go to get pot. If you don’t have a regulated market, you’re only letting people sell it who will sell it to anyone, especially kids.”
How long have you been interested in legal cannabis?
I’m an investment and corporate finance worker by trade. I’ve always been inclined toward cannabis from a social justice and personal liberty perspective. I’ve always thought prohibition was based on lies and propaganda. It’s a terrible aspect of our criminal justice system and a bad reflection on the United States overall. But you pick and choose your battles. I was never interested enough to get involved.
How do you go from investment banking to legal marijuana advocacy?
As my career evolved, I started to focus on being a futurist and a technophile. I was agnostic in terms of the industry. I didn’t care what it was, as long as it turned a profit. That was fun, but there wasn’t a lot of passion. This helped me to realize my real passion: disruption.
I see that term a lot in business articles. What do you mean when you say “disruption?”
How we live and do business is going to change radically and soon. I ran companies for a few years, looking for where the big changes were going to be. I learned that the online industry was really going to change gambling. So I went out to Las Vegas for the World Series of Poker. When I was there, I encountered something that I hadn’t even thought about: The dispensaries in California.
It was a real paradigm shift. There’s a quasi-legal industry selling marijuana. The economics are incredibly compelling. While I was researching the industry, Colorado and Washington made recreational marijuana legal. After that I moved to Vegas after living 45 years of my life in New York.
Talk about disruption. I guess it doesn’t seem like a big deal to me. I’ve bought weed when it was illegal, when it was semi-legal and when it was totally legal. What does Colorado offer that California doesn’t?
Well, first of all, as soon as a state makes marijuana legal, no one gets arrested for it anymore. I don’t know how many arrests there were. More than that, they’re not getting convicted, they’re not going to jail and they’re not coming out and being a burden on the taxpayer or difficult to integrate back into society because they’re convicted felons. From that perspective it’s a huge change.
Well, clearly people aren’t getting arrested. Not to downplay it, but what else is there that changes?
Well, Colorado had a 25 percent drop in prescription painkiller fatalities. That’s huge. You’re establishing a regulated market. When you go to states that don’t have regulated marijuana you know where the dispensaries are? In high schools. That’s where you go to get pot. If you don’t have a regulated market, you’re only letting people sell it who will sell it to anyone, especially kids. When you have a regulated market, stakeholders have a vested interest in keeping it out of the hands of kids.
Like with booze.
Right. One of the biggest reasons teen drinking is down is that parents talk to kids. They do that because the industry self-regulates and tries to be good corporate citizens. When the cannabis industry really gets going we’ll see something like that.
“The secret no one ever talks about is that all the money spent on illegal marijuana goes to foreign drug lords. Marijuana is a $100 billion a year business. If we can eliminate 80 or 90 percent of that going overseas, that money stays here and creates jobs in our economy.”
Obviously there’s also a lot of money tied up in marijuana, whether it’s legal, semi-legal or other.
There’s an enormous amount of money going to schools, law enforcement and substance abuse counseling due to the taxes. Now look at job creation. We’re coming out of one of the biggest economic collapses, but now we’re also creating this huge new industry.
But all of the money isn’t going to taxes or even necessarily job creation.
The secret no one ever talks about, the elephant in the room, is that all of that money that’s being spent on illegal marijuana goes to foreign drug lords. Marijuana is a $100 billion a year business. If we can eliminate 80 or 90 percent of that going overseas, that money stays here and creates jobs in our economy. The money stays here, the jobs stays here, the taxes get collected, and we’re creating wealth here.
What changes are we going to see in the industry with the move toward legalization?
We don’t really have data, but we can look at changes we’ve seen so far and extrapolate. What does that mean when we start arresting fewer people? I’m not really sure, but I think it’s going to be good. When children grow up with cannabis as something that’s just part of the culture, it’s not rebellious and cool anymore. Let’s face it, part of the appeal to kids is that it’s against the law. If the rebellion is not appropriate anymore and it’s part of mainstream culture, it’s going to be a big difference.
Do you think the medical stuff will fall to the wayside now that the focus is shifting to legalization of recreational use?
No. Not to compare it with penicillin, but think about that in terms of our quality of life. Infections used to be like cancer is today. Little kids would get an infection on their arm and doctors would talk about amputation. If someone got bacterial pneumonia, you called a priest. We can now give people a higher quality of life because we can provide them with cannabis and it will help to treat them. Almost half of kids with seizure disorders are reducing their seizures from the several hundred per day to a couple a month. That’s allowing those people to have lives. You’re letting kids live past the age of 10. That’s where you’re going to see a quality of life change.
I used to live around a dispensary and it created some serious quality of life issues for me. For example, I know there’s lots of public urination around dispensaries here in California. What can the industry do to address these concerns?
Let’s draw the parallel right now to gambling. Casino neighborhoods were not great before Nevada started regulating them as much. California is an example of an unregulated market. I’m the last person to be saying “we need more regulation.” The point is good regulation where you need it.
Casinos are a good example. If you want to look at unregulated casinos, look at online casinos that got shut down. The music stopped and there were no chairs left. Because they were unregulated, they were able to pull more money out of it than there really was in the system. That’s why people weren’t able to get their money.
California is a market and there’s no regulation. They made it legal, but there’s no regulatory framework in the state. It’s a giant mess. It’s the Wild West and that doesn’t help anyone.
“I believe that if other drugs can be shown to have the net positive effect, they’ll follow in the path of cannabis. But they have to meet that acid test. They have to be as positive as cannabis or more.”
So what is Colorado like?
In Colorado, the cannabis industry is a very good actor in the market. They’re out doing community service. The stores are only open during certain hours. They have licenses that they can lose. In California they don’t have licenses, so there’s not the leverage to get them to behave.
Hundreds of millions of dollars come into Colorado and not just to spend on marijuana. Tourists came in, but how much did those people spend on hotels, on restaurants, on air fare, on sales tax and other things when they were there? All of that other money, that’s a huge benefit. When you have a regulated market, it’s not just a net positive in terms of tax revenue it’s a positive in other areas.
I live here in Las Vegas. Some of the safest places you can be are on the Strip. It’s way safer than New York City. They go out of their way to make it a safe and welcoming place. In Nevada it’s harder to get a gaming license than it is to become a Secret Service agent covering the President of the United States
Do you think legalization is going to move into so-called “hard” drugs?
I believe that if other drugs can be shown to have the net positive effect, they’ll follow in the path of cannabis. But they have to meet that acid test. They have to be as positive as cannabis or more. I don’t see anything else out there that has that type of benefit. If you look at countries like Portugal, they’ve been good at decriminalizing all drugs. But I don’t see that happening here in the US. I think that will stop at cannabis here. It might make sense, but I don’t see it as having the same ability to work in our culture the way it does in other places in the near future.
Where do you want to see the industry go, personally?
I work toward a cannabis industry that’s living up to higher standards than other industries in terms of its integrity, ethics and integration into the community around it. How it works with the government, that it’s able to satisfy the needs of the stakeholders as best we can, from citizens to consumers to patients to business people who are involved in putting their hard work and treasure into bringing this about. I want to be able to look to this industry and have people look to other industries and emulate our standards.
How can people get into this industry if they have a passion for cannabis?
The opportunity is so extraordinary and broad that you can really get involved anywhere. Software, science, sales, whatever. Legal marijuana is really several industries: pharmaceuticals, supplements, veterinary medicine, industrial hemp, business to business, gardening, financial services… there are cannabis job fares now. You should just pick your passion and follow it.