Willie Nelson’s Crusade to Stop Big Pot
<span>In what may be his last political act, he is trying to stop</span> Corporate America from co-opting the legal marijuana trade.
Backstage at Farm Aid is a hidden city. You enter through a guarded gate just north of the concert pavilion, leaving behind the woozy crowd and vendors hawking organic snacks, then you drift through a gaggle of agitated assistants, past the roadies bustling about, and you follow a trail of golf carts heading for the residential district, where dozens of tour buses have been crammed together to accommodate the sheer number of headlining acts, with John Mellencamp’s people over here and Neil Young’s entourage there, with Dave Matthews and Kacey Musgraves and Jack Johnson each presiding over a small convoy of RVs, which you slip between and among, ducking down the narrow alleys, until at last you burst into the enormous plaza that surrounds the Honeysuckle Rose.
The Rose is parked just slightly akimbo, with its front wheels cocked to one side. It is a 45-foot Prevost X3 with a 334-inch wheelbase, which is the same model used by President Obama during the 2012 campaign or, to put it another way, it’s just about the sweetest ride a tour bus can be.* Unlike the president, Willie Nelson doesn’t require a lot of armored plating. He keeps an old Winchester rifle onboard, tucked into a cabinet over his bed, but otherwise the custom details of the Rose tend to be personal, pragmatic touches, like the twin biodiesel generators he installed in the under-floor compartment, with a special exhaust line that runs through the roof to avoid drowning the bus in fumes. Today, a crisp September afternoon under the yawning Illinois sky, there is a far more pleasant smoke wafting about the plaza — billowing, in fact, from every crack and gap in the carapace of the Rose. That’s because Willie is onboard, wailing on a monster spliff.
Well, not just a spliff. More like a medley of miscellaneous marijuana. At 82, Nelson is a slightly shrunken figure, just over five-foot-six, with ramrod posture and shoulders so abrupt that his black T-shirt appears to be suspended from a pair of broomsticks. His long gray hair frames a lean gray face as rutted as a distant moon, and he is sitting, as he usually does, in a chair beside the refrigerator and cabinets where he and his wife, Annie, hoard the stash. Annie is perched a few feet away, at the end of a long bench, tousling the hair of their 26-year-old son, Lukas, who is lying down with his head in her lap. The décor of the Rose is what you might call “Seventies Luxe.” There’s a lot of dark leather piled into pleats and dark wood carved into extravagant spindles. On the table in front of Willie is: a vase full of pencils, an orange lighter, a smattering of pre-rolled doobies, an ashtray cluttered with the remainders of joints gone by, a dish of loose cannabis caked with kief, three slim vaporizers of marijuana extract, and a deck of black playing cards printed with the words WILLIE’S RESERVE in saloon lettering.
Nelson leans back in his chair and pulls a long draw from the burning spliff. “This is good weed,” he mutters quietly, reaching up to crack the window. Outside, the stage is just a few yards away, but facing the wrong direction; the muddled music filters onto the bus like the noise of a wet highway. Nelson stares out the window as if noticing the concert for the first time. It’s the 30th anniversary of Farm Aid, and sometimes he can’t believe it’s still happening. “I was dumb enough to think one or two of these would be enough,” he says. “That all those smart guys in Washington would get together and work out the problems.”
The problems in American farming 30 years ago were as intractable as they were abundant. Trapped in a cycle of rising interest rates, plunging property values, volatile markets, and drought, thousands of families found themselves sliding into bankruptcy and foreclosure. The suicide rate among midwestern farmers surged to twice the national average, and it sometimes seemed as if whole communities in the Corn Belt were either broke or dying. “We were losing like 300 farmers a week,” Nelson says now.
The idea to throw a benefit concert first hit him on July 13, 1985. He was in Philadelphia to play the Live Aid fund-raiser for victims of the famine in Ethiopia, when Bob Dylan took the stage and suggested that some of the proceeds might be shared with U.S. farmers. The organizer of the concert, Bob Geldof, dismissed that proposal out of hand, later saying that it was “crass, stupid, and nationalistic” to conflate the two issues. But the whole thing got Nelson thinking. A few weeks later, he was at the Illinois State Fair having a bowl of chili and a beer with the governor, Jim Thompson, when he brought up the idea again. A month later, they pulled it off at a stadium in Champaign. The performers included B.B. King, Johnny Cash, and Loretta Lynn. They raised $9 million that year. They’ve been at it ever since.
“Things are a little better now,” Nelson says, twirling a black vaporizer pen between his fingers. “People have started thinking about buying and growing sustainably.”
In fact, the impact of Farm Aid is difficult to convey. The past three decades have seen a radical shift in American attitudes about food. The project of supporting local farmers is by no means finished business, but if the modern supermarket tells us anything, it is that trend lines are going Nelson’s way. Tart little ugly apples and honking tomatoes have pushed their way onto shelves once dominated by the produce Borg; the “organic” label has become de rigueur to a whole swath of consumers; and the forces of Big Agriculture have, like Big Tobacco and Big Pharma, fallen into widespread disrepute. It is easy to forget that just 30 years ago, basically nobody was talking about these things, and that Nelson as much as anyone helped to mobilize the local-food movement.
But now, as he enters the final phase of his life, Nelson is gearing up for a different battle. He has been a vocal advocate of marijuana legalization for more than half a century, but he has watched the last few years unfold with a combination of joy and dread. Even as the country has softened its stance toward marijuana, a legion of large corporations has gathered to dominate the legal market. Nelson figures he has at least one good fight left. In what may be his last political act, he is declaring war on Big Pot.
By way of first principles, let us pause to establish that legalization is here. That fight is over; legal weed has arrived; all that remains is for the last chips to fall. Some form of marijuana has already been approved in 23 states, and roughly 80 percent of the American public currently favors medicinal use. Support for recreational pot has also been rising over the past decade, with more people in favor of full legalization than against it for the first time in 2011. The following year, Colorado and Washington became the first two states to permit recreational use: It is now perfectly legal in both places to shamble into a dispensary, plunk down a stack of crinkly bills, and purchase a bag of high-grade weed for no loftier purpose than to get high. Last year, Oregon and Alaska approved similar measures, and this month, the bellwether state of Ohio will vote on a proposal to join them. Next year, at least five additional states will consider the same question, while another dozen are working on comparable ballot initiatives, and in 15 states and Washington, D.C., possession of the drug for personal use is no longer a crime. The consensus among doctors has returned to where it stood eight decades ago, when the American Medical Association loudly opposed the decision to make pot illegal in the first place. Even the federal government is beginning to change course: Early this year, President Obama predicted that if enough states decriminalize marijuana, Congress might remove it from the list of Schedule I drugs, and he has informed officials in Washington and Colorado that the Justice Department will not prosecute anyone who complies with state laws.
In the face of all this, investors have naturally begun piling into pot. A race is on to establish the first truly national marijuana brand. The most visible contender in this contest is probably the company Privateer Holdings, which was founded by three Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, one of whom had never smoked pot in his life but who somehow managed to persuade Bob Marley’s family to license his name and image to their packaging. This spring, Privateer completed its second capital drive for a total of $82 million in start-up cash. Or maybe the rise of corporate marijuana is better illustrated by the tech millionaire Jamen Shively, who announced plans in 2013 to create a chain of pot shops modeled on Starbucks that would “mint more millionaires than Microsoft” — acknowledging at one point, “We are Big Marijuana.”
Even the most ardent advocates of legalization have been troubled by the rise of Big Pot. The legalization movement is organized largely around issues of social justice, and for activists who have spent decades railing against the disproportionate impact of the drug war on poor communities, it has been unsettling to watch legalization engender a new slate of economic disparities. Alison Holcomb, who wrote the initiative to legalize recreational marijuana in Washington State, told me that a cannabis industry dominated by large corporations would threaten the core values of the legalization movement. “It looks a lot like the concentration of capital that we have seen with Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco,” she said. “I think that’s problematic for cannabis-law reformers, because it plays into our opposition’s strongest argument.” Holcomb pointed to the initiative in Ohio this month, where a consortium of large marijuana investors has spent about $15 million to promote legalization, while opponents have spent less than $1 million and focused not on legalization itself, but on the fact that the new law would permit only ten of those large producers to operate in the state.
The arrival of corporate marijuana also raises public-health concerns. Pot smokers might prefer to imagine their plants being raised on a sunny organic farm near Boulder, but Keith Stroup, who founded the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, points out that when big companies grow things, they tend to rely on the chemical methods of industrial agriculture. “For the average little black-market grower, it’s done on such a small scale that they’re not even using pesticides,” Stroup told me. “But when you’re investing millions of dollars in a large cultivation center, you can bet they are not going to take the risk of their crop getting wiped out by mold or mildew or insects.”
Already, industrial pesticides have turned up on thousands of legal marijuana plants, but no one knows exactly how dangerous this might be for consumers. Nearly all of the standards, studies, and guidelines for American agriculture — not to mention enforcement — are provided by the federal government. Before a pesticide can be applied to any other crop, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency must specifically approve the use of that chemical on the plant in question. As various crops proceed through harvest, production, packaging, and distribution, a host of other federal agencies, like the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health, also play critical roles in defining safety standards. But under the federal ban on marijuana, none of these agencies has engaged with the pot industry in a meaningful way or conducted the usual studies. Because there are no pesticides currently approved for marijuana, many pot growers have been using whatever chemical they like. Whitney Cranshaw, a professor of entomology at Colorado State University and one of the state’s leading experts on pesticide application, told me that some of the chemicals being sprayed on pot plants these days are so noxious they will make your skin crawl.
“The Feds have completely abrogated their responsibility and let the situation devolve into chaos,” Cranshaw said. “Avid is being used; the other big one is Floramite; and the one I really don’t get is imidacloprid, which I can’t even understand why you would use on this crop — it actually makes the mites worse. But the growers don’t know what they’re doing.” Early this year, officials in Colorado discovered that 60,000 legal marijuana plants at a growing operation in Denver had been sprayed with another pesticide, myclobutanil. Officials placed the plants into quarantine, but when testing showed that the concentration had diminished, they released the crop for distribution. Since then, officials in Colorado have issued a list of pesticides that growers are permitted to use, but Cranshaw told me the list is based more on guesswork than on testing. “There’s almost zero data on inhalation exposure to pesticide at high temperature,” he said. “Those studies have to be done.”
Without the federal government bringing its regulatory and scientific expertise to the emerging pot market, some advocates have begun to wonder if local officials can ever rise to the task. The mechanisms of state regulatory offices, they say, are not designed to replace a massive institution like the U.S. Department of Agriculture or Health and Human Services. “There’s only so much that we can do,” Holcomb said. “We’ll never be able to require everyone to comply with all the requirements that we would like to see.” Instead, she had begun to hope for a kind of deus ex machina to appear — some benevolent corporate counterweight to traditional corporate interests. “We have to find people who have large amounts of capital and are willing to engage in socially responsible business practices,” she said, “who will give the consumer a choice to say, ‘Yeah, I want to buy from the company that actually cares.’ ”
The first thing you notice when you smoke weed with Willie Nelson is how much weed Willie Nelson smokes. Lots of stoners get high all day, but Nelson’s intake is stratospheric. At any given moment, he will have multiple joints burning, along with an assortment of vapes and pipes, all of which he seems to puff simultaneously like one of those multiarmed Hindu gods, whiffing and wheezing through the fog as if trying to minimize his exposure to fresh air.
This begins to add up when you do the math. Nelson has spent the past 60 years touring the American landscape; the current version of the Honeysuckle Rose is the fifth tour bus to bear its name; each of the buses has crossed the country dozens, if not hundreds, of times; and even now, in his ninth decade, Nelson spends about 150 nights each year on the road. Just about everywhere he stops for the night, he is greeted by a welcoming party of local growers, many of whom have been visiting him on the Rose for years and are eager — one might say determined — to give him a taste of their best grow. Nelson has developed, then, what may be the most expansive network of marijuana suppliers in the country, and as a daily pot smoker leading the unfettered life of a meandering troubadour whose habits are a secret to no one, it is distinctly possible that he has smoked more high-grade weed over the past six decades than anyone else alive.
A consequence of all this highness is that Nelson’s tolerance is supernatural. He can easily smoke 30 or 40 hits in a session and then play a flawless two-hour show. He does not always deploy this talent toward noble ends. He is famous for smoking new friends to oblivion and then challenging them to a few hands of high-stakes poker. Willie’s game is cash-only, and all debts must be settled at the table. This has led to stories among his intimates of the time he refused to let Woody Harrelson leave the room until he could deliver $40,000 in cash. It has also led to more than one folk song about the perils of smoking with Nelson, including a Toby Keith ballad with the refrain “I’ll never smoke weed with Willie again” and a new jingle introduced by Jack Johnson at Farm Aid this year whose chorus revolves around the line “Willie got me stoned and took all my money.”
I first met Nelson this summer behind a casino in Atlantic City. He was passing through town to play an outdoor concert, and I joined him on the Honeysuckle Rose to discuss his plans to open a marijuana company and to sample a few of his favorite strains. He had announced the new company in March, but other than the name Willie’s Reserve, nobody seemed to know much about it. There was still a lot of confusion, for example, about whether “Willie’s Reserve” referred to a new strain of weed that Nelson’s friends had developed, or if it was a complete line of cannabis products, or maybe he was opening a collection of retail stores where you could buy and smoke and chill.
I confess to having approached that first meeting with some measure of trepidation. I have spent plenty of time around weed and, like many people, have enjoyed my share. But I am not a frequent smoker and rarely take more than a hit or two. The prospect of crawling into Nelson’s lair to consume the strongest marijuana known to civilization, then trying to conduct a coherent interview, did not sound especially mellow.
I spent a few weeks before the meeting in a training regimen. This began with a nightly puff of smoke, then two per night, and then three, until eventually I could burn a couple of joints without coming entirely apart. Not that it really helped. On the day of our meeting, I climbed aboard the Rose and settled into a chair opposite Nelson at the small table that I would come to regard as his natural habitat. I guess about three minutes had passed in small talk before he hoisted himself up, rummaged through the overhead cabinets, and plopped back down with a pair of cardboard boxes filled with pre-rolled joints. From the labels, I could see that one of the packages held a strain called Sour Diesel, originally developed in Colorado, and the other was a California varietal known as Blue Dream. Nelson handed me one joint of each, pointing at the Sour Diesel first. “That’s good stuff,” he said with a grin. “Fire it up!”
The taste of the weed was huge and oily, another dimension from what I was smoking at home, and, against my better judgment, I took a long haul before passing it back to him. Nelson pulled what seemed like the entire joint into his lungs with a single drag, finally prying it away and croaking on the exhale, “Now let’s take a couple hits off that other one and see if we can tell the difference!”
We spent the next hour burning down joints and a collection of vaporizer cartridges filled with marijuana concentrate, but the more we smoked and talked about smoking, the more I began to realize that Nelson knew almost nothing about the plant. He really wasn’t sure what kind of weed we were smoking or how the various strains might differ from one another. He had never put a cannabis seed in the ground and didn’t intend to. “Why should I grow if this guy over here, or that guy, already has it?” he asked. He also didn’t have much interest in the profusion of pot cookies, candies, and soft drinks that have been turning up in the legal states. “I don’t like edibles that much,” he said with a shrug. “I had a bad experience the first time I did it. This was 50 years ago. I ate a bunch of cookies, and I lay there all night thinking the flesh was falling off my bones.” He wasn’t even sure about the difference between the two major forms of cannabis, indica and sativa. These are commonly said to have different psychoactive effects, the first being more like a narcotic and the second being more energetic, but when I mentioned these things to Nelson, he just laughed. “I haven’t become all that expert on that,” he said. “The way I look at it is: I’m either high or I’m not.”
This discovery frankly thrilled me. Too many pot smokers these days have gotten fussy about their weed. In the same way that modern foodies have eroded the simplicity of homegrown food, leaving behind its rustic roots for a universe of prickly, esoteric greens and incomprehensibly expensive mushrooms, turning local food into a temple for snobs and picky eaters, I have noticed a similar tendency creeping into the conversation around pot — with inflated descriptions of bud density, room-note, fruity undertones, and heritage genetics, usually proffered in the grandiose vocabulary of the dismal jerk who flips out over wine. Nelson was after something simpler. He just liked getting high. He may be one of the most famous stoners on Earth, with a tolerance to fell giants, but he is not, strictly speaking, a marijuana connoisseur.
As we began to discuss his plans for Willie’s Reserve, I realized how important this fact was. Willie being Willie, he could throw out a punch line to explain why he wanted to open the pot business, usually delivering some version of the line “I’ve smoked enough and I want to give back.” But the truth was something deeper and more important. He really hadn’t started the company for his own amusement, or to make money, of which he has plenty. The truth was that he wanted to preserve his legendary stash — to keep it clean, keep his growers in business, and keep Big Pot off his turf. He wanted to protect the plant he smokes every day from the corporate influence he’s been fighting all his life.
One story in particular illustrated this. Last year, when a group of investors first approached Nelson with the idea to start a pot company, he invited the group’s leader, Andrew Davison, to a meeting at his ranch in Texas. Davison told me that he arrived for the meeting at 11 on a Saturday morning, and as he set up his laptop on Nelson’s kitchen table, he planned to pitch the marijuana company as a straightforward business that would tap into Nelson’s authenticity and reputation as a lifelong stoner.
“I basically ran through a PowerPoint — what we think the opportunity is, how we go about it, the next steps,” Davison recalled. “And at the end, Willie looked at me and said, ‘That’s great, but I want to tell you my values.’ And so he proceeded to lay them out. He talked about social justice, and growing up on a dirt floor, and his connection to all sorts of different disadvantaged communities, and he pointed out that there are plenty of enterprising black entrepreneur kids who are in jail for doing what we’re doing. Then he said, ‘I really believe in the environmental aspect of this. It’s a great way to revitalize small farms, and I want to make sure that any product we grow is as clean as we can make it and that, wherever possible, we’re trying to lower the environmental impact of our operations.’ ”
Davison laughed as he remembered the conversation, but it had forced him to change course. He had come to the ranch with a business proposal and walked away with a social agenda. “It was evident that Willie didn’t just wake up one day and say, ‘Hey, I could sell my likeness on a vape pen and make some money,’ ” Davison said. “Which he could have done! But this was more important to him.”
Legal marijuana is the fastest-growing industry in the United States, with 74 percent growth in 2014, according to a recent study by the ArcView Group, a Silicon Valley investment research firm. Last year, it generated $2.7 billion in sales and delivered more than $200 million in tax revenue to the legal states. In Colorado alone, the $88 million raised from pot was more than double that from alcohol.
For producers of the plant, these state taxes are only a light beginning. Federal law poses a far more onerous tax burden. That’s because marijuana falls under an obscure section of the tax code, which makes it nearly impossible for companies to report their earnings like a normal business. Among other things, they may not deduct their operating expenses, such as rental space, employee salaries, and the cost of growing equipment, without which some producers are paying an effective federal income tax of 70 percent. Many large banks have also refused to let marijuana companies open accounts, leading to an industry awash in cash, obscure accounting methods, and armed guards. The legal minefield is just one of the reasons that Big Tobacco companies like Altria and R. J. Reynolds have said they are not planning to enter the Green Rush anytime soon. Wall Street, however, has been far more willing to experiment with marijuana, and several investment firms, like Viridian Capital Advisors, have sprung up to tap the burgeoning market.
The two largest marijuana companies for now — Privateer Holdings, the Bob Marley label, and Diego Pellicer, the would-be Starbucks — have both embarked on long-term strategies to develop massive growing operations, while also maintaining a short-term caution in light of the federal ban. At Diego Pellicer, this has meant a plunge into, of all things, real estate. As the company’s CEO, Ron Throgmartin, explained this, Diego Pellicer’s core business at the moment is to acquire retail space and then lease it to local pot companies. “We do not, and will not, profit from the sale of marijuana until it’s federally legal to do so,” Throgmartin said. “As we wait, this company stands on solid real-estate principles.” Those real-estate principles turn out to involve a peculiar contract with tenants: The company leases space to those who are willing to let Diego Pellicer design their store layout and who will allow Diego Pellicer to take over their store in the future. “They are just a subtenant,” Throgmartin explained. “We will secure the real estate, we will lease the real estate, we will do the build out, and we have a future-acquisition agreement that allows us to roll their operation into Diego Pellicer Worldwide. When it becomes federally legal to do so, we have the ability to acquire them overnight.” For its part, Privateer Holdings has yet to issue any “Marley Natural” marijuana, but the company has invested heavily in the ancillary markets — buying the prominent website Leafly, which is a kind of Yelp for marijuana reviews, and preparing a rollout of Marley swag, including body lotions and handmade accessories adorned with the corporate logo. “During the gold rush, there were people who dug for gold, and people who sold picks and shovels,” Throgmartin said. “They’re selling picks and shovels.” But with an eye to the long-term, Privateer has also purchased the Canadian company Tilray, which grows medical marijuana in a 60,000-square-foot facility in British Columbia. Whenever the U.S. federal ban is lifted, the company will be able to source its cannabis from a similar facility in the States.
Meanwhile, the companies that are already producing pot at the state level can be divided roughly into two groups: Those who are trying to grow premium marijuana for a boutique market, and those who want to emulate the mass production and high-volume ambitions of Big Pot. Trying to divine the difference can be confusing — in any given dispensary, one is likely to encounter dozens of labels promising “clean” and “natural” weed, but there is no uniform definition for what these words mean. Some companies, like Avitas Agriculture in northern Washington and Maggie’s Farm in Colorado, have adopted strict internal standards, rejecting noxious chemical additives and relying on locally sourced organic supplies, but companies willing to subject themselves to these exacting requirements often find themselves adrift in a market that mandates nothing comparable from their rivals. “Profiteers have come in with all different kinds of motivations in this industry,” a founder of Avitas, Adam Smith, told me. “People are trying to make a quick buck, creating dirty grows and dumping their weed on the market.”
Davison, who is now the CEO of Willie’s Reserve, had been wrestling with all of these issues, and I met up with him at Farm Aid to hear what he had in mind. He is a tall, athletic man with a ready smile and the sort of mountain-preppy vibe that one encounters in the pages of a Patagonia catalogue. Before starting Willie’s Reserve, he worked for the clothing companies Pearl Izumi and Crocs and served on the advisory council of the National Outdoor Leadership School. At Farm Aid, he was presiding over a far less wholesome enterprise, if no less fun: A few slots away from Willie’s bus, he had parked a tasting room for Willie’s Reserve.
That bus turned out to be a prior version of the Honeysuckle Rose, but in at least one respect, the old bus had a leg up on the new one. Nelson’s had a lot of weed; Davison’s had little else. There was a riot of the stuff: stacks of perfectly rolled joints with cardboard filters and twisty tips, Mason jars crammed with cannabis of all shades and scents and varietals, and an assortment of tin cans brimming with monstrous buds the size of a baby’s arm. There were convoluted water pipes of blown glass, a stack of cocktail napkins printed with the words PUFF. PUFF. GIVE, and, propped against the wall, a sign that said WILLIE’S RESERVE IS FOR SHARING above the hashtag #sharethestash — as if rolling around the country with mountains of marijuana was nothing to keep discreet.
I took a seat on the bus as Davison packed a bowl with a particularly lime-hued varietal, then we retired to a sofa to chat about his plans for the new company. He acknowledged at the outset that building a national company in accord with Nelson’s standards has been vexing. In addition to all the peculiar problems that face a small pot grower, a litany of other obstacles confront a national brand. Foremost among these is the problem of interstate transport. The Obama administration has been clear that it will not allow producers to distribute pot across state lines, which makes it virtually impossible for Willie’s Reserve to market a consistent product nationwide. A grower in Colorado might develop a mesmerizing new strain of weed, but there is no legal way to reproduce it anywhere else: No plant, seed, clone, or cutting can leave the state.
“It means you have to look for alternative ways to set up the company structure,” Davison said. The business model he was developing, he explained, is “a hub and ever-growing wheel.” By this he meant that the brand will consist of a national holding company and will form partnerships with smaller companies to manage the individual states. Unlike the model at Diego Pellicer, Davison has no interest in acquiring those local companies and prefers for them to be small owners operating privately. To maintain consistency, he will establish standards for potency, environmental impact, and organic growing methods, and in exchange for adherence to these guidelines, Willie’s Reserve will provide the growers with access to a network of internal support systems, including advice on how to organize and operate a small business.
“We define the processes in detail,” Davison said. “Whether it’s grow processes, genetic processes, production processes — all of that is going to be defined by us.” He imagines the company, ultimately, as a network of mutually supportive growers, bound together like a cooperative and committed to a shared standard. “Using the word standards is kind of generic and mundane,” he said. “But in that word are a lot of proprietary approaches that are designed to enable the growers to avoid a lot of the business hassles that are intrinsically difficult in this industry.”
This was essentially the business that Holcomb, the author of Washington’s legalization bill, had been hoping someone would create — what she described to me as “the empowerment of local, small businesses and giving them the opportunity to participate in the marketplace.” Whether such a business could survive was another question, but Davison told me that market research suggested they were tapping a deep vein. “When we did our quantitative research, one of the things that glaringly jumped out is that consumers want this,” he said. “They want to know where the product comes from, they want to know it’s clean and cared for, they want to know it was local grown and that it has a connection to their community. It just so happens that it fits perfectly with the regulatory requirement, and, more importantly, it fits with Willie.”
It’s also something that investors have bought into. As we sat together at Farm Aid, Davison had just closed the company’s first major deal: After ten months of negotiation, he had secured several million dollars in financial support from a cannabis investment firm, Tuatara Capital, whose chairman, Mark Zittman, and chief investment officer, Al Foreman, told me they were entirely onboard with Davison’s do-gooder approach. “At some point, we believe there will be an agency tasked with regulating safety standards,” Zittman said. “And when those standards are put in place, our goal is for Willie’s Reserve to be well inside standards.” Other companies, Foreman added, won’t be ready when the federal government steps in. “As standards come into play, and more rules and regulations become common, there are a number of operators in the industry who will have to change their basic blueprint,” he said.
All of the principals expected Willie’s Reserve to be in stores by the first of January. “We’ve got everything in place,” Davison said. “Now we get to turn on the machine.”
Back on the Honeysuckle Rose, I ask Nelson what he hopes the new company can accomplish. He starts to say something, then Annie chips in. “If you believe in the free market, then a decentralized market is free,” she says. “And with a free market, people have a choice to buy clean herb. There’s some over here, and some over there, and the market can demand what people want.”
I mention that this sounds a lot like the goal of Farm Aid: to buttress small farmers and sustainable agriculture so that customers have a healthy option. Willie nods. “We’ve had to be very careful because of the tax status with Farm Aid,” he says, referring to the fact that Farm Aid is a nonprofit organization and could risk its standing by breaking the law. “We don’t want to do anything that’s going to piss anybody off or give the federal guys any reason to come in and take Farm Aid money. It’ll all come together eventually, but it has to happen legally.”
He takes a long drag off his vaporizer and stares out the window again. “These problems could have been fixed on the first day,” he says finally, “but you have a lot of bureaucracy and bullshit, a lot of big corporations. So that’s what we’re up against. They’re trying to monopolize it all. That’s horseshit. That ain’t right, and we’ll do everything we can to keep that from happening.”
It’s getting late, and Nelson has to prepare for the final set of the night, an assortment of old-time gospel and country featuring all of the Farm Aid musicians at once. As I turn to leave, he stands up with a grin and offers me a massive joint. “Here,” he says, slipping it into my shirt pocket. “Have a little Reserve for the road.”
*This article appears in the November 2, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.
*This article has been corrected to show that Nelson's tour bus has a 334-inch wheelbase, not a 334-foot one.