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The Most Influential People in the Cannabis Industry – Past, Present, and Future

cannabis industry
Written by Alexandra Hicks

Cannabis is an industry built on rebellion, healing, innovation, and perseverance. The cannabis industry is full of incredible people who laid the groundwork in the fields of research and activism to get us where we are today – one of the fastest growing industries on earth with a global economic impact estimated to be roughly $90 billion.

In short, cannabis consumers of the past, present, and future are indebted to all the people on this list. Their tireless work and dedication has led to important medical advancements, cultural cannabis acceptance, and legal reform in an industry where every advancement is a hard-fought win.

The people highlighted here are AMAZING. Of course, we couldn’t include everyone on this list, but there are many many more influential people in the world of cannabis that deserve a shout out. If you’d like to suggest anyone in particular, drop us a line in the comment section below! And if you’d like to learn more about the cannabis industry as a whole, make sure you subscribe to the CBD TESTERS WEEKLY NEWSLETTERS, a leading source for industry information, as well as exclusive deals on flowers and other products!

Dr. Raphael Mechoulam

cannabis industry

It seems appropriate to begin with the ‘Godfather of THC’ himself, renowned Israeli scientist, Professor Raphael Mechoulam from Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Mechoulam is famous for his groundbreaking discoveries in cannabis research, starting with identifying THC in 1964, as well as many other cannabinoids to follow.

He has dedicated his life to studying cannabis compounds, and his early work laid the foundation for the discovery of the endocannabinoid system (ECS). Mechoulam and his research group have also conducted many studies on Anandamide, the first known human endocannabinoid, referred to as the “bliss molecule” for its primary role in homeostasis and regulating numerous different physiological functions.

Currently, Professor Mechoulam is one of two winners of the esteemed Harvey Prize for his ground-breaking research in the world of medicinal cannabis, particularly in the area of cancer research. His studies in this field have given the entire world a new perspective on cannabis as a healing plant, rather than just a recreational drug.

Jack Herer

Jack Herer – aptly nicknamed ‘the Emperor of Hemp – grew up in upstate Buffalo, NY, but he was born in New York City in 1939. Herer served in the U.S. Army during the Korean war and after finishing his contract in 1967, he moved to Los Angeles and began working at a neon sign company. It was in California that Jack Herer tried marijuana for his first time at the ripe of 30 years old. After falling in love with the plant and its effects, he quit his job and opened a head shop in Venice Beach, a mecca for art and hippie culture at the time.

By the 1970s, Jack Herer became a powerful presence in the movement to legalize cannabis. Herer spent a lot of time at the Library of Congress, reviewing decades of government-backed research on marijuana benefits and hemp fiber uses. He used this information for his 1985 book, The Emperor Wears No Clothes, which marked a watershed in his career as a cannabis industry activist.

His book quickly became known as the “holy grail” or “bible” of cannabis knowledge. To this day it is still viewed as a classic and a must-read for anyone with any sort of involvement with cannabis. During a time when misinformation was rampant and anything the government said about weed was viewed with great cynicism, the majority of people who wanted real, accurate information about cannabis turned to Jack Herer’s book.

Wanda James

cannabis industry

Another true American hero, Wanda James is a military veteran, serving as former lieutenant in the United States Navy, and she also worked on the national Finance Committee during the Obama Administration. No stranger to challenges and breaking barriers, James is best known in the industry for opening the first black-owned cannabis dispensary in the United States, Simply Pure.

Along with her husband Scott Durrah, they became the first African Americans, legally licensed in America, to own not only a dispensary, but also a cultivation facility and an edible company. Despite having built a cannabis empire in her home town of Denver, Colorado, James has remained a powerful advocate for equity, empowering black-owned business owners (women especially) to follow suit.

“Never ever, ever, ever give up,” advises James. If you are truly an entrepreneur you never stop. Failure is not an option. Lessons may sometimes be costly, both financially and emotionally, but true entrepreneurs never say never. We say, ‘OK.  What did I learn and how did that make me smarter, stronger and more experienced and ready to do it again?”

Cassandra Farrington

Cassandra co-founded Marijuana Business Daily in 2011, as well as a large portfolio of resources for the B2B cannabis marketplace which includes MJBizCon, the world’s largest industry event. Under her leadership, both the company and the additional networking projects and conferences grew rapidly and MJBiz is one of the most globally recognized cannabis brands that currently exists.

A true entrepreneurial visionary, Farrington found quick success in the cannabis industry and has used that to facilitate countless networking and growth opportunities for industry stakeholders. Although she has a draw to helping push women forward, her events have been beneficial for everyone, and are always the most anticipated and fruitful ones of the year.

Some wise words of advice from Cassandra: “It is indeed possible to forge your own self-funded, and therefore self-controlled, path to success in the cannabis industry. Don’t assume that just because everyone else is raising money, that you need to do that too.  At the very least, don’t allow that be a default position without exploring all other avenues and possibilities. The flexibility of controlling your own destiny – and that of your business – is well worth the effort.”

Willie Nelson

willie nelson

The name Willie Nelson is basically synonymous with cannabis culture. He is just about as famous for his activism as he is for his music. Willie Nelson is a lifelong supporter of fair cannabis regulations and a prominent advocate of hemp farming and manufacture. “Hemp production in America was stifled for so long, but it could now make all the difference for small independent farmers,” Nelson stated. “Hemp isn’t just good for our farmers and our economy, it’s good for our soil, our environment—and our health.”

Nelson is a co-chair of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and has been a part of the fight for cannabis legalization for decades. Nelson wrote an autobiography titled ‘Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I’m Gone.’ In it, he commended the legalization of recreational cannabis in certain states, saying that he was happy he “didn’t have to fly to Amsterdam anymore.”

In 2015, Nelson released his line of cannabis products under the brand name Willie’s Reserve, which he sells at dispensaries in numerous different legal states, as well a large variety of accessories. It’s no doubt that Nelson’s fame was incredibly beneficial in helping to highlight the fight for the legalization of marijuana, although, it could be argued that his die-hard efforts in the cannabis industry helped make him even more famous.

Snoop Dogg   

I don’t know about you, but when I think of Snoop Dogg, I immediately think of weed. California-born Snoop Dogg, known formally as Calvis Broadaus Jr., is a rapper, singer, songwriter, actor, producer, media personality, and businessman – and all of his aforementioned enterprises are heavily focused on cannabis.

When it comes to modern cannabis culture, it’s hard to think of anyone who has made a larger impact than Snoop Dogg. While many celebrity brands are centered largely on self-promotion and sales, the company that Snoop started back in 2015 actually helps other businesses get off the ground financially. Casa Verde Capital, Snoop Dogg’s venture capital firm, specializes in providing funding to startups, early-stage, and emerging cannabis companies that have high growth potential but don’t have the money to make a full launch.

Also, as of April 2021, Snoop Dogg is now officially in the fight to legalize marijuana at the federal level. According to POLITICO, Snoop dog is partnering with Weldon Angelos and Charles Kock (criminal justice reform specialist and billionaire cannabis activist, respectively) to form The Cannabis Freedom Alliance. The goal of this coalition is to bring awareness to lawmakers, mostly Republican, who remain on-the-fence or completely against cannabis legalization.

Keith Stroup

keith stroup

Keith Stroup is the founder of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, a grassroots organization that has been dedicated to reforming national cannabis laws since 1970. With chapters in numerous different states and quite a few countries as well, it’s safe to say that NORML has had a significant impact in shaping the cannabis industry into what it currently is.

Keith Stroup was the groups executive director until 1979, at which point he took a break, became an attorney, and got heavy into lobbying for artists and family farmers. Stroup returned to NORML in 1994 and joined the board of directors. By 1995, Keith Stroup was back in position as NORML’s executive director. Although he eventually stepped down from that role too, he stays working with NORML and will continue to do so until fair marijuana laws are achieved for all.

One of Keith Stroup’s most famous quotes: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with the responsible use of marijuana by adults and it should be of no interest or concern to the government. They have no business knowing whether we smoke or why we smoke.” Oh how right he is.

Justin Hartfield          

If you live in a legal state, it’s highly probable that you have or are currently using Weedmaps to aid in your cannabis shopping. It’s a go-to app for me and most of the people I know. Although once upon a time, the entire concept was pretty basic – simply to help users find dispensaries in their area – but it has since blossomed into a complex network of everything-cannabis, where you can find dispensaries, products, doctors, search prices, look for specific brands, and even make purchases through the app.

We can all thank Justin Hartfield for this innovation. Hartfield is a Southern California-based entrepreneur and venture capitalist that co-founded Weedmaps in 2008, right at the beginning of the soon-to-be-legal modern cannabis industry. Initially, they had one office in Irvine, California. Now, this is where the company is headquartered but they have since expanded exponentially, with over 400 employees and offices in Denver, Tucson, New York, Barcelona and Toronto.

Although Hartfield stepped down as company CEO in 2016, Weedmaps continues to play a huge role in how people shop for cannabis in legal markets. It also set the stage for how numerous dispensaries now operate their own websites, although no one seems to do quite like Weedmaps still.

Nancy Do

nancy do

Falling in line with a common theme of the cannabis industry, Nancy Do fully embodies what it means to persevere. As a Vietnamese American whose family came to the US as refugees, Nancy knows all too well what it means to push for inclusion and representation, and this drive is what helped her build a name and solid reputation in the cannabis industry.

Nancy is the founder of 2 different companies – Endo Industries: a company focused on perfecting plant genetics and helping growers utilize the best cultivation techniques possible, and Wana Wellness, an herbal supplement company that leverages her knowledge in cannabinoid research and product development to make healthy supplements and edibles. In December 2019, MJBizDaily named Nancy Do the first-ever Industry Impact Award Winner and in May 2020, she was listed as one of the 35 Most Influential Women in Cannabis by Ganja Entrepreneur.

“I think women-led management and product development teams have an advantage in creating products that are authentic and resonate well with women,” Do stated. “So much of our industry is about building relationships and trust, and that process can be bolstered when women consumers see other women standing behind the products on the shelves. In addition to reaching female consumers effectively, I think women bring a collaborative and cooperative spirit to an industry that is too often driven by ego and competition.”

Lester Grinspoon

Lester Grinspoon is known for his compelling work in the field of mental health, holding the title Associate Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He began researching cannabis in the 1960s, when it started gaining popularity in the United States, especially among youth. His initial goal was to prove how ‘dangerous’ cannabis is, claiming that he want to “prevent harm from coming to the foolish young people who would not listen to, or could not believe or understand the warnings about its dangers.”

However, it did not take him very long to realize that that he was on the wrong side of the fight and eventually, he publicly acknowledged that cannabis was not really as bad as he once believed. In 1971, he published ‘Marihuana Reconsidered’, a work that outlined the safety of profile of cannabis, as well as discussed some of the benefits of using it in combination with various forms of modern pharmaceutical medications.

After a complete 180 on his original views, by the 2000s Grinspoon was a devout cannabis advocate who has spoken at many NORML conferences and supported numerous pieces of legislation that helped push the industry forward. In 2010, he endorsed an initiative that decriminalized recreational cannabis use in the state of Washington, and he was even awarded by High Times magazine for his contributions to the industry in 2015.

Final Thoughts

If you have any stake in cannabis, it’s important to know that these are some of the people that helped bring the industry to the place it is now, and they will continue to have a huge impact on its future. Although cannabis is still federally prohibited, it’s closer to being legalized than ever before, and we can thank the individuals on this list for their unrelenting efforts in the areas of research and development, activism, advocacy, and networking. If it were not for them, who knows where we would be now?

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About the author

Alexandra Hicks

Managing editor at Cannadelics and U.S based journalist, helping spread the word about the many benefits of using cannabis and psychedelics.