Dave Rheins speaks in bites and headlines – evocative fragments that call up thick slices of American pop, mainstream, and counter-culture. It’s a neat trick, one perfected over 25+ years in media, advertising sales, and marketing for the likes of Rolling Stone, SPIN, iVillage, Corbis, Time Warner and America Online.
Most recently, he is founder of the Marijuana Business Association (MJBA), which organizes trade events and networking opportunities for the legal cannabis, mmj, and hemp industries. Rheins is also responsible for the growth of its extensive digital publishing arm – a daily diet of cannabis-centric news and industry profiles: MJHeadline News on Facebook, MJNewsNetwork.com, MJLegalNews.com, MJMoms.com and Marijuana Channel One on YouTube.
Listen through Rheins’ quilt of buzzwords, and you’ll get a rapid-fire, holographic view of the rise and fall (and rise) of America’s cultural and economic relationship with pot. Here he talks about why today’s cannabis movement will be won with both peace ‘n love values – and a focus on the bottom line.
Where did your path in media begin?
I grew up in conservative Indianapolis; Straight-laced. Law and order. American Values. I was a smart kid, editor of the school newspaper and all that, but heavily influenced by counter culture. So I always felt – in that context – that I was an outsider.
I got a journalism degree. I knew I could write, but had nothing to say. So after college I took off to the Central African Republic to teach English for the Peace Corps. My experiences there made me ask, “Why was I so privileged?” I thought media was the way to tell those stories – the stories that happened outside of the cocoon I came from.
I got a job at Rolling Stone answering phones, doing publicity, promotion, pushing the college journalism program, working with the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.
In the ‘60s and 70s – when I was growing up – there were these great revolutionary and unifying movements: Civil rights, sexual liberation, Anti-War.
We thought that legalizing pot would be the next phase of American culture. There was a lot of hope that it was going to be a new world.
Everything sort of crescendo-ed in 1968. But then Nixon came to power and doubled down on hippies, doubled down on pot smokers. Things broke up and there was this ‘liberalization’ that felt diluted. America turned far more conservative; Reagan was elected and this schism happens in the culture with the War on Drugs. I looked around and realized that the culture was divided between those who smoked pot – or at least those who didn’t buy into this idea that it was dangerous and should be criminalized – and those who didn’t.
And throughout that time Rolling Stone served as a counterpoint to that. It gave rise to people like Hunter S. Thompson, and more subversive, critical writers. What RS did was to give voice to that alien, un-resonated perspective – voices you heard through music but not on mainstream TV or radio. It took seriously everything that the music embraces: Pop culture, sex, no nukes – we took it seriously. Anti-war, yippes, psychedelics – we took it seriously.
When you talk about the cultural divide you make it sound as if the plant itself has a certain power – a grip on human consciousness.
You’re talking about the individual’s relationship to ‘God’ or whatever your concept for that is – and the world. The individual as it meets the universal as it flows into all things.
Human beings have always been exploring the relationship between themselves and the universe, the gestalt of the human circus. It’s what separates human consciousness from that of animals.
I think we have gone through a period in Western culture that basically acted from a sense of disconnect between man and nature. We believed we could rape the environment and there would be no consequences, that we could plan obsolescence as a cultural driver and that would create us as Maters of the Universe. And that mindset has come and gone. Other cultures have explored that connection with intoxicants – peyote, Ayahuasca, cannabis, mushrooms – along side ritual behavior. And some part of us still craves that connection and understanding. And I would suggest that people who are interested in cannabis are interested in exploring those connections. It helps keep us sensitive to those things.
The MJBA’s publishing arm is a pretty vital (and prolific) part of the operation. How did you come by your marketing chops?
I was an editor for Rolling Stones’ B2B publication, and it was focused on music and marketing. This was the late 80’s; MTV was taking off and I became an ad and marketing expert, promoting music through advertising. It became a ‘theme’ in my career: the intersection of culture (in this case music), marketing and technology. I loved being a writer, but found I was less excited by the traditional journalistic framework, and more into the idea of changing and directing peoples’ minds.
And this ‘theme’ really continued for every incarnation of my career. I became the ad director and finally the President of Spin magazine, I worked for Helen Gurley Brown of Cosmopolitan, for Bill Gates when he launched Corbis. AOL/Time Warner. This is another theme: I’ve worked with all these amazing, crazy entrepreneurs who have a vision. And I kept finding myself in rooms with these very innovative, driven people, and it always had a quality of serendipity, like, “Wow! You are exactly the right person at the right time.”
What inspired you to found the MJBA? What need were you trying to serve?
The MJBA is at heart a trade organization. We started in December of 2012. We’re national, but have our roots in the community. It’s B2B. We’re interested in helping to build a sustainable cannabis industry and we do this by providing information, community and opportunity.
We function like a traditional trade organization, but we are also helping to build the infrastructure. Because of prohibition, there were fewer resources: government or private funding, very little coherent information for participants on regulation, consumer behavior, competitive behavior – food chain stuff. Where can you get products and professional services? Things like security, distribution, which are integral to this business – where do you go? Or real estate, and traditional banking – because of laws and the residual stigma – are very hard to navigate.
There was so much fear generated through prohibition. People were fed a steady diet of misinformation. There was very little understanding of the chemistry of the plant and its medical benefits, no knowledge about rules and legislation. And for a long time this created a knee-jerk perception about what the world would look like if it were legalized.
It turns out: It would look a lot like it already does but with more tax revenue, more inclusion, more jobs, more people involved and maybe finding their niche as entrepreneurs, more activity on Main Street – but maybe with the smell of a little cannabis smoke in the air.
I feel like what we’re doing now is the ultimate extension of the movement that began in the 60s. But being on the leading edge of that means doing it through economics – by creating a legitimate, successful and highly profitable industry. We want to ensure prohibition ends once and for all by reintegrating disenfranchised parts of the culture – all the people who offend that ‘50s sensibility.
There is now a flood of people trying to enter the industry – many of whom have a lot of money. Can we still say that ‘Big Pot’ is peopled by the disenfranchised?
In Washington State, we’re lucky to be in a more progressive place. But reactive Indiana, where I come from – and many other places in America and the world – are still not free. So no – until it is legal everywhere we can’t say that it is safe and inclusive.
What I see now are several generations of people who love this country and want to reinvigorate it – and we understand that it must be inclusive. It’s ok if you’re over 50, if you’re fat, or disabled, or convicted. Our success and failures come in conjunction with each other.
In order for us to succeed in the revolution that we tried and failed at in the ‘70s we have to recognize that the real battle is economic. It’s part of a growing up process for America.
We’re not petulant young kids who can just binge drink and overeat, and ruin the environment and wage war. None of that is sustainable. We’re adults now and we need to make the rules.