In 1967's The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock famously receives a one-word piece of career advice: "plastics." Today, that word of counsel could very well be replaced by "cannabis." Industry research firm BDS Analytics estimates that legal marijuana sales will grow from $16 billion in 2017 to $21 billion in 2021, making it one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S. As states continue to legalize its use, especially for medical purposes, savvy entrepreneurs are clamoring to capitalize on the business opportunity of a plant whose effects researchers are still studying.
No wonder "A Cannabis Conversation," a June event organized by the Los Angeles Entrepreneurship Affinity Group, sold out. The discussion's hosts, Chris Ganan, A&S '04, chief strategy officer for the California-based cannabis company MedMen, and Ryan Vandrey, an associate professor in the Johns Hopkins University Behavioral Pharmacology Research Unit, opened up about the business and research opportunities that legal marijuana use presents. Since California is one of the most recent states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, the subject was of particular interest to this audience of Johns Hopkins alumni and friends.
Ganan says legalization replaces the black market with a highly regulated legal market and generates tax revenue. Consumers who buy cannabis in an unregulated market "have no idea what is in the products they are consuming," he says, whereas companies like his follow strict growing standards and test their plants before they hit dispensaries.
While Ganan sees great financial promise in the burgeoning industry, a scientist like Vandrey views it as an opportunity to fill the research gaps around marijuana use. Certain compounds found in cannabis have been proved to have clear medical benefits—mitigating side effects of chemotherapy and managing symptoms of advanced HIV/AIDS—but marijuana doesn't necessarily benefit everyone. "The science tells us that cannabis, like other drugs, can have both helpful and harmful consequences," says Vandrey, whose research aims to understand the impact of cannabis based on how the drug is used (frequency and dosage, for example) and an individual's characteristics, such as genetics, age, health, and environment. "I have 10 lifetimes' worth of work laid out in my head," Vandrey says.