Some people in the Oregon cannabis industry fret about a regulatory approach that’s led to fevered — some might even say cut-throat — competition.
Jeannette Ward Horton isn’t among them. She sees the Oregon environment driving the industry forward. It’s a view that comes from a unique perch.
Horton grew up and went to college in Atlanta, where she also worked for major corporations before relocating to Portland with her husband, Jesce Horton. He heads up Saints Cannabis, a cultivation business in Portland. Together they started NuLeaf Project, which with backing from the city of Portland is working to boost minority ownership, employment and success in cannabis (next week, NuLeaf will announce new grants to two businesses).
And then there’s her day job as a top executive at MJ Freeway, a Denver-based cannabis compliance software company founded by a cousin.
We talked to Horton recently to learn more about her path to cannabis and her hopes for the industry. The interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
How did you get your start in the corporate world? I was going to be a teacher, because that’s what most English majors do. But I had started at UPS as a corporate intern when I was 17. The Monday after I graduated, I went to work in a suit and pantyhose, which UPS made you wear back then. It was very, very formal.
Apparently you were OK with it. I was good at it and I thought, well, this is a whole thing I didn’t even know about. My parents hadn’t worked in corporate America. I didn’t know that was a path even available to me. It was exciting. One of my first projects was working on the CEO’s state of the company address, and I thought, “Well, that’s pretty incredible, doing this for a global company.”
You ended up staying at UPS for several years, right? I did. And I think it’s important to say, I started because of a program called INROADS, founded by a man named Frank C. Carr. He went to the Mall in Washington to see Martin Luther King Jr. and left there saying we should do something to help get African Americans into corporate America. Thank goodness for Frank Carr, who said, “Hey, let’s do something.”
You were moving up the ladder, in positions at Home Depot and then Coca-Cola. What motivated the shift to cannabis? There was certainly excitement about cannabis, an industry being built from scratch. But more than anything, I came to think about, if I’m going to put in these kinds of hours and spend this kind of energy, where do I really want to be? Where can I make the most impact? And I thought let’s go help my cousin and build her startup.
What was your relationship to cannabis then? I thought that adults should be able to do what they wanted. People can drink, so why shouldn’t you be able to smoke? And then I got into the industry and learned that the last thing you want to do is conflate cannabis and alcohol, because there’s no way alcohol is medicine — and the same goes for tobacco — while cannabis can most certainly be medicine.
How do you think Oregon is doing in developing its legal framework? I think we are building the best cannabis businesses, thanks to the fact that we’ve been so free with licensing. People complain about that. It’s controversial. I know it. I know it makes it tougher for our business. But boy, the ones that win are going to be the best of the best because they’ve competed in a real market.
You don’t worry that outside money could harm the local nature of the industry? If Jesce were here, he would be on the opposition side on this issue. But again, I think that’s the real world, a free-market economy. Investment brings you more innovation, more diversity. One of the companies that had applied for our (NuLeaf) grant is an African-American owned company and they don’t live in Oregon, but they opened their business here. Oregon presented that opportunity.
What are important elements in the history of race and cannabis in Portland that people need to know? One is that the African-American community has been disproportionately impacted by the war on drugs. In Portland, the only group arrested disproportionate to their population were African Americans. Native Americans are about 1 percent of the population, and were arrested at 1 percent. Asian, slightly less than their percentage. Latino, slightly less than their percentage. Whites, way less than their percentage. Only African Americans were more than their percentage.
How does NuLeaf aim to create change? That’s an effort to really click down and get local, get involved in Oregon, and solve what Jesce and I felt is the next problem for minority-owned businesses: capital. Once you have the right licensing environment, like you do in Oregon, you need the capital and then the kind of skill development and coaching that will help these entrepreneurs really compete at scale.
Looking at the national picture, how do you see things developing? I’m now in the camp that believes Trump will do something before he leaves. I think their trial balloon was sentencing reform, and after that, with Sessions gone, the path is certainly more clear.
JEANNETTE WARD HORTON
Title: Vice president, global marketing & communications, MJ Freeway; executive director, NuLeaf Project
Previous: Worked in marketing for Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta and New York, among other corporate positions. She was also the first vice chair on the board of directors of the Minority Cannabis Business Association.
Education: BA, English and women’s studies, Spelman College; MA, literature and theory, Georgia State University
Personal: Married to Jesce Horton, who operates Saints Cannabis, a cannabis cultivation and production business the couple owns