How a Reagan Veteran Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Weed Business
‘On a personal level, on a profit level, and on a political basis, I determined this was a choice to do good.’
I just learned about 4/20, on my tour of a cannabis cultivation center in a nondescript warehouse on an industrial strip next to a freeway in Washington, D.C., where I live.
Licensed under the name Phyto Management, the center I visited is the eight cultivation business licensed in the District, and its co-founders, lawyer Edward Weidenfeld, who was general counsel to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign, and Andras Kirshner, who has a degree in sustainable agriculture, point to the growing status and profitability of the cannabis industry.
These are not aging flower children. Weidenfeld is a prosperous estate and asset protection lawyer, a pillar of the pre-Trump GOP elite. His wife, Sheila Weidenfeld, served as First Lady Betty Ford’s press secretary. Kirshner, a friend of Weidenfeld’s sons, brings scientific knowledge and has hired a fellow alumnus from the University of Maine with a master’s degree in plant breeding and genetics. They hope to develop strains of cannabis exclusive to Phyto.
“Not everyone has such a regimen,” Weidenfeld says, as we tour various stages of the process, blue booties on our feet to avoid contamination, and with dark glasses at the ready to protect our eyes in the brightly lit rooms filled with plants at different stages of growth. “This idea it’s a weed and all you do is toss out the seed might get you something that might get you high, and might give you medical relief,” he says, but his goal is to produce a product pure enough and consistent enough in its dosage to pass muster with his neurologist.
Diagnosed seven years ago with Parkinson’s, Weidenfeld wanted to try medical marijuana for symptomatic relief of the tremors associated with Parkinson’s, and for its potentially protective benefits. His neurologist was skeptical though not averse, “but only if I could be 100 percent certain of what I was purchasing. He told me my immune system was already heavily burdened, and I didn’t want any toxins or fungicides or heavy metals, and I should be wary of buying any of this on the street.”
He knew little at that point about marijuana and the industry developing around its evolving legality, but says with a laugh, “I was in college in the seventies, which means at least I got a contact high.”
Beyond that, it was a whole new world opening up to him. His two adult sons had introduced him to Andras and his expertise, and laws were changing around medical marijuana and recreational use. The American Bar Association issued a ruling of general advice in 2017 that lawyers representing cannabis growers and sellers of a drug that remains illegal under federal law would not lose admission to the bar.
But getting involved in the industry can still cost someone their federal security clearance, which concerned Weidenfeld, who was on the board of the National Defense University. When he confided in a friend, who is a criminal defense attorney, about his increasing interest in cannabis, he was told, “Forget about it. You’re talking about a federal crime.”
He remembers thinking, “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” so he waited for his term on the prestigious university board to expire before fully committing to the business of growing marijuana and cultivating cannabis.
Now in his seventies, Weidenfeld says, “On a personal level, on a profit level, and on a political basis, I determined this was a choice to do good. And it’s given me a feeling I haven’t had since 1964 when I went to the South and did the Selma to Montgomery march.”
He had grown tired in his professional life as a corporate and estate planning lawyer, and he welcomes the radical change.
“I didn’t feel the meaning that I’d felt earlier of somehow being a cog in producing good. I began to feel like I was moving piles of money in a wheelbarrow from one pile to another, and this was an opportunity to work with a young person I really respected.”
He and Andras spent a lot of time showing me the process that extracts the highly concentrated THC (Tetrahydrocannabinol), which is what gives you a high, and CBD (cannabidiol), which is beneficial without being mind-altering, for vape cartridges, capsules and lozenges, The facility produces 50 pounds of saleable cannabis each month, and is on track to double that output this year.
Is the business profitable? Yes, Andras says, explaining that retail cannabis goes for $15 to $20 a gram, and $50 to $75 for an eighth of an ounce. The cost of cultivation is $7.50 to $10 a gram, which means there is a 100 percent markup in DC’s five licensed dispensaries.
Weidenfeld rarely uses the word marijuana, “because of its negative connotation as a party drug,” he says, preferring the more scientific term cannabis. “Sometimes I slip.”
Former Republican House Speaker John Boehner, once an ardent opponent of legalizing marijuana, announced earlier this month that he and former Massachusetts Governor William Weld, also a Republican, are joining the advisory board of a marijuana company, Acreage Holdings, that operates in eleven states. Boehner tweeted that his thinking on cannabis “has evolved,” and that the drug can help veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress and people fighting opioid addiction.
Asked how friends and associates regard his new calling, Weidenfeld says, “The surprise is the number of old political associates who’ve asked me if I could hook them up.”
Whatever stigma once existed has vanished with the prospect of a new growth industry where Republicans out of step with Trumpism can feel at home.
“My view of politics has changed more than my view of cannabis,” says Weidenfeld, who believes the drug is helping him neurologically. “But I also know when you’ve got a degenerative disease, and there’s something that makes you laugh and takes your mind off the disease, that’s what is medically beneficial.”