A former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent now at the forefront of a global cannabis industry boom, Patrick Moen, is not your average executive.
As the managing director of compliance and senior counsel for the Seattle-based cannabis investment firm Privateer Holdings, Moen helps the company—whose portfolio includes Canadian licensed producer Tilray, media platform Leafly, and lifestyle brand Marley Natural—operate in accordance with the law.
But prior to his move to the Privateer Holdings in November 2013, Moen worked on the opposite end of the spectrum as the head of the D.E.A. task force in Portland, Oregon, where he led a team of 15 agents and officers as they worked to dismantle drug rings and shut down labs throughout the state.
While he says he oversaw some cannabis enforcement, it wasn’t something Moen and his team prioritized. In fact, his frustration with the agency’s internal policies on cannabis was what pushed him to leave.
Recalling the infamous testimony given by then-D.E.A administrator Michele Leonhart to Congress in 2012, Moen was troubled by her refusal to admit that cannabis was less harmful than crack or heroin.
“That in particular really stuck in mind,” he tells the Straight by phone from his office in Seattle. “I had a really hard time reconciling that this was the official position of our agency.”
After moving from a D.E.A. position on the East Coast to work in Portland, Moen saw firsthand how, despite the way Leonhart and others at the agency insisted on demonizing cannabis, regulations seemed to work. Prohibition began to look more and more to him like a failing policy.
“When I came to the West Coast, I realized that regulating cannabis was a good thing,” he says.
It’s why Moen believes that despite U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ attempt to crack down on states with legal cannabis, it’s unlikely that federal prosecutors in the U.S. will change the way they’ve been handling cannabis-related cases.
By rescinding the Cole Memo, a document issued to federal prosecutors in 2013 that set forth guidelines to be used when deciding on enforcement, Sessions is expecting prosecutors to eschew the Obama-era recommendations and return to “the well-established principles that govern all federal prosecutions”, as per his January 4 memo.
But Moen calls Sessions’ move “largely symbolic” and not necessarily a matter of policy. He’s fairly confident that a combination of dwindling resources and common sense means it’s unlikely that the U.S. will see a change in how cannabis cases are dealt with in the courts.
“We’re looking at federal prosecutors and federal agents that have limited resources and competing priorities,” he says, mentioning the opioid crisis, currently at the top of the D.E.A’s list.
“But the bottom line is, the state regulations are working. We’re taking money away from criminal organizations, we are generating tax revenue, and we’re creating jobs.”
Prosecutors and agents might be federal employees, he says, but they’re local people living and working in the communities that are affected by state cannabis regulations.
“They see what is happening around them, and they support it,” he says. “I don’t think there is any real appetite to change anything.”
When asked whether the move might have an effect on the cannabis market north of the border, Moen says it’s unlikely that it would create any long-term downward pressure on Canadian companies. If anything, he says, it might make business opportunities in Canada look more appealing.
At Privateer Holdings, a privately held equity firm that has raised more than $150 million to date to invest in the cannabis industry, Moen says the majority of the company’s funding has been deployed outside of the United States, with its single-largest investment being Nanaimo-based licensed producer Tilray.
“That should tell you where we think the opportunities are,” he says, touting the company’s global approach. It’s also invested in emerging markets in Europe, Latin America, Australia, and New Zealand.
When comparing the approach of the Canadian government to that of other jurisdictions, particularly in the United States, Moen says one thing Canada lacks is innovation in products and brands.
“On the medical side to date, they’ve been very restrictive on those factors, and early indications about the adult-use side are only incrementally better,” he says.
In the U.S., the market share of nonsmokeable cannabis products is increasing rapidly, with edibles garnering a large portion of the market. Moen says Canada has made a mistake by deciding to wait up to one year after the implementation of legalization in July 2018 to allow for the manufacture and sale of edibles.
“We’ve had enough experience with them here in the U.S. in terms of portioning and packaging and THC content, that they’ve ironed out a lot of the difficulties,” he says.
“I think if you wanted to roll it out in Canada you could fairly easily, and I’m not quite sure I understand the delay, other than the desire to move a little cautiously.”