15 Cannabis Industry Professionals Who Made a Difference
The individuals who’ve risen to prominence at seminal moments in the cannabis industry’s history speak volumes about how the sector has matured over time. From a group of passionate advocates and small-business operators who courted controversy and potential arrest by demanding the end of federal prohibition and working to end social stigma, the industry has matured over time into a vibrant economic engine that attracts high-powered executives from some of the most well-known traditional consumer-packaged-goods companies.
People like Bruce Margolin and Virgil Grant have been in the fight since before the first state took its initial steps toward legalization. Scientists like the late Raphael Mechoulam provided potent evidence the plant and its components offer therapeutic benefits. Al Harrington brought the power of celebrity and personal conviction to the battle for restorative justice and social equity. Technologists including Jessica Billingsley, Ryan G. Smith, Zach Silverman, and Socrates Rosenfeld delivered infrastructure that continues to help the industry evolve today. Some individuals helped define what the sector aspires to be, while others we might rather forget helped the industry figure out what it didn’t want to be.
The following luminaries are only a few of those who’ve left legacies.
Bruce Margolin, Esq.
Iconic criminal defense attorney Bruce Margolin has been a stalwart defender of cannabis culture since 1967. In fact, he literally wrote the book on cannabis law, The Margolin Guide, which he continues to update. The founder (in 1973) and director emeritus of Los Angeles NORML remains as indefatigable a proponent of comprehensive reform today at eighty-two as he was as a “young pup lawyer.” His daughter Allison Margolin followed in her father’s footsteps and became a criminal defense attorney and author of books about the law.
Being born with a silver spoon in his mouth may have given Ben Kovler some advantages, but he’s made his bones in cannabis largely on his own. As co-founder, chairman, and chief executive officer at Green Thumb Industries, Kovler oversees a massive enterprise employing more than 4,000 people and spanning eighteen manufacturing facilities and eighty-six retail locations across fifteen states. Kovler’s mastery of capital allocation and acquisition strategy are evident in the company’s positive cash flow and $2.8-billion market cap.
Peter Horvath was among the vanguard of a new breed of cannabis executives: suits with mainstream bona fides. After C-suite stints at power-retailers Victoria’s Secret, American Eagle Outfitters, DSW, and The Limited, he founded publicly traded Green Growth Brands. His plan to transform cannabis retail didn’t work: GGB went bankrupt within two years. Horvath subsequently spent almost two years as CEO at Hightimes Holding Corp. before leaving the industry in 2022.
Virgil Grant deeply understands the need for effective social-equity programs. A thrice-convicted felon who spent six years in federal prison on charges related to his licensed dispensaries, the co-founder of the Southern California Coalition and the California Minority Alliance is a powerful advocate for both the industry and people of color. “My thing is to make sure I hold open the door that I have been allowed to walk through for my people to get in,” he said. Today, he’s the CEO at California Cannabis.
Aaron Smith co-founded the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA) in 2010, wrangling about thirty businesses into an organization that advocates for policy change at the federal level. Thirteen years and more than 1,000 additional members later, NCIA wields considerable lobbying clout on Capitol Hill. Although the organization’s two big issues from the beginning—banking and Internal Revenue Code Section 280E—remain unresolved, Smith said politicians’ attitudes about the industry have changed. “Even our opponents … see us as a serious industry that at least deserves to be listened to even if they don’t appreciate what we’re doing,” he said.
Possibly the industry’s most notorious entrepreneur, Adam Bierman disappeared in 2020 amid allegations of financial mismanagement and personnel shenanigans at MedMen, the once-golden retailer he co-founded and served as CEO for ten years. The company’s meteoric rise was the stuff of legend … as was its fall from grace. More than two years later, after regrouping and working on a book, Bierman returned, touting a new retail concept: Megabud, a chain of cannabis convenience stores. So far, the idea hasn’t gotten much traction.
TerrAscend Executive Chairman Jason Wild has an extraordinary knack for picking winners. Described by those who know him well as a bastion of integrity and a brilliant investor, Wild’s JW Asset Management and Canopy Growth co-founded TerrAscend with $52 million in 2017. Today the company is valued at $622 million and just finished its fifth consecutive quarter of positive cash flow. This year, Wild raised $21 million in equity capital and uplisted the company onto the Toronto Stock Exchange—the first U.S. company to achieve the feat.
As founder and CEO of Acreage Holdings, Kevin Murphy was one of the most powerful players in the industry when his company signed a $300-million acquisition agreement with Canada’s Canopy Growth Corporation in April 2019. He remains chairman of Acreage’s board as the deal nears completion, but most of his attention these days is on Viridescent Capital Partners, a cannabis private-equity firm he founded in 2020.
For a man with the weight of one of the world’s largest cannabis companies on his shoulders, Curaleaf CEO Matt Darin is surprisingly candid and affable. With operations in twenty-one U.S. states and eight European countries, the vertically integrated giant is cash-flow-positive. Curaleaf acquired Darin when it acquired Grassroots in 2020 and named him CEO, in part, because of his background in finance, accounting, and real estate.
Rogelio “Ro” Choy joined Eaze in 2018 as chief operating officer. A year later, he was named CEO following the abrupt departure of the previous CEO, who resigned ahead of a bank-fraud indictment. Choy kept Eaze out of the feds’ crosshairs and steered the company through a transition from delivery platform to vertically integrated, plant-touching operation. He left the industry in December 2022.
The first scientist to isolate CBD and THC (in the early 1960s), biochemist Raphael Mechoulam, PhD, spent a lifetime researching cannabinoids and the endocannabinoid system, primarily at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His groundbreaking work led to recognition of cannabis’s profound therapeutic potential. Mechoulam was still engaged in research at the time of his death at ninety-two in March 2023.
Jane Technologies co-founder and CEO Socrates Rosenfeld turned his vision for cannabis ecommerce into a powerhouse platform that redefined how retailers, brands, and consumers connect. Jane now offers a point-of-sale platform, is developing a virtual budtender, and incorporates a sophisticated programmatic advertising option that shares revenue with participating dispensaries.
Jessica Billingsley became the first female CEO of a cannabis tech company traded on the Nasdaq after the compliance-software firm she founded, MJ Freeway, merged with publicly traded MTech Acquisition Corp. to become Akerna Corp. In early 2023, Akerna sold its software business and announced plans to merge with bitcoin-mining company Gryphon Digital Mining.
Viola Brands is notable as one of the first and largest Black-owned cannabis companies. Founder and CEO Al Harrington, a former pro basketball player, launched the vertically integrated brand in 2014; it now operates in nine states. Harrington is deeply involved with all aspects of the business, including a social-equity incubator through which he has vowed to create 100 Black millionaires.
Ryan G. Smith and Zach Silverman
LeafLink has grown tremendously since young tech entrepreneurs Ryan G. Smith and Zach Silverman launched the wholesale platform in 2015. Now a complete end-to-end virtual supply-chain management tool for brands, distributors, and retailers, the platform incorporates a payment solution as well as customer-relationship-management components. The company processes more than $4 billion in sales annually.