In late 2010, Derek Peterson was fired from his job as a vice president at Morgan Stanley, where he had been managing a $US100 million fund.
But instead of looking for another job on Wall Street, Peterson decided to dive head first into the marijuana industry side project that had gotten him fired in the first place.
Nearly four years later, he says it’s working out.
By operating his own dispensary in northern California and selling hydroponic equipment to marijuana growers as CEO of his company Terra Tech, Peterson says he’s helping people get a product that actually makes their lives better, a feeling he didn’t necessarily have during his time on Wall Street.
“You saw what happened in the meltdown,” he tells Business Insider. “I didn’t always feel super great about the products I was putting out into the market, but now I do. I happen to be selling something that is federally illegal, but oddly enough, I feel way better about what I’m selling than I did before.”
Peterson is one of a growing number of people who have left their high-paying, stable corporate lifestyles to enter the legal marijuana industry — a sector that will bring in an estimated $US1.5 billion this year, with potential for even greater riches as states continue to legalise the drug for medicinal and recreational use.
For Peterson, the decision to found GrowOp Technology, which later became Terra Tech after a reverse merger that took the company public in 2012, was based primarily on the massive entrepreneurial opportunity he saw in the industry. In fact, one friend of his was operating a dispensary that was pulling in $US18 million a year.
Today, Terra Tech, which sells mobile trailers outfitted with technology to optimise marijuana growing — appropriate lighting, carbon filtration systems, temperature monitoring technology — has about 40 employees and has raised $US7 million in 2014, alone.
Meanwhile, the dispensary he owns personally in Northern California sees 900 patients a day.
“We’re starting to see some wind at our back at this point,” Peterson says, referring to the recent legalization in Colorado and Washington, and the Justice Department’s decision not to come after users in those states.
For Katherine Smith, formerly director of social media at Petco, the decision to join the dispensary review site WeedMaps was more about the chance to help people who use the drug medicinally at a historic moment in the push for legalization.
Smith, who became WeedMaps’ chief marketing officer in July, says several of her friends were worried she would damage her career by permanently sullying her resume with the residue of a pot job.
But, she says, the issue was too close to her heart to ignore. When Smith was nine, her mother suffered an injury that left her with chronic back pain. Six years ago, she was prescribed medicinal marijuana for the pain, and it has helped her immensely.
“It really changed her quality of life,” Smith tells Business Insider. “When I really started looking into medicinal marijuana and what it can do for people with epilepsy and other problems, it’s such an amazing opportunity to help push things along.”
“Also, recreationally, I think it’s awesome.”
Indeed, there are plenty of people flocking to the industry simply because they love pot.
Al Olson, who announced earlier this week he was leaving his senior editor job with NBC News to become managing editor of the marijuana news site Marijuana.com, fondly recalls getting into pot in 1973 as a freshman at San Rafael High School in California’s North Bay.
Two years prior, a group of San Rafael students began meeting up to smoke pot on campus at 4:20 p.m. every day, creating a ritual that soon became a lynchpin of marijuana culture.
“It’s a dream come true,” Olson tells Business Insider.
He fell out of the habit of smoking in his 20s and 30s, but later got back into pot when he found that eating edibles helped him sleep better.
Since 2010, he has been studying the industry intensely in preparation for an opportunity like the one he has received at Marijuana.com, a news site owned by Ghost Group, the venture capital firm that also owns WeedMaps.
At Marijuana.com, he hopes to produce in-depth journalism on marijuana policy and industry players. Presently, the site has about seven staffers, a number Olson hopes to double in the next six to 12 months.
“I’m trying to use the principles we used at NBC News to really bring some rigour and discipline into this journalism that we’re trying to do,” Olson tells Business Insider. “I don’t want to take a side. I just want to go with where the story takes me.”
As more states continue to grapple with legalizing marijuana for medicinal and recreational use, it stands to reason that there will only be more openings in the emerging marijuana field in the years to come.
And Smith is hoping those positions will be filled by other people with corporate backgrounds looking to aid the legalization push.
“It’s a really important and exciting time in the industry, so I really hope to see more corporate citizens embrace the idea of coming into the marijuana space,” Smith says. “It’s a great space to be in, and it’s really fun. There’s a lot of really great people and a lot of opportunity to help advance it.”
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