I was just fired from High Times as a freelance journalist for being “untrustworthy” and a “liability” for writing an article my editor asked me to write (and then published) before it was yanked down by his boss, Jon Cappetta
I am not one to hold grudges, especially in this industry. There are many reasons why people do the things they do. This is why I am going to write about this incident. I do a fair amount of consulting beyond “just” writing, and this is a classic story about what not to do in this industry – or any other for that matter.
It is also, rather tragically, the kind of behavior which is far too widespread in the cannatrade.
I was just fired by High Times in late July for writing a critical article about a large American company called Curaleaf – which is also expanding to Germany – and further, even more astoundingly, for bringing the publication an enthusiastic European sponsor for the online website.
While I have already moved on (including seriously launching this website) I was already thinking about writing about this incident when “that” post from Linked In not only went viral but jumped into the traditional mainstream press. You know, the CEO weeping on camera for firing his employees because of his own mismanagement.
Cry me a river, baby. At 55, and a life spent working, without parents to protect me, a husband to support me, a trust fund to bolster my bank account no matter what happened professionally, nor am I a part of the aristocracy or royalty, not to mention am also a woman of a certain age, getting fired is part of that path. Multiple times.
So is having successful working relationships that have lasted for many years at this point, including in the cannabis industry. Even with people who I sometimes disagree with.
In my life, getting fired has occurred for one of two reasons. One is budgetary. Shit happens in business. You have to move on and consider the experience a stepping stone to the next opportunity. You don’t have to take it from me. Even Harvard Business Review feels the same way.
The second, however, is that I manage to piss people off. This has happened for a variety of reasons too, but is mainly because, while I do believe in diplomatic approaches to just about every problem, particularly professionally, I speak my mind and do not tolerate bullshit.
I have found that being both a woman and having an opinion, not to mention a distinct perspective and experience, is not much appreciated and is frequently penalized.
This is why, after having written for High Times for the last two years on a freelance basis, including daily for the last six months, and working with three editors, all of whom were fans, and further, had written some articles that were (rightly) critical of the industry I work in, I decided to pitch an article idea about Curaleaf. This was approved, as per normal, by my editor and subsequently published by him. You can find that article HERE, slightly amended to reflect current events of the last several weeks. It was yanked from High Times right before I found out I would not be writing for them anymore and fired by email, without even the courtesy of a digital call by Cappetta.
I was subsequently (confusingly) accused of several things, including being a “liability” and that I was trying to “bully” High Times to get my way.
As I repeatedly told Cappetta, while yes, I did pitch a story that I believe is newsworthy, I was then told by my editor to proceed with writing the same, which he also then published without comment. If there had been an issue with the topic at any stage of this process, all that was necessary was dropping me an email to say a) they wanted a different story, or b) that they were not going to publish the story I submitted.
Objecting to how you are characterized if not treated in response to a series of inflammatory emails from someone you barely know, and up until my termination had swapped maybe three or four emails with, is far from “bullying” anyone, much less an attempt “to get my way.”
I was not the one with the upper hand in this relationship, much less any power, not to mention any protection.
Why I Don’t Like Curaleaf
I have been watching the company, as I have with all Auslander cannabis companies who have sallied forth to Germany since 2016, with a mixture of interest and suspicion. This is what I do. I write about the industry as a journalist and analyst. I advise companies in it. I have even tried, unsuccessfully so far, to launch my own cannabis entre to the mix. It is harder to do this in a country you have only lived in for 9 years, with a very difficult language to master, and having to win your citizenship in it at the Supreme Court after your father’s relatives were either shipped off to concentration camps or had to flee the country if not the continent for their lives.
Not to mention being a woman, of any age, no matter where you live.
Here is my perspective. I am not “biased” about individual companies in this vertical, anywhere. Nor am I “anti-cannabis industry.” That should be a given, just based on my track record.
It is my perspective that no company, and certainly no cannabis enterprise is “perfect.” Much less beyond fair criticism. Those who cover the industry, or are a part of it in any way, long ago learned that operating in the grey edges of the law creates a need to find loopholes, some of them questionable. Not to mention in a revolutionary business, there are no manuals. Every company makes mistakes. They are not terminal, nor does one have to be only positive about any company in this industry to meet an objectivity standard required for good journalism. Even Bruce Linton responds to my outreaches to him (and I was fairly critical of him, including in print, even when he was the founding CEO of Canopy Growth).
However, when it comes to Curaleaf, specifically, I have had a dread feeling for the last several years that they too, were headed here, with undoubted blood spilled on the floor along the way.
The reason? Their track record.
To the extent that it appears that first blood is mine, I consider it a worthy first skirmish.
There is no better way to show who they are, as a company, than to get fired from one of the best branded cannabis zines in the industry, for writing truthfully and objectively about them. Other people have been writing critical pieces about them as well, including this recent article published last week by Syracuse.com, about the New York state recall of thousands of Curaleaf’s “medical cannabis” products from dispensaries. This is illustrative, of course, that I am far from alone in my perspective, although I have a slightly different reason for finding issues with the company’s track record to date, starting with this one: The phrase “medical cannabis” appears in quotations above because of course, such products, even with proper labeling per New York state law, would never meet muster in Germany as such.
Beyond what appears to be multiple issues with product labeling that even meet the standards of US state law (for starters), I also find it odious that the managers of Curaleaf-run dispensaries would take employees’ tips, even if it was to decide how to spend this money “better.” As a graduate of a highly respected business school on the German side of the border, it is not only appalling but also a grotesque violation of workers’ rights – which granted are much more respected here too.
As someone who has also done my share of crap jobs, at minimum wage since my teens, I also know what it is like to work for people like this. No matter my master’s degree, dual citizenship, and interesting professional path.
In my personal opinion and experience, such behavior is a sign of appalling mismanagement, for one thing. And that such behavior is tolerated in a company that has rapidly expanded to 23 US states, and has now bought its way into the German market, unfortunately, speaks volumes about current operations, no matter who owns the company.
People, starting with individuals in the industry in the country I now live and work in, have a right to know and think about such issues – starting with how things are going to be done going forward here. And, if they do emanate from a company transformed by American cash, whether such behavior should be imitated.
Of course, the answer to this one is easy.
It is one of the reasons that the industry, generally, is so different here. That is a lesson the Canadians learned, rather quickly.
Why Was I Fired?
First, it is fair to come to your own conclusions after reading the piece (which my editor also published, without asking for revisions) about whether or not I can be “objective.” This was one of my “sins” worthy of termination. So was supposedly circulating old rumors and issues that also supposedly had long since been answered, even though the article was linked to, and inspired by a piece that had just run in The Guardian as well as other recent press stories about other, more pressing issues than the founders’ past track record and so far unproven critiques and allegations about the significance of their relationships with big wigs in 1990’s Russia.
I personally, no matter how much I have had disagreements with The Guardian (including over how they reported the international news of my own dramatic win at the German Supreme Court and its impact on the Citizenship Act here), would characterize anything in that paper, or its digital version, as “clickbait” – a term that unfortunately got bandied around as I was being shown the door at High Times by email.
Of course, the fact that I am the first in my father’s family to return to Germany (not to mention regain citizenship) speaks volumes about the lack of diversity that at least High Times is apparently interested in promulgating. So is the fact that I was, to my knowledge, their oldest freelance writer – and a middle aged woman over 50. In other words, in a demographic, that is rather vulnerable to employment discrimination. Not to mention an “immigrant” who had been discriminated against in the matter of basic citizenship for over half a century, which, as the court ruled, should have been mine from the time of my birth.
Cappetta insisted that since I was not an employee, I was not being fired.
I am not sure what else you would call it.
He also suggested that it would be no problem for me to find another job. Beyond the age and gender issues, I am also, as Cappetta knows, an immigrant to a country where I still cannot write professionally in German – which is why I have to look for writing jobs mostly from the US. I almost went homeless during the depths of the Covid Pandemic because I fell through all the cracks. Even with an MBA and 30 years’ experience.
My life economically at least is still rather fragile.
I did apologize to Cappetta, initially, for writing something “unsuitable” for High Times, even though of course, I was not the person who had approval of either stories to be written or published.
That did not matter either. According to Cappetta, my behavior was also suspect because I did something that “real journalists” do not do – namely introduce a sponsor and hope to be paid a bit more for the pieces I wrote as a result.
Why am I Going Public?
The other, no less important and relevant reason I am speaking out now, however, is the subsequent public notification of Curaleaf’s purchase of 420 Pharma. Until now, I have considered the German company on the other end of the acquisition, to be both an ethical and successful enterprise, and certainly to my knowledge, in compliance with (much higher) German standards, although its founders have been a bit snooty to me in the past. And this news, not to mention the commentary it provoked via Linked In, also motivated me to continue to swim in such waters.
No more interesting were the comments of Constantine von der Groeben, of Demecan, who linked to coverage of the story in Marijuana Business Daily about the merger (of course) and then went on to say that he felt sad that 420 Pharma would “sell out” so early. As someone whose business is currently protected by statute, it is not surprising he would say that.
Of course, there were alternative responses, like Finn Hansel (of Sanity) who were merely congratulatory of the founders. There were, except for my inevitable response, however, no comments about the purchasing company – or their background.
Matt Lammers, from Marijuana Business Daily did respond (accurately) in the comment chain that most of these early M&A deals are not successful because the founders leave. I happen to agree with Lammers. See both the Frankfurt-based Medcann and beyond them, Pedianos, bought, respectively by Canopy Growth and Aurora.
I am not a “close” colleague of Matt’s either. But we certainly respect each other’s perspectives.
This is also why I am writing this piece – and distributing it through my own global, cannabis focussed networks. I am not afraid of what other people think. I know quite well I have built up my own fans and following by writing honestly and objectively about this industry and the many hurdles and challenges that remain.
New Models of Engagement
Pot companies – and the specialty cannabis media beyond it – are directly responsible for scandals and blow-ups when they do not address or report on issues like the ones that have dogged Curaleaf to date (although of course, this is not the only company to have had similar issues). To their credit, several journalists I know in the industry who I was in touch with about this incident subsequently, expressed both their shock and dismay. One called the actions of High Times disgraceful.
It is not a fireable offense, nor is it a marker of not being neutral, journalistically, not to mention as an entrepreneur and consultant to the industry, to question the business ethics, tactics, operations, and fundraising strategies or sources of funds of cannabis companies. Anywhere, at this point. And even more particularly Germany.
Beyond this, in an environment where you are asked to pitch multiple stories a day to your editor, which they then select and ask you to write about, one assumes that the editor has been inculcated on what and what not, to write about. It was his choice, not mine, to proceed with the story at issue. The editor, by the way, was not fired, although Cappetta also informed me in writing that I had suggested (falsely) that he should have been.
In fact, I have never had a single disparaging comment back, from any editor so far, about my writing, the topics I have chosen, or my “perspective.” In two years, and many articles, I was asked to slightly revise one article.
One (female) colleague – a senior figure in the European industry – told me she found this whole thing scary.
On one level it is. Big pot does not like to be criticized and further can go to very strange, extreme, and frequently brutal steps to try to prevent it (at least from some people). However, this too is not new. As I have mentioned elsewhere at this point, Canopy Growth threatened both me and my editor at Cannabis Industry Journal for publishing an article that has certainly stood the test of time – on several fronts.
While Cappetta at High Times did eventually say that it was his “trusted friends” outside the company who he consulted in his decision to fire me (which is even worse, frankly, if not displays a certain double standard about behavior), and that Curaleaf had nothing to do with it, one of the reasons apparently my journalistic prowess was questioned was because I had not contacted the Curaleaf press office for comment. This leaves the obvious question hanging of course – because if it was not Curaleaf that complained, how would High Times know whether I dialed or texted the company for comment? Beyond that, when I reached out to the firm to comment on this story, I rapidly found that there was no easy way to contact the press department, and all inquiries were instead being directed to the Investor Relations desk.
Not to mention, why the hell should I call their PR office for a story that is properly linked to credible online sources? I do not need a public relations department to tell me that they are not getting sued, not to mention the other issues that have dogged the company since at least 2018 – namely the same time things began to go off the rails for the big Canadian companies – who were also first to market here.
I did not even mention in the first article that Curaleaf has won a Cannabis Cup.
My crap writing, lack of journalistic integrity, and apparent ignorance of this industry, however, was not my only “sin.” I also introduced a very highly regarded European seed company as a sponsor to High Times. Apparently “journalists” do not do that. I choose, of course, to disagree. Finding a sponsor for a digital publication, in particular, is also hardly a failure to exhibit “journalistic ethics” – a perspective that the prospective sponsor also found fairly confusing.
I am not sure when that has ever been a prerequisite for freelancing for any company, let alone High Times.
None of these are fireable offenses I have ever heard about before, but then again, you can learn something new every day.
I guess nobody with an MBA has ever written for High Times before. Or anyone who wants to get paid a bit more.
One of the more amusing parts of this entire anecdote of course, is that back in the day, Hunter Thompson wrote for the zine.
If this is not modern-day “gonzo” I don’t know what is.
Note: I reached out to High Times, Curaleaf, and 420 Pharma for a comment on this piece. Only Jon Cappetta responded with an email. Specifically, ‘Writing like this is the exact reason I decided we shouldn’t continue a professional relationship. This isn’t journalism, this is a subjective attack because you didn’t get your way. Journalism is meant to be objective, but often your writing has ulterior motives. Regardless, we wish you the best in the future.”