The first time I smoked pot was in Building 10 at the NIH. The year was 1979. I was 15 years old and being treated for Hodgkin’s disease at the National Cancer Institute. A kind nurse had found an empty examination room in the clinical center where I could smoke with my dad after my second round of chemo. The first round had been brutal, and the hope was the marijuana might do something to alleviate the nausea.
Pot, of course, was illegal then throughout the U.S. and in most of the world—even for unwitting teenage pioneers in the medical marijuana movement.
Four decades later, it would seem, the times they are a-changed. As Fortune’s Jen Wieczner reports in “Wall Street’s Contact High”, we are on the cusp of a political and cultural transformation when it comes to pot—and it’s having huge implications for business. Though marijuana remains verboten at the federal level, it’s now legal—for medical use and, increasingly, for adult recreational use—in 33 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, as it is in three dozen countries. And many are betting—and betting big—that one of the last of the American prohibitions will soon fall. Perhaps as early as next year, as one analyst suggests.
That could mean an enormous business opportunity for companies that grab market share fast. Indeed, one such company, Tilray—led by pot’s first rolling-paper billionaire, American Brendan Kennedy—has already established an impressive foothold, Jen reports. The Canadian outfit is not only among the largest sellers of weed globally, it has also inked deals with the likes of Anheuser-Busch InBev (to create a cannabis-infused beer substitute) and a division of the Swiss drugmaker Novartis (to market medicinal cannabis-laden oils and pills). The startup—which had its IPO last year and whose stock more than quadrupled in 2018—is rapidly building marijuana market share in a dozen countries.
But not—so far—in the U.S.
If and when that market opens, Wall Street analysts and others say the windfall for the new pot prospectors (and their investors) could be immense.
Such dreams of green aside, though, it’s hard to fathom the magnitude of the change that a new reeferconomy might bring with it. Just as we’re still reckoning with the societal and health effects of Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco, we may discover that Big Pot has some unwelcome consequences. The simple truth is, we just don’t know the long-term biological effects of marijuana; we just don’t know how it may affect young brains—or old ones.
Which brings us to the second remarkable feature in this issue: Rick Tetzeli’s riveting and deeply insightful profile of Paul Cox, a 65-year-old globe-trotting ethnobotanist who thinks he just might have a workable way to prevent Alzheimer’s—and perhaps even other horrible brain diseases.
Cox is another type of pioneer, the kind we never seem to have enough of in either science or business: a tireless explorer who’s quietly challenging orthodoxy and steadily expanding his circle of collaborators as he goes. In the end, the knowledge his consortium uncovers may not budge the needle much on Alzheimer’s. (It’s too soon to tell.) But even so, it might give us something else worthwhile: a bold new model for solving the toughest problems.
A version of this article appears in the February 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “Joint Venture.”