It’s 11:57pm on a Wednesday and Demitri Downing’s phone is after him. We are somewhere in downtown PHX, high above the ground floor of his sleek ultra-modern condo complex. Downing has just moved in. The place is so new the elevators are still hung with freight blankets. Meanwhile Downing’s phone will not stop pinging.
Since I caught up with him almost five hours earlier, Downing’s phone has not let the man focus for more than a few minutes at a time. Over the course of the evening, phone calls, texts, Facebook Messenger messages and WhatApps rattled, rung and hummed his device through a range of tones. Sometimes they come in clusters. Sometimes they appear melodic.
It appears Downing is negotiating a couple of business deals, booking flights, and using multiple apps to do so. He and one of his staffers are comparing prices while I am interviewing him; meanwhile three, possibly four, unrelated conversations manage to squeeze their way in between pauses. Usually Downing is simultaneously talking, texting and checking his email on his computer. Occasionally, he takes a breath, takes a bite of Whole Foods deli takeout and tries to keep up the ongoing conversations with the four-actual people in the room with him.
Meanwhile, Demitri Downing jumps from person to topic to app fluidly, always with a rapid-fire bemused tone, like his latest idea is so delightfully ingenious he can’t communicate it fast enough. Whether talking or texting, the words fly at you at 200 miles a minute. Some of his staff have already gone home for the night, exhausted from just watching the non-stop activity, but a couple are still waiting around to catch his next idea. And who would blame them? It could be worth a million bucks.
Demitri Downing has had several ideas that have made many people very rich since he dove into Arizona’s medical marijuana industry head first in 2012. Some of the “big ideas” Downing has been involved in include being one of the principle authors and fundraisers for AZ’s Prop. 205 campaign, creating Policy Quake–a cannabis industry lobbying firm and, AOW Management, a consulting firm whose expertise includes multi-dispensary crisis management. Downing was one of the authors of Hawaii’s state medical program, defended Mexico’s national medical program live on national TV, and recently represented the American marijuana industry at Europe’s first international cannabis conference in Spain. Then there’s his home-based projects: MITA (Arizona’s Marijuana Industry Trade Association, where each month, 200 of his closest business associates get updates and deal-make into the wee hours), as well as MITA’s political arm, the AMMA PAC.
The next big idea
Nationally, Downing is best known as the creative force behind one of America’s hottest cannabis conferences, the Southwest Cannabis Conferences (SWCC) in Arizona, California and Texas. Downing’s next project, the Southeast Cannabis Conference may be his biggest gamble yet. The inaugural SECC event will be held in Fort Lauderdale next month, June 9-11, and literally takes the operation from coast to coast. This will be Florida’s first full-scale cannabis conference and comes at the exact time the state will finally launch their brand new billion-dollar medical marijuana program.
In the meantime, tonight he’s got to book airline tickets for himself and several of his staff to attend the Florida show, seal two deals, and put out a variety of fires before bed time – in addition to finishing our interview. Demitri is flying to Washington in the morning to learn more about their industry and start a whole new set of adventures. Somehow in between all the pings, rattles, wheeling and dealing, Downing found the time to talk about what makes him tick.
“I had no intention of getting involved in marijuana policy, when this whole thing started. I started working in government relations for the tribe in 2010 and then in 2012 the Arizona medical marijuana industry happened. I took a look at what was happening in Colorado and California and decided I had a lot of skills that could help this industry develop. I started studying marijuana policy, not just at the state level, but at the federal and international levels as well. I wanted to understand how marijuana policy had evolved, why we thought the we way did.”
Son of one of Arizona’s most celebrated political figures and U of A professors, Dr. Ted Downing, Demitri enjoyed an international childhood to the nth degree. Besides his native Tucson, Downing spent parts of his childhood in Mexico City, Saudi Arabia (city of Jeddah), and in Yate, the tiny Oaxacan mountain village where his mom grew up. “There’s no running water, there’s no electricity. My grandmother still lives there. To this day when I visit, we still collect wood for the fire. They grow marijuana there in the foothills, by the way.” he laughs.
“I admit it, you know that Nancy Reagan “just say no” perception of the marijuana crowd, that’s who I was. That’s what I thought was the whole truth of marijuana, but the truth of the matter is after studying marijuana policy at the local, state, national and even international level I can 100% vouch for the fact that marijuana is a medicine. All this business about qualifying conditions is hogwash. Whether it’s cancer, whether it’s anxiety, whether it’s glaucoma, whether it’s pain, if you want to use a shaman, a layman, a western man or an eastern man, it’s your decision. It leads me to believe that adult use by choice, what some people call recreational, is a byproduct of the fact it’s a medicinal plant in the first place.”
An Arizona Wildcat through and through, after a stint in law school in Boston, Downing was happily serving as a prosecutor for a southern Arizona Indian tribe in 2010, when Arizona’s Prop. 203 opened the door to create a state medical marijuana industry from scratch. When Demitri’s family landed a couple of the initial state licenses, his world turned upside down.
“So, since my family was involved in the marijuana industry already, I became an organizer and lobbyist for the industry and created my own company, Policy Quake. It was my good fortune to come from outside the marijuana community. I had tried it in college, but wasn’t very interested. But here I found myself surrounded by highly productive individuals who used marijuana for medical purposes. It reshaped my entire understanding of marijuana. I was used to thinking that marijuana was something that would get you high and cause you to wind up living on your mother’s couch. Of course, I changed my mind and those politicians that are blocking the process can change theirs. If you come to study marijuana policy, even a little, you will see what it can do for people.”
Eventually, just after midnight, Demitri Downing purchased the last airline ticket for the Florida conference, concluded his phone calls for the evening and sent his remaining staffer home. Which is not to say that the pace of incoming pings diminished much. As Demitri stepped away from his computer and SECC planning for the night, he talked about the Florida show once more and how critical the event would be for the state’s newly forming market.
We settle in to some serious Q&A:
What about Jeff Sessions?
“Well, keep in mind Rohrabacher-Blumenauer was just reaffirmed, just today I believe. Though last week at our monthly MITA meeting we predicted it. MITA was ahead of everybody on that, even NCIA. But the point is, Jeff Sessions does not have any money to pursue the state-sanctioned marijuana industry, so it doesn’t matter what he thinks. He can’t use taxpayer money to prosecute properly operating companies. So Florida is safe. So Arizona is safe.”
How did you get involved in conferences in the first place?
“Actually, the reason I like conferences is that when I was in law school at Boston University, I was a conference planner and I saw how cool conferences are. Our conferences are a way for everyone to get a glimpse behind the curtain at what the reality is of the modern marijuana industry in America, in that state, at that moment. You can’t go to the Eller School of Business and learn about this field. You can’t buy a book, though there are books out there. You can’t just go to a website and learn that much. The best way to acquire knowledge about marijuana as a patient or as a potential entrepreneur is in these conference settings.
In 2013 and 2014, I went to a lot of conferences and I saw that I could do a better job so I designed the first 2015 SWCC conference in Arizona to be the model for an emerging market traveling cannabis conference, where we educate individuals about what marijuana policy is and what it should be. We provide tons of information so the public can look. Taxpayers, regular citizens, curious “looky-loos,” politicians, patients, entrepreneurs and career changers. It gives people an insight into the ways the marijuana world is evolving that they can’t get anywhere else.”
That first 2015 PHX SWCC conference set state attendance records and made international news when local prosecuting attorney and noted prohibitionist, Bill Montgomery, tried to use his office to shut down the conference. “Bill Montgomery in his ignorance thought our conference was going to be a bunch of potheads selling marijuana to each other, when in fact it was an educational event. So, we decided to educate Bill Montgomery as well. When they announced, they were going to have undercover officers there, we said you don’t need undercovers, bring all the officers you want and we will let them in free.”
Letting a little light in
Downing sent scores of free tickets to Montgomery, then-county sheriff, Joe Arpaio and their offices, in addition to all public officials and police forces throughout the state. “We actually hand delivered tickets to Montgomery’s office and even to the governor’s office. Because the last thing we wanted was for the taxpayers of Arizona to have to spend any more money so Bill Montgomery’s office could to go on our website and buy themselves a ticket to go undercover.”
The more Montgomery threatened, the more publicity SWCC got. In the end, despite much bluster, the conference went off without a hitch. Thousands of Arizonans got their first real taste of the world of cannabis. And Downing was hooked.
“Now we are doing three jurisdictions. The next one in Florida (June 9-11th) is an emerging market. We’ll have a marijuana business crash course, a cannabis investment seminar, speakers and a showroom of exhibitors. We will be back in Arizona in the fall. We just finished an event in Texas, which is not even a legal state as of yet. Which was OK, you don’t need people consuming marijuana to be able to educate them about it. Texas is opening up. They now have a CBD law and have issued three licenses. Those initial three are going to evolve and evolve till one day there will be a major market, but you have to educate the public first. That’s where our conferences come in.
When you get a crack in the anti-marijuana messaging and let a little light in, you see 29 medical states and 9 legal states and dozens of countries changing their policies. It is inevitable the whole world will recognize medical marijuana, if not adult use. I prefer the concept of medical marijuana over recreational myself, but without the ridiculous limitations programs currently face. Remove qualifying conditions entirely. Any doctor or naturopath could prescribe or recommend it. I want a society where people have that right to choose their doctor, their medicine and so on, but I also want a society where the government sets and protects limits.”
Since medical marijuana first became available in AZ the retail price has dropped as much as 75%. The first ounces cost $400 and now there are sales for $100 an ounce. How does the market move forward when the prices collapse like this?
“Well, the inevitable result of legalization, but not decriminalization is that prices will drop. After all the hoopla people realize it is just a plant that grows naturally in all sorts of places. The end result of legalization will be a massive drop in prices as production costs fall. Those costs are the true value of marijuana and as cultivation methods improve and production levels increase, the wholesale price could drop to $200, $100, maybe as low as $50 a pound which means the retail price could be as low as $300 a pound. Right now, we have seen the wholesale price drop from $2500 a pound to $1000 a pound and that’s in a restricted market. If you had 1000 dispensaries and that many cultivation sites, it would drop even further. Even if you just had two people in competition prices would drop.”
Last year, nine states voted on marijuana and Arizona was the only one where it failed. What happened?
“Governor Ducey happened. It was his direction that propelled the fundraising for the No campaign and they raised more than five million dollars. There was more money spent on our state’s NO campaign than in all the other states combined. We were up against a giant. Then they ran false advertising, which I guess is their standard methodology. They probably swung five percent of the people to change their vote. If you spend five million dollars telling people how they should vote, you will convince a few.
We are looking at the possibility of 2018 for another campaign. There are a lot of factors that have changed since we began the 2016 campaign. Principally, the additions of California and Nevada to the roster of legal states is a hugely significant factor. You have a situation in Yuma where you have a medical dispensary in Arizona, but there is adult use rights on the other side of the river. The whole western border of the state is like that. This creates a huge headache for law enforcement. What are they going to do? Build a wall? Create a border check point to enter the state? Checkpoints on I-8, I-10 and I-40? There are a lot of pragmatic issues that people are going to consider. We are going to need to have more than a medical program. We will need a tax and regulate program.”
Up against a giant
“Then there’s one other thing. In 2018, Doug Ducey is going to have to run his own campaign. When he holds a fund-raiser it’s going to be for himself, not for the No campaign. They just raised five million and now it’s already coming back again with even stronger polling numbers. They are not going to want to field this battle every two years. The smartest thing the state legislature could do in 2018 is legalize marijuana so they can control the shape of the industry. But that is not likely to happen.”
Downing’s recent trip to Spain in March set his sights on even more ambitious challenges; like taking on Europe. “Medicinal marijuana just passed in Germany. Israel is doing things, Italy is doing things, Portugal, even Ireland. I had to go. I had access to rooms full of businessmen, advocates and policy makers from all these cultures and all these markets. I had gone to Mexico City after the recent elections here in Arizona. A television station had come to AZ and asked me to come to Mexico to discuss the issue. I ended up debating the former head of the federal police force while their legislature was debating it. We were on TV watched by 38 million people.”
“The politicians that stay stuck in their misperception that marijuana is somehow some terrible gateway drug or has no medicinal use are just 100% inaccurate. As a former prosecutor, it has been a 180 degree change in my philosophy. I had known for decades that alcohol was this monster, that it ruined some people’s lives. I didn’t know better so I thought marijuana was sort of the same thing. That is the misperception we need to fight.”
Worn down at last, Demitri Downing finally trudged off into his bedroom just before 1am. As I readied to bunk down on the couch for the night, I could hear the steady muffled dinging sound of new conversations and new ideas on the way. The following morning at exactly 8:04am the first text came in. By nine, the maestro of moving and shaking was already on the phone, conducting the pings and beeps as they came in, planning his next big thing.