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Rafael Lopez, left, an Obama administration tech adviser, and Megan Smith, CTO of the United States, at the White House Tech Meetup. (Photo: Liz Gorman)
Last Friday, at the White House’s first Tech Meetup, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Megan Smith stood at the helm of a podium in the Eisenhower Building and began an introduction lightning round. She asked the crowd of more than 50 Meetup leaders and government reps to stand up and introduce themselves, starting with those from the Pacific Northwest. A few people shared their affiliation, and then a short redhead in a yarmulke and a bright red sweatshirt was left standing in the back.
“Cannabis Tech Meetup and New Tech Seattle,” he said proudly.
“Cannabis Tech Meetup,” Smith repeated onstage, quizzically.
The room burst into laughter.
That man was Red Russak. He had been invited to the event to represent New Tech Seattle, a 7,000-plus-person group that — in terms of size — ranks in the top 1 percent of Meetup groups in the nation.
“But what they didn’t really focus on — it’s not their own fault — is I’m the [co-founder of the] first-ever Cannabis Tech Meetup,” he told Yahoo News later in an interview. “When they said, ‘So what do you do?’ I felt it would be a missed opportunity not to share.”
Red Russak, center, a Seattle cannabis advocate, speaks to attendees at the White House Tech Meetup. (Photo: Liz Gorman)
Though Russak represented just one of many local communities from across the United States in attendance that day, he has good reason to push for support. Since the state of Washington voted to legalize the growing and selling of pot in 2012, a bevy of new businesses have sprouted up across the fledgling industry. But as Yahoo Tech reported last year, resistance from national banks, credit card agencies, tech companies, and lawmakers has made it difficult for these businesses to gain traction, or even to function.
Currently, just four state-chartered credit unions and three banks in Washington are willing to accept accounts from cannabis-related startups. Also, many businesses are subject to audits from the Internal Revenue Service and restrictions on what they can deduct from their taxes. Earlier this year, the IRS sent one shop owner a bill for $1 million in back taxes.
“There are people in cannabis that could really use our help, just like there are people in the police department that could use technology’s help,” he said. “Or the homeless, or the Open Government Initiative. Cannabis is just another great category.”
Since the Obama administration took office, the number of marijuana plants seized and destroyed by the Drug Enforcement Administration has dipped significantly. Just last year, about 4.3 million marijuana plants were destroyed — a major decrease from the 10.4 million in 2009. In his six years in office, President Obama has left most pot legislation up to local governments and kept a comfortable distance from the issue in interviews.
To Russak’s surprise, his hosts were polite and respectful. Later in the talk, when a slide of raspberry fields appeared in a presentation, senior policy advisor Rafael Lopez assured the audience that it was “not cannabis,” to more laughter. Later, Russak even snatched a selfie with Smith and his New Tech Seattle co-founder Brett Greene, taking the opportunity to sheepishly explain that he wasn’t primarily there to talk about pot.
“She was like, ‘No, no, it’s cool, don’t worry about it,’” Russak said. “And I’m like, ‘I just had the CTO of the United States of America restate the word ‘cannabis’ on a live-stream and not be upset about it!’ What kind of world is that? I was almost embarrassed to a certain degree, but on the other side I was kind of happy I said it.”
Russak emphasized that he was at the White House to get serious business done. “We’re not there to get high,” he said, referring to his Cannabis Tech Meetup. “We’re there to share different ways to grow your business or to connect you with people that help you do that as far as technology is involved.” Some of his Seattle tech peers see real space for improvement within the federal government.
S. Rowan Wilson, the founder of a cannabis-centric health and wellness business named Mary Jane’s World, says that there are a myriad of steps the president could take to reduce the public stigma of pot in the United States and make things easier for small-business owners. She suggests, first and foremost, the removal of cannabis from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, which groups it alongside much more harmful drugs such as heroin, LSD, ecstasy, meth, and peyote.
“We should be able to operate as any other business,” she told Yahoo News. “People need to lead the way and demand of their elected officials a reverse of these horrendous policies and actual laws. They have to go hand in hand.”
For his part, Russak prefers to stay neutral when it comes to advocating policy changes. And he hopes to stay on President Obama’s guest list.
The White House declined to comment.