Zibby Owens: Heather Cabot is an author, award-winning journalist, keynote speaker, and former ABC News correspondent and anchor. She specializes in narrative nonfiction story highlighting inspiring tales of innovation, enterprise, grit, and resilience. Her new book is called The New Chardonnay: The Unlikely Story of How Marijuana Went Mainstream. By the way, she says she is the last person on the face on the earth who she ever would’ve thought would’ve written this book. Anyway, The New Chardonnay tells the unbelievable story of pot’s astonishing rebranding, pulling back the curtain to show how a drug that was once the subject of “just say no” warnings managed to shed its unsavory image and land at the center of a booming and surprising upstanding industry. She’s also the author of Geek Girl Rising: Inside the Sisterhood Shaking Up Tech.

Hi, Heather. How are you?

Heather Cabot: Hi. It’s so good to see you.

Zibby: It’s so good to see you too. Thanks for doing this with me, inviting me to celebrate the launch with you. I’m so excited to be a part of it.

Heather: Thank you. This is really an honor for me because I love your podcast. I’m a huge fan. This is very exciting for me.

Zibby: I put on some of my special The New Chardonnay CBD lip balm. I have to say, I’ve been a no, no, no CBD anything for me. This one, I’m all in. I’m all in on the lip balm.

Heather: It’s got some good moisturizer in there.

Zibby: Heather, I’m just going to ask you a bunch of questions so you can let everybody know more about your book, if that’s okay. What inspired you to write The New Chardonnay? What made you want to research the whole entrepreneurial life behind the cannabis industry?

Heather: There are a couple of inspirations. I know there are a lot of people watching tonight who’ve known me since I was a kid. I grew up in the “just say no” generation. I grew up in the eighties. I was never part or really had anything to do with the marijuana subculture at all. Growing up during that time, it just really wasn’t part of my life. Now I’m a suburban mom of teens. I’m looking around and I’m seeing celebrities who are talking about marijuana as if it’s just normal and Oprah Magazine featuring a THC-infused tea party with women wearing white gloves and hats. Martha Stewart is on TV with Snoop Dog in this pot-humor cooking show. I’m looking around and I was really surprised by it. The other aha moment is that my first book, Geek Girl Rising, a part of that book was focused on women investing in women-led tech startups, and so I was involved in that world. Right around the time that that book came out in 2017 I noticed that some of the female angel investors and venture capitalists that I had met during the course of reporting that book, that some of those women were investing in cannabis startups. I thought, my goodness, these are people with Wall Street credentials. They seem so straitlaced. I thought, why would they invest in anything that’s federally illegal?

I couldn’t believe it, so I started making phone calls. I started to learn about how this industry was just exploding. That was the beginning of it. Really, what sealed it for me was somebody who I’d interviewed who was an investor had said to me, “Look, I can’t explain this to you in just a phone call. If you really want to understand what’s happening, you have to go to the Marijuana Business Convention in Las Vegas this fall.” You can imagine what my family thought when I said I’m going to go to the Marijuana Business Convention. They were like, what are you doing? Honestly, going there and seeing that it was just like the Consumer Electronics Trade Show, it was like any other trade show that I had ever covered as a journalist. I just couldn’t believe that it was at the scale that it was and how professional it was. The people that I met were so serious about it. I just realized that there was a whole story there that many people didn’t really know about. That just made me feel like, I’ve got to pursue this.

Zibby: It’s so true. This is really an amazing business book. This is up there with James Stewart’s DisneyWar. It’s true. It’s an examination of an industry and what happens and what makes an entrepreneur and how unpredictable characters become stars. This could’ve been about any industry. It could’ve been about the internet if this was twenty years ago. Instead, you found this new industry which of course has so much more associated with it than just a product. It was fantastic reporting, probably all your years as a reporter.

Heather: Some of it was having the time. I came out of local news. I had several years in network news. It was rare to actually have the time to work on a story in depth. To be able to chip away at something over years, that is an incredible luxury. I’m so happy that you say that you could really tell the depth there because not many people get to do that. It really is a privilege.

Zibby: And the way you were able to write it in such a narrative way. Beth Stavola is laying on her table. Now here is she at the pool in Arizona thinking, what did I get myself into? We’re drawn into the narrative of it. You almost forget that somebody had to go report it. It’s like when you see a war photograph and you’re like, that’s just a boy on the street. Then you’re like, well, somebody must have been on that street to capture that reaction. I feel like that’s the immediacy of this one. Tell me more about how you got all your research done aside from the one convention. How many trips did you take? How many interviews did you do? What was the process like?

Heather: Hundred of interviews. Part of that is because, first of all, just getting my arms around this industry, the learning curve was, I can’t even tell you how steep it was. This is a topic, not only is it, it’s complicated, it’s controversial, but it touches on everything from business to politics, to science, to medicine, social justice. It’s so rich. There’s so many different facets of it that are really nuanced. In the beginning, it was really just working the phones and talking with people and figuring out what were the various threads of the story I might want to follow. It was a lot of talking to people and then traveling to meet them in person. I cannot thank my family enough, my husband. The book is dedicated to my husband because he did so much heavy lifting when I was traveling. Since adult use is not legal in New York, a lot of the folks that I needed to follow were out in California and Colorado and Canada and all these other places. I would have to go away for — I usually tried to keep it to two or three days. If I was going to the West Coast, I’d try to just cram in a ton of interviews. My family on the West Coast, my two sisters, and my parents when I was in Arizona, everybody let me crash with them. That was always nice because I was able to fit in some family time too.

It was really a team effort because to cover this kind of a story where it’s happening in so many different parts of the country — it’s such a fragmented industry. Every state is different. To really understand that, you have to go these places and meet those people and talk to people there on the ground. It was a total adventure. It was a lot of fun. I’m so thankful that I had the chance, again, the time to just learn and talk to people so I could absorb it all. I’m still learning. By the way, I’ll just say, the industry changes so quickly. That was the other challenge with this story. It was like covering a news story. Certain characters in the book, I thought something was going to go a certain way for them. I thought I was going to go with one character to do something. Then that deal fell through. So many things were happening in real time that when I finally sat down to write the book, I really had to calm myself down because I kept worrying that I was missing something. It’s a book, and you do have to stop writing at some point. I think that was the hardest thing.

Zibby: What was the actual writing process like after you did all the interviews?

Heather: Oh, my gosh. I was thinking about it today because I knew you were going to ask that. I think I started in May.

Zibby: I don’t want to be predictable. This is depressing. I’m sorry.

Heather: I want to say it probably took me, in total, about nine months to fully write it. What happened was it was due in September. I wasn’t done yet. We had moved. I kept getting extensions. Then I turned it in in January. The whole process altogether was over three years. It took me a year to do enough reporting to actually put together a book proposal that I thought was solid enough that could really explain that there was a story here. There had been other books written about the cannabis industry. I wanted to tell this new story with these great characters. I really wanted to do a narrative. I needed time to find those people and find those stories.

Zibby: I have to say, I went and googled all the people because I was like, what do they look like? You created really great . I was like, Chef Jeff, what does he have on the menu? He has . I was like, ooh, my next party. I don’t know. If we ever have . Did you go to Kate Hudson’s birthday party when you reported that, or did you just hear about that?

Heather: No. Actually, what was funny was I hadn’t actually met Jeff yet. The way I met Jeff is kind of the way — this is going to give you a window into how I did the reporting. I met Jeff because I was reporting on Snoop and Ted’s venture capital firm, Casa Verde Capital. For those of you when you read the book, you’re going to find out about how Snoop and his business partner Ted Chung decided that they were going to create this venture capital firm, not to invest in growing or even selling marijuana. They actually were investing in the software and all of it, the tech behind the industry. They had incredible foresight. I had been interviewing the partners that actually managed those investments. I was telling one of them, this really nice guy named Yoni Meyer, I was saying to him, “I’m really interested in these cannabis restaurants.” It was at the time that West Hollywood, I think they had just awarded the very first licenses for these weed cafes, essentially. They were going to be, really, the first ones in the country where you could actually dine in public and have some type of, whether it was a vape or whatever, paired with your food. I just thought that was really fascinating. I said, “Do you know anybody who’s in this space? Do you know anyone?” He said, “Actually, I just invested in one of these startup restaurants. I want to introduce you to the partners.”

We met the partners. I started talking a little bit more. Then they started telling me about Jeff. Then I found out he had a cookbook. I got his cookbook. There’s so many recipes in the cookbook that were Jewish recipes for Jewish holidays. I was like, that is so funny. I just really wanted to meet him. The Kate Hudson thing actually happened, I think her party was probably two weeks before this time that I actually flew out to California to go to a private party that he was catering. I wanted to be with him in the kitchen because I wanted to understand all of his methods. Again, I’m a complete voyeur. I don’t know anything about any of this. I wanted to learn from him and see his methods. That had just happened. Actually, it was top secret. No one really knew about it. Then I guess her people gave the story to E! It was out there, so he could talk about it. No, I didn’t go to the party. She posted all over Instagram about it and it was written about, so I was able to glean some of the details. Then obviously, I interviewed Jeff too. It was fun to see him right after that happened too. He’s cooked for a lot of people that he can’t say who they are. He’s been cooking for celebrities for a while.

Zibby: Wow. I love his pot-zaball, all these corny, funny pot-Jewish combos. Who knew?

Heather: I loved his mom. His mom Sylvia was so lovely and gave me so many great stories about him as a kid. That was my favorite part, was learning the backstory of all these people. What I really was trying to do was I wanted to write a book that would appeal to anyone just as a really great story. The fact that cannabis is the backdrop is just kind of the way it is. I was trying to find people that, their story, anybody could relate to. In a very human, universal way, they were characters, whether it’s as an entrepreneur, whether it’s as a parent or a mom who is going back to work after leaving her profession for a few years. They all had different reasons for why they wanted to get into the business. That really resonated with me. I tried to really bring that out. Interviewing Jeff’s mom, for example, spending time with Beth’s mom and her family, that was such a great experience. I’m so thankful that they allowed me into their world because it helped a lot.

Zibby: Ted Chung became one of the main characters in your book. You track him throughout his teenage years to being an Asian American. The way you describe him is sort of too laid back to fit into the stereotypes there and how he eventually went to this very WASP-y school and had to fit in with the blue bloods that he wasn’t familiar with and then becomes this complete maven in this industry and ends up hanging out with Snoop Dog. How can you not tell a story about a trajectory like that in someone’s life?

Heather: The thing about Ted that I always found so fascinating about him is he really is kind of a soft-spoken, stoic guy. Then once you get him talking, he really reveals a lot about himself. I just loved hearing about his family, his dad, what sparked this entrepreneurial zeal in him. What I also was struck by was how that experience of going to college and really feeling like he was on the outside, how that completely shaped the rest of his life and the marketing agency that he founded, Cashmere, which is all about marketing to multicultural markets. The reason why he did that is because he could see that himself. He felt marginalized. It was just so smart. I feel like he brought all of that to cannabis as well. He’s one of those people that people will say he’s a visionary. To talk with him about the insights that he had about where cannabis was going to go and then to see that he was actually really right on, that was really fascinating for me to see that and to be able to tell that story. In a lot of ways, this book is about marketing. It’s about rebranding. It is a business book. I’m not necessarily saying that cannabis is the new chardonnay. I’m saying it might be. These are some of the people that are trying to make it so.

Zibby: So maybe it should be called The New Chardonnay, question mark?

Heather: Could be.

Zibby: Maybe for the paperback. Tell me about what it was like also talking to couples like Mel and Cindy McDonald who had to deal with really traumatic stuff like their son Ben who was in a horrible car accident and having all these seizures and wouldn’t eat and the power of marijuana to change his health and to save his life, essentially. Did that sway you in one way or another in your own personal views of the use of marijuana or the legalization or any of it? How did it make you feel?

Heather: For me, this was never an advocacy book. I always approached it as a voyeur, as a journalist. My feeling going in and as I finished it was that I wanted to shed some light on this industry and how it had matured so quickly so that people could make their own decisions about it. I thought it was really important to pull the curtain back on the amount of money that’s involved it in and the injustice of it in terms of the communities of color that had been cut out of this industry and being able to profit from it and also, when you talk about Mel McDonald, the strange bedfellows, the people who you would never expect to be not only involved in it, but evangelizing. I stumbled into Mel’s story because of Beth. I don’t want to give too much away about the book, but their stories converge in Arizona in the early days of Arizona’s medical market. I really felt when I had the chance to actually get to know Mel and Cindy that their story in so many ways crystalizes why we’ve seen cannabis go mainstream.

It’s just this idea that for so many people, it really is medicine. I never knew anybody who used it as medicine. It was nothing I ever was exposed to. To meet them, these devout Mormons — he’s a former federal prosecutor, as you’ll find out in the book, a Reagan-appointed federal prosecutor who ends up having this aha moment at a time that he never expected it. I just felt along the way as I was meeting people and reporting the book, there was so many people like Mel, people you would never expect would get behind this. When I was working on the book, actually right before I finished the proposal, that was when former speaker of the house John Boehner who was an incredibly vocal foe of marijuana — he had once said he was unalterably opposed to marijuana legalization. He joined the board of one of the largest multi-state operators in the US. That was head turning. I couldn’t believe it. There were all these things that were happening like that. I was so happy that I had a chance to meet Mel and Cindy because I think they put a face on this idea of change and people changing attitudes and why they’re changing attitudes.

Zibby: What about this whole other group of people who aren’t using it that way, but the chardonnay moms who you talk about who are happy that they don’t have to spend the time even drinking it. It doesn’t go to their waistline. This the new-new thing. They’re all sort of tittering about it. What about them? You think this is going to be adopted by moms’ night out?

Heather: I think we’re already seeing that, certainly in the marketing to moms. If you go to California, you go to any place where it’s legal for adult use, you’ll see these products that are labeled as microdose. It’s this idea of it’s like having a glass of wine. It’s not going to leave you hungover. That’s how it’s marketed. I think that there’s an appetite for that among a certain group of people. They don’t want a headache. They don’t want to gain weight. I think these businesses are very savvy focusing on that. What I also write about in the book is that alcohol consumption has gone down in recent years. There was an opportunity there for these companies. As this spreads across the country, as you see more states approving recreational use, I think you’re going to see more product innovation around that. Then the other part of it is the growth of CBD. CBD, it comes from the cannabis plant, but because of the farm bill, when it comes from hemp which is a very low-THC variety of cannabis, that’s legal. That opened a whole door for all of these companies that had been doing more THC products to consider doing CBD lines.

That’s why you’re seeing it now in Sephora and Bed Bath & Beyond and your local drugstore. You can buy it anywhere now. It’s only really been since the end of 2018. There’s not a tremendous amount of regulation around it, which I think is problematic. I think you’re going to see guidelines coming out of Washington. My point is that because CBD is not intoxicating, it is more appealing to people. There are potential therapeutic benefits that people talk about. It certainly needs more research. Women are using it in large numbers right now for insomnia, stress, anxiety. There was just a big report that came out of a company called BDSA in Denver that tracks sales. Women are driving this. Women are going and they’re shopping for CBD for all of these kinds of things that, I don’t know about you, but all my friends, we’re all dealing with sleeplessness and stress and anxiety. You can kind of understand why there’s an appetite for it, but also why these companies are seizing on that. They know there’s an opportunity there. I think we’re just in the beginning.

Zibby: We’re like sitting ducks, we stressed-out moms here who are at the tail end of the months of this COVID stuff. They’re like, see our market opportunity. Wow, that’s amazing. Now that you’ve finished writing and now that this book is coming out into the world, is this a case-closed situation for you? Is it the kind of thing where you have Google Alerts and you’re just fascinated and want to find out everything more that’s coming? Did this whet your appetite or shut it down?

Heather: I’m kind of ready for something new. It was great. I’ve enjoyed it. I probably will continue to speak and write about it through the election and obviously through — it is a fascinating topic. I really care a lot about the social justice piece. I will follow that closely. I will probably continue to do some freelance writing about that piece of it, the gender equality, gender equity, and racial and social equity pieces of all of this. Those issues are really complicated. I think that as you see more states looking at legalization, that’s something to pay attention to. It’s something I care about. It’s definitely from that perspective. Am I going to be a cannabis beat reporter? No. It was an intellectual challenge. It was a really meaty, really amazing topic that I knew nothing about that I had three years to learn about. I met some amazing people and incredible entrepreneurs who risked it all. The book, it’s about that. It’s about, what drives somebody to go for it when they could lose everything? I’m fascinated by those stories. I think whatever I do next is going to be around entrepreneurship again. I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be in cannabis. I’m sorry.

Zibby: That’s okay.

Heather: I’m announcing it now.

Zibby: Do you have an industry you have your mind set on?

Heather: I have so many. Right now, I’m just focused on this because I want to get through the election too. I was saying earlier about how the story’s always changing, even to do any of these interviews, I have to constantly prepare and stay on top of what’s happening. For the political scene and the business aspect, it really is changing every day. I still read my diet of all the newsletters. My inbox is full of these marijuana business updates for now. That’s because I really feel like I need to stay on top of it. I need to be able to speak intelligently about it. I don’t know. It’s funny. If you would’ve asked me, would I ever write about this? my family and friends couldn’t believe it when I told them that this is what I was going to write about it. Now they’ve seen the book and they know why I found it so interesting. I don’t know yet. I figure I’ll have time. We’re going to be in lockdown for a few months, a lot of time to think about it.

Zibby: I know you have teen twins. I have teen twins, newly teen. What’s the takeaway for them? As a parent, now that you’ve learned so much more about marijuana and CBD and all of it — I know it was a byproduct of the business side or the passion for the people and the players in the industry. Along the way, I know you’ve learned so much included a lot in it. What advice as a mom are you going to give your kids knowing what you know?

Heather: What I tell them is what I tell them about alcohol, which is that this is not for you. We’ve had some really great conversations about substance use in general, substance abuse. Many people, there’s sort of a folklore that you can’t become a habitual user of marijuana. That is not true. People who have a predisposition to substance abuse or they have it in their families, they can be at risk. Also, it’s a new industry. The illicit market is still thriving. Even if you live in a place where it is legal, you need to talk to your kids about the dangers of getting it. You don’t know what’s in it. That’s for adults too, frankly. It really is. We had some really great conversations about that. We talked about brain development and why substance use before your brain is finished developing, particularly THC and alcohol, not a good idea, just not a good idea. Even more than that, my most important conversations with them related to this book were really around the racial injustices of the drug war and really being able to, especially this summer as our country is going through this incredible reckoning on race, to have a conversation with them about my work and the relationship to systemic racism and what I found out about how drug enforcement in this country has led to really devastating consequences for communities of color.

That was really meaningful for me to be able to have that conversation with them as well. I said to people, my kids were actually really embarrassed that I was working on this book originally. They were like, “Don’t tell anyone what you’re working on.” They really were not happy about it initially. Once we started having some conversations about what I was finding out and the people that I met along the way whose lives were touched by the war on drugs and had relatives that were incarcerated or who had experienced stop and frisk and that kind of stuff, it was just really meaningful to be able to give them practical examples of how we need to stand up for injustice. We need to be aware of what’s going on outside our little bubble. That, to me, was probably one of the most important conversations that I had with them beyond the “just say no” conversation, which thank goodness we’ve been having for a number of years anyway. It’s not just one conversation. It’s also modeling good behavior. It’s an ongoing conversation. You hope that that dialogue continues. I hope it does.

Zibby: It’s probably the best thing you could’ve done. If your mom is into something, then it can’t be off limits. When I grew up, my mom smoked. Then when my friends started smoking, I was like, that’s not cool. My mom does that. Maybe this is the most strategic way to handle it, really.

Heather: It’s like I knew too much about it. They’re so young right now anyway. They’re only going to be freshman in high school. The only other thing I’ll say for the parents listening, one thing that I didn’t understand and if there’s one thing as a parent that you will take away from my book other than just the fun stories, I didn’t know anything about concentrates. I didn’t know anything about cannabis oil. I didn’t know anything about these other products. That is something as a parent you definitely want to familiarize yourself with. I go into more depth in the book about it. Basically, there are derivatives of the cannabis plant that can be made into oils. That’s the stuff that’s used in vape cartridges. It can be turned into kind of a wax that kids can — there’s a thing called dabbing where, not kids, but people inhale it. That’s used for edibles as well. It can be highly, highly potent. There was a report that came out of Colorado last week, which for the most part since legalization has not seen an uptick in overall teens using cannabis, but this report last week actually found an increase in dabbing and also in vaping, even after the vaping crisis. What that says to me as a parent, you just need to familiarize yourself with what’s going on and the different ways, the different forms that this can be used. Those forms can be incredibly potent. Certainly, smoking it as well, but these are highly concentrated forms of THC. I just think as a parent, if you don’t know about that, it is something to research and be aware of because those forms can also be much more subtle. You don’t necessarily know that your child has that. I think that’s really important, just to be aware that the products evolve. They’re all evolving quickly.

Zibby: By the way, Jeff, on his website, teaches you how to make your own cannabis oil. If you ever want to start experimenting, you could start there.

Heather: If you’re an adult.

Zibby: If you’re an adult.

Heather: And you live in a state where it’s allowed.

Zibby: I am not advocating. It’s just putting the information out there. I’m not putting out a point of view. Heather, thank you. Thank you to The Strand. Congratulations on your book, The New Chardonnay, amazing. Thank you for including me in the launch. Thank you for everybody who listened and asked questions and everything else. Please go buy the book for anybody who hasn’t yet. There’s a little link at the bottom right there, purchase The New Chardonnay.

Heather: Zibby, thank you so much. This is a dream come true. I’ve been listening to you for months. To be able to be interviewed by you, it was the icing on the cake. Thank you so, so much for your time and for all you to do support authors and to encourage people to read. It’s so important. Thank you. Thank you to The Strand also for this opportunity. It made the launch week for me, honestly.

Zibby: Yay! Thank you.

Heather: Thanks, everybody, for joining us too.

Zibby: Thank you. Bye.