On a Thursday morning in March of last year, television viewers in Baltimore who tuned into WBFF Fox 45 were treated to a cheery report on medical marijuana. “Cannabis dispensaries are opening up in Maryland,” morning-show anchor Tom Rodgers noted. “One of those centers is looking to set itself apart.”
Rodgers then introduced a bearded and bespectacled pharmacist named Brian Sanderoff, who appeared on the TV studio set with an array of products from a business called Curio Wellness. Rodgers paused for a casual disclaimer: “And we want to note, David Smith, chairman of our parent company Sinclair Broadcast Group, is an investor in Curio Wellness.” The two then proceeded to discuss Curio’s offerings, with Sanderoff noting that it’s the THC in marijuana that gives the high but “there are a whole host of other cannabinoids” that have different effects. There were even some products that were designed to calm the anxieties of pets.
It made for a strangely incongruous moment, with a super-square anchor on a renowned right-wing station talking about weed and wellness. And the claim that Curio was “looking to set itself apart” followed by the information that, in fact, the business was already set apart by having the financial support of the head of Sinclair made the segment even, well, curiouser.
It is fair to say that, after a long and expensive licensing process full of delays, a full four years since the legislature voted to allow medical use of marijuana, all of Maryland’s dispensaries were looking to set themselves apart. In granting Curio Wellness what amounted to an infomercial, was the station responding to a “request” from higher-ups, or were they just pandering to their top executive’s financial interests? Who can say? Neither Sinclair nor Fox 45 have responded to questions about whether the corporate office forced the segment on the station.
And yet the timing is worth noting. The Curio segment aired only a week after CNN broke a big story about Sinclair forcing its putatively local anchors to read identical scripts decrying “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country.” That story of the scripted corporate hacks went viral a couple of weeks later when Deadspin put together a video of dozens of anchors obediently parroting the same Trumpian line sent to them by the corporate office.
So because it fell between the CNN and the Deadspin stories, or perhaps because no one really watches the Fox 45 morning show, nothing was made of the station hawking its boss’s weed. Given what we know about Sinclair and WBFF, it would not be surprising if management acted on behalf of Smith’s investment. WBFF is not just a Sinclair station, it is, in many ways, the Sinclair station, which David Smith’s father Julian bought in 1971. It was the only station owned by the family until 1986, when it became the base of operations for a growing empire as Julian Smith’s sons took over the business and began expanding.
Ever since, Sinclair has made a fortune by ignoring prevailing journalistic ethics and business practices. In the 1990s, David Smith and his brothers made two major innovations: instead of branding their company as a single unified network, like Fox or NBC, they would focus on local stations that ran other networks’ programming alongside Sinclair-skewed newscasts; they now own 191 local broadcast stations that are affiliated with different networks—a Fox station in Baltimore; ABC in Tulsa; NBC in Toledo; CBS in Spokane, etc. And because federal regulations in their early building days prohibited them from owning more than one station in a single market, they started another company in 1991 called Glencairn, owned by their mother.
In 2002, Smith used WBFF’s investigative efforts to help elect Republican Robert Ehrlich governor in Maryland, by running as many as five segments a week against his opponent Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. “All of our resources were used to go after her,” a former Sinclair reporter told GQ. Since then, the company has become a national conservative force, creating “must run” segments for its stations, including (during the Bush years) a nightly one-to-two-minute right-wing commentary by the company’s VP called “The Point,” and more recently the commentary of Boris Epshteyn, a former aide to Donald Trump. Sinclair ran a series of interviews with Bush administration officials conducted by a conservative pundit Armstrong Williams, who also happened to have been paid $240,000 by the Bush administration. When Smith forced networks to air Stolen Honor, an anti-John Kerry propaganda film in prime-time slots during the 2004 election, there was a boycott of sponsors, but Smith was not swayed.
It made for a strangely incongruous moment, with a super-square anchor on a renowned right-wing station talking about weed and wellness.
“I’d do one of those ‘Stolen Honor’ specials every month if we could. The lesson was very straightforward: That we can do this kind of content, pre-empt the networks and make more money,” Smith told Rolling Stone. These days Sinclair is still doing the same thing but on an even larger scale; they pushed pro-Trump commentary by Epshteyn and tried to increase their reach with the acquisition of Tribune Media, which would have put their must-air programming in 70 percent of American homes. (The FCC blocked—at least for now—the merger last year.)
So it’s not news that the station is shilling shit for the boss. The buried story is that David Smith is in the weed business at all. His investment in Curio goes a long way to explain why the cannabis industry is the way it is right now—and where it might go. As a thirty-year user of cannabis who has been arrested thrice for its possession and writes about it regularly, I still managed to miss the significance of the Smith connection—until Curio Wellness sued the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission to keep minority-owned businesses from receiving licenses, and I decided to figure out what they were up to.
White Power Hour
When the state first began to issue three different kinds of licenses to grow, process, and sell cannabis in late 2016, it limited the number of production permits to fifteen. None of the businesses that initially received these licenses to grow were minority controlled, leading to protests by the Maryland’s Legislative Black Caucus. “In a nation that was built on the backs of black folks, I just don’t see how we can, as a progressive state, stand here and tolerate the current conditions,” state Senator Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat, said at a 2017 hearing.
Even then, the white-owned businesses were out to protect their own interests. “We as a group here all received A’s on the test,” Jake Van Wingerden, of SunMed Growers, said. “There are a lot of people who didn’t receive an A who are complaining about the administration of the test and maybe the administration that hired the professors.”
Still, at the end of the 2018 legislative session, the state passed a law that would allow the commission to grant more grow licenses, which would take race and gender into consideration in order to alleviate the problem. “One-third of the population of the state of Maryland is African American, and it is the African American population that has been for generations disproportionately impacted by marijuana laws, so obviously we want to get those new licenses in the hands, to the degree that we can, of African American–owned companies,” Cheryl Glenn, a Baltimore Democrat in the Maryland House of Delegates, said to her colleagues. This was what Curio, which is a “vertically integrated” company with all three types of licenses, was trying to stop with their lawsuit. They argued that the new licenses would cause the market to be oversaturated (i.e., it might deprive them of their projected profits). The company did not respond to my request for comment, but a spokesperson told the Baltimore Sun that “Curio was compelled to file this action to protect their business investments and rights.”
Her idea was to sell weed in a high-end, spa environment that featured yoga, acupuncture, and a wide variety of sleekly branded wellness products that aren’t weed-related at all.
Later, in the face of public outrage and a proposed sit-in, Curio dropped the suit like a hot roach. “It’s simply not true this lawsuit was intended to challenge the effort to improve diversity in our industry,” Curio CEO Michael Bronfein wrote in a statement. “At Curio, diversity is not just a goal we mindlessly put on paper, it’s not just about affirmative action or corporate social responsibility.” He argued that the suit was about keeping “regulatory promises” the state commission made to investors.
Delegate Glenn was not buying it. “We don’t have any diversity in this industry and you want us to wait while you create a monopoly,” she told the Baltimore Sun. “No one wants in 2019 to have a trillion-dollar industry be controlled by all white men.”
But it seems as if many people did want white men controlling the industry—or at least didn’t much care if they did. The white power structure lifted Curio up and out of the allegations of racism unscathed. One dispensary I talked to said they would stop carrying Curio products, but after the suit was dropped, they reversed that decision. I’ve asked a random sampling of smokers and none have seemed bothered, as if a lawsuit trying to keep black businesses out of the industry was just a slightly malodorous fart at a yoga class.
Uh Oh, Curio
A woman named Wendy Bronfein came up with the idea for Curio. She got an MBA from NYU, worked in television and marketing and considered herself “an integrated marketer” who “seamlessly connected Fortune 500 companies through innovative, effective, brand-defining campaigns.” Her idea was to sell weed in a high-end, spa environment that featured yoga, acupuncture, and a wide variety of sleekly branded wellness products that aren’t weed-related at all. In other words, she wanted to rebrand weed for the wealthy white suburban health-conscious yuppie. Cannabis is not about the Grateful Dead and video games and body odor. It’s “the newest tool added to the [wellness] toolbox,” as Sanderoff put it, and you can buy it, along with all the other tools, right here.
She knew what it would take. “You’ve got to have that grit,” she told the Baltimore Business Journal. But a family with deep political ties, a shit-ton of money, and connections to the medical industry also helps. So, as entrepreneurs tend to do, Wendy took the idea to her father, Michael Bronfein, who is described on the Curio website as “an entrepreneur and investor focused on innovation and competitive advantage in healthcare services, healthcare technologies, software, and distribution.” In other words, “a true visionary.”
Bronfein believed his daughter was a visionary too. Wendy Bronfein has “a special instinct for reaching target audiences with messages that motivate and are measurable,” he wrote to Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta in an email later pilfered by WikiLeaks. He asked Podesta to hire his daughter based on her perspicacious reading of a campaign memo. “Reviewed the memo -> And still no mention of driving young people just high level references to groups like AA, Hispanic & Women,” she wrote. “I hate to generalize a generation but by social media nature, they ‘follow’. So if someone they identify as cool endorses—they will likely fall in line with that candidate.”
Podesta didn’t hire Wendy. But, after a weed conference in Colorado, she and her father sat down at the kitchen table and worked out a plan. “I’m focused on building and defining brands as opposed to a specific company, which is how the idea to work with my father came to be,” she said in an interview earlier this year. “He has thirty-plus years of healthcare experience with pharmaceutical distribution, and I have the marketing and brand-building background. I wanted to meld those two together and bring the best of what we both have to offer to Curio.”
Michael Bronfein, who had been called a “drug lord” by Forbes, didn’t see the vision at first. “I didn’t have much interest in it,” he told Crain’s Baltimore. “But I had a lot of interest in my daughter and in collaborating with her in business.”
This is where David Smith comes into the picture. Because pot is still illegal on a federal level, most banks, which are federally regulated, are reluctant to work with the cannabis industry, for fear of being charged with money laundering or other crimes. The few banks that do work with cannabis businesses require strict and expensive compliance processes. One such community bank in Maryland is working with the industry. The Severn Bank issued $11.9 million in cannabis loans, according to SEC filings, which was 1.8 percent of their total loans. And, because of the risks involved, banking with them at all involves hefty fees.
“Right now you have to have access to large sums of money,” Neill Franklin, a former police commander who now runs Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP, which formerly stood for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) recently told me. “That’s what states are requiring, which locks out people who don’t have personal wealth or access to someone else.”
The Bronfeins had capital, and they had access to fellow Baltimore County mover-and-shaker David Smith. The two men had been at the opposing poles of Maryland’s political elite for years. When Smith’s network was attacking Democrat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the 2002 gubernatorial race, Bronfein was serving as her campaign finance chair. He golfed and watched movies with Bill Clinton, and once, in 1996, when there was a blizzard, Maryland’s governor ordered a National Guard troop to make sure that Bronfein’s NeighborCare trucks could use the highway. “No one else thought to do that,” he bragged to Forbes.
The ideological differences didn’t seem to bother either man—at least not enough to get in the way of a pay day. Smith has largely supported right-wing politicians and issues, but people who have worked with him say that favorable regulation is his real goal. “He deals with people who have an impact on his business. It wears no labels,” Armstrong Williams, former Sinclair commentator and one-time campaign chair for Republican Ben Carson, whom Smith supported, told Bloomberg Businessweek. “What he cares about are people who are friendly to the marketplace.”
The Curio team raised $30 million and started to build the business. It’s hard to know how much each man invested, but in the grow-operation’s filing to the state commission, there are only two named investors: Bronfein and Smith. Everyone else in the application is listed as an “agent.” Smith signed the authorization for release of information in November 2015.
Then, just when they had all the cash lined up, the delays in the regulatory process, including the one caused by the Legislative Black Caucus’s fight over licenses, kicked in and put a hold on the profits that could be pouring in off of those nepotistic nugs. “It’s frustrating to be constrained,” Wendy said in an interview with Marijuana Venture. More than seventeen thousand people, a vast majority of whom were not white, were arrested on cannabis charges in Maryland in 2016 and surely they shared in Bronfein’s frustration over the constraints she was facing.
Curio is not alone in bringing political influence into the pot business. The Washington Post found that of the 144 businesses that originally applied for licenses, at least twenty-six have political ties. Another forty-seven have connections to larger out-of-state marijuana businesses. “We live in a country where business tends to control the political dialogue. We’re seeing that in cannabis all the way around,” Larisa Bolivar of the Cannabis Consumers Coalition told me. “It’s important for consumers to know where their dollars go.”
As they waited to get permission to start their operation, Donald Trump was elected. A week later, as white supremacists rejoiced in the election, Curio announced that they had licensed the Colorado-based brand of THC tablets and “elixirs” called Dixie. Smith and Bronfein, Dixie and yoga, fine people on both sides.
The state-by-state patchwork of legalization practically ensures that the weed business will end up in the hands of people who are already very rich and who, therefore, also have a lot of political power. “This industry is not new,” said Franklin. “It’s changing hands. From the block to boardroom.” Likely, this will get worse. In each stage of legalization, the industry will change hands again. It has moved from the outlaw dealers, who had the least capital and were willing to take the most risk, to the business owners with more capital who faced less risk than the street dealers but were still willing to risk federal prosecution to start up a weed business in a state that has legalized.
Larisa Bolivar was one of these people. In 2004, her dispensary was shut down by the feds. Now, bigger businesses have taken over. And soon, after federal prohibition is lifted, Big Pot mega-businesses will likely move in and buy out all the Bronfein-level companies.
“They’re trying to monopolize it all,” super-stoner and country-music legend Willie Nelson, who started his own brand of weed in an attempt to support small farmers, told New York magazine. “That’s horseshit. That ain’t right, and we’ll do everything we can to keep that from happening.”
While the Bronfeins and Smiths profit, many of the people who previously took big risks to clandestinely cultivate cannabis, spurring a crazy genetic explosion, are prohibited from working in the industry at all through laws that punish the victims of the drug war. In Maryland, as in many other states, there are laws to keep people who have been convicted of a felony from working in the industry, even if that felony resulted from selling cannabis. In practice, this not only continues to hurt drug war victims, but it makes it more likely that inexperienced people will run the grow operations. If you didn’t break the law, you can’t have more than a couple years of experience.
People who invest in weed aren’t subject to the same requirements as those who work in the industry. If they were, David Smith would probably not be a very good applicant.
That’s what happened at Curio, where Sanderoff has been the company’s chief pharmacist. He says that he had no cannabis experience before getting in the business. And he sees this as a good thing—he’s not weighted down with nasty preconceptions, which fits nicely with Bronfein’s vision to re-brand cannabis as a high-end wellness product. And she’s not the only one. Early this year, there was a national conference with a panel called “Goop-ification: The Impact of Cannabis on the Wellness Industry.” As Michelle Lhooq wrote for the website Merry Jane:
A new type of weed marketing is emerging as legal cannabis barrels into the mainstream. You could call it the Goop effect: appealing to wealthy women, it is centered around the oh-so-trendy concept of ‘wellness,’ Spend some time lurking around the corners of Instagram dominated by female-oriented weed companies, and you’ll immediately get the vibe: the products range from essential oils to crystal pipes to CBD tinctures ( . . . so many CBD tinctures!); color tones are muted, feminine pastels and Millennial pink; and the attitude is relentlessly cheerful positivity.
That vibe is another reason why it is surprising that David D. Smith is involved in the business. Some of these wellness folks might also be into QAnon or other fringe ideas, but I’d bet very few would be happy to find out that the guy producing the right-wing propaganda mocked by John Oliver, among many others, is their dealer’s dealer. But people who invest in weed aren’t subject to the same requirements as those who work in the industry. If they were, Smith, Sinclair aside, would probably not be a very good applicant—he’s more concerned with profit, pleasure, and revenge than with family values. True, he has always been a business innovator. In the 1970s, he and a partner ran a porn-pirating business. “The first film we copied was Deep Throat, which had just opened in New York and was not available anywhere else,” David Williams told Rolling Stone. Williams was Smith’s partner in the business, Ciné Processors, which he said got involved with the Mob and was eventually shut down by police.
Then, in 1996, Smith was arrested and charged with unnatural sex acts when he got caught paying a woman to suck his dick while in a Sinclair-owned Mercedes. Instead of community service, Smith had his anchors air segments about local drug treatment programs. Later, in 2015, a jury ruled against Smith, awarding $1.8 million to a man whose corn crop Smith set on fire as part of a land-rental dispute. A judge later reversed the ruling, having determined Smith had the right to evict the man whose crop they had destroyed. “I was threatened that I would not be farming the property and ‘I would be taken care of’,” the farmer, Stephen Pieper, said in in legal filings to the district court, as reported in the Guardian. Namaste, motherfucker.
There is something about this wealthy, white, bipartisan wellness fascism that perfectly captures the politics of the moment. The paradoxical evangelical embrace of Trump was long prefigured by David Smith and other wealthy people always happy to reach across the ideological divide to grab a fistful of dollars. That some of those dollars come from weed now is no surprise.
“We are here to deliver your message,” Smith told Trump during the 2016 campaign—and it worked. Just like Trump, Curio Wellness was willing to put the owl-faced mogul and former porn-pioneer to work selling their product. When alt-right racism and ordinary greed collided with yuppie wellness in the form of Curio’s lawsuit to keep black growers out of the business, many of the city’s news outlets covered the controversy, however poorly. But WBFF remained silent on the wellness dispensary that is looking to set itself apart, by any means necessary.