By Matt Sledge, HuffingtonPost.com
He’s been a cop, a sheriff’s deputy and a DEA agent. And now Patrick Moen is taking on his latest assignment: helping sell marijuana. But he isn’t going undercover — he’s going to work for a legal business that supports the marijuana industry.
Moen recently left his job with the DEA in Portland, where he tracked cocaine and methamphetamine traffickers, to work for a small private equity firm in Seattle called Privateer Holdings.
As the company’s managing director of compliance and senior counsel, Moen will guide Privateer Holdings through the tricky legal waters of investing in marijuana-related businesses in one of the two states that has legalized the drug — while keeping federal prosecutors happy. Moen’s company will not directly support marijuana growers and distributors yet, but it does aim to invest in ventures like marijuana strain review websites and “business parks” for growers.
HuffPost talked to Moen about his 10-year stint with the DEA, what his old coworkers think of his new career track and what he sees in store for the burgeoning industry.
What do your former colleagues at the DEA think?
My overall experience with former colleagues has been overwhelming positive. I was actually kind of surprised at that response, but they were really very supportive.
It’s basically an extension of how my family and friends reacted. It was important to me when I was making this transition to get feedback from family and friends, and I wanted to make sure they viewed this favorably, and I wasn’t sure how they would take it.
The DEA, of course, is charged with enforcing marijuana laws. Do you see your new line of work as a break with what you were doing at the agency?
I look at it as more of an evolution. When I was with DEA, I was primarily focused on large scale trafficking of so-called hard drugs … and I didn’t work a lot of marijuana cases. It never was a priority for me personally, and I think that attitude is shared by my former colleagues, so it never was a priority.
When this opportunity came up, I didn’t see it as a contradiction, I saw it as an evolution — in the sense that we all know prohibition is going to end, and I think personally that it’s critically important in order for this process to succeed, we need to establish professional businesses that can bring mainstream brands to mainstream America, and without that this experiment in democracy is going to fail.
So marijuana wasn’t a priority for front-line agents? Is focusing on marijuana a bad way to get ahead within the agency?
I guess you could say there’s kind of a hierarchy within the DEA of which cases are sexy and exciting and those that aren’t, and really that reflects I think the priorities that the agents feel in terms of which of these drugs are most harmful to society … cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
Advancing, it’s all merit based. You make good cases, you do good work and opportunities open up. I don’t think there’s any kind of a bias one way or another, it’s, ‘Are you a capable investigator?’
Why did you want to work with the marijuana industry?
Prohibition causes the black market, the black market creates opportunities for illicit money, and ideally we want that black market to go away. In order to do that, we need to establish professional companies. If the industry side of this can’t succeed, the black market won’t go away. And there are plenty of obstacles in the industry, there’s a lot of fragmentation, there are inexperienced and ineffective managers … in addition, the legal landscape is complicated, and we’re trying to navigate it.
We’re focused on Washington right now. Washington state has promulgated a set of regulations for the initial licensing process. There’s going to be growing pains. On paper they look pretty good. We’re probably going to encounter some difficulties as we move through the process.
At the DEA you must have done work looking at the financing for illegal drug enterprises. Do you see any parallels in the difficult work of obtaining access to banking services for legal marijuana operations?
If we don’t give the industry access to banking like any other industry would have, we’re creating the potential for problems. If you’re forcing the business into a cash-only business, you’re only creating the possibility for theft, robbery, et cetera.
Do you think legalizing marijuana is the first step toward legalizing other so-called ‘hard’ drugs?
That’s a really tough question. It’s taken so long to get this far on marijuana legalization, and I think the tide of opinion is changing rapidly in favor of legalization. I really don’t know what that’s going to mean for other drugs down the road. They’re not really, in my opinion, in the same category. If you’re talking about harm to society, you can’t even compare.
Personally, we’re trying to focus right now on bringing mainstream cannabis brands to the mainstream audience. That’s what people want right now. I don’t think the public tolerance level for further discussion is in the cards right now.
Will Privateer Holdings lobby to legalize marijuana in states beyond Colorado and Washington?
It’s not something we here are going to get really involved in. We have been asked our opinion by legislators and policy wonks, and we certainly have an opinion, but we’re really focused on building our company and the industry. I think they go hand in hand to some degree — one can’t exist without the other, policy and industry.
The tide has turned with the policy, and we need to establish professional businesses to ensure that all these efforts don’t go to waste. If the businesses cannot professionalize and be transparent and be compliant, then they’re going to shut the operation down and this is all going to go away.