By Jose Paz Soldan
Mike Zaytsev is the founder of High NY, an organization devoted to educating the public on all things cannabis as well as facilitating networking in the cannabis community. He is the best-selling author of The Cannabis Business Book (2020) and The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Cannabis (2016).
High NY describes itself as “New York’s #1 Cannabis Meetup Group,” and focuses on strengthening the bonds of the cannabis community. Founded in 2014, the organization has led multiple events such as the annual New York City Cannabis Film Festival and Cannabis Business Banquet.
Even with the state of New York legalizing the use of recreational cannabis — and decreasing cannabis stigma — earlier this year, Mike Z and High NY remain active. The road ahead remains uncertain as New York and other states continue to fumble with issues such as social equity and diverse licensing as regulation opens new markets. Stepping up as leaders, Mike Z and High NY continue to teach and build bridges throughout the cannabis community. Honeysuckle caught up with Mike Z to ask a few questions about High NY’s plans for the cannabis community in the coming years.
HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: How did you first become inspired to organize High NY?
MIKE Z: Years ago, I went to a cannabis event, a meetup. At the time, I was an ignorant consumer. I had been a pretty regular consumer of cannabis, but I didn’t have any education on it whatsoever. At that event, I met some people who had been activists for many many years such as [civil rights pioneer] Dana Beal and some medical patients—people who have really educated me on the science and truth behind it.
All I had heard at that point in my life was the propaganda. Once I learned about the basic facts, I became really angry and inspired. Angry because I didn’t know any of this stuff and I felt like it had been kept from me. I felt like I was tricked my whole life by the mainstream media and the schools. I got inspired because most cannabis consumers were like me because they had never received any real cannabis education. This was 2014 and I had just begun my entrepreneurial journey. I had decided that “Wait a minute, I can get these events, I can get this community, passionate about cannabis, together.”
How has the mission changed over the years? What have you seen as your central goals?
I would say, honestly, the mission hasn’t changed since 2014. It was about getting people together and building a community. To do that, people needed to see each other in real life and connect with each other. Whether that’s having dinner, meeting together or learning from cannabis experts, I thought it was really important for people to meet up in real life and see that “Hey, I’m not alone here.”
Until recently, there was no real way to get credible cannabis education unless you sought it out yourself. The ability to bring in experienced and knowledgeable people while giving them a space to share their knowledge and experience was always the mission. It was about providing education while and highlighting the leaders of our community.
I also wanted to destigmatize cannabis and the people who use it. For many years, there’s been this negative propaganda about cannabis and the people who use it — the lazy stoner stereotype and whatnot. I felt like that had never been true for me. I was extremely productive and high-functioning and I knew many others like me in that regard. I felt it was important to change the public perspective of the narrative. It’s not the Devil’s lettuce or anything like that. It’s an incredible and healing plant. I think it should be given the respect and reverence it deserves.
[The legality] doesn’t change the stigma behind it. In the coming years, more and more people will become more interested as cannabis becomes accessible. They should have an entry point as I did many years ago. They should be able to meet other people and have a space where they can be welcomed and supported.
Which events are you most proud of?
Over the years, we’ve done lots of different events designed for different audiences. Our last two events have been business focused due to legalization. People are excited to participate in the new markets being born. But I’m especially proud of fundraisers we’ve done for organizations like Defy Ventures which provide support services and entrepreneurship education for previously incarcerated people. Also when we had the NYC Cannabis Film Festival at House of Yes, it was super cool to host something at that iconic New York venue.
Another unique panel, High NY hosted was “On Pot and Parenting,” a space where parents can discuss the stigma they face from others when they reveal their hobbies or careers that involve cannabis. I really want to focus on the niche spaces of the cannabis community. There are seniors and elders, medical patients, college students, healthcare professionals, lawyers, and entrepreneurs. These people have different needs, interests and goals in the cannabis community. One of my biggest principles, before I started doing this, came from my career as a life and executive coach. That has really guided me and my leadership within the High NY community. Leaders create leaders, so what I’m always trying to do is empower the audience by giving them the tools to succeed.
What do you appreciate most about the cannabis community?
One thing [about the cannabis community] I’m continually impressed about is how diverse it is. If you come to an event, it’s like a New York City subway car. All types of people, but with one uniting thread: cannabis, which I love.
There are always new members who [come to us as] their very first cannabis event and on the other side of the coin are those who have been at this since before I was born, and everyone in-between. David Hess from Tress Capital, who spoke at our most recent event, is a great example because he is a cannabis investor, but he is also a two-time cancer survivor and medical cannabis patient. He, like many people in the community, has a dynamic relationship with cannabis. There were all sorts of people from influencers, to chefs, brands, businesses, journalists, artists, attorneys, and accountants who represent the largest companies in legal cannabis. The diversity is amazing.
One of High NY’s goals is to change the way that the prohibition of cannabis has disproportionately impacted communities of color. Could you elaborate on that?
At the highest level, when you look at the War on Drugs, it was really a war on Black and Brown people. They were disproportionately arrested despite usage rates amongst racial groups being the same. New York is the cannabis arrest capital of the world. In parts of New York City, the disparity was 10:1. Ten times the amount of Black and Brown people to white people despite the similar usage rate. It’s clear when you study the history, this was no accident. This was by design.
It’s caused incredible harm and destruction to those communities. It’s the responsibility of the cannabis community and anyone who is trying to profit off of cannabis, to help correct those injustices. It’s important to become an advocate for these people, as we build this community and market, we must do it in a restorative way. I said in my book, if you have no intent in being an advocate first, you have no business being in the business of cannabis. It seems extremely irrational, unfair, and hypocritical. People need to be aware of that.
Do you feel the community needs to stick together as cannabis legalization leads the way to commercialization?
I’ll give the analogy of a start-up company. Start-ups start with a few people, the core team. It’s very easy to make sure that everyone is on the same page in terms of values and culture. But once you reach that hyper-growth and go from 10 to 100 to 200 people, it’s much harder to maintain the culture, values and personal responsibility. The community and opportunities in cannabis are going to grow a lot and very fast. In a few years, we’re going to go from it being underground aside from medical cannabis organizations to hundreds of dispensaries and brands. It’ll be a dramatic shift and it’s hugely important now more than ever and all the individuals in [the community] emphasize and double down on the cannabis values of integrity and high standards.
I think there are a few high-level values and ideals that most people adhere to. Having respect for Mother Nature, compassion, inclusiveness. Anyone can use and benefit from this plant. That restorative justice and everyone deserving access to opportunity, freedom and healthcare. The friction is that some of these traditional hippie counter-culture cannabis values are at odds with some of the capitalistic New York values. I understand people want to make money and jump into this opportunity, but I truly believe that one of the most exciting and unique things about the cannabis industry is that you have an opportunity to do good and do well at the same time. I tell people that one of the best ways to succeed in the community and market is to be grounded in this idea of serving and providing for others, not just being a capitalist.
Ultimately, in my opinion, it’s about healing people and healing the planet and our collective consciousness. This plant has been used for healing for thousands of years in Chinese medicine, in ancient texts, in India and even in the U.S. before it was illegal. This plant exists to help us heal and help us grow. I really believe that from an ethnobotanical standpoint. We’re living through a revolution in how it’s being used and viewed in the world for the better. Not just cannabis, but also hemp in how it can clean soil and remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is a remarkable plant that can do a lot of good for people and the planet.
Last year, Forbes published an article stating that 40,000 people in the prison system are there due to cannabis-related charges. How has High NY worked to reform institutions and what are its goals in the future?
A couple of years ago, I did an event with an organization called Defy Ventures. They provide services to formerly incarcerated people. It’s not cannabis-focused, but it’s an organization that helps these people create businesses and get jobs. I hosted a fundraiser for them and all the money we raised from tickets went to Defy. I’ve done a few things like that here and there over the years as an example.
Generally, when I do an event I donate some percentage of the proceeds to a nonprofit, not always cannabis-related. Last month we did a big dinner and proceeds went on to provide meals for 5,000 food-insecure New Yorkers. It goes back to that regenerative/restorative progress. We’re all struggling and in that way, cannabis is helping. It’s why I consider myself a leader in this community and I feel it’s important that anyone as a leader helps model this compassionate and restorative energy in the cannabis community.
You have a long history of being a social justice organizer within advocacy and business communities. What words of wisdom would you offer to people who wish to develop their advocacy and networking organizations?
I would recommend getting some help. Get a crew that cares about your goal and is highly motivated. People who have the same values and can buy in with their vision, but with complementary skill sets. Start small. It doesn’t have to be big overnight. I think there’s nothing wrong with growing slowly and organically. I would always encourage anyone who’s taking on anything new, find a mentor or a couple of mentors who have gone through whatever it is you’re hoping to do, someone who’ll help you avoid blind spots and give you the wisdom to help you be successful.
And keep it simple. Don’t overcomplicate stuff. My goals for High NY events are that people have a good time and that they learn. They should have fun and receive value; whether it’s from the education or the new contacts, I want to help them grow. That’s what makes the event a success. Because I keep it simple, I could always remind myself of these goals whenever I encounter a challenge.
What are some of your plans for the future regarding High NY? Is there anything you wish you share?
One thing I am working on for later this year, without giving too much detail, is a seminar for people who want to grow their own cannabis. It’s going to be legal to grow your own plant and I’ve already gotten requests from people who are interested in it. I’ve had workshops with Danny Danko, a well-known cultivation expert. I think, for a lot of people, it would be a really rewarding experience. Not just because it’d be super informative learning about the plant, but also gardening is a very therapeutic activity. I also recently became a professor where I’m teaching the first-ever cannabis course at Medgar Evers College.
I imagine there will be another High NY [event] before the end of the year. I don’t have the exact date, but the best way for people to stay in the loop is to sign up for the email list on HighNY.com
What should New Yorkers know now about their local cannabis community?
If you’re a member of the High NY cannabis community, it’s important to make your presence known and your voice heard. As the next few months pass with all these regulations, the newly appointed Office of Cannabis Management is having its first meetings... It’s important that citizens are educated and put pressure on their elected officials to get educated as well. It matters that the will of the people is heard, as a lot of the people want Cannabis equity and justice, they want this industry to be inclusive and regenerative. So I want people to make time and to find time to push this thing in the right direction or donate to the people who put in the effort and time. Support the people on the front lines of the Cannabis movement.
Featured image: High NY founder Mike Z, foreground, intros a High NY event with cannabis investment expert Jeff Finkle (left) and other speakers. (C) Michael Vincent Parks