Privateer Holdings managing director and general counsel Patrick Moen, left, has more than 15 years of experience in law enforcement, including more than 10 years as a highly-decorated criminal investigator and supervisor for the Drug Enforcement Administration. Dante Tosetti, right, is Privateer's director of treasury compliance and also has previous federal experience as the former bank examiner for the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco. (Courtesy of Privateer Holdings)

Meet Patrick Moen, the first-ever DEA official to defect to the marijuana industry

Cannabist Q&A with ex-DEA agent Patrick Moen: 'The overwhelming majority of my (DEA) colleagues shared my view' that marijuana prohibition is 'a wasteful policy'

Despite the nation’s ever-increasing battle against widespread opioid addiction, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration still said no to rescheduling marijuana in August.

Perhaps the unlikeliest champion of the decision? Privateer Holdings’ managing director and general counsel Patrick Moen.

For a high-ranking cannabis industry executive, Moen also has the unlikeliest of backgrounds. In 2013 he became the first DEA official to leave the administration, a part of the U.S. Department of Justice, for a position in the cannabis industry, landing at the private equity firm, which received a $75 million infusion from Peter Theil’s Founders Fund in 2015. Prior to landing at Seattle-based Privateer, the 39-year-old Moen had more than 15 years of experience in law enforcement, including more than 10 years as a highly decorated criminal investigator and supervisor for the DEA, primarily on the East Coast.

“While I certainly understand why many are disappointed (about the DEA’s rescheduling decision), it’s the best outcome, all things considered,” said Moen in an interview with The Cannabist. “This is very incremental progress. It’s a small step, but it’s the first step. And it’s the first time in 43 years that the federal government has made any movement around the issue of cannabis.”

Moen hoped for and expected the end-result, despite much discussion over the past year and efforts from advocacy groups like NORML, who has been asking for rescheduling since 1972.

Schedule II is not real reform. If it had been moved, it wouldn’t have solved the issues we’re facing today, but would have created a pathway to FDA approval,” Moen said. “That is a process that takes years and millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Really more importantly, moving it to Schedule II doesn’t even address the social harms of prohibition.”

According to Moen, the long-term goal remains rescheduling — and he has hope for a change in tone with a new president.

“I’m happy that in some respects, because people in support of cannabis are angry at this decision. It will only motivate and galvanize the legalization movement to continue pushing for real reform,” Moen said. “We still have this momentum building and realistically real change is going to come from lawmakers.”

So how exactly did this former DEA agent make a one-time unthinkable career move?

“Joining Privateer Holdings was an incredible opportunity for me to help bring professionalism to an exciting new industry in a very complex regulatory environment,” Moen said. “My personal belief is that prohibition is a failed policy, and that a professional and well-regulated cannabis industry is the most effective mechanism to hasten the end of that failed policy.”

We continued our conversation with Moen about his transformation into recognizing prohibition as such.

The Cannabist: When did you start thinking about cannabis in such a positive light?

Patrick Moen: During the majority of my DEA career, medical cannabis didn’t exist. When I relocated to Portland in 2011, I saw a significant disconnect from what I perceived between the coasts. The entire administration is on the east, so in a way they look at the west as their wayward child. It was my first exposure to medical cannabis, and I got to see firsthand that it was not the evil that it has always been made out to be.

Cannabist: You saw some of the negative effects of drug enforcement though, too, right?

Moen: I ran a multi-agency drug task force in Portland (from 2011-2013). We saw Asian organization crime groups and Mexican cartels smuggling serious drugs of concern. But we were looking at cannabis and asking ourselves, “If we’re going to spend any energy on cannabis enforcement, is it really an effective use of our time?”

Cannabist: How did you decide your time was up with the DEA?

Moen: In 2012, we saw Colorado and Washington legalize and develop the first set of robust regulations. I had already basically made the decision to make the jump when the Cole Memo came out. That was the icing on the cake and sealed the deal for me.

Cannabist: Did you intentionally seek out a cannabis company?

Moen: I did. I was looking for a career change, not necessarily in the cannabis industry, but was doing research on the major players in the space. I happened to come across an interview with Brendan Kennedy on NPR and thought, “This guy is really sharp.” I cold-called him and said, “I think I can help you.” We met for coffee and hit it off and came up with what exactly my role would be.

Cannabist: You got in at the right time.

Moen: I really found the right opportunity in this brand-new industry being built from the ground up, yet is still lacking in sophistication and professionalism. We have this opportunity to shape it in a way that will allow industry to flourish, but will also foster the end of prohibition by showing the public and lawmakers that this is what it can look like.

Cannabist: Were your views something you were able to discuss freely while on the job?

Moen: It was something that I initially discussed cautiously, but quickly began to realize that the overwhelming majority of my colleagues shared my view points. Of course, there’s the holdouts, but the vast majority believe its a wasteful policy. But when it came to upper management and what was happening in Congress, it became more and more difficult for me and many of my colleagues to sit in the field and listen to our leaders spew ignorance that is completely out of touch with reality.

Cannabist: Did you catch any flak from your colleagues?

Moen: There were a few that were not pleased. But they were vastly outnumbered by colleagues who supported me. I was getting constantly contacted with congratulations from folks I knew, some I didn’t even know, and some even asking for a job.

Cannabist: Have any other agents followed in your footsteps?

Moen: A fair number of them that have retired and quietly taken up some consulting positions. Today there are certainly plenty of former law enforcement folks working in this business, and that’s a good thing. It helps change attitudes more broadly in law enforcement.

Cannabist: What was your biggest cannabis-related challenge as a DEA agent?

Moen: Trying to come to terms with the fact that I firmly believed prohibition was wrong, but seeing the way the unlegalized industry was evolving. It was dangerous because it was unregulated, so I really wanted to see controls in place. One of the key facets of legalization is stamping out the black market, and we can’t do that unless we have a well-regulated system.

Cannabist: And the challenge now?

Moen: Overcoming stereotypes. We like to think we are helping elevate the entire space. Privateer was the first company to secure an institutional investor. VCs, banks, consulting groups, lawyers — most of them come into a meeting with a bias about stoners and are not sure what to expect. We change that perception pretty quick.

Cannabist: Do you personally use cannabis?

Moen: I have in the past, but I’m not a consumer. I don’t really drink either.