"I was walking around with duffle bags with $1m inside." Meet Big Mike Straumietis: the Marijuana Don of America
Big Mike Straumietis is America's biggest cannabis baron. Founder of global brand Advanced Nutrients. Star of TV show The Next Marijuana Millionaire. Host of podcast Business Outlaws. Former drug runner. Persona non grata in Canada (the police had to kidnap him). Multimillionaire. Visionary. And all-round nice guy...
TOWARDS THE END of our interview, Big Mike Straumietis starts to cry.
It should be stressed that this is a first. Generally, people don’t cry during my interviews. Over my interviews, sure, not least my editor when he realises the six pages I’ve handed him are double-sided (#savetherainforest) – but the subjects themselves tend to wait for my departure before shedding actual tears.
Elevating the surreality is the fact I have an absolutely massive hangover, a hangover only exacerbated by my recent ascent of the Hollywood Hills. I imagine the Hollywood Hills is a pretty rotten ascent at the best of times, what with all the hairpin bends and bits where the road decides to become a precipice. Factor in a rainstorm so intense that it feels like we’ve been eaten by a cloud, an Uber driver whose wife must have just entered labour, and the ever-pervasive thought that ‘traffic accidents’ ranks second only to ‘fast food’ in Ways Americans Like To Kill Themselves, and you have one mighty relieved journalist once we pull up outside Big Mike’s front gate.
After navigating security (relatively smoothly, it must be said), I find myself sitting in Big Mike’s front room – at least, I think it’s his front room. Mansions in the Hollywood Hills don’t have front rooms in the same way that your nan has a front room. Your nan’s front room probably doesn’t have a bar. Indeed, Big Mike’s front room doesn’t feel like a front room at all (possibly because it isn’t: he has lots of rooms, and they probably fight over which gets to be the front one). Big Mike’s front room feels a lot like the lobby of a five-star hotel. It’s big and airy and its walls are covered by very large pieces of modern art. Also, the bar, plus the table are covered by smartly arranged regiments of snacks and bottled water. (Honestly, I swear the nuts were advancing on me.)
The bar has its own cargo: seven pots, each containing a different strain of Big Mike’s Blends. Garishly packaged pre-rolled spliffs (they look a bit like fountain pens on their way to an acid rave) with names like Kreative Kingdom (stimulates creativity); Dank Dreams (facilitates sleep); and Hells Bells (best not ask). After our interview concludes, Big Mike will press on me a generous handful of these blends, and I, like the wilful fool I am, will breeze through LAX and straight into a jetlagged editorial lunch at Claude Bosi’s Bibendum with the entire contents stuffed in my suitcase. I then took them out of my suitcase to show the team, and duly left the whole lot at the restaurant. This was easier than it sounds, as Big Mike had kindly supplied a Big Mike’s Bag for transportation – think standard paper bag but with Big Mike’s face on it – which meant I only needed to forget one item rather than approximately 14. He really was very generous. Have you ever retrieved a bag of drugs from a two-Michelin-starred restaurant? The staff are remarkably blasé about it.
The Daily Mail described him as “the acknowledged worldwide leader in developing marijuana-specific nutrients and supplements.”
So, Big Mike’s sitting opposite me, weeping, and here I really should stress my boundless admiration for his emotional honesty, the societal acceptance of our more vulnerable selves being one of the few things the 21st century has going for it, but even so, laudable though it was, the development was nonetheless rather unexpected. Incidentally, Big Mike is not an inverse Little John; Big Mike is 6ft7 and clearly knows his way around a gym, as he should, considering he probably has one in his outhouse.
I can’t vouch for the existence of the gym (though I’d stake money on it); what I can vouch for is the giant mural in which the photographs of multiple deceased celebrities are clustered around a painted black star. This striking artwork hangs on one of Big Mike’s many walls. Initially I thought it was some kind of David Bowie tribute – Blackstar being his final, not-quite posthumous album – except Bowie was one of the few pop-cultural icons not to be on there. In fact, Big Mike later told me, the mural was an art project commemorating the young and beautiful stars who died from drug overdoses – which did seem like a slightly rogue choice of decor for America’s most successful marijuana entrepreneur. Obviously you can’t overdose on weed like you can overdose on heroin, or even alcohol – Big Mike not unreasonably contests that his products make the world a safer, healthier place – but still. Bit close to home.
How successful is Big Mike? Pretty damn successful. The Daily Mail described him as “the acknowledged worldwide leader in developing marijuana-specific nutrients and supplements.” The website of his company, Advanced Nutrients, claims to be “the No. 1 hydroponics nutrients company in the world — with sales in 100 countries and counting.” He recently launched TV show The Next Marijuana Millionaire, and filmed podcast Business Outlaws. He lives in a mansion in the Hollywood Hills, with a bar in what may or may not be the front room.
And what moved such a man to tears? The subject of reparenting, a form of psychotherapy in which one revisits traumatic childhood memories as an adult. And why did this subject cause Big Mike to cry? You’ll have to read the interview and find out.
So, how did you get here? Give us a short biography.
It was a long, difficult, crazy, tumultuous road. I started out 36 years ago as a grower. I had made the decision that I wanted to grow a lot of weed, not just a little bit. In the US, the laws were very draconian, so I looked around the world: where can I go that if something happens I won’t spend the rest of my life in the hoosegow.
I went to Canada, I started growing a lot of cannabis. When I was 19 years old, I started a lawn-care company called Turf Pro, so I was already mixing big vats of chemicals to make the grass green and kill the weeds. I was familiar with those things. People said, “Do you think you can do it?” and I’d go, “Yes, I know I can.” And I did it, and they tried it. They gave it to their friends, and so on, and so on.
Then I got involved with scientists: I figured science was the key. It always has been the answer. I hooked up with UBC University and BCIT. Federally, medical marijuana was legal in 1997 in Canada. I was able to do a bunch of research and get that going.
Eventually I went to Bulgaria because the Academy of Science was laying off a bunch of their brightest minds. I hired them and I put them to work studying cannabinoid research. We had licence to study cannabis.
I’ve run Advance Nutrients for 20 years – and now it’s the most profitable cannabis company in the world. For the last 15 years, I’ve had 25 PhDs working for me, and 15 years of real serious cannabinoid research that has given me a huge edge.
I’m able to bring cannabis plants to their true genetic potential; I make the best cannabis fertiliser programs in the world. It’s not just fertiliser, it’s a bunch of supplements to manipulate the plant to seed to senescence, through all stages of growth. It gives growers God-like abilities over the plant and there’s only one system in the world that does that: Advanced Nutrients.
So you really believed in the medical power of cannabis?
Even though I knew it was illegal, I never really felt I was doing anything wrong, because I understood it was helping people and it didn’t lead to harder drugs, and didn’t wreck people’s lives. I started growing so much and I wanted to get a higher dollar, so I started bringing it to the US. I started going over the border.
I could’ve brought cocaine back and there was no way I was ever going to do that. I could have traded 6-8lb of marijuana for 1kg of coke, taken it up to Canada and made the most insane money. But I refused to do it because coke wrecks people’s lives and I want nothing to do with that. I want to help people’s lives, not wreck them.
What made you realise that marijuana was beneficial as opposed to damaging?
In 1996, Proposition 215 happened, and people were talking about medicine. I remember, years ago, running into Jack Herer in Venice Beach. He had a book called The Emperor Wears No Clothes. We got into long conversations and I realised it was more than just people getting high. It was actually helping people through a lot of things in life.
In 1997, I was working with people with schizophrenia. They say people who have schizophrenia use a lot of weed. All the patients that I dealt with, they were using cannabis not because it cured all the voices they were hearing, but it would suppress the voices so they could function during the day. People with schizophrenia use cannabis because the cannabis is helping them.
I started dealing with cancer patients, I had people with adrenal cancer who’d been given six months to live. One guy I kept alive for seven years, and the other guy, he’s still alive today. I’ve seen people smoking and they were helping all different types of things – irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s. It wasn’t curing it, but it was making their life functionable. And so, I always treated weed as medicine. I never felt bad about growing weed, because I was helping humanity, and that’s how I still look at it.
When you were a kid did you imagine you’d enter the marijuana business?
No. Twelve years old was the first time I smoked a joint. I got it out of my father’s drawer. My older half-brother got back from Vietnam and gave my dad three joints. My dad never smoked them. I saw them sitting there one day, and I thought, “What the hell? Let me give this a try.” I can remember smoking and smiling my ass off; getting onto the bus in school, and people were like, “What are you laughing at?” and I said, “I don’t know, but life’s just funny and happy.”
I didn’t smoke it all the time, I was just curious about it. As I got older, I stopped drinking alcohol because I would get hangovers and drive my car a little bit faster than I should. When I medicated with cannabis, I didn’t want to drive my car fast and I didn’t want to do stupid stuff. I was just chilled. I woke up in the morning with no hangover. Yes, it’s good.
It’s an impressive step: to go from casual smoker to international dealer…
I actually got arrested a few times and I was never convicted. The police couldn’t really get rid of me in Canada; so they literally kidnapped me one day and took me over the US border. I’m talking to these guys, “Don’t do it. This is the law. You’re supposed to take me to the judge.” They get to the goddamn state line, the one guy looks at the other guy and he goes, “Do you think we should do this?” And I’m going, “No, no, you shouldn’t be doing this! You’re breaking the law. You’re no better than the criminals!” And the other guy looks at him and goes, “We have to.” They take me over the border and that’s how they got rid of me.
I’m thinking, ‘Well, Jesus, what am I going to do now? I should study business’.And so I got into heavy, heavy learning about marketing, behavioural psychology and copyrighting. I’ve always been a lifelong learner. I started going to seminars. I spent well over $2m on my education.
How old were you at this point?
In my forties. I’m 58 now. When I was around 36, I went to Canada and that’s where I just went crazy, growing. I had massive grow operations indoors there. My largest grow operation was 500 lights. I had a couple of 300-lighters and 100 lighters. I had a total of 1,496 1000w lights on production. I had about another 60 to 80 lights that were just raising my mothers and cuttings. I had 200 people working for me. It was a whole organisation.
How did you have the capital to set up?
First of all, I didn’t go there like a novice, I was already an expert cannabis grower. I merely started taking cuttings and selling them.
I started a cutting business and that cutting business generated enough money for me to get a 100-light grow operation, because that was my goal. I got to 100-light grow operation really fast, and I thought, ‘Shit, I have so much money now, with the 100-light, I can do another one, and another one, and another one’. And it just grew that way.
Then it was like, “OK, how do I get this shit across the border, so that I can make an extra $1,000 US/lb or more?” I figured that there were only three ways; land, sea and air, and I used all three of them. Then they kicked me out of the country. I’d already started a company called Advanced Nutrients. When they busted me, they took every single asset I owned. To this day I have the biggest asset forfeiture return in Canadian history, which pisses them off.
It was $1m worth of stuff at the time, that they had to give back to me. By the time they took it all, I was $1m in debt, and we should have been out of business. Had they gone into the warehouse and taken all of our equipment as well, I’d have been finished. But they didn’t; they left me with the company called Advanced Nutrients. I was able to put all my resources into that, and I grew it into the empire it is today. It actually did me a favour when they kidnapped me.
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When did you start out?
When I was 23, I started growing weed. Grew it all wrong and killed my first crop.
Yes, in rural Illinois. My second crop grew but I didn’t know when to harvest it, so I harvested it early and it was kind of OK. It wasn’t until the fifth or sixth crop that I figured out what I was doing.
How do you kill a crop?
Oh, I overheated it. I didn’t have enough ventilation in the room. I went back the next morning and there was, like, brown, dead little cuttings. I had a lawn-care company, so I took 500sq ft out of my warehouse and I built another room within that room.
That sounds illegal.
It was illegal as hell! It was black market. The majority of our life has been a black market. Now, with the laws, everything’s changed. I’ve got a licence; I’ve got 14 different licences in the state of California, and all that is behind me. Ever since they took me over the border in 2005, the rest is history.
Do you feel vindicated now it’s legalised?
What makes me sad is what I see happening to the cannabis community, because they never really sat down and studied business.
I gave them a marketing newsletter every month – it cost me a lot of money to put that out, and I found that only 20% of the people I gave it to were reading it. The others weren’t. And now people ask me for it.
They thought they were on a road that was never going to end. I knew this was going to go legal, and that you have to have different skills for that. I made sure I had those skills so I could stay in this industry for the long haul, and I’ll be in it for another 30 years. It’s the most exciting space, right now, in the world, and it will be for the next 15 or 20 years.
I don’t see anything that’s going to be more exciting than what happens in the world of cannabis. It took them 30 years to get everything straight, after prohibition.
What are the biggest changes for the business since it became legalised?
It’s harder for me to get bank accounts. It was easier to do business before… Now, they hear the word cannabis, they have a microscope on you, and it’s become a bit of a hassle. The Farm Bill of 2018 loosened up quite a few things. I’ve been approached by people from banks in LA – big banks – who go, “We want to do business with you now. We’re looking for a premier first client. We’d like it to be you.”
There’s a group of 12 banks – their market capture was more than $50bn. I had all their CEOs on the phone. They know the regulators from the Fed in New York, and plan on launching there, for cannabis. Then they’re going to come to California.
The 2018 Farm Act made hemp a commodity. If you look at other agriculture commodities: wheat, soy beans, corn, they’re all globally exported. So, it can be the same for cannabis. That door has already been opened.
Anything you wish you’d done differently?
Oh, fuck yes! Oh yes. If I could look back now and make that perfect road, woohoo! Absolutely, yes. You make all kinds of mistakes, especially when you’re young and you’re learning business.
Can you give an example?
Business partners; I would never have taken on any business partners. Absolutely not. I got rid of two partners who were both four- tonne weights on my neck dragging me down. They were just fools.
Presumably a lot of people are getting into the industry, thinking it’s easy money?
You know the sign of a true professional? They make whatever they do look easy. I make cannabis look effortless because I understand the terrain. People think, “Oh, cannabis is good.” They get into this industry and they realise, “What the… is going on? I can’t advertise, I’ve got banking issues. I’ve got to get licences now.”
If you’re just coming into the industry, it’s a lot more difficult than it would have been seven or eight years ago. But eight years ago, people were laughing at the cannabis people as a joke. Smart business people have realised they can make a fortune off us. Most cannabis guys are unsophisticated because they never tried to learn anything. They’re being eaten alive. It’s like sharks going into a pond of goldfish and they’re just chewing through the entire community. Those people don’t want to help; they want to suck their information out of them then discard them as fast as they can.
I’ve seen people who were promised all kinds of things by family offices and businesses and private equity, and all they end up getting is fucked – every single one of them – because they don’t understand how to protect themselves and they’ve never done the work required to run a successful business. They were successful because they took a great risk when nobody else wanted to take it; you could be, literally, a fool and make money in the cannabis business. Now those days are over.
People think that the black market will continue. It won’t once the Federal Government legalises cannabis and makes it part of the system. I don’t see too many moonshiners these days making moonshine; they’re all pretty much shut down. The black market will get shut down really, really hard, and people are going to be surprised at that. It didn’t have to be that way – they could have studied; they could’ve aligned themselves with the right companies and still been in business. It was their choice.
When did you make your first million?
It was in my 20s.
Must have been a big moment.
It was huge. I remember the first time I had hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. It’s intoxicating. First time I saw a bag of $80,000, I was like, “Wow.” After a while, I was walking around with duffle bags with $1m inside.
I got so good at doing what I did, I had people from the east coast of Canada coming in with, literally, $1m at a time. I had a warehouse with, I don’t know, a couple of thousands of pounds of weed, and the guy would go through. He’d shop the different grades and we’d put it all together and the semi-truck would come with a special thing, hidden, and then they’d drive all the way to the east coast. It would come on a regular basis. I had a couple of those guys.
But where I made the real money is going back and forth between Canada and the US. Then I got so good at it, I moved everyone else’s product for them too, for a while.
The US authorities can’t have been thrilled.
No, they can’t. Actually, they don’t care so much. The Canadians really have a chip on their shoulder when it comes to me. I hired this attorney who was like the Gerry Spence of British Columbia, Canada. Three months later, the charges were what they called ‘stayed’ – the equivalent of getting dropped in the US.
What were the charges?
Cultivation and smuggling.
Right. What was the sentence looking like?
Oh, well they said I’d get six years, and of that I would do 18 months to two years. I thought that was pretty good, considering the same charges in the US would have got me life.
Have you ever been to prison?
Oh, the longest I ever stayed was three months. They denied me bail up in Canada. They thought I was a flight risk because they found different IDs on me, but whatever. I wasn’t about to run. I didn’t want to come back to the US.
Regardless, they finally gave me bail and I didn’t run. I stayed and I did all that stuff. And then I didn’t want to leave the country and they wanted to get me over to the US. Then when I got to the US they arrested me.
As they do.
It was American Feds and they didn’t tell me right away what they were arresting me for. With everything I’ve done, I was just running a movie in my head going, ‘Oh my God’. When they said, “Hey, we got you for making a false statement on a passport application,” I was like, “Phew. OK. What’ve we got here?” That was that. I got 18 months’ probation and was done.
Must have been a panic...
I couldn’t smoke weed for 18 months, but that was OK. A small price to pay for my freedom.
How did you find this house?
I looked at 60 different places. Well, my assistant did. It has a big yard, like a hectare: I could entertain 1,000 people here. I throw two big parties a year. One’s 4th July, down in Malibu, and another one here. I’m still working with the neighbours. We’ll see what happens.
Do the neighbours complain?
No, I invite them. These are $1m events, they’re first class. The neighbours thought we were going to have some kind of hippy fest. Instead I had 11 billionaires and over 200 millionaires at this party. There were 1,000 people here. The cops came and chucked the party out 45 minutes before it was going to close, just to let us know, “Hey, don’t forget who’s in charge.”
A lot of celebrities are getting into marijuana.
Yes, it’s a great thing. It brings awareness and those celebrities should really be getting themselves educated and educate the population. Now, if you don’t have a licence, you’re done. Some celebrities were smart: they went out and got their licence. They did all the right things. Most of them haven’t. It’s going to be interesting to see what transpires over the next year, as they enforce the legal market and get rid of the black market. Those celebrities who don’t have a licence are in the black market. I’m sure they’re aware of it, maybe they’re not.
Tell us about your TV career?
I’ve got a show, Next Marijuana Millionaire, that’s finally been edited and done. The big agencies are looking at that. It’s going to be very, very exciting. It doesn’t show cannabis in a derogatory, negative way – it shows normal people. The media has a tendency to show cannabis patients as the freaky people who are always doing strange stuff. They’re not showing normal America and how they’re using it, and that has to change.
That’s a podcast but we also shoot it as a normal show. I do that every week and it’s a business show. I don’t necessarily talk about cannabis, I just talk about business, because I want people to understand that there’s more to me than just cannabis. The whole premise of the show is, if you could go back and talk to your 24-year-old self, what would you tell him?
I get into a lot of deep, emotional conversations; I cry in the show. I talk about my past, and pain points. I talk a lot about psychology and mindset, as well as the functional things that you have to do. Most of it is mindset, by the way. In business, in anything in life, it’s mindset. Always positive.
You’ve got to be able to believe in yourself. A lot of people will try to steer you away from it. They’re secretly jealous, and don’t want to see you succeed. They don’t believe in themselves and so they try to project their fears on to you. You can’t operate that way in life, you’ve got to go your own way.
Were your parents alarmed when you went into the marijuana business?
My mother said, “Son, I don’t think what you’re doing is bad. Just don’t ever get caught.” And my father, he passed away when I was 17, but he taught me sales at a very young age. It helped me out as I got older. I had some good lessons and some bad lessons from my parents. Luckily, I took the good and was able to run with it.
What were the bad lessons?
Like, negative programming. Your parents have these negative qualities, and they affect you when you get older, and you’re unaware of them. You need to clean them out of your head, and have your own set of beliefs. We go through all that on Business Outlaws: how to purge yourself from all the negativity from the past. How to regulate yourself.
What advice would you give to the 24-year-old you?
“It’s all going to work out. Just trust your instincts. It’s all going to work out.” Actually, I would start with the psychology. It would have saved him a lot of divorces, and bad relationships. In this day and age, life is so fucking tough for people. It’s a struggle. It’s hard. I recently got engaged –
Thank you. Relationships are a big part of everyone’s life. When you see a person with a good program versus a bad program, stay away from the bad program. Most people don’t understand what a good program looks like because, throughout their life, they have had bad programmers and everyone around them – their friends – all had bad programmers. That becomes your reality. You don’t understand that there’s another reality outside the one that you’re in.
When you say, ‘other reality’– I can’t tell you how many good girls I walked past. I had no idea, none. Then you start to listen – and you go, “Oh, bad program, bad program. You’ve got a bad program here.”
The fastest way to find out how a person’s program is? Ask about their childhood. Look at their parents because they’re the ones who programmed them. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, immediate parents: they’re the programmers to that person’s brain. I always look at those input factors and how good this person’s going to be. I do something called reparenting. It gets me through all that stuff.
Oh shit. You see, your brain will protect you from things you don’t understand. It won’t allow you to revisit the same situation if it thinks you’re going to get harmed again. When you get the skillset you need, only then will your brain allow you to go back in that situation because it now knows you can win that situation.
That’s what happens when you go deeper, and you finally figure stuff out. You see where your parents did the bad programming. You come back to these pain points. I just look at myself as an adult now. I look at myself as a child, I take myself by the hand and I deal with the situation. [Voice breaks.] I talk to myself and say, “Listen, that’s a bad program. They didn’t know what they were doing. It’s not their fault. They were programmed bad.” And I move on. Believe me, I’m still working through shit.
People have no idea all of the ways things stack up on you. It’s like – I would never have thought that was a pain point. I’d never have thought that was something that held me back. And then I ask, “Why?” then I deal with it, and then it’s gone, and it no longer affects me.
Once you get a handle on it, everything in life becomes easier. Business, relationships, social situations. That’s really what Business Outlaws is about – teaching the young millennials how to reprogram themselves and how to do business. The entrepreneur stuff’s the easy part. The head shit’s the hard part. See, I get emotional thinking about all the pain I’ve been through – is there a napkin or something in here? Got tears in my eyes thinking about my past. You’ve got me all emotional, the guy from Square Mile.
Please don’t kick me out.
Oh, I don’t care. I’m not going to say anything I’m ashamed of. You can put in that you saw tears. It’s me. I cry on the air. I don’t hide it.
That’s impressive. It’s great as a society we’re becoming less emotionally repressed.
No, you’re right. I can get in all kinds of stinks about society, and men and women and where we are today, and where we need to go, and what’s going to happen, but that’s a whole other thing. I deal with that on Business Outlaws, so start listening to that, maybe.
I shall. Thanks for being so generous with your time.
No, it’s OK. By the way – what’s your relationship with cannabis?