We are in an era of marijuana milestones. Washington and Colorado are getting ready to open the nation’s first legal, recreational-pot shops. Nearly 60% of Americans support legalizing the drug, an all-time high. And in the quiet Northern California town of Sebastopol (pop. 7,525), America has just gotten its first marijuana businessman turned mayor, elected unanimously by his fellow city-council members earlier this month.
Robert Jacob, 37, worked with homeless youth and HIV-positive communities in San Francisco before moving to Sebastopol and starting the area’s first medical-marijuana dispensary in 2007. The business, Peace in Medicine, now has two locations and 20,000 members. TIME spoke with Jacob about his new job, legalization in California and what politicians can learn from ganjapreneurs like him.
You appear to be the first American mayor who is also running a medical-marijuana business. What do you think the significance of that is?
I don’t believe I became mayor because of my medical-marijuana background. I believe I became mayor because of my ability to work within all communities and with all council members, even when there’s a difference of opinion. So what it signifies is that medical cannabis is no longer your whole identity. Historically, if you were a medical-cannabis advocate, that was your defining factor.
Your achievement quickly became national news. Do you think there’s an insight here about how America views marijuana these days?
In Northern California, medical cannabis is a very important issue to many residents. We’re coming to a point of acceptance where patients no longer live in fear of being who they are, where they are coming out of the shadows.
How bad do you think the stigma has been in the past?
When I entered the Sebastopol community, there were many patients who lived here who were ashamed, who hid in their homes and weren’t comfortable publicly being a medical-cannabis patient. They didn’t want anybody to know.
So how did you get into the medical-marijuana business?
I was working in San Francisco with HIV-positive young people, and there, medical cannabis is at the forefront. But when I moved to Sebastopol and realized there were a lot of people who were uncomfortable being medical-cannabis patients, providers, advocates, I really saw a disenfranchised community. Working with underserved populations has been my life’s work. And I thought it was important to empower that community. So we united behind this vision, which became Peace in Medicine … Sebastopol’s first medical-marijuana dispensary.
It sounds like you approached medical marijuana more as a social endeavor than a business.
Absolutely. Peace in Medicine has always been about bringing people together, about breaking down stereotypes. At the end of the day the dispensary is a nonprofit social organization, and providing medical cannabis to patients is just a function of that nonprofit work that we do.
What lessons from the marijuana business can you apply to politics, or vice versa?
The key is that when you do anything, you have to have a healthy community, and to have a healthy community, you have to be open to solving issues of all constituencies, regardless of whether you agree with them.
Do you think recreational marijuana should be legal in California?
I believe that adult use and legalization is something that is important for us to look at. We squander away a significant portion of our judicial system and financial resources in the state on marijuana offenses. I haven’t been able to review any initiative for the state ballot to see if I do or don’t support it. But in the end, I mean, of course I support legalization.
How long do you think it will take for it to become legal in California? There are some initiatives brewing for 2014.
If it doesn’t happen in 2014, it’s going to happen in 2016. I think we’ve seen public opinion is there. It’s only a matter of time before we’re going to see this move forward in a way that, honestly, I believe will create a healthier, more positive community for all of California. When you have a significant portion of people technically breaking an antiquated law, it is time to change that and look at how we can move forward as a society.