What Really Happens When America Gets Reefer Madness
American businesses are wasting no time cashing in on what looks like a cannabis craze in this country, now that 29 states have legalized medical and/or recreational usage. Whether you want to blow your paycheck on a sophisticated marijuana–laced dinner out: puff, puff, pass your way through a yoga class: or signal your chill-yet-fabulously-wealthy vibe with a designer weed grinder, there are more ways to reach an altered state in the United States than ever before. Defying stereotypes, ambitious “cannapreneurs” seem poised to infuse society with a bevy of ways to get your smoke on out in the open.
With all the hype surrounding legal weed, it can be hard to remember that not so long ago the plant was considered a gateway to hard drugs and crime, a belief in no small part caused by scapegoating the Mexican-American community. In the eyes of American society, marijuana—Mexican slang for the drug—was a foreign plant that crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with nearly 100,000 immigrants fleeing the Mexican Revolution at the turn of the last century. As anti-immigrant fervor gripped the country during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression, marijuana was criminalized; its enthusiasts were regarded as menaces to society, or in more tolerant cities, low-class bums.
In spite of favorable medical research and economic potential, cannabis today is still federally illegal, and THC (the psychoactive property of cannabis) is classified as a Schedule 1 drug, one that “has no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” American pot smokers caught with the Devil’s lettuce have been punished with everything from buzz-killing fines, to legal robberies, to life in prison.
Though the United States government may be slow to accept the benefits of cannabis culture, hippie cannapreneurs and businesspeople in liberal states have stayed well ahead, launching countless new businesses, products, and ventures in secret, relying on word of mouth marketing to grow their name. But grow it did, and for the states where voters decided that stoned people eating treats are at least as desirable as drunk bar-goers peeing in public after closing time, recreational and medicinal cannabis has created jobs that have brought in over $650 million dollars in state taxes and retail sales.
In typical American fashion, it seems that no industry is safe from weed-inspired disruption. According to the Bloomberg Intelligence Global Cannabis Index, pot-related companies have raised more than $734 million between January 1 and April 21 of this year alone. That’s more than seven times the $108 million raised in the same period last year, and a more than 236% growth in the last year overall. And, in spite of U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ agenda to kill any federal buzz about full legalization, 60% of the American population now supports legal weed, which is not just good news for stoner-courting brands like Taco Bell and Doritos, but a whole spate of sensimilla-savvy entrepreneurs.
The restaurant industry was, naturally, the first to fall to the stoner agenda. In fact, Christopher Yang, the founder and head chef of Pop Cultivate, a popular cannabis-infused pop-up dinner event in Los Angeles (where recreational marijuana was legalized last year, in addition to longtime legal medicinal use), believes there should be no difference between offering weed or wine with your meal. Yang had been organizing non-cannabis related pop-ups around L.A. for a few years prior to the launch of Pop Cultivate, and says he only incorporated marijuana into the menu based on customer demand. But now that he has, for Yang, Pop Cultivate is a way to build a community where both tokers and non-users can enjoy a meal together on common ground.
“[Pop-ups] allow you to build a culture, some sort of community of people that come, and the funny thing is how you go and acquire this user base,” says Yang. “With Pop Cultivate, it’s cannabis that brings everyone together … I’m happy to create a place where people feel comfortable with both dynamics.”
And, just as you wouldn’t go to a five-star restaurant just to drink the wine, Yang hopes cannabis will be more of a conversation starter and palette enhancer, rather than the focus of the night. “We have an infused, non-infused, and a vegetarian menu,” Yang says, “And you definitely aren’t obligated to smoke.”
When California legalized recreational pot back in January, Yang and his partners began a new initiative so out-of-towners can get in on the fun. Pop Living, an Airbnb experience, offers guests a complimentary “cannabis concierge service” throughout the duration of their stay. An onsite member checks guests into their room, fills out paperwork for a medical card (still required for purchasing marijuana through medical dispensaries until full legalization is implemented in January, 2018) for at least one guest, and walks them through their first delivery process. Cannatourism has been a “budding” industry since Colorado and Washington first legalized recreational use, and startups like Yang’s could add another $5 billion to California’s economy, according to a study commissioned by California’s Bureau of Marijuana Control.
Around the same time the restaurant and tourism industries began to take advantage of marijuana’s legalization, the arts and entertainment sectors followed suit. Puff, Pass, and Paint, for example, takes a page from popular wine and paint studios, only they offer weed instead of alcohol. Heidi Keyes, the founder of Puff, Pass, and Paint, tells me, "It started out as kind of a joke, a little thing with friends...and then classes started filling up and people started coming to them from all over the country, and it has kind of blew up from there.” The two-hour classes are kept small to allow for joint-passing ease and one-on-one instruction as students create their visual masterpieces while getting high with friends and meeting fellow stoned creative types.
Since launching in 2014, Puff, Pass, and Paint has expanded to eight different locations around the legalized U.S., including Oakland, Sacramento, Portland (Oregon), D.C., and L.A. It's also grown to include other artistic ways to get your smoke on, like Puff, Pass, and Pottery, Puff, Pass, and Pastry, and Lit on Lit—a weed-enabled creative writing class.
Like Yang, who stressed many times during our interview that his pop-up dinners are not just for cannabis users, Keyes believes that companies like hers start an important dialogue about cannabis and its users. Not only are more people admitting they like smoking an occasional joint, but her weed-free students can get a first-person glimpse of those who partake—giggling over paint tubes, not hazily disappearing through the “gateway” into harder drugs or criminal activity. “One of our big things is changing the stigma,” says Keyes. “You may not be a cannabis user, but we hope you see we’re normal people too!”
In spite of such economic success, regulations often inhibit cannabusiness’s growth. "I wanted to make sure I was doing everything legally. I didn't want to get in trouble ... I never realized it would be this big,” admits Keyes. “Even in Denver where it's been legal for so long, there are so many different restrictions and gray areas around it, so it's very difficult to know if we are doing some legally or not." When asked about regulations, Yang just laughs and says, “We have a good lawyer … But I don’t think there’s any going back now, especially for California.”
Back in my day, if you wanted weed, you had to know a guy. But now, as marijuana transitions from the counterculture to mainstream, of course there’s an app for that. MassRoots, a company that started out as an Instagram for weed and weed-enthusiasts, has grown to become a platform where users can learn about cannabis strains and related products and then locate the nearest dispensary that carries them. Gone are the days of handing over a $20 and hoping you get more than a gram of schwag. Instead, before even stepping foot in your local dispensary, you can research sativas, indicas, and hybrids, searching among Blue Dream, Skywalker Kush, Cat Piss, or Cannasutra for the one that delivers the perfect THC head high or CBD body high for you.
Now that it’s easier to find weed, socialize, and smoke in many parts of the country, potheads and occasional stoners are quickly realizing it’s no fun to just pack a bowl for one, and tech companies are rushing to fill the void. The High There dating app uses Tinder’s open-source code to let users create profiles and swipe left and right through potential buds with benefits. High There matches users based on proximity, how they like to consume weed, and what they like to do after the weed has been smoked. Because if you’re the kind of gal who likes to hike 10 miles while chiefing a blunt, you’d get bored fast with a stoned couch potato.
As cannabis lovers began to find their soulmates, the fine gifts industry realized that the faint smell of skunk in their neighborhood parks was actually the smell of money, and products like Bhang Chocolate—cannabis-infused gourmet chocolate bars—found their way to the shelves. Headquartered in Oakland, California, this startup has locations in seven states and three countries. While CEO Van Rixel told Marijuana Business Magazine (MBM) that future regulations may harsh his cocoa-coated business plan, saying “I believe that over time, regulation is going to steer [the industry] away from [edibles] because of the likelihood of confusion for a child,” for now, fancy edibles are big business. In 2014, Bhang was evaluated at $65 million. (And if you’re worried about your special candy falling into the hands of a minor, check out FunkSac’s child-resistant containers).
For those who want tokens of affection that last longer than a stoned afternoon, there are plenty of high-end options. In 2016, Fashion designer Alexander Wang created a fall collection dedicated to cannabis, and street style stars Vetements introduced a weed grinder necklace, available in both gold and silver, just in time for the holidays last year. If you’re looking for something more direct, the hmbldt “passion” vape pen is loaded with a custom aphrodisiac blend.
But even if both parties are totally chill about weed, breakups happen. And when they do, men and women need to feel liberated, healthy, and fit before they get back into the dating game. Cannabliss Retreats, a five-day experience scheduled to occur in Joshua Tree, California this year, claims you can “adventure down a rabbit hole…expand your mind, strengthen your body, awaken your spirit, and expand your human potential.” Packages include meals, snacks, excursions, yoga, nature hikes, as well as weed (and other “sacred plants”). For those considering what to ingest before a desert hike or headstand workshop, Cannabliss’s retreat leaders will gladly make recommendations.
If you don’t want to commit to several days of cannabis-filled soul-searching, there are weed-and-yoga events all over the legalized U.S. where you can get high and then get your zen on with a 90-minute class. Some classes even offer a 15-minute smoke-break intermission, in case the high wears off.
As these marijuana-based businesses continue to blossom, a support industry is growing up around them, too. Gateway, for example, calls itself a “full-immersion business accelerator” and seed investment program. Each year, they invest $30,000 in two qualifying cannabis companies. PreciseCannabis specializes in public relations, marketing, and brand strategy for weed businesses.
It’s been over 100 years since Mexican immigrants shared their green gold with their neighbors in the north, and the old attitude about the plant’s values are dissipating like so much dorm-room smoke. What’s replaced it is the age-old American conversation about potential and profit. Turns out, once weed enthusiasts stop worrying about getting arrested, they can start focusing on how to mainstream their favorite topic. And if the recent industry explosion is any indication, the “lazy stoner” stereotype may soon be a thing of the past.