Editor’s note: Late last year, after California approved Prop 64, Michael Weinreb forecasted the future. We could think of no better day to resurface his work…
The first time I walked into SPARC SF, a medical marijuana dispensary set on an otherwise seedy block in San Francisco’s South of Market neighborhood, I felt as if I’d wandered onto the set of a Stanley Kubrick film. The place is disarmingly clean and wildly modern, with wood-paneled details and decorative orchids and soft lighting. At a line of tables on one side of the room, members played board games and casually inhaled freshly bought product from the unwieldy balloon-like vaporizers known as Volcanos.
SPARC is one of San Francisco’s largest dispensaries, and not all of them are quite as upscale. I had been to others—including one in a nondescript trailer with tinted windows next to a first-rate barbecue joint, which felt almost like a setup for a Broad City episode—but this was the first time I truly witnessed the utopian vision of marijuana’s future, and it was both comforting and just a bit disconcerting, like setting foot in a Starbucks for the first time.
We know by now that the 2016 presidential election, for progressives and libertarians alike, was utterly terrifying and disheartening. But something else happened that has long been advocated by both Bernie Sanders and Gary Johnson and an increasing majority of Americans: Recreational marijuana became legal in California, after the state’s voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 64.
Imagine a “concierge” of sorts, who can direct you to products specifically tailored to whatever medical issues you might be having, or to a strain that might fit the mood of the dinner party you’re hosting that night. Imagine a Netflix for Weed.
It was also legalized for recreational use in three other states, including the liberal stronghold of Massachusetts, which led to a thousand Twitter jokes about the overwhelming need for a powerful mind relaxant as the Trump era commences. But more importantly, it means that 25 percent of the country (and counting) has now approved either medical or recreational weed.
California’s vote in particular also reconfirmed the notion that marijuana is no longer a countercultural phenomenon. California is the most populous state in the nation; it’s powerful and influential, both financially and in terms of progressive ideas. So this was most likely the tipping point: Weed may well be on its way to becoming legal in all but a handful of deep-red states. It’s also a massive and still-burgeoning industry, and there’s seemingly no going back. The wisecracks are still funny, but the idea of Big Weed isn’t a joke anymore.
“It could really be a game changer, not only in terms of the size of its market but also its cultural significance and its proximity to Mexico,” said Beau Kilmer, co-director of the RAND Policy Research Center, in a conference call held shortly before the election. “The five jurisdictions that have legalized so far have a population of 20 million people. With California, you double that.”
I set up interviews early last week with several people in the California marijuana industry for the day after the election, presuming a. Proposition 64 would pass, and b. Hillary Clinton would win the election. But none of them seemed particularly concerned that a Trump victory would change much of anything when it comes to legalized weed, in part because Trump himself has said it’s a states-rights issue (and that he has friends who have been helped by medical weed), and in part because there’s too much momentum already.
Legalization in Colorado has largely been regarded as a success, and California already has a model in place, since medical marijuana has been legal out here for more than two decades. Even if the federal government continues to list marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug—meaning they consider it as dangerous as heroin—it seems increasingly unlikely that there would be a widespread crackdown.
So what happens now? How will legal weed proliferate, and what will the industry look like in five years, or 10 years, or beyond? What will it look like as weed fully sloughs off its black market roots and goes mainstream?
“This has always been a fragmented industry,” says Keith McCarty, the CEO of Eaze, an online pot delivery service based in California. “Now it’s growing up.”
Truly tangible change will take quite some time, particularly in California, where licensing for recreational marijuana dispensaries won’t even begin until January 1, 2018, and where a number of more conservative or upscale municipalities will most likely never allow marijuana to be sold. Daniel Yi, a spokesman for cannabis investment firm MedMen, called me while traveling to an upscale dispensary in West Hollywood but told me that neighboring Beverly Hills would almost certainly never allow such a thing.
But still: Imagine the republic withstands a Trump presidency, and imagine it is now 2026, and imagine Silicon Valley venture-capital money has come pouring into the industry, and imagine dispensaries like SPARC are set up in cities across the country, and have been tailored specifically to cater to consumers who haven’t smoked weed in years, maybe since college. Imagine a “concierge” of sorts, who can direct you to products specifically tailored to whatever medical issues you might be having, or to a strain that might fit the mood of the dinner party you’re hosting that night.
Imagine, if you don’t feel like going out, that you’ll be able to click on an app or website like Eaze, which currently offers video conferences with doctors and hopes to ramp up its algorithm to the point that it’ll be able to use questionnaires to recommend products to new consumers. Or imagine, as McCarty puts it, a “Netflix for Weed.”
“We knew once Prop 64 passed that we were going to have a more diverse set of consumers,” says McCarty, whose company recently secured $13 million in funding. “Every consumer is on this journey, and we think Eaze is best suited to be their tour guide.”
That’s the kind of thing a tech-company CEO is supposed say, I guess, but I will admit: It can be a confusing and overwhelming journey to even walk into a dispensary like SPARC.
Indica or sativa? Smoking or vaping? Edibles or plants? These are questions that medical marijuana consumers in California have had to deal with for quite some time. Very often in the past there wasn’t much guidance, and there was a dizzying array of products, and most of them were far more potent than the ditchweed and shake that the children of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, grew up smoking.
One byproduct was the infamous Maureen Dowd Freak-Out, which in addition to being an outstanding name for a proto-punk band is also what happened when the New York Times columnist consumed way too much weed-laced chocolate while sitting in a Denver hotel room. It’s funny because it’s harmless, but it’s also the kind of amateur mistake that everyone in the industry recognizes gives them a bad name.
Part of the issue here is that weed is way stronger than it used to be. Take a small grower called Butterbrand, whose signature product, Butter OG, is comprised of 28 percent THC— tetrahydrocannabinol—the key ingredient that gets you high. That’s a huge number, the kind of thing that could leave newbies like Maureen Dowd ordering an entire room-service menu and then descending into dizzying paranoia while watching a Paranormal Activity movie on pay-per-view. “It packs a serious punch,” says Eric Battuello, the CEO of Butterbrand. “So it’s important for companies like us to address dosage.”
How are they doing that? A couple of ways. The first is embracing the power of CBD, the other component in weed, which is more relaxing than intoxicating, and has been shown to bestow a number of real medical benefits. A product that has an 18-1 ratio of CBD to THC, says Battuello, is “for the grandpas and the people without any tolerance (for weed) whatsoever. Obviously I’m not a doctor so I don’t want to make medical claims, but I think you can argue that it’s a hell of a lot better than Zoloft and some of those other mood enhancers.”
The other thing Battuello and his colleagues are doing is traveling back in time, in a sense, to track down some of the older and less potent strains from the distant past—those with a THC level more like 12 to 15 percent—breed those and see what happens. The long-term vision is that you wind up with an array of options, so that choosing a weed strain becomes like picking a cheese, or a cured meat, or a bottle of wine or six-pack of beer for a dinner party. You can go three-buck Chuck if you want, or you can go with a $12 Chardonnay, or you can splurge on a $40 brand that might wind up locking you to your couch listening to Pink Floyd’s “Meddle” on repeat.
The wine/beer metaphor is a strategic one, I think, because it’s a way of likening weed to a traditionally highbrow product. This is what happens when an industry grows up: It finds way to appeal to everyone.
How does the perception of the product itself change once it becomes institutionalized? Is it possible for this whole thing to grow too fast, to overwhelm itself like Maureen Dowd once did in that Denver hotel room?
But will there be room for craft growers like Butterbrand? We’re at a weird juncture here, because everyone generally agrees that even as the product has gotten more potent, the price is also going to drop precipitously now that it’s legal. Battuello recently estimated that nearly 30 to 40 percent of small-time growers have already quit over the past five years. For the first five years, Prop 64 doesn’t allow marijuana farms larger than an acre; the hope is that will give small pot farmers enough time to go fully above board and quit the black market.
“The next five years should be pretty good for us,” Battuello says. “There will be a bottoming-out of price once the megas come in.” Already, he says, the price for a pound of indoor-grown weed has dropped from $5,000 to $2,000—and “we’re going to find out” how much lower it can go, he tells me.
This is not something a company like MedMen particularly concerns itself with, according to Daniel Yi, because, he says, “we actually are big corporate” weed.
“We’re hoping this industry becomes more institutionalized,” says Yi, whose CEO recently boasted to Forbes that he had meetings set up with a number of “Silicon Valley illumnati” for immediately after the vote passed. “We think that’s the only path for it to reach its full potential,” Yi says. “It’s been a very homegrown industry for a long time.”
Maybe some of that “homegrown” feeling sticks around. But these are the questions the legal weed industry now has to face: How does the perception of the product itself change once it becomes institutionalized? Can you convince newcomers that the legal weed world is a welcoming place for them, while still appealing to the smokers of varied levels who have sustained medical weed in California for nearly two decades? Is it possible for this whole thing to grow too fast, to overwhelm itself like Maureen Dowd once did in that Denver hotel room?
Such are the concerns facing an industry whose product has long appealed to the young. The California vote means it’s only going to get bigger. But now that it’s growing up, how will weed reckon with its own maturity? Only time and tetrahydrocannabinol will tell.