Weed Plus: The Healing Mystique of Magic Mushrooms

The winter sun was beating down through the open windows of my older sister’s Porsche as we cruised down Pico Boulevard toward the beach, bumper to bumper with other cars in the westward traffic of a warm Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles.

“That smells good,” she hollered to the guys in the next car over, pot smoke filling the space between lanes. They motioned to pass a joint through the open windows, my two best pals and I giggling in the back seat. I was 18 and by this point familiar with the terrain of a cannabis high, but I wanted to keep my head clear for later — for what my sister described as “weed plus.”

I’d spent my first semester of college smoking weed out of a hookah with friends, my nights ablaze, as one does in Berkeley. In the daytime, I’d burrow into a pile of books about psychedelic counterculture for an upcoming research paper. I had become obsessed with Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, and as if I’d read the guidebook to Paris before a trip, I decided that all my academic probing into psychedelics better culminate in lived experience. So, I bought a half ounce of shrooms and headed to Venice Beach with a few friends for our first time “tripping.” My older sister — a dedicated stoner and a cannabis attorney 14 years my senior — along with a family friend, who was a medical marijuana doctor and a seasoned psychonaut, were there to guide us in case things got too weird.

Unlike acid (which I still hadn’t tried at that point), mushrooms felt like the next level up from cannabis — that is, “weed plus” in the words of my sister. The psychedelic experience, or “trip,” would be longer than a regular weed high, but shorter than 12 hours of LSD. After that first time tripping, I soon learned that, for me, mushrooms and cannabis bring on similar visuals of swirling floral patterns and paisleys in a pink Technicolor palette.

My first time taking mushrooms was easily one of the best, most significant days of my life: playful, exploratory, spiritual. I felt like I was reborn, discovering the world and its wonders for the first time. The shrooms had turned down the volume on the anxiety that defined my day-to-day and turned up the volume on my appreciation for life. For the first time, the phrase “be here now” meant something to me on an embodied level — but like Ram Dass, who ventured to India after coming up and down on countless psychedelic trips during his tenure as a psychiatry professor at Harvard in the 1960s, I too wondered why it seemed I needed mushrooms to feel the way I did. I asked myself, “Would I be able to get there on my own one day?”

Psych 101

It’s a common adage that one can accomplish the same degree of healing in a single psychedelic trip that might otherwise require years of therapy. By the same token, in the psychedelic community it’s often said that “the journey is the medicine.” In other words, such as in the case of mushrooms, it’s not just the psilocybin, the main psychoactive compound, that spurs a neurological reset — it’s the experience of the trip itself. This can come with insights, challenges and joys that consequently foster lessons and memories that nourish the soul and last a lifetime. Science can only attempt to describe this alternative headspace.

Many well-known research institutions such as Johns Hopkins and UCLA are exploring how psilocybin is being used for mental health treatments and can occasion a “mystical experience,” defined by “scale scores” of seven criteria. What scientists are finding is that the degree to which a patient undergoes a mystical experience often correlates to the degree of healing they experience for whatever condition they are treating, be it anxiety, depression, or something else.

“When you optimally screen, facilitate and integrate these [psychedelic] experiences, you can almost reliably facilitate a mystical level kind of encounter, which may be predictive of positive therapeutic outcomes,” said Dr. Charles Grob, psychedelic researcher and UCLA professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.

To put it bluntly, the promise of psychedelic therapy is forcing researchers to grapple with notions of God or mysticism that have otherwise been absent from Western science and medicine. Indigenous cultures, on the other hand, are well-known for structured spiritual-medicinal approaches and traditions that incorporate psychedelic plant medicine, such as ayahuasca, magic mushrooms or peyote.

Grob notes that clinicians have much to learn from indigenous practices, which “were entirely dependent on a harmonious relationship with the world of nature for shelter, for food, for continuity, and for societal groups.”

He goes on to say that the psychedelic experience may be symbolic of a death and rebirth ritual. That could be thanks to the experience of “ego death” — a psychedelic-induced dampening of the brain’s default mode network (DMN), where the ego resides. Ego death, or “ego dissolution,” can act as a reset for the DMN, helping to rewire thought patterns that were otherwise constrained by the ego, and facilitating an increase in personality traits like openness or empathy.

In breaking out of old thought patterns, a person who experiences ego death may also obtain a degree of healing from habits that previously kept them in a loop, particularly in addiction. Turning down the volume on the ego can also help engender a sense of oneness with the surrounding world, people or nature.

“The ego is looking after us,” Grob says. “There’s good reason to be compassionate toward the ego: It’s trying to do its best, but it’s not useful, and it overshoots in what it does and disconnects us. What psychedelics do is turn down the defenses.”

The ego’s defenses can manifest in addictions, such as eating disorders, compulsions and obsessions. “They’re all a maladaptive defense response to adversity,” says Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, Head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London.

Through psychedelic therapy, Grob says, we can engineer a context in which it’s safe to let the ego go off duty and allow us to be vulnerable in a caring, nurturing environment. “It’s about going backwards to go forward,” he said. “Being vulnerable to be stronger, more flexible, more capacious.”

Safe Travels

Finding the right setting for a psychedelic experience is up to the beholder; it could be in a therapist’s office, a spiritual ceremony, with friends at a music concert, or decidedly alone in the woods. Once that ideal setting is found, one can relax and focus his or her mindset on whatever kind of healing or intention they set out to explore with the help of psychedelic medicine.

Even back in the ’60s, Grob says, pioneer researchers “found that those who had a mystical level experience had improved quality of life.” 

With psilocybin in particular, he said, “the replicability and degree to which the trip might happen, and the depth is more apparent”— than perhaps with other psychedelics such as LSD — because the six to eight-hour trip is “easier to control” than something that could otherwise be twice as long.

Despite the growing amount of research, psychedelic scientists have yet to fully comprehend how substances such as psilocybin work in the brain. Psilocybin definitely stimulates the serotonin 2A receptor in the brain and can occasion ego death by dampening the default mode network. Even so, the compound remains a mystery.

That said, there’s mounting evidence that psilocybin — much like cannabis — can facilitate healing from a variety of mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, addiction, and eating disorders, among others. It can also increase the personality trait of openness, allowing the afflicted to become more amenable to new patterns and solutions, and enhancing general well-being for those who are otherwise already well.

While people who use cannabis medicinally can get a great deal of relief from chronic pain or mood disturbance, Grob says it’s more of a lifestyle drug. “The effects of cannabis are dwarfed in comparison with the potential that psilocybin or LSD might have in evoking a powerful altered state of consciousness that allows individuals to see themselves and the world around them and their lives in a novel manner,” he said.

In other words, psilocybin offers more bang for your buck if you compare it to regular cannabis use.

#TBT

Around the peak of that Venice Beach mushroom trip so long ago, my friends and I decided to venture out of our apartment and head to the ocean. As the sun set and temps started to cool, the winds picked up. 

“I’m shivering, but it’s not me,” I said through chattering teeth. I looked down at my hand with curiosity, flipping my palm over and under, upside and down, as if it was someone else’s hand.

I plopped down on the shore, near the sunset drum circle that takes place every Sunday. It smelled like weed, but I wondered how many others were also on shrooms. I remembered what my sister had said about psilocybin feeling like “weed plus,” but this was so much better. So. Much. Better.

“There’s no competition,” Grob said, when comparing psilocybin and cannabis. “The psilocybin experience has the potential of facilitating a life-changing kind of event.” Precisely how I felt about one of the best, most significant days of my life.

A huge smile crept across my face, and I was feeling more in touch with my essence than ever before. “Ohh, be here now,” I giggled, referencing the phrase and title of Ram Dass’ famous book which my parents had introduced me to as a child. “I get it,” I thought.

It was the first time I felt that sacred sense of time and space, of being in the moment — in my body — without feeling an attachment to the chronological series of events that took me here. I just was, feeling a sense of “is-ness.” I was simply being, and my nervous system, with all its anxieties and temporal attachments, was for once at rest.

My memory of that mind-bending Venice Beach experience remains vivid. The spiritual nourishment and sense of mystique from that day are still with me, infusing my life with the magic of those mushrooms. “These are like waking dreams,” Grob said. “Sometimes it’s important to just sit back and look objectively at the scene playing in front of you, and how that relates to your life.”

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The Art of the Modern Cannabis Party

We are so darn lucky.

And sometimes we forget how lucky we are, especially in
cannabis-legal communities. But why are we so darn lucky? Because most of us in
America can enjoy this fine herb much more than we could even a few years ago.

We can enjoy weed pretty much out in the open, on street corners and on Instagram Live, and we can do so (mostly) with impunity. It seems like old hat to some of us, sure, but the freedom with which we enjoy cannabis still stuns our elders. Of course, we owe these newfound freedoms to the activists who fought for decades on our — and the plant’s — behalf.

They fought so we could possess and consume marijuana
without fear of imprisonment. They fought for a more honest understanding of
this infinitely complex medicinal plant. And to a lesser extent, they fought
for our right to party with our preferred substance of choice. Thanks to their
hard work, our present day includes a whole new way to entertain: the
post-prohibition, consumption-friendly cannabis party.

Weed has long been a staple at many of the world’s best parties, but to have cannabis join the mix of legal substances served at events changes things for dinner parties, casual happy hours and Super Bowl celebrations alike.

And like any other substance, marijuana brings its own
traditions and rituals along for the ride.

So it makes sense that throwing a successful cannabis party is quite different than hosting a cocktail party or a beer-paired dinner — something I’ve learned in my years of producing cannabis events of all types and sizes via my agency Grasslands. My colleagues and I have produced expansive cannabis industry mixers for 800-plus guests, and we’ve thrown intimate dinner parties for eight.

But regardless of the cannabis party’s size, certain things
ring true for a successful consumption-friendly event. If you are looking to
host a successful weed party, there are a few lessons worth learning first.

Before you start planning your next gathering, here are a few things to consider.

Incorporate Different Types of Cannabis Consumption

Not everyone smokes weed, and not everyone enjoys edibles, so make sure you don’t forget to consider that as you’re stocking the cannabis bar for your next shindig. While some parties are built around a thoughtful selection of microbrews and spirits, successful cannabis events thrive on a variety of flower and a multitude of consumption devices, including (ideally) a vaporizer for the light-lunged.

Sativa-dominant strains might seem ideal for the party
atmosphere, and they certainly are for me — but we all have friends who trend
toward downer strains because the uppers make them anxious, so keep that in
mind, too.

Also, edibles are made to share, and they make an ideal
amuse-bouche, especially because they have an onset time that will help the
effects kick in just as you’re serving the entree. Just remember to…

Clearly Mark Your Edibles

I threw an intimate holiday party a few years ago where multiple friends posted pictures of my modest if comprehensive edibles bar because I came up with a design they found both helpful and never-before-seen: A small bowl held edibles with 2.5 mgs of THC, while a slightly larger bowl contained 5 mg candies, and an even larger bowl held 10 mg pieces.

Each bowl was carefully marked with the psychoactive content
of the candies inside, making for an ultra-modern serve-yourself snack bar, one
that allowed my guests to care- fully assemble the exact dose they desired.

Not only is this the responsible way to serve cannabis
edibles at an event, but it’s also a lot of fun seeing new adopters bite half
of a 2.5 mg candy as a toe-dipping exercise, and watching more experienced
consumers fearlessly knock down a handful of 10 mg gummies.

It’s a modern-day choose your own adventure.

Cater to Your Friends’ Social Media Addiction

A hand-drawn chalkboard menu at the bud bar. A thought-
fully organized display of cannabis products. Simple twinkle lights in a
houseplant. A bouquet of fresh and fragrant flowers, with marijuana flower
intermingling with lilies and baby’s breath. A record player with colored vinyl
spinning right ’round (and pumping out the hot jams).

Eye candy should be a part of any intentional gathering. And
for cannabis events, eye candy is a must. The concept is simple: Give your
guests something delightful to look at, something playful to take in. Be it
simple or elaborate, your guests will appreciate the shiny objects and
fantastical flourishes — especially in their elevated state.

Try Something Different

Whether we’re talking music or menu, cannabis parties are
the best parties to try something different — something wacky, something
off-the-wall, something unexpected.

I’ve noticed this in my own consumption habits: If I’m sober
ordering from a menu, I’ll likely take a safe route, asking the waitstaff for
something familiar or a dish I’ve eaten many times before. But if I’m high and
ordering from a menu, I’m likely ordering something much more adventurous,
something I would never order without the THC coursing through my veins.

I love adopting that spirit when assembling the menu or the
playlist (or both) for a cannabis party. Instead of my tried-and-true dinner
party playlist, I’ll put on the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt or the bebop of
Charlie Parker. And in- stead of serving my go-to dinner party favorite
manicotti, I’ll instead bust out an eat-with-your-hands Mediterranean spread of
chicken shawarma with chopped onion, tomato, lettuce, cu- cumber, hummus, rice
pilaf and toasted pita.

Cannabis opens minds, so take advantage and introduce your
guests to something they might not be expecting.

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Freakshow! Weed Gets Weird

About six years ago, Jordan was approaching his 40th anniversary as a cannabis grower. He believed he was through — ready to quit a lifelong hobby and ready to liquidate a priceless (and, as it would turn out, wholly unique) seed bank, the product of decades of careful labor — because he was bored.

It wasn’t that the self-described “hillbilly,” whose last name Cannabis Now is withholding at his request, didn’t love weed. He’d had his first hit before he was a teenager, started collecting seeds at 17, and started sprouting huge trays, producing hundreds of seedlings, shortly thereafter. What Jordan didn’t love was what had happened to weed: It wasn’t weird anymore.

Jordan is an autodidact. Beyond cannabis growing, he also taught himself motorcycle repair, garment production, battle-ax construction and year-round permaculture — all useful skills when you live off-grid somewhere in rural California near Yosemite National Park, as Jordan has done for 39 years. Through his self-driven study of cannabis growing, Jordan had seen hints of what the cannabis plant could do. And it was much, much more than everyone else involved with the plant seemed to know or care about. He’d seen the freaks and the weirdos — like the “dwarf plants” no more than three feet tall at maturity, or the plants producing buds on the petioles — and he’d seen what happened to them, discarded, weeded out in favor of something predictable.

“People just want something that’s huge and looks good,” Jordan explained to Cannabis Now via telephone.

Judging cannabis based on expedient looks — bag appeal, or grow-room appeal, whatever you call it — “is such a mistake,” he says. And yet, because of market pressures or because of prohibition, predictability became de rigueur.

With legalization looming six years ago, it also seemed there wasn’t much room for weird in the cannabis industry. Just more homogeneity, more conformity. Companies touted themselves as “the Apple Store of weed,” the “Uber for cannabis.” That meant, maybe, as a grower who’d never done more than “medical cannabis patient numbers,” there wasn’t much room for him. Considering that he’s a lifelong lover of sativas and other narrow-leafed tropical-bred cannabis plants working in an era that prized Afghan-ized broad-leafed indicas, maybe that was always the way.

Doubts, boredom and a looming exit were the shadows flickering on the wall of his mind when Jordan set to work on his latest breeding project. He was attempting to stabilize a particular terpene profile, crossing a mother bred from the strains Big Bud and Skunk #1, with a male plant stemming from Big Sur Holy Bud and Banana Kush, when the plant decided it was time to act out.

It was time to get weird. It was time for Freakshow to make its grand entrance.

In his decades growing, Jordan had already seen some phenotypes produce bizarre, out-of-the ordinary mutations. He says that it wasn’t too rare, but also not too normal, to see mutations in the leaves: serrated leaves so deep that they reminded him of a wood saw or alligator teeth. One of these phenos from the above-mentioned cross, however, produced not only deep serrations, but also extra leaflets — not two or three on top of the usual seven, but “a crazy amount of extras,” he recalled, enough to support a millipede. Intrigued and encouraged, Jordan did the opposite of what you’re “supposed” to do: He threw out all the normies and kept breeding the freaks. He sprouted hundreds of seeds — how many he can’t recall.

“I had never taken time to sit there and try to create a mutant,” he said. “But once I did, it was working… Maybe I got kind of lucky. You can say that for a fact.”

He can say that, because the fact is that a mutant appeared: A cannabis plant with serrated leaves so long they almost look like ferns. He named the plant Freakshow, which has leaves so long they almost look like the cannabis plant has developed arms, like the plant is trying to reach out and grab your attention, give you a hug, or smother you in its embrace.

“As a manipulator of cannabis genetics, [Freakshow] shows you how far we can take things.” — JORDAN

“When I first saw that, it was, ‘Oh man, what have I done?’” Jordan recalled. “That was the moment. I knew right then and there that nobody had ever seen this before.”

A quick Instagram search revealed he was right. Jordan’s son, active online, started circulating photos of Freakshow. Weedheads around the world reacted with disbelief and anger. Surely this was a hoax. Surely this was a Photoshop job. No plant looks like this.

More photos — several generations’ of Freakshow worth — revealed that, no, this was a real plant. Soon shock turned to awe turned to envy. Growers around the world wanted Freakshow for themselves. And now, they can have this rare cannabis in their collection, thanks to a chance encounter with Nathaniel Pennington, the founder and CEO of genetics outfit Humboldt Seed Company.

By the time he crossed paths with Pennington, Jordan had pulled off the other trick of a cannabis breeder: Having “discovered” Freakshow, he’d also “tamed” or domesticated it. He’d breed enough generations of the plant so that its genetics were stable, or stable enough so that when a Freakshow plant produced seeds, those seeds would also reliably produce more Freakshow. Meanwhile, Pennington was running a massive genetics search, what he called the phenotype hunt. He hadn’t yet heard of Freakshow — he was after some other genetics that Jordan had developed — but when Jordan’s kids approached him and told him about this really weird plant, Pennington was intrigued. At the next meeting, at a small cannabis cup event prior to the passage of Proposition 64, Jordan himself appeared — and brought with him a living example, a small Freakshow in a pot.

“Immediately a light went off,” Pennington said. “‘Oh my gosh,’ I said. This is the most unique thing I have ever seen in my life.”

Even better than the weird “random stubby leaves” is the fact that Freakshow actually produces nice buds. It’s also a tough plant, able to do well in regular garden conditions or on the darker side of a house, Jordan and Pennington say.

“It literally could be classified as brand new,” says Jordan. He’s already coined a term (and filed for a United States patent) to classify the plant: Not indica, not sativa — but cannabis monstra. He says it could be the genetic foundation for a whole new breed of plant, a style of ornamental cannabis that you’d pick up at your local nursery.
Classifying the plant, and clarifying whether it qualifies as a subspecies of cannabis sativa or something else, is a job for the nerds and the scientists. More pragmatically, just because a plant is weird and cool doesn’t mean it will “survive” in “the real world.” Even though Freakshow was available, would anyone want to buy it?

Freakshow had what you could call its coming-out party at the Emerald Cup in December 2019, and the results were promising.

“We had a line out of the door to the Great Pavilion,” Pennington said of the thirst for Freakshow seeds. “We had people fly in all the way from London.”

And there was Jordan, signing seedpacks from total strangers who came an awful long way to find the mad genius behind this really freaky pot plant.

Pennington doubts this is the first time Freakshow has appeared on Earth.

“To be honest, I think maybe nine out of 10 breeders have seen those funky weeds — and then immediately gotten those genetics out,” he said. “I think most are like, ‘Uh oh, what did I do wrong? I’m starting to see a mutant.’”

And Jordan himself tends to agree. In Freakshow, he sees echoes of some of the very first cannabis he ever saw. “The first Thai stick, back in the 1970s, had a lot of these small, little serrated leaves,” he says. Maybe the old sativas of his youth, the plants he always loved, decided to return in his hour of need?

Freakshow is neither indica nor sativa – it is cannabis monstra.

Metaphysics and magic aside, the science behind Freakshow — what produced it and how — is evolving in real time. Humboldt Seed Company hopes to publish studies on the strain, produced in concert with botany PhDs and other plant scientists, Pennington said. In the meantime, Jordan himself has some theories, some of which already seem like they’ll be borne out.

Epigenetics, he notes, is the study of how mutations occur not when DNA changes, but when various genes in the same genetic sequences are expressed or suppressed. Think of it as reaching (or suppressing) inherent potential, sometimes in response to stress, other times in response to chemical exposure or another intervention.

In plant biology, a gene called the KNOX1 affects the shape and length of leaves and shoots. Maybe Freakshow has a suppressed KNOX1 gene?

The Freakshow experience also underscores how cannabis breeding should be approached with a sense of urgency given that the commercial industry might be breeding itself “into a dead end,” Jordan notes. Other plants offer ominous warnings, should we bother to heed them. For example, commercial bananas — the standard yellow fruit that most humans not living in tropical climates consider to be “bananas” — weren’t a thing before 1960, when a fungus ravaged the flavorful Gros Michel banana strain and freaked-out banana growers replaced it with the supposedly hardier, less delicious Cavendish.

Jordan also wonders how much he’s in control of Freakshow, about what the untapped potential of the cannabis plant means for the future.

“It far outdid what I set out to do,” he said. “It made me realize, ‘Wow — as a manipulator of cannabis genetics, it shows you how far we can take things.’”

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The Big East: Theory Wellness Berkshires

Walking into Theory Wellness, an impeccably styled, high-end East Coast dispensary, I felt the same excitement I’d had the first time I stepped foot into a fabled Beverly Hills luxury retailer back in the day. And I loved it.

Fred Segal is, in essence, a luxury conglomeration of (mostly) one-of-a-kind boutiques that all live within the chic walls of its only-in-LA retail campus; think of it as a couture farmers market, but instead of $8 heirloom tomatoes you’re surrounded by $400 T-shirts, $1200 boots and $700 sunglasses. It’s an intoxicating, surreal shopping trek for retail rookies, to be sure, but once you experience this particular elevated gauntlet of sticker shock privilege, you find yourself wanting more. So. Much. More.

Upon entering the buzzy dispensary for the first time (after waiting in line and going through the required ID verification process), it took me all the way back to those heady days so many years ago in LA. Theory Wellness — at least its super busy Great Barrington, MA location in the bucolic Berkshires region — would fit right in at my favorite luxe retailer as it touts its many best-in-class cannabis offerings. Theory Wellness isn’t what most of our mothers think of when they imagine a marijuana dispensary: It’s clean, smartly designed, expertly managed, and, ultimately, a first-rate shopping experience. It’s ready for primetime. Even the staff at the registers are cannabis experts not unlike the Apple Store’s Genius Bar squad. Very cool.

I met up with the company’s young and affable Marketing VP, Thomas Winstanley, to help guide me through the excellent maze that is Theory Wellness and we talked and talked as we watched the crowded dispensary operate without a hitch. It was, to say the least, impressive, and all I kept thinking about was how much money they must be making right now. Winstanley, a proud millennial, was apparently determined to single-handedly dispel all perceived negative stereotypes associated with his generation merely by being whip smart and displaying a contagious indefatigable energy. It was, again, impressive, but it was also incredibly on-brand, as Theory Wellness’ co-founders are a pair of millennialpreneurs, CEO Brandon Pollock and Chief Strategy Officer Nick Friedman. If these guys met, say, two decades ago, one could imagine these BFFs launching a competitor search engine to Google to take on that giant’s own dynamic duo co-founders.

Pollock smiled when I brought up the search engine’s co-founders; he didn’t disagree. “Yeah, it could’ve been, yes!” Pollock said, laughing. “Even though we weren’t first to market in Massachusetts for a medical dispensary [Theory was 12th], we’ve been really fortunate with our team who really embody the spirit of doing cannabis right and carry out the company’s mantra of focusing on our customers first.”

To hear the independently owned, vertically integrated, small-batch, craft cannabis company’s marketing/public relations/social media/customer relations expert, Winstanley, merrily recount the earliest days of Theory Wellness — a whopping six years ago — you’d think cell phones and the internet weren’t around yet. But, as he insisted, time moves extraordinarily fast in the cannabis industry; so, half a decade in dispensary years feels like a veritable lifetime.

Look, to buy into what Theory’s selling isn’t difficult, and undeniably evident with my own eyes. This is a world-class cannabis company that prioritizes details and a positive customer experience, precisely as Pollock and Friedman conceived it to be. So, no, it’s not complicated, perhaps, but exceedingly difficult to pull off consistently. That’s what moves Theory Wellness from being simply good to decidedly great — and maybe even legendary.

“Theory began as a medical cannabis brand in Massachusetts following the roll-out of the state program,” Winstanley said. “Patients and wellness have always been at the heart of our business and where our company originates from. We produce more than 70 products that we sell at our stores, both to patients and recreational customers. Each product is specifically designed, tested and packaged to provide a customer with a premium experience with cannabis — whether it’s to help you sleep at night, relieve a sore muscle, or simply to have a good time.”

OK, but what makes Theory Wellness different, or better, than the more than 100 dispensaries currently operating in Massachusetts alone? “We’re independently owned and operated, unlike many competitors who are venture capital and/or private equity-backed or publicly traded,” Winstanley said. “This allows us to move quickly, pivot when we need to, and not wade through layers of bureaucracy.”

Also, according to Winstanley, many of the giant players in the industry — including MedMen and Aurora Cannabis — are posting losses. Theory Wellness numbers show that it’s growing and scaling at unprecedented rates showcasing the power of a hungry company. The secret, according to the Theory, is that they operate more like a start-up than traditional brands. The formula is working like a charm.

The Numbers

Theory Wellness has been financially solid from the start. In 2018, the company posted revenue of more than $10M and employed 50 people. Just a year later, Theory made some $55M in revenue, employed 100 team members and claimed more than 200,000 unique customers. Winstanley says the company gave — via the 3% sales tax for the municipality — Great Barrington more than $3M in new revenue to a town that’s home to less than 6000 people.

In 2020, the brand made $80M in revenue. Winstanley confidently states that number would’ve been north of $100M if they didn’t have to shut down for two months due to COVID-19 restrictions. The company also tripled its workforce to 300 and became a multistate operator (MSO) by opening two retail locations in Maine as well as a cultivation and production facility. A multi-state operator helps a brand expand nationally while carefully remaining within federal laws limiting interstate commerce.

In any industry or in any occupation there are detractors for those at the top — not everyone wishes you well — and Theory’s no exception.

“There are a lot of players in cannabis right now, and you can see the beginnings of the war for licenses that occurred out in the western U.S. and the consolidation of the independently owned dispensary,” Winstanley said. “It’s still too soon to say which competitors are coming to the surface on the East Coast as legalization is really starting to take root and open up the playing field.”

But, today, another unexpected competitor is upsetting the apple cart for many cannabis operators: the illicit cannabis market. Winstanley says that legal cannabis sales haven’t proliferated to the extent that a significant market share has been consumed from the black market. “The products are cheaper, untested, and you don’t need licenses or IDs to purchase.”

But, after years of vacationing and enjoying the Berkshires region of Massachusetts, particularly its chic epicenter, the picture-postcard slice of Americana that is the town of Great Barrington, I wanted to know how this unlikely, scenic, low-key destination suddenly became widely regarded as the Humboldt County of the East Coast.

Northern California’s Humboldt County, of course, is universally known as the mecca for West Coast cannabis and now, in a matter of a few short years, Great Barrington has emerged as the title holder on the other side of the country. But how?

“The whole cannabis dispensary industry in Great Barrington is crazy, it’s become this whole thing, like a cannabis-centric area in the East Coast,” Pollock said. “My business partner Nick grew up in Great Barrington, and when we launched our medical company we realized that Berkshire County, which has about 130,000 residents, didn’t have a single cannabis dispensary because existing operators were focused on more high-density population centers. People were driving an hour-and-a-half each way just to get their medicine. There was a huge need here, so we opened our dispensary soon thereafter.”

While currently enjoying such a rosy financial picture, I wondered in what areas, specifically, Pollock believed Theory could improve, if at all. “Everything! Our ethos is ‘the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know anything’ and we’re always trying to improve every touchpoint with customers, every touchpoint in our production — every aspect of our organization needs improvement, particularly the two biggest issues facing the industry as a whole today: social justice and social equity and the environment.”

And Theory Wellness isn’t just talking the talk here: They decided to launch an unprecedented social equity program in Massachusetts and opened applications and interviews with economic empowerment candidates to apply for a sponsorship that included $100,000 in debt-free financing, $150,000 in wholesale consignment of products, and access to the brand’s legal, finances, insurance, and marketing solutions to help the new companies succeed. Winstanley says the initial recipient of Theory’s program, Legal Greens in Brockton, is the first Black female-owned dispensary on the East Coast. Theory Wellness has had a two-year relationship with Legal Greens that continues to this day.

But it doesn’t stop there. Winstanley emphasized that Theory also looks to ensure they make local impacts across all of the company’s locations, even as they expand. “We’ve supported nearly two dozen non-profits thus far and those range from affordable housing in Great Barrington to a farmers market in Bangor, ME,” he said. “We feel it’s incumbent on us to use our success to demonstrate the positivity around cannabis.”

The company takes an equally serious approach when it comes to tackling our ever-warming planet. “This same approach comes with sustainability practices, too,” Winstanley says. “We have one of the first East Coast outdoor farms to reduce our environmental footprint. Theory uses green energy to power our indoor cultivation and we’re constantly introducing recyclable packaging solutions — we even have hybrid vehicles for our deliveries.”

Theory Wellness VP of Marketing Thomas Winstanley

On the product side, Winstanley was excited to discuss Theory’s small-batch unique genetics. “One of the more exciting elements of cannabis legalization is the breadth of knowledge cannabis consumers are developing,” he said. “We take this seriously in the same way a sommelier considers the terroir of the grapes he’s serving. We work directly with breeders to source genetics to complement our portfolio of flower that we think will find a good home in our indoor or outdoor gardens. The result speaks for itself with 50 percent of our sales coming from flower.”

The Future

Five years from now… Winstanley jumped in. “The simple answer is we just don’t know,” he said. “With so many New England states allowing recreational and medical marijuana use in the future, things are changing by the minute and we’re evaluating all possibilities. We find that cannabis time is not unlike dog years, so five years is really, really far away!” [Laughs]

Winstanley makes this next point emphatically. “We also firmly believe that the cannabis industry should be accessible to all,” he says. “The legacy of cannabis from the past generations has been embroiled in turmoil and hardships. It’s time to end that age and bring everyone a seat at the table to have the opportunity to capitalize and prevent it from being a pay-to-play industry. We want this industry open for all entrepreneurs from a diverse set of backgrounds.”

I put it to CEO Pollock a little differently: Why will and won’t Theory Wellness be successful forever? “First, I think we’re pretty good at anticipating the future while having a great team to navigate us once we’re there,” he said, smiling. “We won’t be successful because, hopefully, a bunch of younger, hungrier, more diverse entrepreneurs beat us at our own game.”

Full disclosure: Prior to departing Theory’s still bustling retail floor, I purchased a couple of four-packs of the dispensary’s best-selling, game-changing, cannabis-infused seltzer, Hi5 (pineapple and lemon, if you must know).

But here’s the thing I’ll take away from this sunny day in the gorgeous Berkshires: If I ever see Theory Wellness tucked away in a prime corner inside Fred Segal, I’ll smile to myself at the knowledge that I’d been right all along: quality attracts quality — be it in Great Barrington or even Beverly Hills.

This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.

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Q&A: Jim Belushi Wants to Save the World

To watch Jim Belushi laugh without abandon is to see the best of America on his joyful face, an America that’s unaffected by divisions or dangers at every turn: We see a deeply happy version of our next door neighbor. And it’s a welcome sight to be sure.

Jim Belushi is puffing on a cigar as he cruises through Southwest Oregon, taking his time on a late summer afternoon to talk fame, pain and cannabis from his inconspicuous-looking sedan. His royal blue polo shirt and black-framed glasses speak to a humility that one would think would be far-fetched from a man whose long career in the public eye has made him a household name.

Appearing in dozens of films including “About Last Night…,” “Trading Places” and “Red Heat,” and starring and executive producing the ratings juggernaut TV sitcom, “According To Jim,” Belushi says he’s never been happier than at this very moment in his nearly seven decades on the planet. Not because of anything he’s done in Hollywood, or any big business deals he’s made. This Belushi 2.0 is reveling in his new passionate relationship, a profound and inspiring one, with cannabis.

The plain-spoken celebrity used the plant back in the day, he says, but he’s only recently been able to truly embrace it. The 93-acre Belushi’s Farm in southwest Oregon employs 15 people and will produce 1,600 pounds of flower this year. And it’s all just to spread medicine to people who have waited their entire lives to replace their prescriptions. Belushi has been such a welcome presence in Oregon that the second season of his hit Discovery Channel show, “Growing Belushi,” is set to premiere at the end of the year. The Belushi good vibes just keep rolling.

“I measure success by the letters and the tweets that I get from people who say our cannabis has helped them,” Belushi says when asked what success looks like to him now. “I got my ‘According To Jim’ bucks, so as long as I break even, I’m satisfied.”

Belushi, whose brilliant older brother John tragically died of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles back in 1982, shares stories of people whose lives he’s been able to impact and celebrates the importance of the many cannabis trailblazers who came before him. Some of those trailblazers are still in prison, he points out, his frustration evident. That’s why Belushi supports the non-profit Last Prisoner Project, an organization that helps free people convicted of low-level marijuana crimes during the more than eight decades of cannabis prohibition.

But, for the better part of the hour I spent with the smart, witty Chicago native, he was in the mood to communicate. A few minutes into our convo, Belushi is amazingly comparing the soulful, feminine energy he feels from his pot plants to an oracle that speaks to Apollo and Zeus in Greek mythology. Personally, I can’t get enough — his passion is undeniable, and the urgency he feels to reach more and more people who need help is palpable. Belushi, as if on cue, then reveals how he even plays his harmonica to his beloved plants, since they’re clearly listening and celebrating right along with him. I believe him.

But we had so much more to discuss and discover.

What makes your marijuana different from the dozens and dozens of other competitors you have in Oregon?

I look at it like the film industry. There are a lot of great movies out there. You go to a movie and it’s great, and you and your girl want to go to another movie because you had a good experience.

Good cannabis makes people want to have more good experiences, so they should try everybody’s product. Ours is right up there in the Oregon market as being very, very good weed. We have great THC values, but more importantly we have tremendous terpene values.

I have an excellent grower and we’re growing with natural nutrients. I’m flushing their irrigation out two weeks before so it’s a perfect white ash. I’m keeping the soil at 64 degrees so the nutrients will be absorbed into the roots. We’ve got light-dep greenhouses, so we protect the growing environment from the aphids and the mold and russet mites. And we also have that beautiful southern Oregon soil.

How does your cannabis stand out, then, like a good film would?

That’s a very good question and it’s one of those questions where I cannot give you certain things [Laughs]. We do have some secret moves that other growers don’t have and that we covet.

We just went over to Advanced Nutrients, which has been really good. And we just built two new greenhouses by Gro-Tec with really great high ceilings. We changed to Fohse LED lights, which creates about 30 percent more penetration into the plants when we need to augment the light if it’s cloudy, in order to keep the ‘lumes up to close to 1100 (watts). It ensures there’s consistency in the plant. We supplement with (Medford, Oregon-based) Rogue Soil, which is packed with great natural nutrients and gives our plants a great boost and great color.

Have you ever been happier than you are at this very moment?

I’ve done a lot of personal work, and it really started when I bought this farm, along the Rogue River, the middle of the spiritual vortex between Mount McGlothlin and Table Rock. There was a Native American vortex of spirituality here and now we’ve brought in this spiritual plant.

Here’s the thing, I do believe this plant has changed me. Being alongside of it, caring for it and loving it. I play my harmonica for these girls. The relationship with these plants has changed me. They’ve enlightened me and made me a better person. So, I have to say, yes, I’m probably in the best place that I’ve ever been, and I attribute it all to, like, starting a relationship with this old beautiful feminine energy. The Oracle is a feminine creature that tells Apollo and Zeus what to do. Well, the Oracle on my farm are these plants, and let’s just say we treat them like that.

What’s the extent of your involvement on your farm?

I collaborate with my grower, Anthony Anaya. I’ve gone through three growers, and I finally found a winner with Anthony. He’s like Elvis Presley! [Laughs] He’s been in the industry for 15 years in Oregon and he knows his stuff. I collaborate with him; I collaborate with Jeremy and my cousin Chris. It’s like, you can’t do a movie or a show by yourself. You need directors, producers, writers, prop people and cameramen.

Can you describe some of the most surprising challenges you’ve faced as a cannabis grower that perhaps you weren’t expecting?

I wasn’t expecting the aphids, mites, gophers, squirrels, deer and mold. They never tell you that stuff when you put your money out and invest in this industry. Wow! We lost 300 pounds last year to mold alone. That’s why I’ve made recent shifts in our products. It helps us control the environment enough to eradicate pests and mold while using natural remedies. 

How have the wildfires in the area and record heat over the past couple summers affected your ability to grow cannabis?

They’ve affected the employees, but not the plants. It gets very smoky, and we make everyone wear masks for protection. The heat during that time is at around 115°F — we keep the plants hydrated, so they can survive that just fine. During the last fire, the employees started working at six in the morning and left early before the main heat of the day.

Is it really true that Dan Aykroyd’s comment about your late brother John potentially being alive today had he used cannabis instead of other substances played a role in inspiring you to get involved in pot?

Absolutely! Danny was a pothead, but he didn’t mess with other drugs. I’m not saying John didn’t use cannabis, but I still think John’s stuff possibly came from other things like CTE from playing football. Look, we have 33,000 veterans committing suicide a year. PTSD — what it does to these men and these women — the scarring and the traumas: I really think cannabis can help relieve some of their trauma and help them make better decisions.

I once met a veteran in a dispensary parking lot. I looked at him and I said, “are you alright?” He said “No, I was a medic in Iraq. I saw things happen to the human body that nobody should ever see.” He said doctors gave him OxyContin and he just couldn’t do it. But cannabis got him off OxyContin. And he tells me, “Your Black Diamond OG strain allows me to talk to my wife and talk to my children and sleep.” He hugged me and I said, “Hey man, I didn’t make this.” He says “No, but you’re the steward.”

That moment became a paradigm shift in my relationship with our industry. So, yeah, I’m chasing the medicine. The magic of the medicine.

Jim Belushi and Dan Ackroyd perform at a Last Prisoners Project event in Las Vegas. PHOTO Gracie Malley

The arc of your life has been fascinating — from juvenile probation and being in trouble as a kid to having a big Hollywood career and now just narrowly escaping the area’s massive wildfires. You’ve been adjacent to a lot of stuff, but somehow have been able to navigate everything. Do you feel there’s someone or something watching over you?

I’m on mission from God. [Long pause] I just listen. What do you want me to say? [Pause] I just keep looking for the light, for something bigger than myself. Within our industry, it’s medicine.

Another thing that’s really big for me is the Last Prisoners Project. It’s our duty in this industry to get these men and women out of jail. They were the pioneers; they were the ones that laid on the barbed wire for us to get legalization and make a living. We got to get them out of jail, and we got to hire them within our industry.

What do you have in mind for expanding your cannabis footprint?

There’s a lot of talk going on. And right now, I’m with RedBird in Oklahoma. Then with Columbia Care, and the Green Solution in Colorado. I got a Blues Brothers ice cream brand being launched and also Blues Brothers Bhang Chocolates, which are really good.

I currently have four brands: The Blues Brothers brand, of which we have three or four different types of joints. It has a flip-top box so we can put it in a shirt sleeve. We call them Baby Blues, a little six-pack. We have the single gram joint, which we call Rocket 88. And then I have Chasing Magic, which is my secret stash and really the higher premium brand of what we grow.

And now we just released the Captain Jack joint in Oregon. Oh, and we’ve also just released Good Ugly Weed, which is really good weed.

Good Ugly Weed seems to be very on-brand for you: a little scruffy, but also lovable and powerful.

It may be ugly, but it’s good, man! [Laughs] We just put out some Good Ugly Weed at 24 percent THC. It’s a value brand and the dispensaries are just dying for it. The profit margin on it isn’t huge, but I got my comedy bucks, you know. So as long as I break even on it.

How many different strains do you grow at a time and in how many dispensaries is your product currently sold?

We have in our library around 20 different genetics. With our new Gro-Tech greenhouses, we can grow up to eight genetics at a time. With four cycles and four greenhouses, we have a lot of flexibility. 

Any plans to expand with CBD?

I just created a CBD tincture for my dog. It’s a tincture of 500 milligrams, full-spectrum, called K-9ine. And it’s only offered on my website, I’m just putting it out there for other dog lovers. And I know it works: My dog couldn’t walk for three days, but then he chased me up the stairs.

Of all the cannabis legal states. What drew you to do business in Oregon, Colorado, Oklahoma and Illinois? Was it just a matter of less barriers to entry or was there anything more?

Well, I’ve also talked to companies in California, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. In Oregon and the other states where you can be a cultivator and distribute, I’m just having better luck.

Are you trying to become the Bobby Flay of cannabis, or are you more of the Oprah? Through your show, you’re making cannabis easy for the person who has no connection to any of this.

I think I have what it takes to create competence in cannabis. There are so many people that are curious about it, and I’m trying to use “Growing Belushi” to try and bridge that curiosity and show the viewers how it’s grown, how it’s tested as well as some of the medical things that revolve around it. Also, show them, this is how you smoke a vape pen; this is how you take an edible.

Have you had to deal with any chest-pounding trolls on Twitter for being a Belushi and also championing cannabis?

No, I haven’t experienced that. But I’ll tell you why. Everybody knows somebody who’s suffering. Everybody wants to stop their relatives or their friends from suffering, and they’re curious about cannabis. I know a lot of people are targeting the youth with cannabis, but there’s a lot of interest among Baby Boomers, too.

I literally take people into a dispensary and say “Look, it’s not a mom-and-pop place; it’s not where drug dealers are hanging out. It looks like an Apple Store.” I encourage people to just try going into a dispensary and not to be frightened.

What does success look like for you now? Before, your definitions of success had to do with opening box office figures or the week-to-week Nielsen ratings of a TV show. Is this moment different because you’re in it for the long game and you’re in it to help people?

I measure success by the letters and the tweets that I get from people who say our cannabis has helped them. Another measure that I’ve already reached is breaking even on the business side of things! [Laughs] I’m investing in myself. Instead of the stock market, I’m investing in the farm.

Is “Growing Belushi” going international?

Yes, it’s an international show now. We just made a deal with a foreign distribution company that’s taking it all over the world.

Ha! So, you are becoming cannabis’ answer to Bobby Flay or Guy Fieri!

[Laughs] Guy Fieri is actually in the show! He comes to the farm, and I make my ice cream for him, my chocolate. We cook some Albanian dishes. He cooks in my backyard and we make ribs in a smoker. The episode is awesome.

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High Hospitality: How to Host the Perfect Cannabis Party

Whether you love her, hate her or hate to love her, you’ve got to admit that when Kim Kardashian West makes a move, the world watches. So when the social media starlet announced that her fourth baby shower would be “CBD-themed,” with A-listers like Paris Hilton, Chrissy Teigen and, of course, the entire Kardashian clan blissing out with a sound bath and making custom CBD bath salts, cannabidiol had officially gone mainstream. With millions of fans watching along on Instagram, it’s easy to imagine countless mental lightbulbs going off as people mused: I can entertain with cannabis, too!

I’m obliged to give Kim K. props for her contribution to normalizing cannabis, but it’s just the tip of the cola, if you will, when it comes to the world of high hospitality. Entertaining with cannabis can take many forms, from infused dinner parties to elegant joint tray-passing affairs. But no matter what sort of cannabis party you’re hosting, the most important thing you can do to make your guests feel welcome and comfortable is to ensure that they’re educated about any cannabis products they’ll be consuming throughout the evening.

(PHOTO Rachel Burkons)

Serving infused bites? Let guests know the dosage! Mixing up mocktails? Tell them about your tinctures! Staging a beautiful bud bar? Know what’s what, where it’s from and what your guests can expect from each product. Welcoming your guests with knowledge demonstrates not only mindfulness and consideration of your guests’ experience, but also calms the inexperienced, who will appreciate your efforts.

One of my personal favorite ways to kick off a cannabis kiki is with a well-appointed joint tray, served alongside some bites and non-alcoholic beverages. I’m a firm believer in the joint tray as the perfect pot party-starter because when done well, a joint tray is more than just beautiful — it’s also an ideal way to encourage your guests to mix, mingle and meet. After all, who hasn’t made a new friend over a shared joint or a quest for a lighter? Make your guests feel at home, at ease and fancy AF by following some of these tips for building the perfect joint tray to accompany any cannabis culinary event.

(PHOTO Gracie Malley for Cannabis Now)

The Necessities: Start with your favorite flower and roll enough joints to have one for every two people. This will encourage guests to make new friends as they puff, puff, pass. Also, make sure you have plenty of lighters, as we know those have a way of disappearing into people’s pockets and purses.

The Details: Decorate your tray with florals for the season. Summertime calls for fragrant roses, hibiscus and lilies, but fall seeks brightly colored leaves for an autumnal harvest look. Fresh-cut citrus makes for a beautiful winter display, and if you’re offering up a high-limonene variety, it will celebrate terpenes and offer another educational touchstone for your guests. Anything green and in-bloom from your garden is perfect for a springtime celebration. A few High Hospitality pro tips: Keep your joints from rolling by placing long, flat leaves in an “x” across your tray, and lining the joints on top. I’ve had success with all kinds of leaves, especially fern leaves. Wrap leaves loosely in a damp paper towel until you’re ready to place on the tray in order to keep them from becoming dry and brittle.

The Pairings: Match the flavors in the variety you’re passing with a bite you’re offering. Have a high beta-caryophyllene Purple Punch? Match it with parmesan popcorn with fresh-cracked black pepper. Working with a pinene-heavy In the Pines? Try rosemary roasted potato bites. Remember, you don’t need to be a professional chef to create perfect pairings if you let terpenes be your guide.

There are no right or wrong answers to bringing this experience to your guests, so feel free to experiment and find what works for you and the occasion you’re enjoying. Happy hosting!

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How to Tell if Your Cannabis Plant is Male or Female

Cannabis cultivators the world over know the obsessive, purgatorial feeling of waiting for their plants to mature to discern sex – female, male or hermaphrodite. A male plant, while essential for reproduction, can also run rampant across a garden and devastate an entire crop of flowering female plants — intended for consumption — by inadvertently pollinating them and causing hermaphroditism. If culled and managed correctly, the male becomes a key part of this sustainable, perpetuating reproduction process.

There’s no way to ascertain if a seedling is male or female with the naked eye. Growers often find themselves on the edge of their seats waiting for plants to mature while telltale signs of sex slowly reveal themselves.

As they mature, plants express themselves physically in characteristic ways. Size is a great indicator of sex. Males tend to grow faster and higher in the first stage of growth than do the females. Male plants have a longer intermodal space as well. The intermodal space is the space between the limbs of the plant that originate from the main stalk. Females are smaller than a male plant in the beginning growth stages, with shorter intermodal spaces and a squatter appearance.

Male plants also get a woodier stalk sooner than do females. This is needed to support the taller plant. The male plant is usually the source of fiber that is used in fabrics and other industries. While the female plant is also used as a source of industrial fiber, the male plant is preferred. Male cannabis plants look more like hemp than does a female cannabis plant. Its fibers are almost as tough, but the cellulose that the male cannabis plant contains isn’t as robust as is the male hemp plant.

The goal is usually to raise a crop without seeds. This is known as a sin similla plant. It’s a Spanish word that aptly translates as “without seeds.” Most people bunch the two words into one, making it sinsimilla to the foreign tongue. A sinsimilla plant, then, is an unpollinated female plant.

Flowering in both sexes usually starts within the third to fourth week of growth. There can be more recent signs that a plant is male, but the clincher is when they start to flower. The first buds will usually begin where the limb reaches the main stalk.

A male plant will have a purely green bud. The flower comes later. It looks like it’s a rolled up flower that hasn’t unrolled yet. A female plant will have a sprout that looks more like a pair of long thin flowers as it sprouts. The sprouts on the males will eventually open into a pollinating flower. If the male isn’t culled it will pollinate the females and cause seeds to appear. The female plant will be less potent and will harvest less bud. Plus you’ll have to pick out all of the seeds or the pipe will periodically explode as it burns a seed.

For situations when seeds are the desired result, there is always a male in the crop. To have the females produce copious amounts of seeds, just leave the male crop where it is and with the help of a good strong fan to circulate the male’s pollen, you’ll have bunches of seeds hanging from the females in eight to 10 weeks.

Know a mature seed by its texture and appearance. Its texture will be firm and light, usually with spots of some amount. Once all of the seeds look alike it is time to harvest the seeds.

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Joint Art: Beautiful Consumable Creations

Nothing gold can stay, but that’s actually a happy thought for Jaime Nacrur.

Nacrur, better known by his Instagram handle @weavers_, has carved out quite a niche for himself in the cannabis community by crafting impressively intricate, and sometimes oversized, art sculptures made completely out of flower and 24-karat gold blunt wraps.

While Weavers’ first commissions were relegated to making weapons such as guns and knives formed from tobacco wraps, the California artist has pushed the boundaries of his creativity by crafting blunts that include liquor bottles, microphones and even UFC fighting gloves.

Weavers’ astounding works of smokable art even earned him an exhibition, sponsored by Hitman Glass. The art show premiered in November 2017 at Hitman’s Los Angeles coffee house to much fanfare, and included a massive Darth Vader statue constructed out of 10 pounds of cannabis and gold blunt wraps from Shine Papers.

“I’ve been rolling blunts and making art for over 30 years,” Nacrur said. “Four years ago, I had the opportunity to combine my love for art and cannabis through my artist identity, Weavers. I immediately fell in love with the response I received from the people that appreciated my work.”

Now at the height of his popularity and success, Nacrur said he decided rolling blunts would be his primary art form when he saw the joy that it brought to others.

“In modern day society, we’re surrounded by stress and anxiety,” he said. “When I saw a group of over 100 people smiling and enjoying themselves because of my creation, I couldn’t describe how great it made me feel. Every piece of consumable art that I make has a strong positive impact on the cannabis community. A large driving force in my career is watching my work make people happy.”

Nacrur ended up on the radar of sponsors like Shine and Hitman organically at shows and through friends.

“We support each other’s brands and it is mutually beneficial for all parties,” he said, noting that he has now been commissioned to make personalized blunt creations for a number of different celebrities. “I can proudly say that these people have smoked my blunts: Rick Ross, Snoop Dogg, Lil Dicky, Too $hort, Action Bronson, Lil Debbie, DJ Quick, Xzibit, Rae Sremmurd, Mally Mall, B-Real, the Diaz brothers, Sizzla, The Game and a few I can’t mention. I also made blunts for the Netflix sitcom ‘Disjointed,’ and the Viceland shows ‘Bong Appetit’ and ‘Ancient Aliens.’”

Weavers blunt Cannabis Now

After making so many works of art, he struggled to identify which one he was the most proud of, but did mention the most complicated piece he’s ever created involved making a 3D version of the logo for Captain Jack’s, a now-closed dispensary that was located in Upland, California.

When asked about the highest price he’s ever been paid for his art, Nacrur said he doesn’t do it for the money, but rather the challenge.

“I’m challenging myself and trying new things,” he said. “I’ve created my own niche.”

TELL US, have you ever seen such creative joints?

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Framing Flowers: Cannabis Photography At It’s Finest

Cannabis enthusiasts have long understood the visual allure of the plant. Images of vibrant green hues and stalks brimming with magnificent colas sprouting furry red, yellow and orange hairs, speckled throughout with otherworldly trichomes, can be just as exhilarating as an image of athletes  in motion or as thought-provoking and visceral as a war film montage.

Shayna Goldstein and Aaron Rogosin, the creative team behind the Oregon-based production company Outer Elements, have tapped into this niche. The pair mostly work on mainstream projects, including event photography for Red Bull sporting events and the annual South by Southwest music and art festival in Austin, Texas. But now, they also proudly boast a portfolio of cannabis photography.

“The Pacific Northwest is no stranger to cannabis cultivation,” says Rogosin, the lead photographer on the team. “We are lucky to call Portland, Oregon home, so it was through friends and local contacts that we first started documenting cultivations in Southern Oregon around 2014.”

But their affinity for shooting flowers was not always obvious. The duo initially kept cannabis work away from their professional portfolio out of fear that they might alienate themselves from potential opportunities. 

“Initially we didn’t include it in our portfolio in fear it may compromise our standing with current or potential commercial clients,” says Rogosin. “But one of our main objectives in work and life is to invest our time and skill sets into brands and people we believe in and care about. The people we’ve met in the cannabis market are great clients and friends. Now we’re proud to put the pictures that come out of those relationships in our portfolio.”

After breaking through the negative stigma of cannabis photography, the two began to appreciate the difference between photographing exotic plants and the human subjects they were accustomed to shooting.

“Plants don’t need lunch or bathroom breaks,” says producer and art director Goldstein. “The shooting location is more often than not at the farm or processor, so no need to pull shooting permits. The plants aren’t self conscious and they’re always easy to work with. For me, it’s really relaxing. Greenhouses are warm and you’re surrounded by plants and people who care for plants.”

Despite the fact that cannabis interacts with the camera differently compared to other subjects, the team strives to maintain a certain consistency throughout all of their work.

“[A good cannabis image] shares the same things we look for in all of our images, even clarity and exposure, tack sharp focus and narrative. We aspire that every one of our images tells a story. That goes for our work in cannabis as well,” says Rogosin.

Aaron Rogosin And Shayna Goldstein pose for a portrait.

With the subject now firmly embedded in Outer Elements’ repertoire, Goldstein and Rogosin have absorbed an impressive amount of insight into the plant, which they also happen to enjoy consuming.

“One of the many benefits to working with such knowledgeable people in this field is the education we’ve received,” explains Rogosin. “Knowing which terpene profiles and CBD to THC ratios work the best with our preferences has been significant for pain management, creativity, relaxation and wellness.”

“Make no mistake, anyone who works in production knows, you schlep stuff,” adds Goldstein. “It makes for sore backs and early mornings. We all need a little help sometimes and plant versus pill? You decide what’s best for you.”

Outer Elements’ portfolio seems to have come full circle, as their annual trip to South by Southwest now features conference panels dedicated to the future of cannabis culture and industries.

“For 10 days every March, we run all over Austin capturing the newest in music, tech, film, and as of last year’s inaugural track, cannabis,” Goldstein says. “Being at South by Southwest is like jumping into the future. It gives us so much inspiration and sight into what’s happening next.”

As for what’s next for Outer Elements, the team hopes to expand on their impressive works by incorporating a plethora of bold methods to bring cannabis imagery to life.

“How many ways can you tell the story of this plant? It’s given us opportunities to explore macro photography, extreme macro photography, image stacking, time lapse, animations, portable studio lighting and work to combine all the above in novel ways,” Rogosin explains. “Challenges are just opportunities to get creative.”

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Silicon Valley Meets Humboldt County: Nabis Fills Supply Chain Gap

There’s a cannabis founder stereotype that’s bemoaned by the old-school legacy community: white boomer men with lucrative pasts in corporate finance and ample access to venture capital money, but scant connection to traditional cannabis culture. The creators of business-to-business cannabis distributor Nabis not only defy this stereotype, but they’ve also managed to build the largest wholesale marketplace and distribution network in California.

Nabis founders Jun S. Lee and Vince Ning are Korean Americans; Lee was born in Seoul, while Ning is a first-generation American born to Korean immigrants. The late-20s millennials and childhood friends were raised in Northern Virginia and can still reminisce about hiding their teenage pot consumption from parents, teachers and cops. They’re also academic and tech industry powerhouses: Ning earned his B.A. from the University of Virginia and worked as a software engineer at Microsoft, while Lee followed up his B.A. from Harvard with a systems architect position at Facebook.

Now they spend their time handling logistics, payment and warehousing for a portfolio of more than 100 brands in the world’s biggest cannabis market.

Nabis’ story is a testament to the exponential growth that’s possible when technological innovation collides with on-the-ground experience, carefully cultivated relationships and practical problem solving.

Recognizing Opportunity

Ning and Lee’s journey to establishing Nabis began in July of 2017 in a San Francisco bar. They were having drinks with a college friend who was running a pre-roll brand and struggling to transport product to dispensaries successfully. When he told Ning and Lee that distribution was his biggest pain point, their interest piqued. Moving several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of federally illegal plant material while collecting massive amounts of cash wasn’t part of their work experience. They decided to learn by doing: the next day, they called their friend and volunteered to make his deliveries.

“We were 23-years-old and had no capital,” Lee said. “We needed to understand the cannabis supply chain, and delivery driving seemed like the best way to do it. We never wanted to be the tech guys that came in to disrupt the space either – we wanted to respect the history and the culture that California cannabis had, and shipping was a humble way to join the industry, in a way that actually added value for those who came before us.”

They spent the next eight months behind the wheels of their own cars, delivering cannabis all over the Golden State. Because this was pre-adult use legalization, many transactions took place in various parking lots and fields, and all-night-long hauls from Humboldt County to San Diego became the norm. The duo credits that delivery driver stint as the foundation of their wildly successful business model.

“I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything,” Lee said.

By wading feet first into the choppy waters of cannabis distribution, Ning and Lee learned how to build their own boat. They developed contacts and established relationships. One client led to the next, and the next, and so on.

“For every order, there’s a network effect,” Lee said. “The fact that we put the time in to make deliveries and learn what those interactions were like made it much easier to train future employees and build software that can help automate that flow.”

Today, Nabis operates a fleet of 55 trucks, commands 46,000 square feet of warehouse space, and according to BDSA, distributes close to 10 percent of the legal cannabis sold in California. The rapidly growing tech company’s plans to scale continue. Since securing $5 million in Series A funding last fall, they’ve added several large brands to their portfolio and opened a new fulfillment center in Los Angeles, allowing them to increase weekly orders by 300 percent.

The secret to their success? Doing great work.

Delivering On Promises

Nabis takes pride in their lightning-fast shipping experience, which Ning compares to Amazon Prime, as all orders can be delivered within 36 hours of being placed. For retailers, Nabis simplifies ordering, delivery logistics and cash remittance, automating the massive amount of compliance paperwork required to ship cannabis. Operational excellence is paramount to their business philosophy.

“We execute on our promises of providing clients with service that is quick, responsible, professional, secure and on time,” Lee said. “Earning the trust of brands is all the marketing we need.”

Distribution may not be the sexiest topic in the cannabis space – but nailing it is a make-or-break for brands. The best products in the world will go nowhere if they can’t get product into dispensaries efficiently and cost-effectively. Ning and Lee see distribution as the connective tissue that links cultivators, manufacturers, retailers and end consumers. And whether cannabis buyers realize it or not, supply chain efficiency has a significant impact on the cost of the products they buy, as well as on the environment.

“By providing extensive support for our partner brands, our goal is that more consumers will be able discover cannabis products and develop the same passion for the plant that many of us have,” said Ning, co-founder and CEO of Nabis. “We hope to continue growing our platform outside of California to provide that infrastructure for the entire country.”

The cannabis supply chain is particularly complex, especially when extensive compliance and documentation are factored in. Self-distribution can be inefficient and costly, and Ning and Lee see their services as enabling cannabis operators to reserve their resources for what they do best.

“We take the distribution process off the plates of our clients, and free them up to tell their story and sell their product,” Lee said.

Nabis’ criterion for distributing a brand is simple. “If you are compliant and able to generate demand for your product, we will work with you, no matter how large or small your company is,” Lee said. “We strive to democratize access to shelf space, where the best products can compete to rise to the top.”

In addition to empowering brands, Nabis also aims to give consumers more choices. “It is Nabis’ goal to create a system in which cannabis consumers and patients have the power to choose which brands and products they want to support, and to make sure those products are available at licensed dispensaries,” Ning said.

As any cannabis business owner will attest, building a company without access to banking services is no easy task. That challenge is multiplied when the business in question is taking in millions of dollars in payments.

“Lack of a stable financial infrastructure is a challenge for all of us in this space,” Lee said. Although Nabis is now part of a pilot banking program with a publicly traded bank, 70 percent of the 10 million Nabis takes in monthly is in cash. The security necessary to safeguard both cash and product is yet another major expense. “We have five full-time employees counting cash forty hours a week.”

But once again, Nabis’ ability to design the labor system to process huge cash volume efficiently shows how they’ve surmounted the hurdles that doom so many nascent cannabis businesses. They’ve even launched a capital arm that offers competitive rates on short-term financing solutions for businesses in need of working capital to produce inventory and reinvest in production.

Investing In Community

Nabis is deeply committed to their local cannabis community. Both founders feel strongly about addressing the harms caused to marginalized communities by the drug war. Since day one, Nabis has been a social equity incubator in Oakland, providing financial and educational resources to equity partners. And while Lee frankly states that California’s equity program needs to do better and do more, Nabis is committed to providing financial and structural incentives to help Black-owned businesses succeed. For example, starting in 2019, they implemented a blanket 15 percent discount on all their distributed products made by equity and Black-owned businesses.

“While we pride ourselves on remaining neutral when it comes to the brands we represent, we feel the current moment requires a different response in the name of equity,” Lee said.

He also commented on what it’s like navigating the cannabis industry as an Asian American. “It’s actually been an exciting place for someone of AAPI heritage, as it’s an industry that’s being formed from scratch,” he said. “Because of that, we have the opportunity to create a workforce and supply chain that represents America today. While I am aware and concerned with the discrimination Asian Americans feel at large, I do think it’s encouraging to see important issues being discussed with such focus, especially this year.”

Lee and Ning both explained that Nabis’ mission of empowering the world to discover cannabis also communicates a desire to destigmatize the plant. “In Korean culture, cannabis is associated with things like crime or lack of productivity,” Lee said, further explaining that Nabis can play an important role in changing that outlook.

Ning encourages other aspiring business owners interested in cannabis to apply their own unique skills and expertise to this evolving industry. 

“Normalizing cannabis includes professionalizing the business of cannabis,” he said. “And in order to do that, we need more solution-driven entrepreneurs entering the space…The industry is far from perfect right now, and the problems we solve today will directly impact consumers of tomorrow.”

Originally published in issue 41 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE.

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