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.
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.”
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.
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.
Despite its ancient connections to cannabis and its history as a destination on the hippie trail in the mid 20th Century, Afghanistan has been a place few people have traveled to since the Soviets invaded in the late 1970s. Afghanistan is now less accessible than ever, as the political situation keeps on deteriorating after decades of war and instability. But after thoughtful planning, in October 2019, I found myself in the passenger seat of a Toyota Corolla, driving the desert plains down the Himalayan foothills, towards the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, home of the famous Afghan hashish.
Arriving in Mazar-i-Sharif on a sunny October afternoon, I felt at first a bit like I was in a fantasy, visiting the famous Blue Mosque and a lively bazaar with delicious street food and smelling hashish fumes here and there. While I changed money, got a SIM card and checked into a small hotel room with a view, I kept my enthusiasm to check out the legendary hashish scene quite high.
As the sun went down, I stepped out of my hotel, but the manager advised me not to go too far. The colorful streets had turned into dark alleys illuminated by fruit stalls, with sellers screaming prices per kilos to passerby rushing home before night.
I had come to Mazar-i-Sharif for two months to work on a book about contemporary Afghan cannabis culture. On that first night and on the days that followed, I felt the country’s palpable political tension and saw heartbreaking reminders of how over half of Afghanistan’s residents live in abject poverty, but through photographing the local hashish scene, I also witnessed the resiliency of tradition in the face of such challenges.
Growing Cannabis in Afghanistan
What I quickly discovered upon arrival in Mazar-i-Sharif is that a few cannabis plants can be seen in the city center in people’s yards and houses. But once you reach the outskirts of the city, they become more and more apparent on the edges of cotton fields. It is still an illegal plant in Afghanistan, and some farmers complain that the government pressure to uphold the law is higher than ever, so harvesting the plants earlier and growing in inner courtyards seem to be common practice to ensure a successful crop. While some farmers had already harvested when I arrived in October, a few fields were still standing in early December before I left.
Each cannabis field I saw showed an amazing diversity of shapes, colors and fragrances. Afghans select cannabis plants that produce large amounts of resin, using the seeds from their pollinated plants, just like it has been done for millenniums.
Once dry, the plants are sieved to collect the resinous powder, which is turned into a refined hashish after pressing. By combining the genetic diversity of a single field, and from one valley to another, alongside the diversity of growing, sieving and curing techniques specific to each farmer, Afghan hashish remains a traditional product that reflects its terroir and conveys a sense of place.
Smoking Cannabis inAfghanistan
A popular way of consuming hashish in Afghanistan is with a type of hookah that locals call a “chillum,” not to be confused with the hand pipe with an end-to-end open channel called a chillum in the rest of the world. Groups of friends gather in “chillum khana” to share one for a fee, and cannabis farmers often invite their friends around to share some green tea and a chillum.
In the nearby city of Balkh to the west of Mazar-i-Sharif, people visit the shrine of Baba Ku Mastan, where for a little donation, a care-taker lights up a chillum with hashish and pronounces the following words: ‘Baba Ku Mastan, your grave is a flower garden, be it summer or winter.’
Baba Ku is a mythological figure who, according to legend, is the one who brought cannabis to Afghanistan.
In my time in Afghanistan, I came to realize the importance of holding on to cannabis traditions so that they remain in practice, rather than letting them slide into legend along with Baba Ku.
As costly innovations to create cannabis extracts become the norm in the Western cannabis market, traditional ways of processing the plant could become myths — erasing centuries of informal knowledge, genetics and craftsmanship — if they are ignored.
This story was originally published in the print edition of Cannabis Now.
After 14 seasons and nine different teams, professional basketball player Matt Barnes won his first-ever championship with the 2017 Golden State Warriors. Months later, he announced his retirement. The following 4/20, a Washington Post article with the headline “‘All my best games I was medicated’: Matt Barnes on his game-day use of marijuana” is published. In it, Barnes speaks candidly about his cannabis use while in the NBA – one of the first instances of him openly sharing his story with the goal of normalizing cannabis in professional sports.
Barnes has since become one of the leading voices of professional athletes calling for the end of penalties for cannabis use while being an active player. Over the past few years, he’s planted roots in the cannabis industry by investing in his hometown of Sacramento through a dispensary called Seven Leaves. He also serves as a senior advisor to Eaze’s minority-focused cannabis business incubator, Momentum.
As we closed in on 2020, Matt joined us from his home in Los Angeles for a Zoom call where he shared his journey as a professional athlete and cannabis advocate, along with his hope for reform under new government leadership.
Cannabis Now: How have you and your family been holding up during the pandemic?
Matt Barnes: Since I was 18, this is the first time I’ve gotten to sit down. I went to UCLA in 1998, and ever since, I’ve been traveling the world to play basketball. Fortunately, I was able to play 15 years, but then I retired and went right into media. I’m working for ESPN and Showtime, traveling all around the country. Though it’s unfortunate circumstances, the pandemic has allowed me to finally sit my ass home. I do my podcast from home, I do ESPN from home, and I get to spend more time with my kids. I’m a single father of three; my twins just turned twelve, my youngest guy [turned] two on December 7. I’m getting to stay home and do the day-to-day things that I retired to do, that I hadn’t been able to do before. We’ve been blessed.
CN: You have an incredible podcast, All the Smoke, where you and fellow retired NBA player Stephen Jackson interview professional athletes and coaches. Given the name of the podcast, how often would you say cannabis comes up? Are there any memorable guests who stand out when it comes to their cannabis use?
We’ve interviewed guys who are still playing that were a little hesitant talking about it, but you know, we do stuff off the camera. One person who comes to mind is The Godfather for my generation: Snoop. It’s been great to talk to him about the plant and seeing his evolution. He came in as someone that was focusing on just getting high, and I’ve been talking to him more about explaining to the world why [he] uses [cannabis]. That’s been my goal when I talk to my colleagues or former athletes about cannabis – I always encourage people to tell their stories.
Just like the next person, I enjoy getting high, but there’s a lot of benefits from it, and I think that’s important when pushing forward a message of nationwide legalization – to erase the old stigmas of the high component and explain the beneficial uses of cannabis. It’s been a fun journey post-career, kind of being a shield for the guys in the league. I’m one of a handful of people that current [NBA] players look to for questions when it comes to using cannabis or not.
CN: What was your path to becoming this cannabis guru for professional athletes?
I was a product of the ’80s. My parents were functioning drug addicts. I saw a lot of different stuff when I was younger, and I remember one of the things I enjoyed smelling at a young age was cannabis. My parents also smoked cigarettes, and I used to hate the smell of those, but there was a different smell when my dad would light that weed up at the end of the day.
At the age of 14, I tried it. My first experience was terrible; I got a headache and passed out. But I wasn’t a quitter – I jumped right back on the horse and have been using it religiously for the past 26 years. Through high school, UCLA, my entire professional career, it’s been there for me…It’s always mellowed me out, made me more levelheaded, helped with sleep, stress, and the anti-inflammatory components help a lot as well. I played 15 years, I won a championship, and I think my story will help erase that stigma of people thinking it’s a gateway drug.
CN: Can you talk a little bit about the drug testing in the NBA and what that was like for you when you were in the league?
In the NBA, they give you three strikes for drugs in general. I don’t think cannabis should be called a drug anymore, but it’s still called a drug in the NBA. I had 2.75 strikes in about 15 years. I got caught twice. If you think you’re going to fail, you are allowed to call the drug program and admit yourself willingly. I did that twice even though they are supposed to allow it once. The third strike is suspension for five days, which is a lot of money missed, and it becomes public record. Luckily, I avoided that in my career.
Something interesting in going through the drug program a few times was talking to the guys who run it about how many players were in for cannabis alone. There are over 400 players in the NBA, and at the time I was in [the program], there were over 200 players in just for weed. It’s ridiculous ‘cause the league says they want what’s best for the players, but they’re pumping us full of opioids that are gonna mask one problem and cause another. Then they want to suspend us, fine us and maybe cost us our jobs over consuming cannabis. That’s why myself, Al Harrington and some other athletes are pushing the needle on the NBA. We understand how beneficial this plant is.
If [the league] would do their research, which they are doing now, they’ll find they can use [cannabis] to prolong athlete’s careers. Normally the NBA is at the forefront of all issues, but we’re actually last right now when it comes to the use of cannabis or CBD. Hockey, major league baseball and even the NFL are kind of rewriting their policies when it comes to this, but I think we’ll be catching up shortly.
CN: You have said that you used cannabis while playing in the NBA. Did you use it for stress relief, for physical ailments or both?
At the beginning, it was psychological. I started [using cannabis] at 14 or 15 years old, and I had a really tough childhood – a lot of violence, drugs and abuse. Cannabis allowed me to escape, to focus, to sleep at night peacefully. So, in the beginning, it was more psychological. As I got older, my body was getting beat up with playing in the NBA, so I needed the relief component as well.
I risked a lot smoking it throughout my career, but there was no other outlet for me. People often don’t understand how mental this game is. If you’re fortunate enough to make it in the NBA, you’re a one percenter. Then the mental approach of the game kicks in – it’s really a mental space and a mental game. Cannabis always helped me control the mental side, and this is why I’m a huge advocate.
CN: Kind of like your NBA career, it’s hard to keep track of all the things you’ve accomplished while working in the cannabis industry – there have been so many! Can you give us a run-down of some favorite projects/ventures?
MB: My first thing is advocacy. The second I retired, I started speaking [about cannabis]. I was able to executive produce a piece for Bleacher Report called B/R x 4/20, and it was the first time you ever saw retired NBA and NFL players smoking cannabis on television, telling the world why [they] used it. I was kind of worried about how the world was gonna take to professional athletes on TV smoking weed, but it was nothing but positivity. That paved the way for me to freely speak for it.
I teamed up with UCLA for a little bit to work on their cannabis research program. I’m a part owner of Seven Leaves, which is a cannabis company in my hometown of Sacramento. We’re growing under 3,000 lights right now and really making a splash in the space. I teamed up with Eaze and have an advisory role on their Momentum Program, helping get into the social equity space and allowing people of color to have an equal opportunity. If you look at the numbers, there are only about 3 percent people of color in the cannabis space, which is terrible in my opinion. I’m proud to say I’m really helping push this movement forward.
CN: How do you feel about the equity programs that are in place now. Do you think that they’re effective at all, or do they still have a long way to go?
MB: It’s a lot to handle. Starting them was the right thing to do, but starting and actually finishing are two different things. I think there’s plenty that needs to be learned in the process. You are giving people who have never run or owned a business the opportunity to compete in a very competitive market. That’s why I think a lot of the minority [business owners] don’t last – because our people don’t have expertise in running businesses overall. I think there should be programs that allow [people of color] to be part of [the industry] but also educate them, which I think is a huge part of anyone’s success. The Momentum Program through Eaze is educating [people], and there’s a handful of other programs out there that are teaching people the ropes, so when they get in a position to secure licensing and try to go vertical in their business, they’re fully equipped.
CN: If you could pick one thing to change about the cannabis industry right now, what would it be?
MB: Just equal footing for minorities. That’s it. Like I’ve said, I think we were affected most by [the War on Drugs] but are still last in line. We missed prohibition, we missed the Gold Rush, and we can’t miss this Green Rush. That is my goal coming into this space – to continue to educate people, create opportunities and jobs and situations for people of color to excel in. We’ve been directly affected by this the most – losing our dads, our brothers, our sisters, our aunts, uncles, grandparents either to death or jail because of this plant. We need our reparations for this.
CN: This past year, with the Black Lives Matter movement breaking through to the mainstream, we saw many companies worldwide making statements in support of Black lives like never before. Were you observing the cannabis industry’s response, and do you think they handled it well compared to other industries?
MB: I think it’s important for all industries to do something. Now we’ve pulled back the blanket of how nasty this country has been at times and still can be. I think businesses want to align themselves with our people and in our communities, but I think what is important – and a lot of businesses miss the boat with this – is they’re trying to fix stuff in our communities with nobody from our communities guiding them. That’s why I think it’s important for myself to be a part of this movement.
For example, if you have no idea what my community is like, or what Compton is like, or the Chicago ghettos, how can you effectively help? Sometimes money is thrown at the biggest name or the biggest corporation, and they may not actually be doing the best work for those communities. It takes a little bit of due diligence; these companies need to be doing their homework.
CN: We saw a video of you bringing that sentiment to the national stage when you were pushing Biden about the controversial 1994 crime bill*. What was that moment like, and how did you feel about his response?
MB: The moment was surreal. I wasn’t gung-ho about Biden and Harris because with both of their track records, they’ve done a lot of damage in our communities. But I got the opportunity to go out there and talk to him and meet him, speak for him at a rally and go to some voting polls. He wanted minorities to vote for him, and the first thing that people are going to bring up is the crime bill. Hearing him break down the crime bill, describing the parts that he was against while understanding that he couldn’t get everything that he wanted, he went with what was presented after there was pushback – because we needed something at that time. I’m not saying the crime bill was the answer, but we needed something. The government put guns and drugs in the hood in the early ‘80s. I was just excited at the opportunity to get to talk to [Biden], and I really felt like we helped him get in office. Now our job is to hold him and Kamala Harris accountable.
*The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, now known as the 1994 crime bill, gave billions in funding to state prisons and police while disenfranchising people of color.
CN: Do you think decriminalization and adult-legalization will continue to be led by the states, or will the Biden-Harris administration bring about federal cannabis laws?
MB: I’m hoping state-by-state [cannabis legislation] continues, but it would be great to get a federal overhaul and just legalize it. Once we figure out a sweet point for taxation, this is going to be a huge revenue maker for all these states. Cannabis is the one thing that brings everyone together. I feel like if everyone smoked weed, the world would be a better place overall, and that’s no bullsh*t. Hopefully this plant can not only bring financial stability to states across the country, but also bring people together.
CN: Since you are a father and family man, as well as a cannabis advocate, have you had any talks about the plant with your kids?
MB: You know, we had that conversation when [my twins] were…about nine maybe? I never smoke in front of my kids, but one night I put them to sleep and went out to smoke a joint by the pool. I guess one of the boys had looked through their window and saw me smoking because they came down the next morning and said, “Dad, if you smoke cigarettes, your lungs are gonna turn black!” So, I kept it real and said, “You know how Daddy plays basketball and his back, knees and ankles hurt? When they give me medicine [for the pain], it gives me an upset stomach. And when I smoke a joint, it makes all my pain go away and helps me sleep.” One of the twins was like, “Oh, okay. Well, Dad my ankle hurts. When can I smoke?” I was like, “Oh sh*t.” [Laughs]
CN: This is for the weed nerds out there. Can you tell us what strains you’ve been into lately?
MB: I’ve been really into our homegrown strains. We have a Blue Slush at Seven Leaves that I’m really enjoying. Vovo and Bon Bons [are strains] from our facility that I’m also really enjoying. If you are in California and get a chance, check those out. Hopefully with our expansion, we can start getting them all over the country.
I don’t smoke as much anymore because I’m really busy, and I’m a father of three, but I still do have my two or three joints a day. I wake and bake; I’ll get a mid-day joint; and I’ll have one to put me to sleep, so I’m across the board as far as hybrids, sativas and indicas. It’s just kind of a way of life. Smoking has always been there for me, and it’ll always be there for me. I will continue to advocate for it, and hopefully help change some regulations in professional sports and even some laws.
The NBA halted their cannabis testing program when the 2019-2020 season resumed in order to avoid unnecessary contact due to COVID-19 concerns. This policy has continued throughout the 2020-2021 season. The NBA has not made a formal statement or confirmed if they will discontinue testing or penalize players for cannabis use.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nobody likes to hear “I told you so” ringing in their ears. But today, as California’s small cannabis farmers face increasing challenges in the legal industry, the sneering refrain practically echoes down the redwood canyons of the Emerald Triangle, its four cutting syllables carried in each morning with the fog.
For Casey O’Neill, who has one of the most public and outspoken advocates for a small-farm-friendly version of cannabis legalization since 2014, the “I told you so” carries a particular punch. He is a native son of Mendocino County, raised on a homestead north of Laytonville where he still lives, farming vegetables and cannabis on the land with his partner Amber and their family. He’s seen the harsh nature of the government. Law enforcement stormed his parents’ house before his third birthday over a few cannabis plants, and when he was older and working as a cannabis grower, he was swept up in a raid and served two months in county jail.
But by the time California started to seriously consider cannabis legalization in the 2010s, O’Neill believed it was a good idea. Legal pot, he thought, was a great way to support small farmers and California’s rural economies and keep people out of prison. He still trusts in this vision. Where he thinks he might have been wrong, in retrospect, is in judging the government’s ability to actually execute those policies.
“I went in with this possibly naïve idea that we were going to construct a regulatory paradigm that was built around small businesses — and we came f*cking close, that’s the devastating part,” O’Neill says. “I invested significant time, energy and faith in a governmental process and then had that faith shattered. And now, all of the old hippies are like, ‘I f*cking told you so. You f*cking thought they were going to play fair?’ It’s really disenchanting.”
Fighting for the Right to Farm
The year 2016 may feel like 10,000 lifetimes ago, but it’s worth remembering that before California passed its adult-use cannabis legislation, it was extremely rare for cannabis growers to speak proudly and openly about their craft in the halls of power. O’Neill was one of the handful that stepped forward.
As a board member for the Emerald Growers Association, O’Neill spent the mid-2010s speaking in front of the Mendocino County supervisors and to state legislators in Sacramento about how cannabis legalization could be a crucial lifeline for small farmers. In his straw hat, skin roughed by the sun, and cotton work clothes, O’Neill made the case over and over that cannabis growers were simply small farmers that needed support.
“For Amber and I, for quite a long time we were almost like the funny stepchildren. We didn’t really fit with the food farmers because we were cannabis farmers, and vice versa,” O’Neill says. “The central focus of advocacy for me has been to break down that false bifurcation.”
O’Neill spent his youth farming only cannabis, but after his 2008 arrest for growing, he switched to farming vegetables in 2009.
“When I was going through my court case, I realized: I’m a monocrop farmer and I just lost my crop,” O’Neill says. “I had some cogitation around what I want my future to look like and I started to look at food farming.”
He took a few courses on farming vegetables and fertilizers before he began serving time, and in jail, had a job working in the jail garden and read as many books on organic farming as he could from the jail library.
“The running joke is that my friends say, ‘It seems you were effectively rehabilitated,’” O’Neill says with a laugh.
In 2010, the state of California took its first big swing at legalizing cannabis with Proposition 19. At the time, the terms of O’Neill’s probation kept him from cultivating cannabis and he didn’t take much of a public stance on the issue. The effort ultimately failed, with all three Emerald Triangle counties voting against the proposition.
Then in 2014, a coalition including California’s police chiefs sponsored a cannabis regulation bill, SB 1262. The state’s medical cannabis industry despised it. O’Neill, who had gotten off probation and formed a medical marijuana collective in 2013, started advocating against it — and for a vision for legalization that included bringing California’s thousands of underground cannabis farmers into compliance.
“In 2014, the police chief sponsored a bill in the state legislature that would have licensed 30 farms in the state,” he says. “It was a de facto lockout for our whole community. That was what really got us organized.”
He worked as the secretary of the Emerald Growers Association and a board member of the Mendocino Cannabis Policy Council. He hosted events, talked to lawmakers, and helped cannabis advocates come up with a plan for small-farmer-friendly cannabis legalization.
“Every other industry sends lobbyists to tell government how to think, so finally as an industry, we are realizing if this is how it works in America, we are going to have to play ball,” O’Neill told the Associated Press in 2015, before he and other members of the Emerald Growers Association went off to lobby assemblymembers in Sacramento.
After months of work at the state level, Proposition 64 was born: a plan to legalize cannabis with regulations coming from the Department of Agriculture, no cap on licenses, appellations and tiered licensing.
“And we were successful,” O’Neill says. “Coming out of 2015, we thought ‘Wow this is going to work! Holy sh*t!’”
In November 2016, California voted to pass Prop. 64. All three counties of the Emerald Triangle voted in favor, though by small margins. But O’Neill says the vision for small farmers only partially achieved.
“On the one hand, it has worked. I am here. The state has been here and inspected this farm and we’re legal,” says O’Neill. “On the other hand for so many other farmers, it didn’t f*cking work.”
And this discrepancy has been challenging for O’Neill to come to terms with.
“It’s so bittersweet. To feel both that I’ve been tremendously successful and a total f*cking failure at the same time is one of the most potent dichotomies of my life,” he says.
So what went wrong?
The State’s Plan for Pot
I visited O’Neill one warm autumn day on his family’s homestead, HappyDay Farms, in the hills outside of Laytonville. As he watered vegetable sprouts in a hoop house, O’Neill rattled off examples of how differently California regulates vegetables versus adult-use cannabis.
From the price of scales to cottage licenses, it boils down to two main issues: cannabis involves mountains more paperwork and bundles more cash.
HappyDay Farm’s permit to sell vegetables costs $25 a year, O’Neill says. Its permit to sell cannabis from Mendocino County costs $675, plus a $1,300 application fee, plus $2,410 for a permit from the state government, plus $1,800 to the state water board, plus $625 to the Department of Fish & Wildlife, plus $750 for its rainwater collection pond — and we haven’t even gotten to taxes yet.
“It’s not even nickel and diming me, it’s hundred and two hundred-ing me,” O’Neill says.
“It’s a classic example of regulatory creep in which a given populace with very little political power runs up against a regulatory development process in which every agency is excited and waiting to do things they aren’t allowed to do with the agricultural industry because their lobby is too strong,” O’Neill says, breaking down the issue with his trademark mix of political verbosity and casual profanity. “It’s like the state is saying to us, ‘We’re going to f*ck you guys up.’ It’s been really frustrating. I’ve been an advocate of sensible regulations and at every step of the way they’re pushing back and saying, ‘No, not really.’”
HappyDay Farms isn’t a large operation. It’s tucked on a sun-splattered hillside, with terraces that O’Neill and his family built in 2012 and rocky soil they’ve been carefully building up for years with compost and perennialized plants.
With the base cost of running a cannabis farm so high, the state has essentially forced cannabis farmers to work on a large scale in order to meet those costs. To combat this big-ag-favoring paradigm, O’Neill is advocating for a cottage license for cannabis farms with less than 2,500 square feet of cannabis canopy that includes an exemption from all regulations except testing.
“We fought really, really hard for a cottage license in the cannabis industry, so they made a cottage license,” O’Neill says. “But with cottage food production, a cottage license means that you are exempt from a lot of regulations. With cottage cannabis licenses, it’s just a nice name.”
Notably, California put forth cannabis regulations after Prop. 64 that don’t prohibit people from stacking multiple cottage licenses together to make a large grow. Perhaps most controversially, the regulations also do not include the acreage cap that state law mandated, which would have kept cannabis farms below one acre until 2023.
O’Neill also takes issue with the state’s track-and-trace system (“It’s the dumbest time-suck nightmare stupidest thing in history period.”) and the state’s general attitude that cannabis growers are presumed to be criminals from the outset and must be tightly regulated (“It’s like ‘Star Wars’: ‘The more you tighten your grasp, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.’”).
Plus, in 2019, the state of California started ramping up enforcement actions against those farmers who hadn’t joined the legal cannabis industry yet.
“There’s the talking point that people chose not to get a permit and now they have to pay some consequences,” says O’Neill. “The assumption of choice in the matter is where the real travesty occurs. If you build a system that locks people out and then you blame them for not participating in that system, that’s social injustice.”
These farmers, who haven’t signed up for the paperwork and the taxes and the regulations, have good reason to mistrust the state. They too fear hearing “I told you so.”
Hope Springs Eternal
For about an hour, O’Neill has been walking me around the farm. We’ve been working our way slowly up and down the terraced hillside, stopping to smell the massive colas of Glueberry, Great Success, Ogreberry and other exceptional strains HappyDay has finishing in the autumn sun. It’s a jarring juxtaposition: Beautiful scenery, depressing conversation.
But even the conversation itself contains multitudes: O’Neill is quick to laugh, quick to empathize, quick to pepper quips into a dark realization. We’ve talked ourselves in circles about O’Neill’s history advocating for cannabis and about the impact he’s had, what it means, whether or not it’s been positive. And on each topic, we’ve returned again and again to a dialectic understanding that the good and bad are simultaneously true.
“It’s always both,” O’Neill says. “The truth lies in between.”
For O’Neill, a farmer who has made regenerative practices the backbone of HappyDay’s work and his own advocacy, it comes back to the land.
“The thing to me in terms of advocacy around the regenerative movement is look, we all are where we are,” he says. “We’re all trying to figure out how to get to some as-yet-undefined better. Every year, we make strides in that direction. We try and lower inputs, lower our carbon footprint, we try and sequester more carbon so we’re offsetting our footprint. But there are inevitable compromises, like keeping our rabbits in cages.”
With improving as a farmer and a human, while asking the state to improve as an advocate, O’Neill has taken a nuanced approach to the idea of progress.
“You try to make measurable gains and measurable steps in the right direction each year,” he says. “You get better in your practices, you learn more, and that’s life.”