The Color of Money

Business-based racial inequality in this country is far from the distant memory it should be at this point in our social development. Legalization isn’t necessarily changing the demographics of people involved in corporate cannabis; the industry is still made up of predominantly white, middle-aged men who are the gatekeepers to inclusion. There are many examples of bias from cannabis stakeholders, which prevent post-legalization dreams of a cannabis utopia from being truly realized. No one knows this better than Ron Brandon.

“It’s gangster, but it’s clean. ’I thought it’d be more trappy. I’ve heard it all,” Brandon said, alluding to the type of ignorance and prejudice many experts face when entering the regulated cannabis market.

Impeccably dressed and frustratingly chivalrous, Brandon returns a knowing smirk. We’re sitting at a cafe discussing how the lack of education in the cannabis industry poses challenges for those trying to enter the legal marketplace. Brandon has big plans for the future of cannabis.

While he’s not yet a household name, Brandon is on his way. For more than a decade-and-a-half, he’s worked with at least 20 cannabis companies in an industry that is in many respects new, but also inherently old. He has partnered with the likes of Ball Family Farms and Headstash, bringing high-quality cannabis to the legal market directly from the people who created this corporate landscape before the governance caught up. Most are members of California’s Social Equity Program (SEP), which launched in 2018 with the passing of Senate Bill 1294, the Cannabis Collaboration and Inclusion Act.

Designed to repair the impacts of prohibition and the War on Drugs, the program offers a greater degree of government support as individuals with past cannabis convictions or arrests, or those who live in disproportionately impacted areas, attempt to start their legal cannabusinesses. The brainchild of a liberal playbook, the program’s priority access to applications and help in this journey rarely occur the way they’re pitched on city websites. Although details the technical and business assistance offered through the program, many believe it to be a complex process.

In recent years, the myriad problems facing social equity applicants have come to a head. “People run out of resources in a system that’s very difficult to navigate,” Brandon said. “Launching a social equity enterprise is so much more than qualifying for assistance. A serious barrier to entry is that cities grant licenses based on the organization already having a building lease, but so few of these applicants have the means of paying tens of thousands of dollars in rent on commercial space before finding out if they qualify to monetize their work.”

Clearly frustrated by such overtly impractical hurdles, Brandon goes on to note that these issues are only exacerbated by so-called “technical experts” at the city level who have little understanding of the industry— it’s a case of the blind leading the blind.“

Legalization in California just hasn’t worked like it was supposed to, and the SEPs aren’t effective in mitigating the issues faced by the Black community in all areas of business,” Brandon said, choosing his words carefully.

Kingston Royal founder Ron Brandon. PHOTO Brandon Almengo

Changing Course

After a career as a professional football player spanning six years, Brandon retired in 2007 due to a knee injury. Soon after, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue a lifelong passion for the arts. “I’d always been really into hand-sketching, but I missed my opportunity to follow that seriously,” he says.

Brandon is the last person to admit that he’s a multi-talented creative. He’s more than dabbled in music, and he started finding real success just as the 2008 financial crisis hit. “I love getting involved in anything that pushes the message of non-conformity with what society is dealing with,” Brandon said. “The failing economy disrupted my own existence, but because I was looking to connect cannabis and music, I started to supplement my income by brokering cannabis. Cannabis is used in music as a tool, and it was fulfilling to be on both sides of that journey.“

As the Green Rush hit California, Brandon was presented with an opportunity to become involved in corporate cannabis. Motivated to represent diversity and maintain the integrity of his cannabis work, Brandon moved from Los Angeles to San Francisco, where he entered cannabis politics. There, he co-founded the San Francisco Cannabis Licensing Group, a subchapter of the California Growers Association. He was instrumental in shaping the group’s policy to fall in favor of the operators rather than policymakers.

While Brandon remained committed to removing the stigma around cannabis, he kept hitting the same walls: time and money.

The slow growth of distribution for cannabis products was getting in Brandon’sway, so he hacked the system. Killing two birds with one stone and avoiding the three-year wait for business licensing, Brandon’s new distribution company took SEP applicants to market in 30 days as brands. This gave them the clout and proof-of-concept to raise the same money as their non-SEP counterparts. The process also made the difference between a few million-dollar investment cap, to less than a $100,000, streamlining the journey to licensing. As a point of purpose, Brandon built a sense of community in all the operations he partnered with, which naturally led to the creation of his own flagship brand, Kingston Royal.

Ron Brandon
Ron Brandon’s Kingston Royal brand cannabis products. Photo courtesy of Kingston Royal

Kingston Royal’s Long Game

Kingston Royal was founded on a desire to enhance creativity through cannabis. Championing the notion that “you are the creator of all things,” the purpose-driven cannabis and lifestyle brand aims to inspire. Kingston Royal isn’t going for an instant money grab like many other mainstream brands; they’re aiming for longevity by embracing cannabis’ roots while supporting originality, innovation and unrestricted thinking in their team.

“Mainstream brands started earlier because that’s the SoCal system; people who have money could get in early, but their top-down approach has made their businesses irrelevant in less than half a decade,” Brandon says.

Colloquially known as “Hollywood” brands, these products are quickly fading from dispensaries. Brandon attributed their failure to a lack of understanding around the origins of cannabis, noting the exact pressure point these brands missed: the culture. Cannabis is no longer derived from Cheech and Chong stereotypes. The modern cannabis narrative is rooted in Black American history and the music that normalized consumption as a daily activity.

Brandon says that just as hip hop was birthed from backyards and community centers, so, too, was the shared experience of peace, relaxation and creativity from cannabis. America has the likes of Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre to thank for the current state of legalization, but corporate brands and dispensaries ignore their forefathers at their own peril.

Ron Brandon
Ron Brandon has big plans for social equity. PHOTO Brandon Almengo

The Struggle Is Real

This leads Brandon to the core component of social equity that’s ignored in the governance: Many dispensaries aren’t carrying enough social equity products.

“There’s supposed to be 20-25% of shelf space dedicated to SEPs. Dispensary owners aren’t being held accountable,” he said. While this isn’t a law, dispensaries must dedicate 20-40% of shelf space to equity brands to qualify for Equity Trade Certification by OEG, the first federally recognized social equity certification program for cannabis and other goods.

According to Brandon, this is due to a concern over aesthetics, as well as the uphill battle to market that most social equity applicants are facing. He says the largely white-owned dispensaries don’t want edgier items taking center stage on their carefully curated shelves and that these biases are based on a common misconception that white-washing cannabis will draw new customers.

And that couldn’t be further from the truth. A new consumer is almost always introduced to cannabis through a friend or family member who partakes rather than seeking out products themselves. No question about it. The branding is important in a general sales way, but customer loyalty trumps the conversion metrics every time.

Most social equity products boast significant customer loyalty and could expand the market appeal of many dispensaries, but they’re not given a seat at the table. This occurs while brands and business owners cozy up to musicians, producers, rappers and artists who are far more closely aligned with the root of cannabis in America — a root defined by social equity applicants.

“Black social equity applicants make up the majority of in-fluence of this industry, and we’re asked to show up at the events, but there’s always a guest list we miss when it comes to shelf space,” Brandon said.

It’s a bizarre picture that Brandon’s painting: Social equity products and brands are more likely to be consumer-friendly in terms of cost, quality and consistency. Consequently, because these products are more aligned with the reality of the consumer, they’re more likely to garner customer loyalty and drive sales. More than that, because of the macro psycho-social nature of cannabis use, SEPs are also more likely to be the first brand used by new consumers, and therefore generate longevity.

A true gentleman, Brandon doesn’t dismiss his peers in any pointed fashion, but simply picks up on a consistent psycho-logical failure of leadership.

“Hollywood brands may find it easier to get into retail space, get into parties,” he said. “It’s easier to duplicate, it’s easier grow, but when you can’t maintain your consumers, and more importantly can’t maintain your in-house talent, then you’re a pointless brand, and you’re only in cannabis to look cool. If you’re not looking to achieve anything else, you’re going to fail. That’s what we’re seeing now.”

When corporate businesses ignore the people who historically drove primo product from Canada to California — who grew in the hills of NorCal, and who sat in cells for smoking a joint — they seem to flounder and fade from sight. Put simply: People who never grew up in the real cannabis culture are trying and failing to make a profit, while the people who know cannabis best still largely sit inside of the American prison system.

Though the true metric likely won’t be realized for a few decades, it appears that a key to longevity in cannabis is association with the traditional market and the people who brought cannabis to the forefront of our legal, adult-use activities.

“Success streams from developing brands and operations like your developing artists,” Brandon says. “The mainstream industry is too busy trying to rethink cannabis.”

Ron Brandon
Ron Brandon is a true trailblazer. PHOTO Brandon Almengo

What Now?

Brandon’s next big undertaking in the cannabis industry as Chief Business Analyst at NatureTrak transcends his supply chain expertise. “A very close friend in tech asked if there was a play in cannabis, and it took until the passage of Prop 64 for us to pivot our concepts to focus on banking,” Brandon said.

The first Black-owned FinTech SAS company, NatureTrak is changing the global business landscape by making it possible for cannabusinesses to operate with financial institutions. The tech company’s free track-and-trace software can follow the complete lifecycle of a product—from seed to bank—giving banks an easy way to ensure their cannabis clients are legally compliant. Brandon is a consultant on the operations side, offering guidance on how the software speaks to social equity operators and the government.

“We help social equity operators get compliant banking so they can have some stake in the game, “he said. “We really built the airplane in the air. Had it not been for my life-long history in this business, I’d never have understood the needs of all the key stakeholders.“

With a finger on the pulse of change, Brandon is a true trailblazer. He understands the importance of cannabis’ place in history while still being able to identify future opportunities and take advantage of the present moment.

“My personal belief is that it exists today, but it’s not a promise it will exist tomorrow,” said Brandon, speaking to the state of California’s Social Equity Program. “We need to utilize funds while the government is being supportive. Let’s get these people to the finish line.”

This story was originally published in issue 42 of the print edition of Cannabis Now.

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Gimme A Hi5

They’re happy little cans, aren’t they?

I spotted them the moment I walked into legendary Berkshires dispensary Theory Wellness’ busy Great Barrington, MA location. There, almost as if they were smiling at me, these smartly designed and packaged small cans of joy, had me at hello; well, “hi,” to be precise.

Theory Wellness’ popular flavored cannabis-infused drinks are elevating the seltzer game, no question. One way is alluded to, again, smartly, in the name: The all-natural, gluten-free, hangover-free, zero-calorie concoction actually “works” in five minutes (avoiding the, “I don’t feel anything; I’ll have another” trap). You feel the effects of either the regular (44 mg THC) or light (18 mg THC) offerings fast—Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote fast.

The question is, “How does it do that?” Theory Wellness credits its nano-emulsification process that allows them to bind THC to water (previously not possible since most edibles are fat-soluble), resulting in a faster onset of the effects, which takes the waiting game out of edibles. No wonder they’re flying off the shelves.

Hi5 Lemon is a fast-acting, revolutionary cannabis drink with zero calories.

Within six months of its debut, the dispensary had sold more than 700,000 cans of Hi5 in all six flavors—including two seasonal flavors of pineapple (Summer) and cranberry (Fall)—and they’re also available in 45 dispensaries across Massachusetts.

“The Hi5 brand has been an incredibly fun project,” says Thomas Winstanley, Theory Wellness’ Vice President of Marketing. “A lot of the development happened during COVID where we were longing for interaction, social connection and missing the good times with friends. That comes through on the brand, and I think consumers enjoy it because it’s the perfect product for social consumption as we all begin to reconnect with one another.”

What better way to reconnect than to give (or receive) a Hi5? Hands up, people!

This story was originally published in issue 42 of the print edition of Cannabis Now.

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Marvin Lee Stohs’ Cannabis Photos Are ‘Out of This World’

When it comes to cannabis photography, Marvin Lee Stohs is a name worth remembering.

Working out of Washington State, the 30-year-old, better known online as Surface Area, has quickly become an in-demand photographer of buds, batters and all things weed. Known for his insanely detailed shots — what Stohs calls “a glimpse into an alien world” — the lensman’s indelible work has netted him more than 35k followers on Instagram alone. Stohs’ success isn’t a simple matter of luck, however and it doesn’t come from simply pointing a camera and hitting the shutter. His rocky journey to the top has been paved with hard work at every step along the way.

A self-taught photographer, Stohs launched his professional career nearly a decade ago when he found work with international clients, as well as several Burlington, VT-area head shops that hired him to photograph vaporizers. But, starting in 2017, the success of Initiative 502 in Washington State (passed in 2012) inspired Stohs to switch gears and test his talents in the then-nascent legal cannabis industry. Long before deciding to focus on super macro cannabis photography, Stohs says that he listened to his gut and combined his dual passions — photography and cannabis — and that proved to be extraordinarily valuable.

“Vaping was becoming kind of unpopular at that time, and as soon as weed became legal, I knew there was going to be some type of market for photographers in the industry,” Stohs said.

Stohs’ photography contains many creative cannabis works such as this nug in the sky.

Stohs says his own approach and ultimate aesthetic in much of his work is inspired by some of the biggest names in cannabis photography, including Sean Moore (Dankshire) and Erik Christiansen (Nugshots). At the same time, the budding photographer also knew it was vital that he get a body of relevant work under his belt as quickly as possible.

“I basically did what every beginning cannabis photographer does,” Stohs said of his first attempt at establishing a name for himself. “I went to the weed shop, bought one of my favorite products sold by the company, took pictures of it, and posted it on social media and tagged them. Then you hope that they’ll take the bait and send you a direct message the next day asking about your pictures.”

He was an instant hit. Almost immediately a popular Washington cannabis brand reached out to Stohs and commissioned him for work — some of which was later featured in High Times. It was, according to Stohs, exactly the type of recognition and cache he was hoping for. And things have only gotten better from there.

Jelly Biscuit from Solfire Gardens.

Instagram Troubles

Today, Stohs’ work is collected on Instagram, where a scroll through his feed reveals a veritable kaleidoscope of far-out, expertly captured images of cannabis in all forms. Whether he’s soliciting followers to guess the weight of a jar of badder or sharing his latest shots from Washington’s top cultivators and extractors, the business of being a cannabis photographer is one Stohs conducts exclusively through the ubiquitous social media platform.

But as legions of influencers, brand and content creators can attest, life as a cannabis-affiliated Instagram poster is also one frequently fraught with fear and anxiety, due to the platform’s seemingly never-ending crusade against weed.

“It’s really difficult to be a content creator in today’s age, especially with how many restrictions are being put on cannabis content shared on Instagram and Facebook,” Stohs weighs. “I constantly live in a state of anxiety every time I press ‘share’ on any posts, on any account that I work with. I’m worried that my posts might get flagged or that my account may be deleted for the tenth time.”

A close-up look at a jar of seeds from Cloneworld Northwest.

In total, Stohs says his main Instagram handle @surface_area999 has already been pulled a staggering 15 times. Though he’s been able to successfully recover it in each instance, Stohs explained that cannabis photographers relying on the platform remain in an anxiety-inducing situation, without much hope for change.

“That’s my entire business,” he says. “I don’t have any other websites or social media platforms. I run my entire business on Instagram, so it’s very, very stressful for me to be living like this all the time. I’ve also seen a lot of social influencers who are switching to different apps and kicking themselves in the butt because they lost their 60k follower-strong account that they’d worked more than a decade to build. I hope it gets better, but I just don’t think it will.”

Trichomes sparkle on a Cat Piss plant from ZOZ Wellness.

Flower Power

While Stohs’ nerves surrounding Instagram show no signs of waning, he’s on firmer ground — almost upbeat — when it comes to the issue of destigmatizing cannabis. Recalling his own upbringing, Stohs shared that his mother was once fervently anti-cannabis, going so far as to tell him that anyone who smoked weed would “never amount to anything.”  Though the process wasn’t easy, Stohs says his mom has subsequently come around on the subject. Now, as a father himself, he’s enjoying the results of taking a decidedly different approach to cannabis with his own daughter.

“When I was growing up, I always felt afraid to get in trouble because of weed,” he said. “So, today, being able to sit on my back porch and watch my daughter run around with pot leaves from weed plants we’re growing and showing her how to grow and how to trim… it’s just a super remarkable feeling. In my daughter’s young mind, it’s got to be the complete opposite of how we felt as children. I come home with weed, and she tells me it’s beautiful because I’ve taught her that weed is, in fact, a flower.”

GMO Terps on the Rocks by Gold N’ Grams.

Beyond his efforts to normalize cannabis within his own immediate family, Stohs’ striking photography also gives the rest of us another medium to appreciate the plant’s natural qualities and transcendent beauty. One of his new favorite approaches is objective microscopic photography, in which fields of glistening trichomes and rich globs of concentrate are revealed in detail unavailable to the naked eye. Even though Stohs is the one taking the photos, he says he’s still personally blown away by what his camera reveals.

“At this point, a lot of us are getting into objective microscopic photography. We’re taking pictures that you can’t see unless you’re using a fucking microscope!” he says incredulously. “Look, a lot of people might think that they’re ‘just taking pictures’ but I disagree. No, I don’t take pictures; I take super-macro pictures of alien worlds within plants. The moment I saw how otherworldly this stuff looks in this format, it just immediately had me hooked.”

This story was originally published in issue 42 of the print edition of Cannabis Now.

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Moon Made Farms Is Cultivating Wellness From the Ground Up

Deep in the heart of the Emerald Triangle, a 40-acre plot of land is the home of a small regenerative farm that serves as a connection between Earth and a community of consumers eager to enjoy the benefits of its natural bounty. Welcome to Moon Made Farms.

The small cannabis cultivation operation is nestled into an oak grove in southern Humboldt County, the hub of California’s legacy marijuana industry. Tina Gordon, the steward of the land and founder of Moon Made Farms, says she realized it was a magical place when she first visited in 2007 to make a documentary film about the property’s previous owner Joani Hannan, a 1950s and ’60s drummer who blazed a trail for mid-twentieth century queer performers. After leaving behind the grit and decay of the big city, the tranquility and interconnectedness of the farm’s natural surroundings spoke to Gordon’s soul and revealed what was missing in her life.

“It shifted my consciousness and opened my eyes to the fact that we’re living on a living planet,” Gordon said. “Being from an urban area — from a city — I didn’t recognize that I was living in captivity.”

Gordon marveled at the abundance of nature she found in her new home: clean air, untreated water, a clearly visible night sky and food harvested fresh from the land. Most importantly, the secluded piece of the Emerald Triangle is where her relationship with cannabis fully blossomed.

“Once I was here, I fell in love with the plant,” she said.

Growing healthy cannabis is only part of the picture.

A New Calling

When she first moved to Humboldt, Gordon had no intention or even interest in becoming a cannabis cultivator. But when she saw the health and vigor expressed by plants grown in healthy soil and natural sunlight, she was inspired to make herself a part of the living process. Before long, she was learning to pay attention to the quality of the soil and how to improve its fertility naturally. She ensured the other plants growing among the cannabis were beneficial companions, providing natural protection from pests and disease. And as she nurtured and developed her garden, Gordon discovered her new passion was spilling into other aspects of her life.

“When I started taking care of these plants, I started taking care of myself better,” Gordon says. “And that’s how I embrace this plant as a living being—as my teacher.”

After Hannan’s death in 2012, ownership of the property passed to Gordon, ushering in the beginnings of Moon Made Farms.

Moon Made Farms
Providing natural medicine remains at the core of Moon Made Farms.

Natural Medicine Grows in the Sun

Now in her 15th year in Humboldt County, Gordon has transformed Moon Made Farms into an undeniably successful space that produces healing medicine from plants grown in natural soil and sunlight. Her cultivation practices surpass those of typical organics, eschewing the use of herbicides and pesticides while incorporating techniques that go beyond substituting inputs and build the health of the soil. And she isn’t alone. With a like-minded supply chain of suppliers, processors and retailers, Gordon works to provide natural medicine that remains at the core of Moon Made Farms.

“The mission of Moon Made Farms is to honor the most powerful plant on the planet that expresses in the female form, and that’s cannabis,” Gordon says. “And by honoring this plant, we’re participating in creating a regenerative supply chain.”

Part of that chain is Jesse Dodd, an Emerald Triangle cannabis breeder who works under the handle Bio Vortex. Dodd’s work with Gordon is a collaboration combining their deep knowledge. After discussing which traits Gordon wishes to maximize in her medicine, Dodd performs crosses likely to produce the desired qualities in the next generation of plants. By working together, they create new varietals that are bred just for Moon Made Farms. Gordon takes over from there, coaxing the new seeds to their lush and productive potential.

Moon Made Farms
A framed photo of former property owner Joani Hannan, a drummer who paved the way for queer artists in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“I feel very happy that the seeds have a very good home at her farm,” Dodd said. “She shows them off really well. They can come to their full expression and just amazing beauty and quality in both CBD and THC varieties.”

Gordon says her journey building Moon Made Farms is ultimately an expression of her commitment to healthy living. Even before she moved from San Francisco, she had a keen interest in nutrition, exercise and pursuing a more healthful lifestyle. On the farm, that natural tendency could fully express itself. Now integral to her persona, that commitment is expressed in the therapeutic benefits of sungrown cannabis, which Gordon compares to the qualities of organic produce or grass-fed beef. In concert with full-spectrum sunlight, clean water and fresh air, Gordon cultivates healthy plants and clean medicine.

“We want to bring people something that’s pure, that’s healthy, that’s grown to the highest standards, and that’s truly an expression of this place, because we want to make people’s lives better,” Gordon said.

Moon Made Farms
Tina Gordon, founder of Moon Made Farms (L) and life on the farm.

Sustainable Cannabis

Looking ahead, Gordon says that supporting farmers who use sungrown, regenerative practices will not only result in clean cannabis, but also a healthier planet. With climate change bringing ever intensifying fires, floods, and other global catastrophes, farms that nurture our ecosystem rather than exploit it will take on new significance. Gordon envisions a polyculture economy in which small farms produce medicine in addition to food and other agricultural products needed by local markets.

“This is what’s going to support communities,” Gordon said. “This is what’s going to provide the public with the best possible cannabis.”

Growing healthy cannabis is only part of the picture. Cultivating a genuinely sustainable, healthy cannabis economy depends on a community of individuals and families willing to invest in their health as well as the well-being of the environment. Key to that investment, Gordon says, is a marketplace of buyers who educate themselves on the origins of their herb.

“The questions I want consumers to ask are, ‘Where is this cannabis from?’ ‘Who grew this?’ ‘How did they grow it?’” she said. “And, to get visibility into the source.”

With that transparency, all members of the supply chain, from seed producer to end user, can be empowered to cultivate a healthier planet for all.

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

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Meanwhile, In The South Pacific’s Emerald Triangle…

Rugged alpine mountains sweep down to thundering waves along the wild Kaikōura Coast in Marlborough, New Zealand. Standing in a field high above the southern Pacific Ocean shoreline, I inhale deeply; the sweetly pungent aroma of sungrown cannabis plants and crisp ocean air surrounds me. An overwhelming sense of déjà vu suddenly hits me — it’s as if I’ve been here before. 

I’m on assignment visiting Kēkerengū, the grow operation for Puro, New Zealand’s largest licensed medical cannabis cultivation company. Founded in 2018, Puro is part of an exclusive international group of large-scale commercial growers using organic methods of cultivation. Tiffany Tompkins from Organics Aotearoa New Zealand (OANZ) is also on the tour. As CEO, her mission, she says, is to help OANZ members, including Puro, collaboratively work for organic policies that benefit the health of New Zealand’s people, communities, environment and economy. 

Winston Macfarlane (Kēkerengū Site Manager) scouting during outdoor cultivation season.

Winston Macfarlane, site manager at Puro, explains that Kēkerengū is almost the exact distance from the equator to Humboldt County but along southern latitude lines. Therefore, that same terroir that makes the Emerald Triangle grow some of the world’s best cannabis can also be found here. 

Kēkerengū has been home to Macfarlane’s family for more than 130 years. Winston and his older brother Sank Macfarlane, who’s also on Puro’s leadership team, are the sixth generation to farm the 1000-hectare property. Implementing sustainable grow practices, they’re working to grow premium medical cannabis that improves the health and well-being of people, along with the surrounding environment. 

Puro’s decision to grow under organic protocols has come from the company’s core values, the younger Macfarlane says. “We’re committed to growing and supplying premium cannabis products as sustainably and ethically as we can.” 

Max Jablonksi Puro
Commercial Cultivation Lead Max Jablonski in the field.

Overwhelming evidence shows that synthetic chemicals used in conventional agriculture pose adverse health risks to humans, as well as nasty side effects to the environment. Organic agriculture, on the other hand, works in partnership with nature — it nurtures the health of people and ecosystems. With an emphasis on clean water and creating soil vitality that’s teeming with microscopic life, organic farming encourages the soil rhizosphere to flourish, rather than treating it as an inert monolayer.

As Macfarlane leads us across the farm toward the fields of cannabis, Tompkins can’t hide her enthusiasm. “It’s really exciting to see this brand-new medical cannabis industry emerging in New Zealand. Puro is setting a new precedent for organic cultivation,” she said.

It’s late summer on the flat plateau at Kēkerengū, and the plants are thriving in their microenvironment. The grow offers high UV ratings and long sunshine hours, while the salty sea spray provides a natural anti-bacterial layer, helping to keep insect and pest numbers low. 

Guy Randall (Research and Development Manager) assists with Puro’s first commercial outdoor harvest.

Puro’s Managing Director Tim Aldridge and Commercial Cultivation Lead Max Jablonski join us in the fields. We walk through the rows of fragrant bushes, inspecting the beauty and bounty of the flourishing pink-pistil plants, and Jablonski starts telling me about his life before New Zealand: He was working at Caliva, a vertically integrated cannabis company in California, where he focused on postharvest, cultivation and fertigation. Turns out we have a few mutual connections; again, California doesn’t seem all that far away.

“Kēkerengū provides perfect growing conditions, with a coastal microclimate that’s ideal for medical cannabis production,” Aldridge said, adding that he and his team believe New Zealand has the potential to produce some of the best cannabis in the world. Cannabis grown under organic protocols in New Zealand has piqued international interest, and Puro is currently finalizing its first export orders. According to Aldridge, the government has been extremely helpful, especially the New Zealand Trade and Enterprise.

Tom Forrest Puro
Puro Cultivation Director, Tom Forrest, and the Puro indoor team inspect mature THC cannabis flowers grown under license at Waihopai.

Aldridge also reveals that Puro’s Cultivation Director, Tom Forrest, is leading a research and breeding program with geneticist Dr. Anna Campbell from AbacusBio, a world-class genetics company. Using a scientifically driven quantitative breeding program, the two are developing a seed bank of consistent medical cultivars that are adaptable to organic cultivation methods, alongside traditionally important traits such as yield and potency.

A Churchill Fellow for Cannabis Agronomy, Forrest has spent time at over 50 cannabis cultivation facilities across eight countries, examining differing approaches and optimal methods for growing cannabis. Under his leadership, Puro has been awarded an “In Conversion’’ organic certification. 

“After informal experiments with various living soil methodologies and forays into the world of permaculture, it became very evident that organic cultivation is a necessary part of our future,” Forrest later tells me on the phone after my visit. “Although it’s still somewhat anecdotal evidence, we’re confident that biological, natural and organic cultivation methods will encourage healthier growth with more desirable secondary metabolite production — higher concentrations of terpenes, flavonoids and cannabinoids.” 

Raised in a conventional farming family, Forrest says he’s always wanted to challenge traditional modern agriculture and find a more progressive means of cultivating healthy food and medicine.


“Natural products have been intertwined with pharmaceutical practice since the dawn of mankind,” he said. “Our first recorded medicines were all plant-based and organically produced. Herbal medicines are now a powerful voice in the pharmaceutical portfolio, and cannabis has a strong role to play.”

We agree about the sheer beauty of the outdoor cultivation site at Kēkerengū, and we discuss Puro’s overarching plans to improve the land, soil and environment while contributing to a healthier future for both plants and people. Forrest believes the relationship between organic cannabis and the local environment, the benefits for the farm and farmers, and the influence of terroir on cannabis expression are all strong arguments for organic cannabis. 

“Organic and sustainable medical cannabis cultivation are two of our core values,” Forrest said. “We aim to improve the land, soil and environment of our growing locations and contribute to a healthier future.”

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Phoenix Fizz: The Ultimate Canna Mocktail

All it takes is four steps. You’re only four steps away from making a Rick Simpson Oil-infused syrup that you’ll want to keep on hand to easily make cannabis beverages at home. No alcohol, no fuss, and you have total control over dosage and ingredients. Sounds pretty great, no?

RSO in the Kitchen

If you’re looking for a potent, relatively inexpensive, full-spectrum extract to incorporate in the kitchen, Rick Simpson Oil (RSO) is the perfect choice. It has a concentrated cannabis-flower taste that adds depth and bitterness to a drink or dish (it even boasts a floral sweetness, depending on the strain), with a powerful dosage that’s convenient to work with when making therapeutic foods.

Rick Simpson Oil/RSO replaces alcohol in this delicious cannabis mocktail.

What’s RSO?

Rick Simpson Oil/RSO is a super-concentrated cannabis oil that’s also full spectrum, meaning it contains all of the cannabinoids, terpenes and flavonoids of the plant. It’s made with a high-octane solvent, such as ethanol, then left unrefined beyond extraction, resulting in a high percentage of original chemical compounds and chlorophyll left in the final product.

Heat gently applied during the extraction process burns off the solvent and decarboxylates the cannabinoids, so the oil is ready to be applied as a potent topical or eaten as-is. The catch: It tastes terrible. However, this actually makes it ideal for infusing foods that make the most of its fiercely bitter, herbal flavors, and allows for the creation of heavy-hitting edibles that fully maximize the entourage effect (the idea that the specific chemical compounds and oils found naturally in cannabis strains are amplified in strength when left together).

Who’s Rick Simpson?

The eponymous creator and advocate of the dark, sticky cannabis oil recommends making the extract from your own plants so you know precisely what has and hasn’t gone into the final product. He first published his DIY recipe for Rick Simpson Oil—a name first coined by Jack Herer—on the internet in 2004. Simpson himself poetically calls the oil “Phoenix Tears” and has never patented his method, ensuring the information remains freely available to literally anyone who wants it.

For years, he made RSO personally from his home grow and gave it away for medicinal use, but a 2009 raid by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police put a full and final stop to that effort. He and his wife Danijela now live in Croatia, where they continue to be tremendous cannabis activists and educators, despite Simpson suffering a paralyzing stroke in 2018. They currently sell the authoritative books on RSO from their website and offer instructions on how to produce the oil.

Phoenix Fizz
The finished Phoenix Fizz.

Phoenix Fizz


  • 1-gram RSO*
  • 1/8 tsp. Liquid Sunflower Lecithin** (found in health food stores or online; do not sub powder)
  • 1 cup Sugar
  • 2 cups Water
  • Sparkling Water
  • Ice


  • Glass Stirrer/Rod
  • Immersion or High-speed Blender
  • Heavy-bottomed Saucepan


Change the math to correlate to your specific percentages of THC or CBD in your RSO, but as an example: The average RSO contains about 60-80% THC per gram. So, if the gram of RSO used in this recipe had 60% THC, it would come out to 600mg THC in the final bottle of syrup. Divide that total by the number of servings (which in this case is 19), so 19 servings equal roughly 30mg per drink.

* Learn to make your own RSO.

**Liquid sunflower lecithin is the key to creating a stable suspension of oil in liquid/emulsification here, accept no substitutes.

RSO-infused Simple Syrup

1. Bring water to a boil in the saucepan;

2. Turn off heat and whisk sugar into the hot water until sugar is dissolved completely;

3. Let cool slightly, then carefully pour the syrup into a heat-tolerant container safe for blending with an immersion blender. If using a high-speed blender, pour into the blender pitcher;

4. Blend RSO and 1/8th tsp. of liquid sunflower lecithin into the hot syrup until most of the oil specks dissolve. If the oil specks remain stubborn, you can add it back to the saucepan and heat it slightly (the gentlest warmth and stirring should do the trick);

5. Once hot, it’ll foam like crazy which means the sunflower lecithin is creating a stable suspension/emulsion;

6. Scrape down the oil that sticks to the sides of the container as you blend;

7. When most of the oil specks have dissipated, use the glass stirring rod to break up the foam;

8. Let the syrup cool fully. Label clearly as containing cannabis and at what dosage

Big Finish

1. Put ice in a Collins or rocks glass;

2. Fill the glass with sparkling water;

3. Top with 1 oz. RSO-infused simple syrup;

4. Garnish and enjoy

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

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Book Review: The New Chardonnay

In “The New Chardonnay,” award-winning journalist and former ABC News anchor Heather Cabot, explores how cannabis shed its “reefer madness” stereotype and — seemingly overnight — moved into the homes of wine-sipping soccer moms looking to take the edge off when the clock hits five.

Cabot’s writing style is engaging and informative as she seamlessly weaves the stories of various cannabis entrepreneurs willing to risk it all to profit from the Green Rush. Three years in the making, Cabot travels all across the U.S. with a stop in Canada, accompanying these characters in person, taking note of their conversations and personalities, and ultimately what drives them to reach success. She brings the reader with her, giving us an inside look into their homes and offices, courtrooms, release parties and bigwig networking events.

We meet Beth Stavola of the Jersey Shore, a boss babe and mother of six deemed “the Queen of Marijuana;” Jeff Danzer, former fashion marketing executive turned high-end cannabis chef; Ted Chung and Tiffany Chin, Wharton grads and masterminds behind Snoop Dogg’s cannabis endeavors; Bruce Linton, founder of the world’s first publicly traded cannabis company; and Mel McDonald, a devout Mormon and former U.S. attorney during Reagan’s War on Drugs who changed his stance on cannabis after the plant saved his son’s life.

The cast of characters spans a range of socio-economic backgrounds and their interests in cannabis all stem from different places. Cabot’s selection is no accident — their experiences give way to a larger narrative that shows how cannabis is changing lives for the better as it transitions from a taboo drug to an alternative medicine, to a sophisticated option for winding down.

Along the way, Cabot educates readers on the path toward legalization, highlighting political and voter interests while showcasing the complexities of implementing new infrastructure for both medical and recreational sales alongside the underground market. 

A great introduction for the canna-curious, the book outlines common terms such as indica and sativa and explains how the body interacts with the endocannabinoid system. It also shares new, innovative consumption methods, such as vape pens, precisely dosed gummies, pressed tablets, infused beverages and gourmet edibles. It’s a whole new world for those wary consumers who may have hit the gravity bong too hard back in high school. More seasoned consumers should also find the novel a good refresher while learning about some of the most successful people in the industry.

“The New Chardonnay” has a catchy title, and while it certainly offers insight into the continually growing cannabis customer base of women who are seeking alternative options for medicine and stress relief, at its core, this piece of investigative journalism is about the healing and unifying power of cannabis across all margins of society. It’s about how cannabis can change the world.

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Delta’s Dawn

Most people over the age of 21 are familiar with the abbreviation “THC,” but odds are, many of them couldn’t tell you what it means or how it works. THC stands for tetrahydrocannabinol — it’s the compound in the cannabis plant that gives you that prototypical euphoric cannabis high. 

The cannabis plant also produces THCA, short for tetrahydrocannabinolic-acid, in the arrangement known as delta-9 THCA. However, the THCA and THC molecules can be forced into other arrangements, called isomers. Delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC and delta-10 THC are all examples of such isomers. A tiny shift in atoms means the molecules all interact with the endocannabinoid system differently, consequently producing different mental and physical effects.  

Delta-8 extract.

Delta-9 THC is mostly known for its euphoric and intoxicating qualities that lead to that classic cannabis high. Anecdotal reports clearly indicate that delta-9 THC provides consumers with a much stronger and longer-lasting effect than its isomers, delta-8 and delta-10. Delta-8 has been reported to produce a slightly relaxing high that’s short-lived and delta-10 reportedly creates a slight intoxication, but mainly helps to boost energy. But there are potential dangers affiliated with all three delta isomers.

Increasingly, brands across the U.S. are highlighting the various THC isomers featured in their hemp-based products, giving way to increased press and ensuing questions from consumers. Since the passing of the Farm Bill in 2018, CBD and hemp-based products have grown exponentially within the country’s marketplaces. Touting the myriad benefits of hemp and CBD, these products can be found anywhere from Saks Fifth Avenue to the local gas station. The heightened media attention stems from the surfacing of these unfamiliar isomers in hemp products — especially delta-8 THC. To date, hemp products have only included the cannabinoid cannabidiol (CBD), so the presence of THC isomers in hemp products has been extraordinarily controversial. 

This leads us to the most logical of questions: How are these companies producing THC isomers from hemp?

THC Isomers
Delta-8 extracted and processed in Washington state. PHOTO Gracie Malley for Cannabis Now.

Converting Molecules 

Delta-9 THC is a non-polar lipid, which is derived from the cannabis plant by way of delta-9-THCA. THC isomers can be naturally found in the cannabis plant; however, cannabis is bred genetically for the production of delta-9-THCA. This means that in order to reach high concentrations of THC isomers (as seen in many of the products entering the hemp market) a delta-9 THC or CBD molecule must undergo a process to convert the compound from delta-9 THC or CBD to delta-8 THC or delta-10 THC.

Basic chemistry, using chemical synthesis or temperature and pressure, can be applied to these molecules to manipulate one into the other. Chemical synthesis can yield much higher concentrations of these isomers at a much higher rate of efficiency than the plant naturally produces. So, hemp and CBD manufacturers are turning to chemical synthesis by using various solvents and acids to synthesize the production of these isomers for their products. 

As media coverage sheds light on these processes, industry members, consumers and governmental agencies are becoming increasingly concerned. Their collective lack of understanding related to whether operators are equipped to properly handle these solvents and acids is at the root of all of the hullabaloo surrounding isomers.

Delta-9 THC, delta-8 THC and delta-10 THC are all examples of isomers. A tiny shift in atoms means the molecules all interact with the endocannabinoid system differently, consequently producing different mental and physical effects.  

An important step in producing consumer products is ensuring that there are no harmful chemicals in the end product prior to releasing the product to market. Can these manufacturers properly remove all residual solvents from the synthesized product? Are there harmful byproducts being produced and remaining in the final product? Are these operators equipped to test for dangerous chemicals
and byproducts? 

Without regulation in the hemp and CBD market, manufacturers aren’t required by anyone to test for these residual solvents. Consumer safety is of the utmost importance, everyone surely agrees, yet customers are left unaware of the potential risks involved with these unregulated products.

Potential Risks

Risks of inhaling, ingesting or topically applying products with mid-high concentrations of solvents can result in irritation of the lungs or skin. These risks are compounded by the fact that this chemical synthesis process has jeopardized the success of local, legal cannabis markets. 

THC Isomers
Delta-8 extract.

Investigations are underway as licensed manufacturers in regulated markets have stopped sourcing locally grown THC cannabis biomass and are instead sourcing hemp CBD extract from out-of-state or international sources and converting the CBD from hemp into delta-9 THC. Not only are consumers at risk, but the local regulated cannabis industry is also at risk. Because of this shift in purchasing, small business owners are losing customers, as they’re unable to compete with hemp prices. Additionally, tax dollars that would otherwise be collected from the local suppliers aren’t going to the states they should.

By harnessing the power of chemistry, companies such as Heylo, a Seattle-based licensed cannabis processor, are creating products that highlight the positive effects of THC isomers without utilizing solvents. Heylo’s cannabis oil, The New Workout Plan, has more than 20% delta-10 THC, which is produced from delta-9 THC dominant cannabis plant material, extracted through CO2 extraction, and converted to delta-10 THC.

Some states and legal markets have quickly taken action to ensure delta-9 THC products are produced from legal and regulated sources. This will support the health of the legal medical and recreational markets, but only time will tell how the distribution of CBD and THC isomer products will be affected. Consumer safety is of the utmost importance as this industry is being built. I encourage everyone to be an informed industry member and consumer, and to find products you can trust.

Lo Friesen is an environmental chemist, product developer and botanical extraction thought leader. She’s the Founder/CEO of Heylo, a licensed cannabis processor in the state of Washington.

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

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Film Review: ‘Grass Is Greener’ Documentary Nails It

I have a thing about most documentaries; it’s not unlike the thing I have about Brussels sprouts: I never want to watch/eat them, then I’m always glad I did. Happens. Every. Time. And the idea that I had to sit through a documentary that’s already nearly three years old, well, let’s just say my enthusiasm meter wasn’t exactly jumping with mind-blowing excitement.

Grass Is Greener ostensibly follows hip-hop icon Fab Five Freddy on his often-disturbing trek to uncover the truth about the history of cannabis prohibition in the US. Commencing in the 1920s New Orleans jazz clubs where Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington were forced to perpetually fend off being arrested due to overtly racist policies, the documentary concludes by interviewing rap legends Snoop Dogg and B-Real of Cypress Hill as they expertly discuss the current state of cannabis.

The film, streaming on Netflix, also provides perspectives from relevant lawyers, cannabis advocates and activists. By far the most harrowing are examples of families torn apart by America’s pervasive and unjustified obsession with convicting people of color for minor marijuana infractions. It’s a lot to take in.

The riveting examination provides us with a villain early on, the cartoonishly bigoted first director of the Bureau of Narcotics, Harry Anslinger. The political appointee enforced fabricated policies while ignoring definitive scientific studies specifically targeting two groups still grappling (and demanding) social justice in this nation: African Americans and Mexican immigrants. In fact, the very name “cannabis” was purposedly changed to “marijuana” to further connect the supposedly dangerous narcotic more directly with the feared Mexicans crossing the border. It’s all as infuriating as it is outrageous, but given the current societal climate in the US, not at all surprising. C’mon now, is Harry Anslinger all that different from, say, Jeff Sessions, the enforcer of the draconian child separation policy at the US border during the previous administration? Here’s a hint: He’s not.

Grass Is Greener features commentary from music legends Snoop Dogg, B-Real and Damian Marley.

But wait! There are good guys, too. Most surprising, perhaps, was former New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who commissioned a report on cannabis that refuted all of Anslinger’s preposterous claims. “Instead of science, the government knowingly and willingly chose propaganda, chose racism over and over again,” said one astute subject of the documentary about the irrefutable evidence found in LaGuardia’s report. But the direct line from Anslinger, to Richard Nixon’s War On Drugs, to Ronald (and Nancy) Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign and to Bill Clinton’s odious Crime Bill all relegated cannabis to be perceived as nothing short of premeditated evil. And it was all a lie.

I was amped up for action by the time Grass Is Greener gets to Jack Herer’s revelatory The Emperor Wears No Clothes, the truth bomb of a book that blew the lid off the perpetuated untruths about weed the US government had been spewing for a century. And by the end of the doc, I’m left with not only a crystal-clear understanding of the history of cannabis, but an even better understanding about American jurisprudence and how acutely unjust it has always been. Always.

Grass Is Greener should be required viewing for cannabis lovers, yes, but also for lovers of our country and democracy and justice. I’m so glad I saw this remarkably important documentary. Not surprisingly, I’m now craving a heaping serving of Brussels sprouts. I got the do-something munchies for sure.

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

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The Grounding Duo

Cannabis use can of course heighten your senses and create space for grounding. Some also use it as a tool for connecting with the universal energy that runs through all living things. As cannabis use becomes exponentially accepted, the herb is finding a new home with other alternative holistic therapies. One of these is Reiki, an energy healing practice known for promoting relaxation, clarity and behaving as a complementary therapy for pain, anxiety and mood.

Lauren Mooney is a New York City-based Reiki practitioner who personally uses cannabis and combines her practice with the plant’s powers. She recently taught a Reiki I training course in Los Angeles, where we caught up with her for a fascinating chat. 

Cannabis Now: Hi, Lauren. Would you give our readers a quick description of what Reiki is?

Lauren Mooney: Sure! It’s a Japanese healing modality. In its most basic form, it’s energy healing that has a hands-on aspect to it. Reiki itself is a philosophy. The hands-on healing is such a huge component of it, and a lot of people do it where their hands aren’t completely on you—they’re feeling your auric field, the energy that surrounds us and the energy that we emanate, and everything is made of energy. The way that I describe Reiki is: it’s as if a bunch of radio stations were playing at the same time and then you tune into your own frequency. I believe that’s also true with cannabis because it’s about bringing things into balance, and that balance can really help with so many things. We’re careful in Reiki to not make claims about what Reiki can do because it’s very different for everyone.

Another beautiful aspect of Reiki is its simplicity and that’s what actually makes it challenging to teach because it’s not so much an intellectual thing you learn, it really mostly is experiential. And that also takes me back to cannabis because, like Reiki, cannabis’ benefits are changeable depending on the person. You can’t necessarily make claims like, “Oh, because this strain helped me with my anxiety, it’s going to help my friend with their anxiety.” I like to say Reiki has its own intelligence, and Reiki knows where you need it. 

I helped my mom, who has since passed away, with in-person Reiki. I was about to start doing volunteer meditation and Reiki groups for Gilda’s Club, a cancer support center in New York City right before the pandemic hit, so that started out as virtual, and continues to this day. 

Lauren Mooney combines her reiki practice with cannabis. PHOTO Bailey Robb

Tell me about your journey with cannabis: What got you into it personally, and why did you incorporate it into your practice?

Originally from California, I started smoking recreationally in high school and that was my relationship with cannabis for maybe a decade. 

The recreational dispensaries opened right around the same time that I was getting my mom into using cannabis to help with all the stuff she was going through with her Stage IV melanoma — she had brain tumors and multiple surgeries surrounding that. It was powerful to watch my mom; her leg would be shaking and then I’d give her some CBD tincture and it would literally stop. CBD was getting more popular, so I was already thinking about integrating it topically into my practice. I really think it helps people get into their bodies and slow things down. 

A lot of people look at cannabis as a vehicle to help ground themselves. Can the same be said about Reiki?

I’d say Reiki helps you feel more grounded and slows you down, and that, in turn, can help you with so many different things. I’ve helped people who have had cancer, and it eased some of the anxiety, some of the pain, because slowing down and feeling a bit more grounded really helps with all of that. Being out of our bodies isn’t something that’s unique to having something as extreme as cancer. Being out of our bodies is a symptom of the time, of this virtual insanity that we live in, and obviously the pandemic. I think so many people are basically living out of their bodies and not realizing that they are.

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

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