Steven Jung kickstarted his journey in operations leadership as a captain in the US Army serving in various strategic and tactical roles. Since then, he has built an impressive portfolio of operational expertise, from high-growth startups in Silicon Valley to financial start-ups to Twitter. He joined the cannabis industry in 2017 as President and COO at Weedmaps, a pioneering cannabis technology company, before joining PAX in 2021 as chief operating officer.
Jung tells us about the intersect of cannabis and tech, the three qualities needed to run a successful cannabis business and why policy reform is the most important thing when we talk of legalization.
Cannabis Now: What specifically in your colorful and varied life experiences influences your work as COO at PAX?
Steven Jung: In my day-to-day work, there’s a strong emphasis on entrepreneurship, startup experience and adaptability. A significant aspect is my lifelong commitment to service, starting from my military background and continuing throughout my professional journey. The companies I’ve been a part of have been driven by a greater purpose, extending beyond personal ambitions. This commitment to a higher cause is particularly relevant in the cannabis industry, given its current challenges. Working in this field requires deep dedication and a genuine reason for involvement, as it goes beyond mere enjoyment.
Regarding my role as an operator, I jokingly describe it as “confused.” This description reflects my ability to operate across various verticals and industries. This versatility allows me to approach problems from multiple perspectives, which is crucial in making sense of the intricacies of the cannabis industry.
CN: What does the intersect of tech and cannabis look like today? Tomorrow?
SJ: Technology plays a pivotal role in the ongoing evolution of the cannabis industry. At Pax, we leverage our extensive intellectual property, scientific knowledge and engineering expertise to integrate technology seamlessly with our consumable products. This synergy enhances the overall consumer experience in unprecedented ways, setting us apart from the competition.
Furthermore, technology, be it hardware or software, holds the key to optimizing personalized experiences. While the connection between specific strains and desired effects has long been based on intuition, we anticipate that medical research will eventually validate these associations. Once that happens, a new era of truly personalized cannabis experiences will emerge.
In addition, technology enables scalability and efficiency across ancillary aspects such as services, support and production. This advancement allows us to produce larger quantities of high-quality products, paving the way for widespread accessibility and mainstream adoption. The potential that arises from the intersection of technology and the cannabis industry is huge—and promising.
CN: How do technology and innovation measure against PAX?
SJ: Our DNA is in innovation, both in technology and other areas. We take pride in creating truly groundbreaking products that set new standards in the cannabis industry. This focus on innovation is a source of immense excitement for us and we invest heavily in this pursuit.
Our goal is to contribute to the greater good when considering the intersection of technology and culture. Social impact is a crucial aspect we prioritize. We strive to advance various causes within the industry, such as promoting safe access to cannabis, fostering equity and opportunities for individuals to participate in the industry’s growth, rectifying the negative consequences of the failed War on Drugs and supporting organizations like the Anti-Recidivism Coalition.
From a cultural standpoint, it’s evident that consumers seek specific experiences and higher-quality products. Over time, we have witnessed the evolution of cannabis products, moving from basic extractions to concentrates, with the focus now on extracting naturally and avoiding non-cannabis byproducts. Consumers increasingly value purity and the full potential of the plant. This cultural shift has led to a demand for superior products; just as individuals prefer organically grown, unmodified food, they seek the best possible cannabis products. As the industry matures, it will likely resemble a standard consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry, where various cannabis-derived products become a staple in people’s everyday lives. Eventually, cannabis will be integrated into mainstream culture rather than solely being associated with cannabis culture.
CN: Tell me about PAX’s move from hardware company to plant-touching with your Live Rosin vapes.
SJ: We decided to create products that are specifically designed to enhance the entire user experience by seamlessly integrating the product with the device, building on our extensive knowledge of device and technology interactions with cannabis products, including dried flower or concentrates. Throughout this process, we have remained committed to our PAX standard, which prioritizes delivering our customers the best, cleanest and safest products possible. We took it one step further and created products designed from start to finish specifically for that experience so that you can marry the product with the device together. Our product lineup now encompasses a comprehensive range of vaping options, as well as cutting-edge offerings in the realm of infused flower products. Whether you’re a connoisseur seeking the highest quality live rosin or looking for a product that balances quality and affordability through display-based options, we have something to cater to everyone’s preferences.
CN: What can you tell us about your newly-released edible debut, Live Resin gummies?
SJ: Expanding into edibles was a natural next step for us as we grow our cannabis lineup, providing existing PAX customers and new consumers with a familiar experience that delivers on the quality and consistency we’re known for. We spent a lot of time developing and kitchen-testing these gummies in small batches until we achieved the perfect depth of flavor and texture mouthfeel. We believe they really stand out from what’s widely available in the market today. If the Michelin Bib Gourmand’s have shown us anything, it’s that people are hungry for premium, top-notch quality—which is what we’re delivering with live rosin and real fruit ingredients—but in an accessible way, both priced accordingly and that facilitates the shared experience so many are seeking.
CN: What’s the most important thing that needs to be addressed when people are talking about legalization?
SJ: The top priority, without a doubt, is policy reform. It holds tremendous potential for the growth and transformation of the cannabis industry, enabling it to become a world-class, mainstream consumer packaged goods (CPG) experience. However, achieving this vision necessitates significant reform.
The challenges faced by the cannabis industry go beyond what typical businesses encounter. They extend to the stringent policies that must be adhered to and the complex tax system that governs operations. Addressing these headwinds presents a significant opportunity to effect positive change and foster the overall growth of the cannabis space.
CN: How do you think the cannabis industry can be better?
SJ: When considering the growth and scalability of the licensed and legalized frameworks in the cannabis industry, it’s important to recognize that allowing businesses to flourish will lead to higher quality standards and greater consumer benefits. However, a challenge arises from the existing systems: Illicit markets can continue to operate unchecked, which creates a dilemma where consumers, who have disposable income, may choose to purchase from the illicit market if the tax regime causes prices to be significantly higher for the same product. To fully realize the potential of the cannabis industry and maximize tax revenue, changes must be made to address this issue. Such changes will improve the industry and enhance the products and overall consumer experience.
CN: What do you consider to be a career highlight?
SJ: One of my primary motivations is the opportunity to contribute to a greater cause or make a positive impact. An aspect that constantly stands out is meeting individuals who have experienced significant relief from pain, chronic pain, stress, PTSD and other conditions through cannabis. These encounters are not limited to veterans but include anyone who has dealt with such challenges. Hearing their stories firsthand is truly invigorating and reinforces the value of our work.
Additionally, I have the privilege of collaborating with remarkable organizations like the Last Prisoner Project. Engaging with their constituents and learning about the injustices they have endured due to wrongful incarceration under past cannabis and drug policies is of utmost importance. It is vital to stay connected to this crucial aspect of our mission.
CN: What do you see as the social responsibilities of large cannabis companies like Pax to give back? Can you tell me more about Peace By Pax and how that came about?
SJ: Absolutely. We firmly believe in the importance of doing good for the community and the overall cannabis culture. Every company in this industry is responsible for giving back and supporting the communities they serve and the industry. This responsibility is particularly significant in the cannabis industry due to its complex history and the impact it has had on individuals and communities.
Over the years, PAX has actively supported communities and nonprofit organizations. However, we wanted to go beyond simple donations. We aimed to create meaningful engagement with these groups to make a positive and lasting impact. While we have quietly carried out these initiatives in the past, we realized the need to formalize and establish an official program that allows us to engage with various groups across the country in a focused and purposeful manner.
Three pillars form the foundation of our focus: social reform, safe access and sustainability. We are committed to making these outcomes a priority and actively engage with like-minded groups and third parties to work collaboratively towards achieving these goals. With Peace By Pax, we’re formalizing our dedication to these principles, so we can forge meaningful partnerships and collectively work toward positive change.
CN: What are the three qualities you need to run a successful cannabis business?
SJ: Resilience. Curiosity. Focus.
Resilience is paramount, akin to the military concept we call “stick-to-itiveness.” The ability to persevere and adapt to challenges is crucial for success.
Staying curious is vital because the cannabis industry is constantly evolving. To stay relevant, one must actively seek new information, stay updated on industry developments and remain open to learning.
Lastly, maintaining focus is essential amidst numerous distractions and countless possibilities. It’s important to prioritize and concentrate on the most important tasks and goals, even during rapid growth and evolution.
CN: What do you wish you had known when you started in cannabis?
SJ: That’s a good question. Personally, I haven’t encountered any surprising situations in terms of the dynamic nature of the cannabis industry. I was aware from the beginning that it would be a fast-paced and challenging environment. Having worked in other industries where regulation and compliance are crucial, I understood the importance of navigating these factors.
In any emerging industry, there tends to be a fair amount of irrational decision-making driven by the pursuit of growth. Take the example of the California market, which has experienced an oversaturation of brands, products and retailers. As a result, there has been a prevalence of poor decision-making as businesses strive to survive in the current phase of the industry. This pattern is not unique to cannabis but is a common theme in startup spaces and has persisted in the cannabis industry.
CN: What advice would you offer people thinking about getting into the cannabis industry?
SJ: Preparation is key. If you’re considering entering the cannabis industry at this time, it’s crucial to take a moment to assess your readiness to withstand the potential onslaught of poor decisions made by competitors, partners, industry players, policymakers and others. Being well-prepared is essential for navigating the challenges that may arise in this dynamic industry.