The lobby of the Hyatt Embarcadero in San Francisco is crowded with standard khaki-clad business-conference attendees. Spread on tables and in booths are the accoutrement of the industry: packaging designs, specialty publications, growing equipment, infrastructure software demonstrations. If it wasn’t for the occasional display of cannabis oils, high-tech smoking devices and vape pens, the New West Summit would look exactly like any other trade show.
According to New York writer Joe Dolce, that’s the point.
“Notice that we’re not seeing many cannabis leaves, green crosses or other traditional indicators here in the way things are being presented,” Dolce, the author of the new book “Brave New Weed,” says as he peruses the booths and chats with vendors. “That’s very much by design. It’s true at a lot of (medical cannabis) dispensaries too. The industry is growing up; we’re not talking about stoner culture or dealers anymore.”
Cannabis’ evolving place in mainstream culture is exactly what Dolce explores in his book. The former editor in chief of Details and Star magazines, who runs a presentation and media training company that regularly brings him to Silicon Valley, takes the reader on a combination anthropological field trip/travelogue from the tourist destinations of Amsterdam to Colorado to cannabis research capital Israel — and to the current ground zero of marijuana, San Francisco and Northern California.
The discussion has changed in recent decades: Medical benefits of cannabis are generating headlines where once police busts and raids were the primary coverage. Celebrities like Miley Cyrus, Whoopi Goldberg (who has her own cannabis product line) and everyday people are “coming out of the cannabis closet” about their use, to borrow Dolce’s phrase. The medical cannabis dispensaries that California pioneered now have boutique-like aesthetics, speaking more to the lifestyle component of the herb, and selling everything from “flower” (the smokable cannabis bud) to premade cannabis edibles, oils and topical patches.
Perhaps most significantly, California’s Proposition 64 on the Nov. 8 ballot has the potential to legalize overnight adult recreational use of cannabis in the country’s biggest market. It would be the fifth state to fully legalize cannabis for all uses after Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Colorado, and if a handful of the other eight states where both medical and recreational marijuana legalization is on the ballot also approve, roughly 20 percent of the U.S. would be cannabis legal.
But in his travels, Dolce has already seen the shift in attitudes and stereotypes about the plant. Pot is no longer just the dominion of college kids and Summer of Love holdouts; what Dolce’s book highlights is the great diversity of cannabis users in 2016.
“There’s a phrase I heard a lot when I was working on the book,” Dolce says. “People like to talk about their ‘relationship’ with cannabis.” For many, it’s been a longer term relationship, others are new to the world of marijuana, and still others are former opponents just discovering its medical and recreational uses.
In the opening pages of his book, Dolce recounts his initial inspiration. Like many of his generation, Dolce had used cannabis in his 20s, then stopped smoking pot in his 30s once “the weed had become too strong, too unpredictable,” as strains upped their potency. A visit to a cousin in rural New England who had a basement growroom in 2012 made Dolce realized that for all his previous experience with the cannabis plant, he knew “almost nothing about it.”
This epiphany led Dolce down several paths. The book talks about the science of cannabis: Tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the commonly known psychoactive component of the plant that produces the “high” and Cannabidiol, or CBD, is the lesser-known, “barely psychoactive” component with a number of medical uses. Dolce also looked back in American history to find the roots of the criminalization of cannabis and society’s anxiety over the plant’s effects. Frequently, he found the trail leading him back to California. The state, and the Bay Area in particular, have a leg up on the rest of the United States when it comes to the cannabis conversation.
“There’s a 20-year head start with medical cannabis here,” Dolce says, pointing out the stories of San Francisco activist Dennis Peron; Men’s Wearhouse founder and legalization advocate George Zimmer; and Aunt Zelda’s and Zelda Therapeutics founder Mara Gordon — key Bay Area figures in cannabis’ past, present and future. Adding to that is an ease around the culture of cannabis as a lifestyle enhancer held over from the 1960s hippie movement. The future of cannabis — from apps to high-end dispensary experiences, digital infrastructure, education, business funding and dosing science — is being developed in the Bay Area and growing, as Dolce pointed out, side by side with Silicon Valley.
“I missed seeing the tech boom develop from the ground floor,” he says. “But I wasn’t going to miss the next revolution. Like Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, these are people who think different.”
The next stop on Dolce’s San Francisco expedition brought us to Meadow, a 2-year-old company that links potential patients to prescribing doctors and delivery from local dispensaries that has also expanded into creating digital infrastructure for dispensaries. It definitely has the startup vibe; in 2014, Techcrunch branded the company “the Uber of Weed.”
At its SoMa headquarters, Meadow is hosting a combination anniversary celebration and launch for Dolce’s book. Co-founder David Hua, who is an alum of many startups, greets Dolce and introduces him to the participating vendors who are setting up their stations.
“In the startup sense we’re like Square; on the delivery side we’re more like GrubHub,” Hua says before the party begins. “A lot of these guys who have been in the (cannabis) business for decades were really analog in how they operated. We’re trying to help streamline things, but ultimately we’re looking toward the prize, 2018, two years after possible legalization if (Prop.) 64 goes through.”
Although Hua says the co-workers, patients and businesses that use Meadow have created a kind of community that gets together for small events at the headquarters, “It’s still tricky to do more public events with cannabis.” As guests check in, they receive a hand stamp that allows them sample products that evening once their medical cards are verified.
The party is divided into several sections: Inside there are two buffets, one with “regular” (noncannabis) food made by local catering company the Cannaiseur Series, which puts together events where food is paired with pot products. On another table are cannabis edibles by San Francisco company Auntie Dolores. These are not Alice B. Toklas’ brownies of old: Auntie Dolores specializes in raw, vegan, gluten-free and Paleo options, perfect for the ever more dietarily restricted user. Cannabis caramel corn is served in tiny white cones along with sweet and savory pretzels, glazed pecans and “super food” truffles, each with their milligram dosage clearly labeled. Outside are smokables (and dab and vapables) from the collectives Guild Extracts and Madrone, which represents the Emerald Triangle, the region encompassing Humboldt, Trinity and Mendocino counties.
The crowd blends new San Francisco tech industry workers and longtime cannabis activists. The outdoor spaces are soon fragrant with blazing bud; indoors, guests crowd around the food tables or lounge on the low furniture, happy to ride out their high in like-minded company. The conversation is about the relative quality of different strains, favorite dispensaries, best edible products and the finer points of sun-grown versus indoor flower with the fluidity and ease that wine is discussed at tastings and opening-night galas. The names of the different strains tell vivid stories in a way wine labels have yet to fully explore: Gorilla Glue, Candyland, Viper Cookies. Among the cannabis celebs in attendance are Ricardo Baca, the founder and editor of the Cannabist website at the Denver Post.
Dolce signs books, mixes with new sources and samples product like the expert he became while writing the book. In his remarks to the crowd, he ponders whether the new, open popularity of cannabis in this particular moment in history and in the tech epicenter of the Bay Area has to do with it “easing the loneliness of the screen-based life.”
The following day, Dolce tours Mission District dispensary Medithrive with manager Jeff Linden. While many local dispensaries have looked to old world chemist and pharmacy shops for design inspiration, Medithrive is all streamlined modernity: Microscopes project up-close looks at strains, edibles are displayed in something like a futuristic bakery counter, and museum-quality glass domes enclosing cannabis blossoms are lit with the reverence given the Hope Diamond. Before Medithrive, Linden was a retail executive at stores like Macy’s and electronics company the Good Guys; he designed the Medithrive space himself. The overall effect is 2001: A Cannabis Odyssey.
“I like being part of shaping the future of this industry,” Linden says, “How often do you get to be part of a brave new world?” He laughs at the inadvertent reference to the title of Dolce’s book, but then turns serious. “The vibes of emerging markets tend to be very positive, but you don’t know exactly where legalization will go. You have to remain flexible, especially in the first few years when there’s going to be a lot of gray area.”
“We need legalization and education at any cost,” Dolce says. “Education makes smarter consumers. Period.”
Medithrive has its own delivery service, and Dolce has arranged a ride-along. The driver, Alex Schwartz, is a patient manager at the dispensary, or “budtender.” (“The terms mean basically the same thing,” he clarifies.)
On three deliveries, we roll from the Richmond District to the Panhandle and back to the Mission; Schwartz brings the deliveries to the patients’ door in a black, utilitarian Pelican-brand case, which makes him look like he’s transporting plutonium or human organs.
“What you saw today is the future,” Dolce says after the ride-along. “Delivery, apps, boutique experiences at the dispensaries. Budtenders are the new mixologists. It’s all happening very quickly.”
After two days of intensive cannabis outings in San Francisco — and after four years researching and writing the book — Dolce says that the cannabis industry and culture continue to change at a rapid pace. Attitudes may be changing even faster; he feels like he’s barely nicked the tip of the iceberg.
“I could definitely see another book in my future on this subject,” he says. There remain brave new worlds yet unexplored. And he’ll definitely be back in California to report.