(Note: This story previously ran on the Fast Company network. We’re republishing it today as part of our Rebranding Pot series.)
Laundry, package delivery, groceries, meals–these are all available on-demand for residents of major U.S. cities, where countless startups promise to let you live well without stepping outside of your house.
The other day, I placed an order on my phone for yet another on-demand product. As usual, I received a text with a link to track my driver when she was close by. I popped outside my door when the driver arrived, and exchanged cash for a paper bag. A mason jar filled with marijuana was inside. Attached to the jar, there was a tag informing me that my sun-grown marijuana came from farmers Casey and Amber in Mendocino. Casey and Amber’s marijuana smelled extremely potent.
As the growing array of startups and venture capitalists in the marijuana sector have made abundantly clear, weed is no longer an illicit substance that you shove in a drawer somewhere. In fact, as legalization ramps up and the icy hearts of even the staunchest anti-pot warriors start to thaw out, it’s becoming a boutique item. There’s a whole industry being built around the upscale branding of weed.
For a segment of smokers, marijuana is now something that should be organic, grown by friendly farmers, and ingested using properly fancy gadgets (just take a look at the “products” section of the Denver Post‘s Cannabist website to preview the slick, expensive vaporizers that are rolling out on a daily basis). Flow Kana is the pinnacle of this trend.
The rule of thumb for buying marijuana in a state where it’s legal is this: You get it through a dispensary that works with growers, or you buy from a delivery service that works with dispensaries (or is an offshoot of an individual dispensary). Flow Kana bypasses the dispensary middleman by working directly with growers and delivering their product to customers.
The way Flow Kana sees it, this is a way to bring power back to outdoor growers in California’s Emerald Triangle, the region in the state where marijuana is a dominant industry. Farmers have watched marijuana prices drop precipitously in recent years as a result of competition from indoor growers.
When a grower drops off cannabis at a dispensary, they might get $1,200 to $1,600 for a pound. Dispensaries make margins of 80% on that price. Flow Kana, on the other hand, takes a 25% fee.
Once the startup has taken its fee, it gives the leftover profit to a farmer’s association, which then gives the money to growers. “We are a tech platform that send leads to the farmer’s association. We say ‘There’s an order for Bob at this time,’ and the nonprofit is in charge of fulfilling the order,” says Michael Steinmetz, the founder of Flow Kana.
There are three growers on the platform so far, with more in the pipeline. There’s Amber and Casey, who run a solar-powered family farm in addition to their cannabis offerings; Emerald Heart Farm, which practices permaculture techniques; and Aficionado Estates, an Emerald Triangle grower that says it has been “custom tailoring highly exclusive designer cannabis for over 20 years.”
Flow Kana’s website is clearly designed to navigate smoking newbies through the process of choosing a strain or a sample pack. Just choose the kind of experience you’re looking for (euphoric, uplifted, focused, relaxed, and so on), and the symptoms you’d like to manage, and Flow Kana spits out a recommendation for a sample pack. In the quiz, I say that I want to feel energetic and uplifted, while simultaneously reducing stress and anxiety. Flow Kana recommends the Inspired Pack, described as “Thoughtful, contemplative, and provocative. This pack is ideal for a museum visit or a movie.” Sounds perfect. At just over $50 for an eighth of an ounce, this is expensive stuff for San Francisco.
These are environmentally responsible farmers–not the growers who have given California’s cannabis industry a bad name by diverting large amounts of water to their operations while the state is in a drought. They’re also accessible. “We’re about total transparency. In the platform, you can send a message directly to the farmer,” says Steinmetz, who previously worked in a Berkeley dispensary to gain a better understanding of the industry. “A lot of people are already messaging the farmers, asking for recommendations.”
Marijuana dispensaries aren’t going anywhere. But they aren’t easy to operate, especially in California, where federal officials continually threaten landlords who have dispensary tenants. In much of the state, there are marijuana storefront bans, which leaves delivery services like Flow Kana as the only option (the service is available only in San Francisco for now, but if all goes well, it will expand elsewhere).
Nicholas Smilgys, a cofounder of San Francisco dispensary SPARC (which Fast Company once called the Apple Store of marijuana shops), tried to launch a Flow Kana-like brand at his shop. That brand, called Marigold, still exists at SPARC. The dispensary calls it a “value-based natural brand,” made up of local growers who “cultivate crops without pesticides and sell their wares in recyclable jars.”
“Reaching for Marigold is like reaching for a granola bar instead of a snickers,” says SPARC’s website. Sound familiar?
Without getting into specifics, Smilgys–who left SPARC for Flow Kana last year–insinuates that Marigold hasn’t turned into what he originally intended it to become (one thing that appears to have changed since inception: Marigold was intended to be all sun-grown, but greenhouse-grown strains are now also included).
“When you read the copy about Marigold, you can see the original intention to be something else. Flow Kana is that original objective,” he says. “We’re able to get some of the strains that never even left the mountain–the things that got held by the growers. They’re so good they wanted to keep it for themselves. We’re getting it down to the city. We pay more for cannabis, so the farmer is more inclined to dig into the best stuff they can find.”
As with Marigold, the target audience, says Smilgys, is marijuana connoisseurs–the same people who buy their produce at Whole Foods or the farmer’s market.
Just a few weeks after Flow Kana launched, I visited the offices of Pax Labs, a company–formerly known as Ploom–that sells high-end vaporizer products. Unlike traditional pipes, vaporizers don’t burn material (tobacco, weed, or what have you). Instead, they heat it up only to the point of evaporating active ingredients, theoretically sparing your lungs from harmful toxins. Ever since launching the Pax, a colorful handheld vaporizer that Co.Design speculated in 2012 could one day become the “iPod of tobacco,” the company has been a household name in the smoking world.
The Pax, according to Pax Labs, is now the top-selling vaporizer. If Flow Kana is the pinnacle of the boutique marijuana trend, the Pax is its gadget counterpart.
I was at Pax Labs’ San Francisco headquarters, an expansive space that looks like an open-plan tech office, for the launch of the Pax 2, the second iteration of the Pax. The $280 brushed metal vaporizer looks like some kind of ambiguous next-generation electronic device. Nonetheless, it’s simple to operate. I didn’t even need to glance at instructions to figure out how to use it–a magnetic opening on the bottom of the device snaps open, revealing an oven where you pack the material of your choice. Snap the bottom back on, click down on the top of the Pax, wait 45 seconds for it to heat up, and inhale. LED lights indicate when the Pax is ready to use.
It’s a satisfying experience, watching the LED lights flicker from purple to green as the Pax warms up. The vapor it releases is light and smooth. You could easily smoke too much without realizing it. But despite its simplicity, there is little chance that someone unfamiliar with vaporizers would know what the Pax 2 does. It’s covert. And you look a lot more sophisticated taking a puff from the Pax than smoking a cigarette (especially these days, when people are likely to give you a nasty look for doing so) or taking a bong rip.
This could all be said of the original Pax, but the Pax 2 is even more advanced: It’s lighter, 25% smaller, has a longer-lasting battery, and comes with motion and lip-sensing technology to ensure that the device doesn’t waste battery or burn material while it’s not in use. At $280 a pop, it’s a lot more expensive than your average pipe, or even lower-end vaporizers. It’s also a lot prettier.
The Pax was dreamed up by two guys studying product design at Stanford University who thought that the smoking space needed to be “disrupted,” as all things in Silicon Valley eventually are. When I meet with Pax Labs cofounder and CEO James Monsees (one of those two Stanford guys), he emphasizes that his company’s products are intended purely for tobacco use. Not that he’s completely uninterested in the marijuana industry.
“It behooves us to take vaporization technology and try to disrupt as many industries as possible. We’re interested in keeping a close eye on the space, but we’re not about to violate federal or state law doing it,” he says. “If there’s a path to market where we can be in full legal compliance, we’ll probably do it.”
Still, there’s no denying that Pax Labs products are popular with marijuana smokers. That’s evident from a quick glance at the Pax subreddit, where one commenter recently wrote “Feel like no one on here uses Pax solely for tobacco. If you do, let us know! We won’t judge.”
Marijuana users will soon be divided into two classes: those who can afford to inhale organic, pesticide-free, farmer-friendly marijuana in lung-preserving vaporizers, and those who can’t. This doesn’t necessarily matter for the casual smoker who can always just give up smoking. It’s a bigger deal for people who use marijuana in heavy quantities or medicinally.
Marijuana safety testing regulations are spotty across different cities and states. San Francisco, for example, does not require dispensaries to test their goods, though some do anyway (Flow Kana tests its marijuana at a local lab). As I learned from a visit to a marijuana safety testing lab a few years ago, it’s not that uncommon to find mold or bacteria contamination on improperly handled marijuana–a potential danger to people with weak immune systems. Having quality marijuana is a bigger deal for these smokers than selecting an organic tomato over a conventionally-grown one.
If legalization continue, prices may even out and safety regulations could be stepped up. But for now, high-end smoking is having its moment.