The Starbucks of Cannabis Is Coming, and They Want You Hooked on Luxury Weed

Canndescent, a premium cannabis company, makes us ask who upscale pot is really for.

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Apr 20 2018, 3:00pm

Talk to people in the cannabis industry and you’ll notice they return, almost compulsively, to a few terms: it’s not weed, it’s “adult-use cannabis”; it’s not pot cultivated in your closet, it’s a “home-grow”; it’s not the legal weed hustle, it’s the “regulated cannabis marketplace.” The speech pattern is evangelizing—it aims to produce a shift in belief, and it kind of hits you over the head with it.

But if any industry gets a pass for trying too hard to be taken seriously, it’s marijuana. After centuries of hysterical, racialized paranoia, the disastrous war on drugs of the 1980s, and the establishment of a So Cal stoner buffoon as its stereotypical mascot, marijuana has a big, gnarly history to overcome. Now that weed is legal for medical use in 29 states and recreational use in nine—although it’s illegal federally, the laws are inconsistently enforced—one has the sense that the cannabis industry, just emerged from the shadows, is blinking in the sunlight of a wide-open field and is not quite sure what to do with it.

But Adrian Sedlin, the CEO of California cannabis company Canndescent, knows what he wants to do: make weed a luxury product, a cross-pollination of Hermès, Tory Burch, and Starbucks. “We want to build a high-end product for the premium or ultra-premium marketplace...where people know they’re getting the highest quality product on the market, with all the bells and whistles.” Sedlin is an enthusiastic if unlikely evangelist for cannabis—he’s a graduate of Harvard Business School, has worked in venture capital, and harbors a corporate fondness for alliterations—and he’s right that Canndescent is opulent. Open the clementine-colored box and you’ll find a glass bottle filled with marijuana flowers untouched by human hands, branded as “virgin cannabis”; rolling papers; matches; and strings of hemp wick to avoid the acrid taste of a butane lighter.

“If I gave you a fine wine, you wouldn’t drink it out of a dirty glass or a glass with dish soap,” Sedlin said. “Similarly, you don’t smoke great cannabis with a butane lighter or sulfur-tipped matches.”

Of course, these bells and whistles command a higher price, and an eighth of marijuana from Canndescent costs $60, compared to a state-wide average of around $32. (Recreational cannabis has been legal in California since this January, and there are still significant price differences between black-market and legal, regulated pot.) But according to Sedlin, the care with which Canndescent cultivates, dries, trims, and packages their grow justifies the expense. “If you come to our facility—if you thought you were gonna see a farm, you’re gonna see something that looks closer to a biotech facility,” said Sedlin. The temperature is controlled to within a tenth of a degree, and machines monitor humidity, oxygen levels, electrical current in the soil.

Sedlin describes their current customer as the “Montecito mom: she’s probably driving a Tesla or a Range Rover, she probably carries a Birkin bag.” But he also disputes the idea that his price point will necessarily make Canndescent niche, arguing that the $60 eighth goes a long way and amounts to “basically what you pay for a latte at Starbucks” for a few hours of THC bliss.

“When every cup of coffee was a quarter and [Starbucks] started charging a buck seventy-five, that was insane,” he continued, drawing an analogy between the bygone cheap cup of joe and sloppily produced weed, and added that Starbucks “premiumized the category,” corporate-speak for making what was formerly a splurge feel like the norm. Central to the Starbucks model is the aspirational, upper-middle-class vibe of its stores, produced through tacit determinations of who does and does not belong. Sedlin describes the coffee company’s recent racial profiling that led to the arrest of two black men as a “nightmare”; still, since black people are arrested more often than white people for the same marijuana-related offenses and the destruction of the war on drugs has disproportionately impacted communities of color, it’s important to consider who upscale pot is really for.

Legal weed still in its infancy—most businesses can’t even open bank accounts or file their taxes normally, and none can trade across state lines—so it will be a while before dispensaries open in shopping plazas across America, upscaling weed into an accessible luxury purchase as Häagen-Daz did for sorbet, or the Cheesecake Factory did for Pasta Carbonara. But cannabis is changing at a head-spinning pace: by the end of this year, one in twenty Americans will live in a state where adults can buy and sell weed legally. “Three years ago, every text, phone call, and email I sent was fully encrypted,” Sedlin said. “Having been in the industry for three years and seeing how much toothpaste is on the countertop—there’s no way it’s turning back.”

Does this brave new world mean it's time to revisit, say, Maine’s openness to weed drive-thrus? The proposal that would have allowed them was rejected just last year, but great ideas have a way of coming back.

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