If you’re one of the millions of viewers who enjoy the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as one of your annual holiday rituals, I have a new game for you.
It’s called “Spot the Future of Cannabis.”
It may appear briefly in the background of an Al Roker scarf-and-fedora standup. Or over the shoulder of Hota Kotb and Savannah Guthrie. It’s a corner building painted sky blue: Cookies NYC.
Yes, the new Cookies flagship store in New York City is about to photobomb America’s beloved Thanksgiving tradition. I say it’s about time.
Get Cookies NYC in the shot!
Cookies, for those joining us here for the first time, is the cannabis brand founded by the hip-hop artist Berner. Over the past ten years, Berner has grown his company from a tiny California start-up into one of the most respected brands in cannabis.
That growth was on display in Manhattan last month when overflow crowds jammed the corner of Sixth Avenue and 35th St., directly across the street from Macy’s on Herald Square—all for the opening of the first Cookies store in New York. (And it doesn’t even sell weed.) Here at Leafly we gave the opening plenty of coverage.
New Cookies store lights up downtown NYC [Photo gallery]
Believe the hype
I’ll confess: I was a little skeptical of the hype. But then I had a chance to check out the scene for myself.
During a trip to New York earlier this month, I took a day to wander into some of the many unlicensed “gifting shops” openly selling weed from storefronts. The gray market, as you may have heard, is thriving. I counted six unlicensed cannabis stores on a five-block stretch of Chelsea, including a pop-up weed truck parked along Sixth Avenue.
New York approves first 36 cannabis stores—Here’s the list
Scoping the gifting stores
Cannabis Culture, on 8th Ave., across the street from Madison Square Garden, impressed me with their pro setup, well-staffed store, and money-making location. Every train passenger entering Penn Station and every Knicks/Rangers/concert fan is only a few steps away from a little something-something on West 30th.
Meanwhile, the Breckenridge Hemp Company, at 6th Ave. and West 31st St., was confusing as hell. How are they selling “state-tested, Colorado-approved” weed in Manhattan? The Breckenridge budtender did show me some nice flower, though, kept in big gallon-size glass jars.
Cookies is miles ahead of everyone else
Most gifting stores reminded me of the old no-rules medical marijuana days in Washington State and Colorado—stores with minimal design and limited product staffed by extremely friendly budtenders. The prices were a little, um, updated, though. I don’t recall dispensaries back in the day selling single generic pre-rolls for $15.
Then I walked through the doors of the Cookies flagship store at Herald Square. It felt like traveling forward through time.
Though it sells no actual weed—Berner ain’t stupid, he’s looking to come in fully licensed—the Cookies store offers branded merch that embodies everything that successful weed brands are: Fun. Playful. Creative. Smart.
Cookies’ cool authenticity is on display in their store:
Offering an authentic cultural connection
Cookies isn’t merely selling weed. They’re offering consumers a lifestyle brand. Berner established his reputation in the hip-hop world, then combined that foundation with a mission to sell only the finest cannabis.
What sets Cookies apart is its proprietary hybrid strain: cultural authenticity crossed with brilliant graphic design. The company is rising out of a specific subculture and going mainstream while turning the extremely difficult trick of safeguarding its cultural respect. Few companies have managed to do this. Think of Vans, the shoe company born in California skate culture, or Patagonia in the outdoor adventure world.
New York’s gray market cannabis crackdown begins in Brooklyn
That combination of cultural authenticity, respect, and smart design is on display at the Cookies Herald Square boutique. Check out these artistic callouts to New York City’s media institutions, below. An old man stickballing on the streets of Brooklyn. The “Cookies Day Parade” nod to the traditional Macy’s parade.
The next era in cannabis branding
The whole aesthetic is contained in the t-shirt, pictured below, which honors (from the top) New York Magazine, the New York Times, The New Yorker, and the New York Post, done up in the city’s orange-blue Knicks/Mets color scheme, with a sly little Cookies-brand “C” slipped in there to let you know this company is ready to take its place among the Big Apple’s cultural institutions.
Respect to the designer—and to the people running Cookies, who have clearly built up an impressive network of in-house and contracted artists.
Shining in a national retail showcase
All of this is happening in a store that’s not hidden away in some far corner of Brooklyn. It’s shining in Manhattan’s Herald Square, a showcase of big-name retailers. Macy’s flagship store sits across the street. Nearby are brand-defining stores from Dr. Martens, H&M, Urban Outfitters, Sephora, Tissot, Levi’s, and Aeropostale.
I entered the store a skeptic. I exited a convert. Cookies is welcoming New Yorkers, and the millions of people who visit New York every year, to the future of cannabis in the best way possible. The future of cannabis is fun, playful, cool, smart. The future of cannabis is welcoming.
And on Thursday, if you keep your eyes peeled, you may catch a glimpse of that future as part of your Thanksgiving parade viewing experience. Maybe Al, Hota, and Savannah will step into the Cookies store and check it out for themselves. Go ahead. It’s legal.
Mr. GUMBO invited us inside ‘the House that GUMBO built’ to learn how he made it to the top of New York’s budding weed industry.
‘Do I call it The House of GUMBO, The GUMBO mansion, or the GUMBO castle?’ That’s what I was thinking as I approached Luka Brazi’s 20,000 square-foot New York property. When I was finally inside, the home owners explained that they simply call it “The House that GUMBO Built.”
For the past two decades and change, Karim “Luka Brazi” Butler has laid a powerful foundation across NYC. Building brick by brick, between many colliding markets prepared him to lead New York’s billion dollar legal weed industry into uncharted territory.
Music fans remember Luka as the muscle and talent scout in New York’s iconic Dipset rap crew. Fashion lovers cherish the custom shirts, jackets, and mixtapes he used to sell in Harlem. And mob movie lovers have to appreciate his name’s nod to mob enforcer Luca Brasi, who served on behalf of the boss Don in the classic Godfather film.
But since 2019, designer weed lovers have made up the majority of Mr. GUMBO’s six-figure follower count. That’s because the multi-state licensed FlyTrap brand has taken off globally. But Luka’s home state of New York has been slow to get its adult-use market off the ground.
Luka didn’t wait around for The Empire State to get it together. Which is why he’s got a pot full of GUMBO varieties available or coming soon to Cookies stores worldwide.
With New York dispensary licenses opening up to original market operators like Luka later this month, the future looks green for the GUMBO gang. Recently, I sat down with Luka and his wife Alexis Major and took a tour of their GUMBO abode. Along the way, the pot power couple shared exactly how they cooked up a worldwide buzz from scratch.
Here’s the recipe Bronx native Luka Brazi used to build NYC’s hottest weed brand from the ground up.
1. Stick to the script
Luka and Alexis are quick to call a new business play on the fly. But their core brand, FlyTrap, always comes first. The company got its sticky name from legendary New York lyricist Jadakiss, who once said Luka’s weed had him stuck like a trapped insect.
This was long before GUMBO was born, which is why FlyTrap remains the foundation for the GUMBO family’s rapid rise. As Luka frequently reminds fans, “FlyTrap is the brand, GUMBO is the strain.”
The FlyTrap brand is a solid vehicle for non-GUMBO moves that Luka and Alexis freestyle in the field. That includes merch, content, and packaging. The structure gives GUMBO space to bubble without spilling over into everything they do.
With the strain’s name going global so quickly, it’d be easy for most to get lost in the sauce. But Luka’s diverse background in music, fashion, and New York’s original cannabis market makes him uniquely qualified to work multiple flames at one time.
3. Trust the OGs
Runtz’ co-founder Yung LB and Detroit rapper GT helped Luka come up with the strain name GUMBO during a studio session in the motor city.
The Leafly Strain of the Year 2020 is—Runtz!
Other OGs like Dipset’s Jim Jones and Cookies CEO Berner have also added secret ingredients to help GUMBO go global. One reason things bubbled so quickly: Luka is never too proud to take advice and run with it.
4. Stay legit
“Berner made us legitimate, (he) had us go legal,” Luka explained. The Cookies founder once told him, “Luka you’re not a street hustler. You’re more of a corporate guy. You know how to take what you learned from the street and incorporate it into a business.”
Then last year, Berner approached Luka with a deal to place GUMBO in Cookies stores across the globe. Luka remembers: “At the time he came and got us, he was fighting cancer, bro. He didn’t even know what tomorrow would bring. So that shit touched me… That someone could reach out to you at a time like that to wonder about you and your family?”
“We’re so thankful for Berner. Because without him, it wouldn’t even be a platform like this for people like us… We just have a lot of gratitude.”
Luka Brazi on Berner’s influence
5. All gas no brakes
Every month or so, creative new GUMBO packages hit the streets filled with fresh batches of the brand’s funky flower. The product’s secret recipe is constantly being tweaked, so the presentation has to keep pace with the evolving flavors. The process has led to dozens of hilarious bud bags that many buyers cherish as collector’s items.
One underground bag of “Madison Square GUMBO” Leafly grabbed this spring depicts Spike Lee repping his beloved New York Knicks. Another bag features NY Islanders hockey players on the ice at the famous Madison Square Garden arena.
My personal favorite animation showed Radio Raheem from Spike’s summertime classic Do The Right Thing. And yes, the weed was just as loud as Raheem’s monster boom box in the 1989 film.
With NY’s growing demand for more batches of GUMBO, and an endless supply of graphic designers scattered around the city, the only thing that may slow down the brand’s brilliant marketing is New York’s strict packaging laws.
Popular packs like Garbage Pail Kids GUMBO feature characters including “Shmokel Urkel” and a peach-shaped version of “Iron Mike Tyson” might not get past regulators. But New York’s active gray market should keep the bags in rotation for the foreseeable future whether the state approves or not.
Go inside NYC’s secret weed shops: Fire strains and hidden lounges
6. Embrace the bootleggers
As a former street vendor who sold everything from CDs to socks, Luka never knocks a good hustle. But he had to take his wife’s advice before overreacting to counterfeiters knocking off his product.
“We get a lot of bootleg stuff, but my wife had to bring this point to my attention. She said, “Babe, they knocked off Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, Christian Louboutin. So when they knock (GUMBO) off, that means we did something good.”
Alexis added, “If you buy fake GUMBO, it’s because you want to be affiliated with GUMBO, and we’re not mad at that. We would like you to have the real GUMBO experience one day. But I know people that used to wear fake Louis, and they faked it til they made it.”
7. Feed the soul
“GUMBO’s good for your soul,” Luka explained when I asked why a New York brand named its top weed strain after a Louisiana dish. GUMBO seduces users with its funky flavor and clean taste. The founders ensure all products are organic, meaning GMO and pesticide free.
And after a day of smoking through a variety of flavors, including a mix of hearty, gassy, and fruity terps. The soft, dense buds break down effortlessly, like smoked BBQ that falls off the bone.
8. Beat the odds
As a survivor the failed War on Drugs, Luka went from victim to victor before our eyes. Along the way, he served time and saw things he never wants to revisit. “It was bad,” he remembers of his time in the illicit market. “I wasn’t supposed to make it. I don’t have a GED, or a high school diploma. So I’m living proof that anything you put your mind to, you can obtain.”
9. Influence the influencers
A key hack in modern marketing is influencers. Why spend millions on traditional ads when you can get a few celebrities to post your product directly to millions of followers?
Recently, Luka has harvested organic support from rising stars like Detroit’s 42 Dugg, Atlanta’s Takeoff and actor Demetrius “Lil Meech” Flenory Jr. who currently plays the role of his own father, Black Mafia Family kingpin Big Meech on the STARZ series BMF.
“What you smoking on?,” he asked Lil Meech on an Instagram live meet-up earlier this year. And Luka’s social impact has even caught the attention of mega-influencers like Diddy and JAY-Z. With celebrities from every field looking to jump into the legal pot business, Luka’s knack for leading the leaders will come in handy for years to come.
10. Don’t forget where you came from
Luka is quick to remind you that he grew up on 63rd Street and 10th Avenue in the Bronx, New York.
The Forest Houses projects that he called home also produced Hip-Hop pioneers like Fat Joe, Diamond D and Lord Finesse. But after seeing murder and machine guns in his youth, Luka’s mother sent him away to a private school. Even with the option to choose books, Luka gravitated to the entrepreneurial lifestyle he saw his grandparents living as Harlem street vendors.
More game from big Berner
11. Go where the action is
Luka migrated to Harlem around 1999, and instantly left a mark. He came to support his cousin’s CD hustle, which made decent money off the foot traffic passing through 145th and Broadway’s infamous drug and fashion markets.
“You can step on any block in Harlem, and everybody knows who Luka Brazi is, guaranteed,” he said in a 2008 interview.
After connecting with Harlem’s Diplomats rap crew circa 2000, he began influencing members like Cam’Ron, Jim Jones, and Shiest Bubz with his wits, charm, and loyal network.
12. Leverage your strengths
When Cam’Ron was trying to get out of a bad record deal with Sony, Luka’s legend was truly born. After lawyers and agents failed to remedy the situation, Luka showed up to the Sony offices with over 100 individuals from Harlem who demanded Cam’s freedom.
The power move worked, and set the table for Cam’s Dipset crew to take off. The Harlem group rose to new heights after joining JAY-Z’s Roc-A-Fella recording label, which released 2004’s stoner staple Purple Haze. The projects was named for both Jimi Hendrix, and the famous weed strain that took New York by storm in the early 2000s.
13. Keep a million-dollar smile
“I’m always smiling. Not only ’cause I got good teeth. But because I remember all the days that I had to eat shit. So I had to buy new teeth to smile. And to let y’all know this is Black-owned. This is not someone saying that they own it and someone else co-owns it or they’re the secret partner. No. I own GUMBO. It’s mine, and my wife’s. It’s a joint venture.”
Most financial advisors wouldn’t approve of the bling, especially as we trend towards a recession. But the jewels serve as a marketing vehicle in every room Luka enters; Turning heads and starting conversations about his recent success.
The diamonds are also inspiration to kids fighting the same odds that Luka beat. He wants them to know they don’t have to chase careers in entertainment or illicit dealings to shine like the stars they are.
15. Cultivate your charisma
Luka’s natural charm has helped him grow and maintain a massive network of true supporters. Even when he was known mostly as a henchman for rappers, fans couldn’t help but appreciate his humor when he appeared in songs, videos, and interviews.
Back then, it would have been hard for even Luka to imagine then that he was destined to be one legal weed’s biggest bosses. But even before he found his highest purpose, he did his best to treat himself and others with love and respect at all times.
16. Choose your partners wisely
One part of Mr. and Mrs. GUMBO’s recipe for success is balance. “I have two Associates degrees and one Bachelors degree,” said Mrs. GUMBO, a Connecticut native who perfectly complements Luka’s NYC grit. “I ran a $150 million business as a retail buyer before this,” she told me.
“I guess it’s a balance,” Luka chimed in.
The couple endured being dead broke together before really hitting it big with GUMBO. So they have ultimate trust and faith in one another’s skills sets.
“He’s a big picture person,” Alexis explains. “So we took his hustle and my strategies for being able to scale a business.” The rest is history.
17. Putting people before things will take you places
A lot of famous hustlers are famous, but they’re no longer with us,” Alexis pointed out. “But Luka is also a people person.” His gift of gab and social IQ helped him escape countless situations that would have ended the GUMBO fairy tale before it began. By putting people before profits, Luka’s brand has travelled to places he hasn’t even been. “We’re in 15 countries now, including Turkey,” Alexis added.
New locations serving GUMBO include Israel, New Jersey, and Florida (via the brand new Cookies Miami store). There’s also established markets like California, where GUMBO is a frequent top-seller. And in September, GUMBO will help make history as one of the first legal weed offerings to debut in Asia at the Cookies Thailand grand opening.
18. Keep a hustler’s spirit
Luka grew up with grandparents who were vendors in New York. When he was 7 years old, he remembers joining them on the block to flip items and barter within their community. The early business lesson gave Luka instincts that he still uses to this day. Even when he wakes up in the GUMBO mansion, his passion for solving problems and connecting people continues to keep him supremely motivated.
19. Legacy over everything
It’s not easy to think 100 steps ahead. So Luka focuses on keeping a solid reputation one day at a time. It would have been impossible to predict that his work in music, fashion, and the illicit market would one day make him the poster child for NYC’s legacy weed scene. Turns out that taking the time to build a solid reputation can pay off way more than investing in get-rich quick schemes. Remind yourself that every day is a new chance to build your legacy with integrity and honor.
20. Take a good thing and run with it
“Sometimes in life people don’t understand your mission or what you’re going to achieve. So I just took (my opportunity) and I ran with it. And here we are now, three years later, damn near the biggest black-owned cannabis company in the world… I just didn’t stop.”
Luka Brazi on his marathon to the top
21. Say ‘no’ to boof
22. Don’t wait, innovate
GUMBO is currently developing regulated, strain-specific carts with terps that translate the rich taste of GUMBO flower into concentrate. The move should increase customer access to the brand in the states and countries that haven’t fully legalized.
I got to hit a prototype GUMBO pen during my visit. The toke was smooth with a fruity after taste. So smooth in fact, I thought I might have hit a hookah. Within a few seconds, the GUMBO effect hit me like a mack truck.
New York’s latest legal weed updates
23. Always do the right thing
“We’re big on integrity,” Luka told me. “So we’re always doing the right thing.” With a chance to make millions the legit way, that means avoiding old traps at all costs.
“The black market was an everyday struggle,” he remembers. “You gotta be around certain things and people that you didn’t want to be around,” which is why he never intends on going back.
“I’m not going to jail. So I’m not doing nothing illegal… I had my exposure to that market, but I transitioned over to it being legal. Thank God.”
24. Map out your vision
“Have a goal, have an idea. Make a goal sheet, a vision board. Put it out there. Say, ‘I want to contact the GUMBO’s,’ and we will fund what you want to do. But it has to be legal, legit, and it has to make sense. You can’t just come to me and say, ‘Yo I want to buy some land and I want to just grow weed on it.’ Bruh, I told you I’m not going to jail. That’s illegal. I’m sorry.”
25. Do for self
“A lot of people call me or message me like, ‘Yo I got a license here, let’s do this!’ I’m thinking: ‘OK, do your thing. You don’t need me. I don’t need anybody to do this. I had my wife. I had God. And we put our brains together, we stayed down ’til we came up.’”
26. Rise above the hate
On your journey to the top, distractions can do you in. During GUMBO’s fast ascent, unfounded rumors that their products were contaminated forced Luka to tune out the hate.
“People tarnished our name,” he remembers. “They said, ‘Yo, they got fentanyl in GUMBO!’”
The myth of fentanyl-laced weed has been disproven by Leafly and countless lab tests. But the reality of others trying to bring you down with BS will never completely disappear. So stay focused, and don’t let it knock you off your game.
27. Give because you have
“We give, because we have, and we have because we give,” Luka told me. “Therefore, we will never be without.”
Luka sees many people struggling to figure out the secret to his success. But he feels the answer should be obvious: Generosity and gratitude are the G’s he puts first. And as a result, he and his wife are living on acres of gorgeous real estate, while sitting on endless grams of New York’s hottest weed brand.
Paying it forward clearly pays off.
28. Don’t stop believing
Luka insists that hard work without faith is aimless.
Instead of rushing to keep up with trends, or breaking your neck to impress others, Luka suggests focusing on the things you truly believe in. Building your own value system and sticking to it through ups and downs will make you a mogul among mortals in a weed industry full of shady dealings.
Trinidad-born, New Jersey-raised content producer Mikhail Harrison has been a cannabis advocate and influencer for over a decade, working both on camera and behind the scenes to normalize the plant for all.
Cannabis for Black Lives is a nonprofit organization that wants you venture-backed, cash-rich cannabis companies to put your money where your lips are.
“What many of us realized is there were so many organizations that pledged that they would make huge changes within their organization, that they would do more for people who have been impacted by the War on Drugs, and then what happened? It fell so flat.”
– Kassia Graham
They recognize that social equity won’t be what it needs to be unless the majority of businesses in cannabis speak up in support of fixing how trash the U.S Government’s War on Drugs is, and more importantly, put some of their dollars and real, public action behind their support.
Plenty of companies actually do care about making change, however the analysis paralysis of “But I don’t know how.”
The work, the people, and companies of Cannabis for Black Lives does on a monthly basis aims to make that answer obsolete.
It was created to address a new phenomenon that began in the height of the Black Square era. You know the one.
The one where corporations across all industries said they were going to make some internal changes to empower people of color both inside and outside of their companies including hiring, better pay, philanthropy, and creating a fair playing field full of deserved opportunities.
Well, a lot of that didn’t happen, and Cannabis for Black Lives saw the whole thing. But unlike the companies, they watched use social equity as a ploy, they found ways to uplift Black-led cannabis companies with intention and expediency.
“What many of us realized is there were so many organizations that pledged that they would make huge changes within their organization, that they would do more for people who have been impacted by the War on Drugs, and then what happened? It fell so flat. We want to make sure that people who are a part of Cannabis For Black Lives are keeping those promises,” says Kassia Graham, Director of Community & Strategy, during a Zoom with some of CfBL’s leadership team.
To help companies keep these promises, Cannabis for Black Lives serves as the connective tissue that gathers cannabis brands, does the work of sourcing communal funds, and created a system where every two months they partner with and provide financial support to a different organization in the social equity space.
How the Hood Incubator advances change in the cannabis industry
“When we started structuring this body of brands, thinking hey if brands work together, set themselves to standards, and held themselves accountable in three key areas: raising money and donating it to organizations that are doing the work; diversifying their social media feeds and highlighting Black and Brown voices in cannabis; and people upliftment, hiring, mentorship, all things that pertain to building diverse teams at every level, then this industry would be better off,” says Luke Anderson, co-founder of CANN and active member of Cannabis for Black Lives.
How to become a member of Cannabis for Black Lives
Becoming a member of Cannabis for Black Lives is as simple as making reasonable, consistent donations, attending mandatory monthly virtual meetings, and committing to three pillars of support for Cannabis for Black partner organizations:
Amplification of partner organizations via digital channels
Financial support of partner organizations
<$1m annual rev: $250-2.5k
$1-10m annual rev: $2.5k
>$10m annual rev: $2.5k+
Uplifting Black people in cannabis through company hiring, company culture, and mentorship
Committing to change past the Black Square era
Though simple to join, being a member of Cannabis for Black Lives is about way more than just dollars. Companies have to commit to long-term change in operations and company culture, along with advocacy for everything social justice in cannabis stands for.
“[Cannabis for Black Lives} is an entirely volunteer-run organization. It really illustrates the power of getting companies with resources to all agree to come together, and how quickly you can pull together real sums of money without having to spend on headcount.”
– Luke Anderson
“It’s not just a matter of us wanting new members. We want people to modify their way of thinking, and have the actions that come from that be a reflection of this more informed thought when it comes to how cannabis has impacted people of color, queer folks, and people with disabilities,” Graham tells me.
In 2020, plenty of companies said they were down for this, joined CfBL for a couple of months to do some performative allyship, and then they dipped out. Since then, CfBL has moved towards a long-term commitment system that will hopefully prevent this in the future.
Anderson says “We had 50 people show up at first, and 20 turned. Largely it was all within the first couple of months. They wanted to make a statement, performative allyship, and when the rubber hit the road, nothing.”
On membership, Graham states “Even if someone is not ready to join us, if they are just able to amplify who we are and what we do for people in the space who they think would be a good fit and interested in this, that would be fantastic.”
Cannabis for Black Lives impact thus far
Each year, Cannabis for Black Lives works with partner organizations that are selected by the CfBL Board of Directors. Supernova Women was CfBL’s first-ever partner.
“We are pretty plugged into what these organizations do, who they are, who’s operating them, so it doesn’t necessarily take us too long to figure out who we want to work with. Once we do, we also look at what the need is, how many folks they are able to impact, and what it is that they’re doing. While we have some people that are more so set in their organizations, we have the Hood Incubator and Our Dream, which have been more of national organizations,” Kassia tells Leafly about how they select organizations to partner with.
Supernova Women fight for equity-focused cannabis businesses in Oakland
Despite existing for such a short amount of time, Cannabis for Black Lives has had some tremendous accomplishments. For one, just being able to bring together so many companies to support such an important cause is a feat in itself.
Kassia runs a monthly meeting that’s attended by 30-plus cannabis brand leadership team members, in addition to having successfully led 5 campaigns that have donated tens of thousands of dollars to all of CfBL’s partner organizations.
For example, one of their partners, Copperhouse Detroit runs 420-friendly bed and breakfast with a focus on body positivity and queerness in the cannabis industry. Together with Cannabis for Black Lives, they were able to raise nearly $40,000. And that’s just one partner. In total, CfBL has raised over $170,000 to date.
“I think it’s as much as the Last Prisoner Project raised in its first year of operations,” Luke says. “[Cannabis for Black Lives] is an entirely volunteer-run organization. It really illustrates the power of getting companies with resources to all agree to come together, and how quickly you can pull together real sums of money without having to spend on headcount. We don’t even have a budget. Everything we do is just done on its own.”
Danté Jordan is a former member of the Leafly Subject Matter Expert team, and current freelance writer, video producer, and media consultant specializing in cannabis culture, strains, products, education, and everything else related to that lil’ green flower. Contact him at smokingwithdante on Instagram, or dantenetworks(at)gmail(dotcom). His website is www.dantejordan.com.
When I first started budtending in California’s then-medical marijuana industry in 2015, cannabis “brands’” were few.
This was before METRC, before Proposition 64 and the taxation squeeze, and before cannabis entrepreneurs had to rely on a lot more than word of mouth to ensure their edibles and pounds moved off the shelf. Some would leave dispensary staff with free nugs, a sample edible here and there, maybe a t-shirt, and a handful of stickers. What a simple time.
But by 2016, it was evident that legalization was happening, and that weed companies would need brand identities. Some companies, like Cookies, Kiva Confections, and Alien Labs, were doing this years in advance.
Solidifying merch style
Ted Lidie, Alien Labs’ co-founder, remembers what it was like back then. His company’s extraterrestrial aesthetic was part love for all things deep space, but more so a way to strike out from the crowd and help cultivate a visual identity for their brand that wasn’t inundated in weed leaves, that people could wear out and about and if you know, you know.
“I made Alien Labs so I could smoke the weed I wanted to smoke and share it with the people that I wanted to share it with,” he says. “We’ve worked for several years on dialing in our merch, and our customers really enjoy that. The biggest thing that we have in this industry is trust.”
From a budtender’s point of view
Fast-forward to when the pandemic started, I began to almost rely on the regular non-cannabis gifts from sales reps when they would make their socially distanced deliveries. I wasn’t alone. Patients and consumers alike needed quality equipment and paraphernalia to mitigate both their pre-existing conditions and new health challenges, both mental and physical, brought on by the pandemic.
And let me say, just because a cannabis brand doles out the free swag doesn’t make it good. Many a weed tchotchke gets passed along to friends and family, or (sadly) goes to the recycling bin because has more novelty than function.
Now that you know my relative standards, I’m happy to reveal the Cali cannabis companies that go above and beyond to give you good greens and the accessories and merch to make the most of them.
For a while there, enamel pins had cannabis companies in a chokehold. There are some really creative ones nowadays produced by some of the other names on this list, but to this day my favorite pin I’ve ever received is a bespectacled flamingo smoking a joint, and it comes from a little-known company named Paradiso.
I’m also a sucker for pastels, so every time a Paradiso demo or product drop came around, I was sure to grab a box of matches, a tote bag or more pins. I’m also a disciple of the paper and tips hybrid pack, which Paradiso provides in abundance.
I have yet to be nominated for an Oscar, but I have used the Flow Kana grinder gifted to me many moons ago almost every day since, and it shows no signs of slowing down. I’ve packed my grinder, papers, and lighter (sometimes some hemp wick) into their handy stash bags, which I then threw in a branded tote bag and went about my canna-business.
3. Alien Labs
One of my favorite things about Alien Labs, besides their exemplary pre-rolls and galactic-level flower, is the intention in their branding. Lidie says the brand is an extension of his own love for streetwear fashion and skate culture, saying:
Their wearable merch includes a “Krypto Stonks” satirical two-piece set and some enamel pins you can spot through a dab cloud, even a timely capsule collection for Halloween.
My favorite of their offerings are the funky-colored Pelican cases, the glow-in-the-dark rolling tray, and most importantly, their astral Re:Stash jars.
Must-have 420 accessories based on your stoner persona
There is no guaranteed, reliable formula to ensure a cannabis company’s success, but providing the masses with functionally complementary (and complimentary) accessories has yet to prove detrimental.
They provide reusable bottle caps for the Lagunitas Hi-Fi line, recipes for their Satori artisanal chocolates, multiple branded masks, and a variety of bags that aren’t your standard cotton tote.
5. Sessions Supply Co.
If you want to start a Session, you gotta be prepared, right? It’s hard to be the new kid on the recreational cannabis block, especially in the pandemic era, but Sessions Supply Co. stuck out to me immediately because of the vibrant and consistent branding.
Their flowers and dabs are potent yet affordably priced, and their reps have been generous with innovative gifts—I’ve received a lot of cannabis-branded water bottles, but my Sessions Hydro Flask is probably my favorite item.
I know, I know. Seth Rogen is a multimillionaire and there’s no excuse for his weed and subsequent line of goods to NOT be the creme de la creme. But if I’m being honest…it’s all hella cute!
Freelance cannabis journalist Amelia Williams is a long-time budtender and graduate of San Francisco State University’s journalism program. Williams has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle’s GreenState, MG Magazine, Culture Magazine, Cannabis Now, and is the author of Barbary Coast dispensary’s Bud Blog.