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Haute high: How did marijuana go from shadowy activity to style’s next commodity? Add to ...

Forget the seedy smoke shops and hapless buddy comedies of the past. Today’s marijuana culture caters to those with a taste for the finer things in life

Walking down Toronto’s Queen West strip, you’ll pass a few decades-old head shops, Shanti Baba and The Friendly Stranger perhaps the most notable among them. Their happy bud signage – melting swirls and mystical icons – and array of psychedelic products are quickly turning into relics in a world where an increasing acceptance toward marijuana usage means more desire (and ability) to spend on recreational habits. And as we all know, where there’s a need, there’s soon a surplus of product to satisfy it.

Today, the model and features of your vaporizer are dinner table conversation in the way we used to talk about swish German-engineered cars. Trial runs come after coffee, of course. A Pax, for example, is arguably the most innovative and user-friendly portable “plant agnostic” vaporizer on the market, and will run you around $350. With verbiage such as elegant, optimized and intelligent lauding the tool’s functions, you’d think the newest Apple launch was being described. But instead, it’s illustrating how this tiny aluminum shell, created by Stanford design alumni (a program that has graduated Apple designers), can let users vape – the term that describes using a vaporizer to inhale plant materials – more quickly and discreetly. “The underlying science was critical to the way the product is designed, but that’s not enough,” says Richard Mumby, chief marketing officer at Pax Labs. “People make decisions based on emotion and sensibilities. Look, feel and touch matter a lot.”

So who are the people making these decisions? Brendan Kennedy, CEO of Privateer Holdings, a Seattle-based private equity firm whose portfolio is comprised of several modern, sophisticated cannabis-focused properties, says that cannabis is now “a mainstream product consumed by a mainstream audience.” It’s no longer only the stereotypical stoners looking for a buzz, but lawyers with arthritis, 30-year-olds with insomnia, and, he notes, “People on a Friday evening who use it instead of opening a bottle of Chardonnay.” In addition to a heightened desire by this mainstream audience for a more diverse and unique variety of consumables, there is also a growing aesthetic and design movement within the industry as well. You would drink a fine Chardonnay out of beautiful stemware, so it leads to reason that you’d now smoke pot out of a well-crafted pipe made by a cool, Brooklyn-based artisan.

At new Toronto coffee spot Tokyo Smoke, owner Alan Gertner (pictured at right) spends his time chatting with customers who seek an elevated smoking experience. Though it’s currently a smoke-free atmosphere here, Gertner’s brand will soon start distributing eponymous marijuana products in Washington state. In Canada, Tokyo Smoke’s outpost sells cannabis-related accessories admist elegant merchandising items like an Hermès bag. (Photos by Mark Binks)

The rise of the new, higher-end cannabis culture has several factors at its root. Aside from emotional connectivity, there’s an increasingly relaxed attitude toward consumption; recent polls leading up to the election revealed that a majority of Canadians are in favour of legalization. This means brands focusing on higher-end plantrelated products can heighten their visibility without fear of repercussion, and lure in a sophisticated, design-loving demo. From baby boomers to Gen Y, consumers have more spending money – or at least more refined taste – when it comes to their lifestyle. Owning a Volcano Classic Vaporizer (with a price tag of over $600) has become a higher priority to some than a splashy night out or new designer bag.

The Volcano is just one piece of paraphernalia available for purchase at Tokyo Smoke, a cozy, chic coffee outpost in Toronto’s west end. Owned by Alan Gertner, formerly the regional head of large customer sales at Google, the boite boasts the tagline “Coffee, culture, cannabis” as its brand identity. For sale in Tokyo Smoke is everything from Lego’s luxe architectural icons sets and Diptyque candles, to sour key candy and charmingly old-school rolling machines and paper. Tolix stools, Fugitive Glue lighting and Hermès tableware lend an upscale vibe to the small shop that comfortably seats six inside (and several more in their outdoor area, a mix of vintage bench seating and Eames chairs). The entire space breathes a calm and refined sensibility.

“I wasn’t necessarily getting as much meaning and happiness out of life,” says Gertner of what motivated him, after leaving his position at Google, to partner with his father, Lorne (who acquired the first legal licence to produce medical marijuana more than two decades ago) and launch Tokyo Smoke. Opened in April, the brand has already grown to include a men’s clothing line, which is in stores across Ontario this fall, including hip, high-end retailer GotStyle.

For Gertner, the question is, “Can we create a modern collective that can stitch together these three verticals – coffee, clothing, cannabis – and take inspiration from the Pradas of the world, the Monocles of the world? Brands that make great things, and create experiences.” These brands have developed a clear, unique and luxurious identity – something Gertner and other entrepreneurs working within the plant commodity sector are focused on as well.

Hydropothecary, a medical marijuana company based in Gatineau, Que., for example, describes itself as “artisanal” in its approach to growing four kinds of medicinal bud: Good Morning, Midday, After Dinner and Bedtime. “What we set out to do two years ago was to create a medical cannabis company that didn’t sell to the existing medical cannabis base,” says Adam Miron, the company’s co-founder and COO. “We don’t want to compete in a stereotypical industry, where you often see this Cheech-and-Chong mentality, and holograms and things like that. We want to approach an entirely new market.”

That market is, for the most part, still in the work force, people – from soccer moms to CEOs, Miron notes – who lead busy lives and who don’t want to be embarrassed or overwhelmed if they’re first-time users. The service provided by the brand includes next-day, discreet delivery (potentially same-day if you live in Quebec), and the packaging of their product is on a line drawn between “Apple and Chanel,” says Miron. Creating an elevated experience is key to making the convincing argument that this bud’s for you.

If consumption – recreational or medicinal – is to continue its growing acceptance, elevation is indeed essential. “If you think about wine, people have their beautiful bottles of wine out, their beautiful glassware, their great tumblers for whisky,” notes Gertner. “Why should we have to hide a part of our lives?” But a lingering (though quickly diminishing) stigma surrounding cannabis culture is still potent. Many brands who offer highly designed smoking and vaporizing products cannot explicitly confirm their products are for marijuana usage because of various state and national laws. However, a read between the lines offers a glimpse into the luxury aspects of cannabis consumption for customers who seek it.

Pot-related products of the past – lava-lamp style pipes and ‘trippy’ bongs – are giving way to sleek, chic and well-crafted items for leaf lovers. Recently launched website Tetra boasts beautiful smoking accessories from ceramic ashtrays to faceted metal lighters. Counter-clockwise from top left: Pax 2 vaporizers, $359 each through www. paxvapor.com. Recreation Center Multi ashtray, $120 U.S. Matson + Palmer handwoven indigo pouch $200 U.S. Object and Totem Bauhaus box $110 U.S. Matthais Kaiser copper rolling tray $550 U.S. Tsubota Pearl Hard Edge lighter, $25 U.S. Tsubota Pearl Wave lighter $45 U.S. All available through www.shop-tetra.com.

Interestingly, the recent rise in these design-minded, thoughtfully branded commodities has spread to different factions of aesthetic preference. Hydropothecary targets a refined clientele who’s drawn to Parisian chic, while Tweed – a medical marijuana company based in Smith Falls, Ont. – carries products named “Donegal” and “Houndstooth” after the iconic and robust textile patterns.

The Ottawa-area brand is approaching their business the way many other savvy brands do – with the help of an in-house creative director. “It was interesting being one of the first brands in a completely uncharted industry,” says Ian Rapsey, Tweed’s creative director. “There was the opportunity to set the benchmark, but also the absence of reference points created a void that we could have filled with assumptions.” A unique challenge Tweed and other cannabis brands face is appealing to an essentially universal customer base. “We need to appeal to the 70-year-old woman as well as 22-year-old male,” Rapsey notes. “This huge demo has really informed a lot of our design approach. We focus less on style and more on substance. Good design speaks to everyone and has universal appeal.”

Similarly, a product like Pax spans generations when it comes to its tech-savvy and ultimately utilitarian appeal, but this doesn’t mean the new cannabis consumer isn’t also seeking something with an artisinal background. The newly launched website Tetra offers an array of handmade objects, smoking accoutrements designed to be kept in plain sight – especially when company comes over. Designers and artists including Ben Medanksy, Matthias Kaiser and Leah Ball are creating luxurious pipes out of marble and buffed sandstone, and ashtrays that would make The Dude topple over in awe. (Tetra also launched the Pax 2 for sale on its website last week). Co-founder Monica Khemsurov says the fledgling online retailer “sparked because there’s so much happening in the smoking industry. And I knew no one else was doing this.” For the vendors that Tetra is working with, Khemsurov notes that it is “super exciting for designers to bring their thinking to a new form” like smoking apparatuses and accessories.

This rapid but upscale progress in thinking about smoking and vaping is what spurred Brendan Kennedy and his two business partners to launch Privateer Holdings five years ago. Kennedy is as enthused as these retailers and brands about the seemingly expedited upswing of the cannabis industry. After a hard-fought battle to collect an initial $7-million (U.S.) capital, the second round, which yielded $75-million (U.S.), came much more easily, and Privateer Holdings has taken a lead in what Kennedy describes as a “$40– to $50-billion industry” in the U.S. alone. Their portfolio currently has three brands: Tilray, a medical marijuana business with a centre in Nanaimo, B.C.; Marley Natural, a brand developed by the family of Bob Marley, which will launch a chic line of body-care products and accessories later this year; and Leafly, a Web resource that allows users around the world to research everything from dispensary locations to cannabis strains.

“We bought Leafly four years ago,” Kennedy says, noting that part of the appeal was how a-typical their branding was amidst the faux-hippie hype around most other cannabis– focused properties. “It was pretty, smart – yet still somewhat whimsical.” He adds that he “felt comfortable going there” and could “send my wife there. I could send my parents there.”

And here lies the key to it all: This new era of cannabis consumption offers a cross-generational appeal. And it’s not just the under-65 crowd who are interested in the upstart trend: Seniors are now seeking a good smoke, too. Kennedy notes that when Oregon opened their marijuana market a few weeks ago, Leafly saw an over 500-per-cent increase in user activity in the 65-plus demographic. “You need to create a brand people feel comfortable with,” Kennedy says about the next steps burgeoning businesses will contend with while developing their chic cannabis endeavours.

It’s all part of the Privateer Holdings mantra: Brands will shape the future. “There are opportunities for brands to set a new tone and tenor,” Mumby agrees. And whether it’s design or technology (or both) driving a purchase, the diverse range of cannabis customers are rapt.

Stubbs & Wootton’s Pot/Peace design slippers are adorned with a marijuana leaf on one foot and a peace sign on the other and retail for $495 (U.S.)

It's all gone to pot

As legalization measures change and take effect across North America, culture is also working to make Mary Jane a household name

2009

Denver and Boulder, Colo., chain Hapa Sushi launches weed and sushi pairing menus (first aimed at medicinal marijuana users). Some Pakistani Kush with your Pakalolo shrimp?

2012

Web series High Maintenance debuts on Vimeo, and follows the journey of a marijuana delivery guy called The Guy as he pops in and out of the lives of his clients. Guest stars on the series include Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens and comedian Hannibal Buress. In April 2015, HBO orders six episodes of the series.

2013

Rihanna’s proclivity for smoking spurs such headlines as “Rihanna’s 10 Most Memorable Weed Moments” on Billboard magazine’s website. They include the cover of the deluxe version of her album Talk That Talk, which shows her exhaling smoke post puff and a tweet she sent while on vacation in Hawaii that declared: “Kush rolled, glass full… I prefer the better things.”

2014

High-end Palm Beach-based slipper brand Stubbs & Wootton launches its Pot/Peace design $495 (U.S.); slippers adorned with a marijuana leaf on one foot and a peace sign on the other. If symmetry is the guiding principle of your wardrobe, the brand also has a pair of slippers with matching pot leaves on the toes.

2014

Flow Kana launches in San Francisco, a farm-to-table delivery service for “connoisseur-grade cannabis.” Outdoorgrown farm-fresh marijuana and weedinfused products such as honey, tea and lip balm begin to appear at farmers’ markets in northern California.

2015

Jane Fonda, who indulges in an onscreen joint or two in the Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie, says in an interview with DuJour magazine that off-screen she still smokes pot “every now and then.” But she won’t watch a movie while high. “The number of movies I’ve seen thinking, ‘This is probably the best I have ever seen,’ and then I’ll see it again sober and think, ‘What was I thinking?’”

2015

Snoop Dogg, through his company Casa Verde Capital, invests in Eaze, an Uber-type delivery service app for marijuana. The app is currently only available to medicinal marijuana users in 60 cities throughout California.

2015

“The Mary Kay of mary jay,” is how Holly Alberti-Evans described her business Healthy Headie Lifestyle to cannabis culture magazine The Cannabist. The company, which targets “canna-curious” people over the age of 50, arranges for consultants to visit private residences to demonstrate and sell vaporizers.

2015

To make up for declining music sales, San Francisco institution Amoeba Music seeks a licence from the municipal government to sell medicinal marijuana via an in-store dispensary. “Music and weed go together like – music and weed,” coowner David Prinz told High Times.

– Maryam Siddiqi

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