As cannabis transitions from the black market to a legal industry, big shot marijuana investors with their eyes on the "green rush" want to make pot seem "mainstream" enough that white soccer moms will forget it was ever a crime. Their hope is that the industry will continue to expand as the stigma fades, and one of the most important ways to make that happen is to eradicate the racially charged "criminal" association with weed.
The problem is that most of today's stoners were participating in the black market for years before legalization hit the United States. They just didn't perceive themselves or their dealers as dangerous people who fit the description of a "criminal." Instead, the counterculture associated with the black market was a community of dissenters who rejected government propaganda and relied on trust to create an underground industry.
Now, hip-hop artists, who helped usher underground pot culture into popular culture, are trying to trying to employ the same entrepreneurial spirit they used to launch clothing lines and liquor brands to take the reins of the legal-weed industry.
Early this year, Wu-Tang's Ghostface Killah and Killah Priest busted into the California weed industry with Wu Goo, a 70 percent THC oil made to be smoked out of their Dynamite Stix vaporizer. The product comes after the success of West Coast rapper Kurupt's line of marijuana products. Kurupt's Moonrocks are girl-scout cookie buds rolled in CO2 oil and dipped in kief. Kurupt also sells THC-infused "lean" called "Moonwalk." Flavored and bottled like grape cough syrup, the purple drink is a not-so-subtle homage to sizzurp.
Both products are produced in a partnership with Dr. Zodiak, an entrepreneur and hip-hop artist who credits their success to their approach. "We just do things the way they should be done organically. We're not going to take Wu-Tang and try to turn it into Betty Crocker or something like that. We're gonna keep it original and authentic and keep the fans happy. We're not going to change for anybody."
The initial success of Moonrocks, which included a social-media campaign and natural endorsements from the hip-hop community, including Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne, and 2Chainz, encouraged Kurupt's partners, Zodiak and Michael Solo, to reach out to Ghostface and Killah Priest in hopes of developing Wu Goo. Although Ghostface famously dreamed of having "enough land to plant to go and plant [his] own sess crops" in the classic Wu-Tang track "Can It Be All So Simple," it never occurred to him that there'd be a legal-weed business and he might be a part of it. "No, never. Never. Nope. Nope," Ghost tells VICE. But looking back, it makes sense to him how we got to this point. "At the end of the day, it's all about money. The government says you were a criminal if you were getting money off of this weed. Then they saw the demand. They saw it was a growing business. Now they wanna take it and put a dollar on it, so they can get a dollar. They do this with whatever is blowing up. They'd do crack and heroin, too, if it wasn't for people dying over that shit."
Though Ghostface and Killah Priest are joining other rappers who are known to love pot by breaking into the legal-weed industry, they aren't exactly weed heads like Wu-Tang Clan member Method Man, who's about to release a sequel to his stoner comedy classic How High next year. But the respect and renown Ghost has garnered for his art is what Solo believes will help propel their business forward.
"I just think hip-hop is the number one way to brand weed. I think hip-hop and weed go hand in hand together, and they alway have," he says. "The fact that we were the first ones really to combine weed with the hip-hop element with Kurupt and with Wu-Tang, you can see from the results. It just took off and blew up bigger than we ever thought it would, and now we're just coming out with new flavors and new products under our umbrella. It's a beautiful thing."
To stand out from the pack, Wu Goo must keep it real while staying in the lines. "We're a social-media-driven company, and we drive sales through our ability to reach millions of people through social media," Solo says, "Our company makes noise because of all of our friends. The entertainment industry is wrapped around our company, and they're supporting us—but not because we're throwing money at them like big corporations are."
The company has hired Brian O'Dea, a major pot smuggler in the 1970s and 1980s, to expand the company in legal states and internationally, with their eyes set on his home country of Canada. The illicit-turned-licit entrepreneur helps the company expand and keeps the product in line with regulations. That's no easy task given the variety of regulations from state to state, especially as they prepare to potentially convert from medical to recreational in California. I couldn't help but ask Ghostface if he could have ever imagined selling drugs with a white senior citizen from Canada. "Hell no," he says, albeit not dismissively. ""You know, things just happen in life."
"I'm glad he understands it," Ghost adds on O'Dea. "He sees everything, so that just makes you more confident."
"My history actually works to my benefit," O'Dea argues. "It's one of those few instances in your life when your criminal past is actually a qualifier for your legitimate presence."
Solo's call to O'Dea to help expand into Canada turned into a plan to tackle more US states. Now, he is legally selling the drug he smuggled decades ago. "The last thing that I did was 75 tons and $250 million, and we did that with the DEA watching us and somehow we pulled it off. To be able to do this in the legitimate world, to know that everything that we're doing is actually benefitting people, it's just an extraordinary opportunity for me," he says.
That criminals who sparked the cannabis culture in this country are in jail while investors are getting rich is not lost on O'Dea. He says that while speaking to stockbrokers in Canada about the cannabis industry a couple of years ago, he noticed the room was full of men in Tom Ford suits and Prada shoes. To them, he says from the stage, "You owe the seats you're sitting in to people in prisons in orange jumpsuits. You have to stand on those chairs and say let those people out." But, he adds, "Of course no one did."
Now Wu Go looks to expand to other states and convert to a recreational license in the Golden State if marijuana legalization passes the California ballot in November. O'Dea spends his time comparing these regulations. "The compliance in every state has to be dealt with very carefully and a lot of the compliance is around packaging and content. So our labels are different in every state because every state requires different info on the label. We have to put certain symbols on the label in Colorado that we don't have to use in Washington. As we get along, we will have our own person who does nothing but compliance in the markets that we go into," O'Dea says.
O'Dea thinks marijuana will "definitely" be legalized for recreational use in California, and that when that happens, "a lot of smaller companies, a whole lot of companies in general, they're going to get wiped out by big corporations. It's unfortunate that that's going to happen. But I feel very confident with the number of stores that carry our product, we're not going anywhere."
Ghostface is a bit more enthusiastic about the prospects of average people getting into the weed game and turning it into something positive. He simply tells me, "Go in your backyard and grow that shit."
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