Investigating the imported American weed that's going for up to $1,000 an ounce—or over three times what you'd usually spend in the UK.
Photo by Jake Lewis
In the UK, the average ounce of weed will set you back about £200 [$280]. Unless you have a friend rate thing going on with the grower, that is, or—conversely—you buy your weed off someone who very regularly fucks you over. But even if your dealer is a huge dick, it's unlikely they'll be charging you upwards of £250 [$350] an ounce.
So to hear that "luxury" cannabis strains with names like "Birthday Cake," "Mochi," and "Chicken & Waffles" are being sold on Britain's streets for up to £700 [$1,050] an ounce comes as a bit of a surprise. What's more surprising still is that there's actually a market for this stuff. The main reasons? Clever marketing and (almost) guaranteed consistency.
The legalization and, more importantly, commercialization of cannabis markets in the US has spawned cannabis-producing brands whose products can only be bought in states where weed is legal. However, with the marketing of these brands living partly online, cannabis users all over the world have become aware of them, spawning international followings for these must-have "artisanal" products.
Dump this on top of the illegal cannabis markets of places like the UK—where relatively poor-quality weed is on offer from street dealers—and you create a global demand for products that are illegal in many of the places they're most sought after.
In their marketing campaigns, these brands offer reliability and consistency. And they're not lying: when buying name brand weed, you're more or less guaranteed to get the same thing the next time you buy it. The same can't be said for the scattershot you get off British street dealers. To top things off, the fact you get this weed in a fancy branded baggie or jar—as opposed to an old bit of cling-film—surely can't hurt either.
I met up with a cannabis dealer who calls himself "Collado." He's based in the West End of London and says he often sells this kind of product to dealers—not for them to re-sell, but for their own "persy" smoke.
"My prices range between £20 to £30 [$30 to $45] a gram, with a minimum of five grams call out," he said (so around two-and-a-half times what you'd normally pay for a gram). "I don't really do deals, only on ounces with some clients. The most expensive ounce I sold was for £700 [$1,000]. People who come to me are usually not concerned with money. They have cash in their pockets."
Collado got some of his weed out. It was certainly more pungent and fresh-smelling than the average 20-bag of haze.
"It isn't just about potency," he said. "Some of the types I sell are less potent than some of the street weed. But they're much better. Smoother smoke, banging flavor, and clear-headed stone. The people who've grown these flowers do it for the love and passion of cannabis; it's not grown in some dirty apartment by a Vietnamese slave who knows nothing about what he's doing."
Essentially, Collado's weed compared to your average street dealer stuff is like the difference between a 50p pack of peppers at Tesco and single, organic £1.50 [$2] pepper from Waitrose. But, just like the price discrepancy between those peppers, is the going rate for this imported weed really justified? I called some cannabis dispensaries in California and Colorado to find out why people are paying way above market rate for this supposedly superior weed.
Kristin Aichinger, Cultivation Manager at Green Man Cannabis, said: "One major factor is how clean our weed is. Here in Colorado, the fruit and vegetables on your counter have more pesticides and non-organic chemicals than the weed in your joint. We have outrageously strict testing regulations here. The weed is also tested for mold and mildew, and potency levels are a legal requirement on our packaging."
When I told her about the UK prices for this American weed, she said: "Holy moly! That's insane. I guess people want a brand; when you find a brand you like, you are also finding a type of cannabis you like."
Andy Klein, President of Denver's Preferred Organic Therapy, summed up the difference between American and British product: "The reality is that Colorado and California have the top growers in the world working in legal environments where the atmosphere is completely controlled," he said. "We're also able to acquire the cream of the crop as far as genetics go. We have some of the top breeders on the planet living here in Colorado and California."
Combine that high quality with the hassle of importing it all the way from the US, and the cost starts to make a little more sense: low supply and high demand equals pricey product. Still, says a member of the London Cannabis Club, "however good it is, that's just too expensive—£30 [$43] a gram was unheard of before. There are great flowers from Spain for much cheaper, or, even better, growers here in the UK who are growing proper strains in the proper way. If it's good weed, sometimes they just say it's from US to sell it at a higher price. US weed has become a brand."
Last month, the Liberal Democrats put forward their proposed framework for a legalized cannabis market in the UK. In their report, they concluded that "plain packaging should be mandatory for all retail cannabis, with standardized non-branded designs along the lines of prescription pharmaceuticals."
This wouldn't go down too well with someone like MC Berner, an entrepreneur and rapper who has established a successful accessory, clothes, and cannabis brand called "Cookies Co." Berner has worked with expert growers in the hills of California to produce strains—such as "Girl Scout Cookies"—which could be some of the most sought-after in the world. "Where can I get some cookies?"—or something along those lines—is a sentence that plagues the cannabis community's online forums and comment sections.
Berner is highly skilled when it comes to making people want his product. He recently told Frank 151: "[Cookies] is a very unique strain, but I believe the branding and marketing helped a lot. It worked its way into the music community and then expanded all over from there."
Cookies Co doesn't necessarily produce the best cannabis in the world, but it certainly knows how to sell it. And this is just the beginning: only a few American states have legalized cannabis and allowed brands to market it to this level; once the rest of the country catches on, we'll no doubt end up with something that looks similar to the alcohol market in terms of scale and competition—which may well lead a reduction in price when it comes to these premium imported products.
Of course, in the UK, the quickest way to make this kind of weed affordable would be to join the numerous countries taking a progressive approach to cannabis policy and just legalize it outright. It's hard to predict when that might happen, but the UN special assembly on drugs—happening in New York at the end of this month—could at least give us an indication of where we're heading.
Follow Ali Cedar on Twitter.