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High Country: The Future Of Weed

Motherboard heads to Denver--ground zero for cannabis legalization, and home to a booming tech sector in what could be called the Silicon Valley of weed--to inhale the newest high-tech highs.
June 4, 2013, 5:15pm

Matt Ellis doesn't smoke weed. He simply doesn't enjoy being stoned. The all-too-familiar itch of paranoia that follows a few deep rips of cannabis is enough to keep him from using. But that's not to say he doesn't enjoy—or maybe even need—weed. It's in the one green that he sees gobs of the other.

"At the end of the day, it's about making money," says Ellis, whose Denver-based biomass extraction company is one of countless others riding a wave of high tech innovation in the wake of recent measures in Colorado and Washington state legalizing small amounts of weed for recreational use. "I mean, I want to help people, don't get me wrong," Ellis tells me, referring to a medicinal pot industry brimming with new and diffuse cannabis-concentrate highs that his company, ExtractionTek Solutions, is poised to capitalize on. "But we gotta make a living."

It's an increasingly common refrain around here. There is no place in the world quite like Colorado, which just laid groundwork for the first regulated, taxed, legal recreational weed market in the United States. When Amendment 64 kicks in next January, adults 21 and over in Colorado will be able to legally purchase up to an ounce of weed from licensed dispensaries. They will also be able to tend their own personal grows of up to a half dozen cannabis plants, provided only three are flowering at any given time.

In a place where technology, politics, economics, science, and the pursuit of happiness collide in the latest and greatest vaporizer, chatter of a proverbial Silicon Valley of Weed has never sounded less less crazy than it does today. There are fortunes to be made in the new business of getting stoned.

By fortunes I mean the sort of numbers and opportunities that attract tinkerers like Matt Ellis and his business partner, Marcus Fauth, who interjects every so often as Matt runs us through the LHBES 1200, ETS' patent-pending turnkey extractor. The possibilities also attract people like Javen Shively, the Microsoft manager turned "Bill Gates of Bud" from Washington state who just announced a bold (if entirely naïve) plan to open up a (inter)national chain of pot shops. Whether or not that sounds crazy, that we're even talking about a Starbucks of Pot in the first place is all to say there's an almost unfathomable amount of money up for grabs in this game.

Behold the LHBES 1200, which we're told exceeds North American safety standards. Photo: Chris O'Coin/Motherboard

It's still early, so playing the numbers can be tricky. But legal weed, to cite just one estimate, is expected to pull down $1.5 billion nationwide this year. By 2018, that figure is projected to quadruple. The buzz of industry around this cash cow is particularly deafening in Colorado, where more people turned up to vote on weed last November than for the president. In Denver, it seems to have reached a fever pitch.

Visit almost any of the 207 dispensaries—that's more than the number of booze stores—in Colorado's capitol and the first thing you'll notice is, obviously, shitloads of cartoonishly dank weed. Man, look at all that weed. Jars upon jars of fat, frosty, hairy nugs. The smell is as sweet as it is skunky, enough to get you feeling slightly lifted on mere contact.

It's also easy to get lost marveling over the intricacies of an almost endless line of strains, the bulbous trichomes of which burst to life like miniature psychotropic atom bombs through the lens of a detail microscope, which folks carry on their person around here as casually as bottle openers. And holy shit, the prices. An ounce of high-quality flower will set you back around $360 in New York, where pot is still illegal under state law. In Denver it's not uncommon to see the very same, if not better, ounce going for as low as $120.

Where is it all coming from? Colorado, of course. The technical term is vertical integration, a provision requiring state dispensaries to grow at least 70 percent of their product. What this is giving rise to is an industry model not unlike microbrewing. Across the board—from, say, Lightshade Labs, a local weed franchise, to Denver Relief, Colorado's second oldest medical pot dispensary—pot professionals work their crop from seed to sale and thus bear a deep and heady knowledge of their plants. So don't go saying every pot shop is the same.

Niko said he considers Lightshade to be the equivalent of a—wait for it—Starbucks or McDonald's, an umbrella provider among a few other of Denver's "big boys." From there, it's on to a second tier, to which Niko likens to Jack in the Box and Arby's—still key players in the local grow-sell scene, albeit with a smaller scope and a boutique feel.

But no matter: The second thing you'll notice at any of Denver's 200-plus pot shops is the dizzying amount of stuff that isn't weed—that isn't flower, per se. Juices. Tinctures. Salves. Artisanal chocolates. (Here, chocolate "medibles" are labeled with nutritional facts, how much THC—that's tetrahydrocannabinol, the psychoactive component of cannabis—is present, and are often stamped into clearly-marked portions. Gone, maybe, are the days of buying mystery brownies from some old wizard your buddy from high school knows.) And extracts, extracts, and more extracts—stuff like butane hash oil and propane wax, the sort of candy-looking cannabis concentrates that Matt Ellis churns out by the pound.

Back in the ETS lab, their extractor has run its course. Matt pulls what appears to be a yellow soufflé from the main chamber of the LHBES 1200. After some post-extraction magic, this goop, which is really just the essential oils from weed trim that have been dissolved away using a solvent, will be sold and consumed as what's known colloquially as earwax.

The Electro Dabber (rear) and earwax (foreground, left). Photo: Chris O'Coin/Motherboard

The point here is that weed is changing. But at the end of the day, it's all weed. Lots and lots of different kinds of cannabis. The strain names are as wildly far-flung and hilarious as you'd expect, and can say as much about the original breeder as the plant's genetics and effects. Glass Slipper. Purple Kush. Cannatonic. Alaskan Thunderfuck. Girl Scout Cookies. The Sister. The Church. Headband. And on and on.

Leafly, a strain-indexing start up, is set on making sense of strain noise. This is the preserve of land race strains, "pure" varieties of indicas and sativas (body and head highs, respectively) from Southeast Asia and parts of Africa and the Middle East, ones that are "untouched by human breeding projects," as Denver Relief's co-owner Kayvan Khalatbari explains. It's also home to myriad hybrids, which marry traits of given indicas and sativas.

With some 550 user-submitted strains already vetted and arranged in a clever, refreshingly clean play on the periodic table, with individual entries denoting medical and recreational effects as well as negatives, the Seattle-based company is making it easier to know what to expect when you're picking up. If talk of Silicon Valley-esque hub of highs hasn't ever sounded less crazy that it does right now, it's never looked and felt this good and easy, either.

"You can think of Leafly as Yelp for cannabis strains," Leafly co-founder Brian Wansolich said.

Yelp, yeah, but with strong notes of Wikipedia, the Urban Dictionary, and your resident psychonaut's favorite time suck, Erowid. There's a certain wink-'n'-nod charm to Leafly, which was recently acquired by venture-capital firm Privateer Holdings. Wansolich said the fledgling company, on pace to hit $1 million in revenues by the end of year, tries to not take itself too seriously. This is weed, after all.

At the same time, Leafly and other crowdsourcing projects like it are in no small part filling a knowledge gap in the science of cannabis. So long as cannabis remains a Schedule 1 classified drug, meaning the US government considers the ancient plant to be of no medical value and easily abusable, the only way to get your hands on research-grade cannabis for clinical trials is through the National Insitute on Drug Abuse. NIDA, it turns out, makes it virtually impossible to meet all criteria for procuring weed for study.

"We are stymied by the NIDA monopoly," Dr. Julie Holland, a psychiatrist who studies cannabis, tells me.

That means researchers who can't access the stuff will continue turning to casual citizen botanists, to folks who frequent sites like Leafly, to help fill the void. And yet compounding all the red tape to access, and despite a growing corpus of crowdsourced cannabis information, is the fact that marijuana research funding continues undergoing cuts even as support for the drug continues rising.

"US spending has dropped 31 percent since 2007 when it peaked at $131 million, according to a National Institutes of Health research database," Bloomberg reported. "Last year, 235 projects received $91 million of public funds, according to NIH data." What's more, according to the American Medical Association, the nation's largest doctor consortium, less than 20 randomized and controlled trials, long the gold-standard for clinical research, have ran on smoked cannabis over the past 35 years and, involving a scant 300 patients.

So the research and medical communities find themselves in a sticky spot. As it stands, the literature on the various effects of medical pot contradicts itself in many ways, leaving it up to folks like Jacob to spread the controversial gospel/knowledge of weed. Jacob is a budtender at a local dispensary who lives at the house we're staying at in an otherwise unassuming Denver neighborhood. Think of him as Denver's on-the-ground ambassador to weed. I don't think I've ever met someone with a familiarity of cannabis as encyclopedic as Jacob's. When he says something particularly mind-boggling, eliciting raised eye-brows from the Motherboard crew, he puts us at ease.

"Trust me," says Jacob, who smokes medicinally because he has two screws in his arm. "I am a professional."

Have you ever hung out with someone who smokes weed professionally? Not just voraciously.Professionally. It's a crazy thing. I'm out of breath just watching the guy go to town on bowls and bongs flush with top-shelf Golden Goat and, more and more, extracts, or dabs. Jacob says it's one of the fastest-growing offshoots of new weed, and like so much of Colorado, he's breathing it all in. For some, the act of dabbing, which requires a torch lighter, comes off just a bit too crack-y. That's why Matt and Marcus developed the Electro Dabber, a modular, self-heating nail slider for dabbing.

I can't not give it a spin. In the ETS lab, Matt leaves me to a bowl full of earwax chips, what I gather to be worth untold thousands of dollars on the legal market, and even more on the underground. I place a dab to the heated slider, and hear it sizzle. With smoke filling the chamber, I inhale.

Read Part 2