Warning: This story discusses mind-altering substances and technology used to consume them. These substances are legal in some places but not in others. You shouldn't do things that are illegal -- nothing here endorses illegal drug use.
The company's co-founder is an Apple alum. The flagship product is a $250 app-enabled smart device in an emerging category. The gadget's silver-bodied design gives it the look of a striking statement piece for modern homes.
It might sound like I'm describing Firefly, a weed tech startup based in California. The product in question isn't a smart thermostat that regulates the temperature in your home, but rather a smart vaporizer that with app-enabled precision. Available for preorder this weekend and expected to start shipping within the next month, it's called the Firefly 2 Plus, and if the company's nomenclature doesn't betray its Apple influences, its talking points certainly will., but I'm really describing
"We want to be the vaporizer for all people," says Walden Alexander, Firefly's director of global sales and distribution, "the way the iPhone was the smartphone that bridged the gap between early adopters and mass adoption."
Boasting easier air intake, a modest boost to battery life and a lower price than the Firefly 2 that came before it, the nearly identical-looking Firefly 2 Plus is hardly a dramatic jump forward for the brand. It does, however join a growing field of high-end, handheld vaporizers that seek to leverage tech to deliver a better high -- and to win customers at a time when the legalization movement appears primed to bring more of the mainstream into the fold.
A tipping point for pot?
Alexander and I talked about the weed-tech business between bites at a popular spot for Nashville-style hot chicken near downtown Louisville, Kentucky. Toward the end of our conversation, he unboxed a production model of the Firefly 2 Plus to show me the company's newest hardware. It's a good-looking gadget, and also longer and bulkier than most handheld vaporizers.
Like other Firefly vapes, the 2 Plus features a magnetic lid with your choice of design. With the wood-grain pattern on Alexander's 2 Plus, the thing looked a bit like a king-sized duck call as he brought it up to his lips to demonstrate how to hold and use it.
Yes, I'll admit that during all this I nervously glanced around the dining room for any local cops on a lunch break.
Despite a long history as the nation's top producer of hemp, the commonwealth of Kentucky is one of 18 states where both recreational and medicinal marijuana use is still prohibited by law. Kentucky also lists possession of drug paraphernalia as a Class A misdemeanor, punishable with a $500 fine and up to a year in jail. At the same time, hemp-derived CBD products are legal in Kentucky, and bongs, pipes and vaporizers are openly sold in stores across the state, typically with winking signs that read "for tobacco use only." At any rate, we're a long way from California.
Then again, maybe we're closer than you might think. Earlier this year, legislators in Kentucky's House of Representatives introduced a bill to legalize marijuana for medicinal use in the state. Last month, that bill cleared the Judiciary Committee by a 16-1 vote. More recently, Kentucky Democratic gubernatorial candidate Adam Edelen offered up a plan to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use.
Along with record public support for legalized pot, which now includes a majority of Americans aged 55 and over, and a majority of Republicans too, headlines like that feed into a growing sense of marijuana momentum across the US. Mark Williams, the former Apple developer who co-founded Firefly in 2011 with business partner Sasha Robinson, himself a veteran of Microsoft, cites the 2018 midterm elections as a key inflection point. Statewide initiatives to legalize marijuana passed in Missouri, Utah and in Michigan, which became the first state in the Midwest to legalize weed for recreational use.
"It was the best day for cannabis in the history of cannabis," Williams says. "All of a sudden we realized there was no going back."
Williams added that he's heartened to see many of the Democratic candidates for president embracing legalization as part of their platforms. And while he "wouldn't presume to speculate," he adds that he could also envision President Donald Trump beating them to the punch.
"If I were him, I would just wait until a few months before the election," Williams said, "and, just by executive order, make it legal and take the issue away from the Democrats and say, 'Ha! Now you don't have that issue anymore.'"
A high-tech high
At any rate, Williams and others I spoke with in the weed-tech industry expressed optimism that the US will see significant progress toward full legalization by next year's November elections. Meanwhile, emerging cannabis subcategories like vape pens and oil concentrates, the latter of which Firefly vaporizers are compatible with, are already seeing steady growth, according to marijuana delivery service Eaze. Those are the tailwinds Firefly is trying to catch with the 2 Plus as its new flagship.
To that end, the new price of $250 is $80 less than before -- priced to compete with vaporizers like the $275 DaVinci IQ, but still $80 more than its top competitor, the popular Pax 3, which is made by the same team behind Juul electronic cigarettes. Like Firefly, those app-enabled alternatives feature eye-catching designs, which isn't an accident. Looks matter when you're trying to capitalize on consumer curiosity and get people to splurge.
Firefly hopes to stand out from the pack with its nifty magnetic lids, and with the fact that, unlike most vaporizers, it features a little window that lets you see what's inside as you're vaporizing it.
Like the Firefly 2, the 2 Plus also employs a patented technique called "dynamic convection" that heats the device up to the selected temperature setting with each drag instead of preheating to the temperature setting at the start and then remaining there. It takes just a few seconds to heat up when you want to take a hit, but those seconds add up since you're waiting with each hit. With most other vaporizers, you'll wait 15 seconds or so when you first turn them on, and then drag at will until you're done.
With the Firefly, you just hold your finger against the touch-sensitive buttons on either side of the device, wait for the green light and take a hit. And, in a nice touch (no pun intended), the app lets you use either of those buttons, or both simultaneously, for heating the chamber. Just tell the app which option you want.
Dynamic convection also makes it so the 2 Plus doesn't need a power button, since it heats up with each button press and automatically cools down after each hit. When the battery needs recharging, you'll dock the 2 Plus in a charging cradle that comes with the device. Firefly says that other benefits to dynamic convection include gentler heating, more accurate temperature control and less wasted vapor between hits.
Meanwhile, the 2 Plus boasts a borosilicate glass bowl inside the device and glass piping to the mouthpiece, too. That's a quality interior -- though the exterior casing felt a bit more plasticky than some of us expected at first touch. With its extra size and angular bulk, a few of us also found it to be less comfortable to hold than other vaporizers.
As for what makes the 2 Plus a "Plus," Firefly's team points to the device's improved air-flow during drags as the most significant upgrade over the Firefly 2.
"It's easier to inhale," Williams says. "You don't have that immediate need to exhale. To use an analogy, you'd never take a swig of beer and spit half of it out. But that's what people are doing with cannabis right now."
The key with any vaporizer is temperature control. In fact, the whole point of vaping is that you're heating the active ingredients (terpenes and cannabinoids like THC and CBD) to their boiling point and releasing them as vapor, but not burning your bud the way an open flame will. Whether it's basic conduction vapes or fancier convection vapes that heat more evenly, the idea is that you're aiming for a Goldilocks temperature -- hot, but not too hot.
That's where those app controls come in. With a full spectrum of temperature settings ranging from 200-500 degrees Fahrenheit that you adjust in 10-degree increments (a major upgrade from the six fixed settings of the previous gen), plus a "calibration" slider for more incremental adjustments that nudge the quality of your vapor toward either richer flavor or a smoother drag, Firefly's app is simple and uncluttered. I appreciated the links to instructional videos in its Info section, too.
It's just a shame that there isn't a temperature readout on the device itself, or the ability to cycle through that full range of temperature settings without the app -- though, if your phone dies, there is a method to change between seven temperature presets that range from 250-480 degrees F. It's not the most intuitive, though -- you'll hold the right button, then press the left button three times to enter a setting selection mode. While still holding the right button, tapping on the left button will cycle through the 7 presets, starting with the lowest.
Just like the law, the market for marijuana tech is still evolving in the US, and we don't yet know exactly what it's final form will look like. It's also unclear how high-end vaporizers that cost hundreds of dollars will fare against smaller vape pens made for use with disposable cannabis oil cartridges. Those are significantly less expensive than products like the Firefly 2 Plus, and their popularity is on the rise.
If the Firefly 2 Plus wants to be the iPhone of vaporizers, then it might be an iPhone XS Max -- big, expensive, impressive and more than a lot of people probably need or want to pay for. Still, you might have said something similar about Nest once upon a time. And look how that turned out.
Originally published Apr. 20 at 4 a.m. PT.
Update, at 2:30 p.m. PT: Corrected the description of the device's temperature controls outside of the app, and the date of Firefly's founding, which was in 2011 and not in 2012.