Snoop Dogg wants you to light up

Marijuana companies are ditching the stoner image as they use technology to shoot for broad appeal. Goodbye, tie-­dye. Hello, cannabis-infused salmon.
Mark Mann

Snoop Dogg wants to be the Martha Stewart of weed.

Need a bong for your holiday party? Visit Merry Jane, the herb-loving rap star's new website, where you'll find step-by-step instructions for carving a seasonally festive water pipe from a pumpkin. And save the seeds. You can roast them in cannabis-infused coconut oil for an intoxicating snack.

Merry Jane, adorned with animated billowing clouds, also explores the world of bud sommeliers and introduces you to marijuana-infused salmon, calling it "the cannabis craving you never knew you had." It even has an interactive bud database that sorts marijuana strains by desired effect. Try a bowlful of Super Silver Haze if you're looking for a citrusy sativa to make you happy.

You'd have to be high to miss the point: Snoop wants to sell Mainstream America on the cannabis lifestyle. "There ain't nothin' like it out there!" the rapper, born Calvin Broadus, told me in an email.

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Old attitudes about weed are going up in smoke. No one seems to care the US government still lumps marijuana in with hard drugs like LSD and heroin. Over the past two decades, 23 states, including California, have approved pot for medicinal use. Four states — Alaska, Washington, Oregon and Colorado — and the District of Columbia have gotten onboard with reggae hero Peter Tosh, who argued, "Legalize it. Don't criticize it."

Make no mistake: America's going to pot. We're expected to drop $4.8 billion on weed this year in the states where it's legal, according to GreenWave Advisors. The cannabis researcher sees total sales rising more than sevenfold to $35 billion by 2020, assuming the entire country removed prohibitions on bud.

As more people spark fatties, money has poured into budding ventures, which investors reckon will grow like weeds.

On a September Tuesday, I dropped by The ArcView Group's Investor Pitch Forum, where potpreneurs hustled for the attention of moneymen. The pitch forum is a big deal in the world of weed; ArcView is a marijuana investor network with more than 500 members.

Held in a conference room at the swank-if-stiff L.A. Hotel Downtown, the forum is a Shark-Tank-meets-speed-dating beauty contest in which every third word seems to be "cannabis." Entrepreneurs take the stage, give their version of Hollywood's elevator pitch and then go table-to-table seeking cash.

Jordan McHugh, co-founder of Denver-based Best Buds, is looking for a half million dollars to support his mapping service, which he likes to call the Tinder of cannabis dispensaries. He wants to stop outsourcing his engineering and hire three developers. He's willing to negotiate an equity stake.

The investors pepper McHugh, who looks like he might have played lacrosse at a New England boarding school, with questions. What's your cash burn rate? How do you differ from your chief competitor, Leafly?

McHugh fields the questions and hits the circle of tables. He doesn't score financing that day, but the experience helps him refine his pitch. He tells me that he later got investors to buy into Best Buds, though he doesn't say how much cash he got.

The investor activity underscores a shift in the culture of the canna-economy, say longtime marijuana entrepreneurs.

"The ratio of tie-dye to suits used to be 99-to-1," says Jim McAlpine, co-founder of New West Summit, another weed conference that takes place this week in San Francisco. "Now, it's more suits than tie-dye."

George Washington inhaled (probably)

The suits aren't stumbling onto something new. Marijuana has a long and colorful history in the US.

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Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, among other Founding Fathers, cultivated hemp. Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have admitted smoking the stuff, though Clinton claims he didn't inhale.

Business leaders have also sampled weed. Hugh Hefner, the king of the Playboy empire, and George Zimmer, the founder of Men's Wearhouse, have acknowledged getting blazed. Sean Parker, the former president of Facebook, is part of an effort to legalize recreational marijuana use in California.

Snoop, as much a businessman as a ganja icon, knows a good chunk of Mainstream America still pictures weed enthusiasts as beanie-wearing stoners or blunt-puffing gangstas. So he and the rest of the industry are turning the image of smokers on its head. They're ditching terms like "pot," "chronic," "dope" and "space cakes." In their place: nonthreatening, neutral, technical terms, like "cannabis" and "edibles."

"The industry is trying to get away from the burnout images of losers at home," says Brian MacKay of Grey Zone Entertainment, which is designing a marijuana-themed online game. The title, Grow Show, pits players against each other as they cultivate their own strains of digital bud.

"How many people now are watching Cheech and Chong movies?" MacKay asks, referring to the '70s comedy stoner duo.

Whole Foods meets weed

As canna-business waves goodbye to tie-dye, it's also going up market.

Borrowing from Whole Foods, Flow Kana is building a "farm to table" marijuana brand, says founder Michael Steinmetz.

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Flow Kana's website and mobile app emphasize the company's weed — delivered to your door in mason jars at $50 a pop — stands out from the crowd. Place an order from your laptop or iPhone and a delivery person will show up inside a half hour with "connoisseur grade cannabis" that's "nourished by the sun, moon and stars."

On a recent Friday, Steinmetz, a Carnegie Mellon-educated mechanical engineer, gives me a tour of his startup's loft offices in San Francisco's Dogpatch district. It smells more like Jamaica than Jamaica does. When I return to my office, my editors ask me if I have the munchies.

A twentysomething woman wearing latex gloves carefully measures weed in eighths of an ounce, then places the pot in clear jars. Each carries a hand-lettered thank you note that includes the name of the farmers who nurtured that particular herb, a personal touch Flow Kana says sets them apart.

"What we're trying to do is throw a different, more positive light on cannabis and cannabis users," Steinmetz says.

To do that, the 13-person startup hosts monthly events promoting cannabis as a creative tool for artists, writers, academics, lawyers, chefs … anybody.

At a late summer Flow Kana event, I weave my way through a plush hillside house in Piedmont, California, where more than 50 people have gathered to puff on Steinmetz's organic cannabis. As the sun starts sinking, guests light joints on the deck. A blind woman standing next to me sparks a jay with her service dog by her side.

It's like any other party in California's hills, except weed has replaced wine.

About an hour later, we pack into party buses outfitted with stripper poles and mood lighting, and whisk off to the Chabot Space and Science Center in neighboring Oakland. Erik Davis, a writer, talks about how marijuana enhances his thought process.

When he's finished the planetarium goes dark and chill-out music rises from speakers around the room as guests are taken on a tour of the heavens. It's like watching Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" while high.

Everybody must get stoned

Snoop Dogg and Ted Chung, his business partner, came up with the idea for Merry Jane early last year after they noticed major lifestyle interests, like cooking and wine, had sophisticated and modern destination websites. Marijuana, a longtime passion of Snoop's, didn't.

The pair quickly set about describing what they wanted Merry Jane to be. Chung, who studied at Wharton, was determined the site be to weed what "ESPN is to sports," covering everything that's relevant to the world of cannabis.

That meant figuring out how to resonate with dedicated stoners and appeal to marijuana newbies. Chung, who manages Snoop, also recruited celebrities to boost Merry Jane's cred. Miley Cyrus and Seth Rogen, no strangers to pot, have both partnered with the site.

One of the site's How-To videos features Rogen rolling and smoking a Cross Joint, a doobie with three burning stems. If you aren't familiar with this potent creation, check out the actor's 2008 stoner movie Pineapple Express.

Merry Jane launched on September 21 and racked up 400 million page views that day.

Last week, Snoop used Merry Jane to kick off his new line of cannabis products, called Leafs By Snoop. Leafs has something for everyone. In addition to eight strains of cured marijuana, the Leafs line includes cannabis-infused chocolate, gummies and fruit chews.

It's all part of an effort to boost weed's broader appeal.

"Cannabis culture for all," says Chung. "That's our whole mantra."