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Legal Weed, My Kids, and the Corporate Buyout of Teenage Rebellion

I used to buy weed from the kid down the street. Now, big corporations are preparing to sell bud to my kids. There goes the counterculture.

His name was Andy and I think his last name was Greenberg. Could have been Goldberg. In the northern suburbs of Philadelphia where I grew up, a control-C control-V of yards, pools and Subarus, Andy Greenberg or maybe Goldberg was basically Timothy Leary. Cloaked in a drug rug, a haze of smoke, and the soupçon of counterculture, he was the weed guy.  Andy emerged from the garage of his mother’s house, where Medeski, Martin and Wood played on repeat, to sell us small glassine baggies half-full of kind bud for $10 a pop.  

At the time, smoking dope felt like high-stakes insurrection. To hear the D.A.R.E. kids tell it, cannabis sativa was a surefire ticket to teen supermax. Of course, looking back it was all remarkably innocent. As a Phish-loving apple-bong-smoking teen, I was blissfully unaware of meth and heroin and fentanyl and suboxone. I had never seen, much less tried cocaine or LSD or mushrooms. Marijuana wasn’t a gateway drug for me. It was a buffer. It was a way to experiment without touching the hard stuff and a way to reject the status quo — all those little boxes made of ticky tacky — without real risk.

In 1999 in Abington, PA, — just a few minutes from King of Prussia Mall — weed was just about the only thing a 16-year-old could purchase that wasn’t made by a major corporation. I didn’t think in those terms at the time, but Andy was my introduction to informal economies on a human scale. Drug deals were really my first peer-to-peer transactions executed totally independent of parental involvement or imprimatur. That feeling of being free, more than the feeling of being high, was the draw.

Cut to the present. I’m in the middle of the Nevada desert, touring the grow facility of MedMen, a Los Angeles-based cannabis company with a $1.6 billion valuation and 19 grow facilities in five states. Inside a spotless laboratory, the strains are on display, neatly labeled and kept maniacally clean. In one room, the tissue cleaning room, a trio of technicians in lab coats and booties, delicately pluck seedlings, leaving only the most picturesque leaves. They place tiny plants into small tupperware containers with an agar base kept on wire racks. These are transported into a grow room and bathed in an ultraviolet pink purple light. The whole affair looks much less like a headshop than a James Turrell installation.

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As Joe Conlin, MedMen’s director of West Coast field operations explains, the small sprouts I’m peering at are actually minutely batched and assiduously tracked microstrains, engineered by MedMen for specific organoleptic and chemical properties. They represent just a wee fraction of the 10,000 pounds planned annual production this facility alone will produce.

Joe walks us — a group of cannabis journalists and myself, all clad in little booties and beard masks —  through the facility, proudly boasting that it is kept to both FDA and USDA standards. This is very believable. The place looks like a bloodless slaughterhouse or a funless Wonka factory. We don sunglasses to enter a vast climate controlled greenhouse where MedMen grows rows and rows of cannabis plants destined for the Nevada market.  Workers wear dayglo hats and sunglasses . “This is a Dutch-style greenhouse — we shipped it over ourselves — with 100 percent climate control,” Joe explains. “We can house 25,500 plants on these beds.” Each plant wears a small collar, as mandated by the state for tax purposes, sporting a fun-loving name like “Birthday Cake.” This is the only nod to the marijuana I remember as a youth — that in-crowd slang I tried to master.  “This is the future of cannabis cultivation,” Joe says, as we take off our glasses and head into yet another laboratory room where yet another group of employees sat at stools plucking the imperfect petals of flowers of plants with minute tweezers into picture perfect buds.

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Views on the future of cannabis differ widely. The Apocalyptics seem to view legalization as the final unraveling of the enlightenment. The Evangelists, however, seem to view legalization as the great exhale. Both camps tend to oversimplify. The reality is that weed poses some public health risk, but not much and that its legalization will likely keep thousands of young people of color out of prison and definitely get a bunch of white boys rich. (MedMen estimates the U.S. market alone for cannabis is $72 billion.)

 

My boys are just five and seven now, too young to try cannabis no matter how legal it is. But I wonder what the state of play will be when they’re thirteen, about the age I started smoking. By then, I’m sure, cannabis will be legal in all fifty states. In New York, where we live, medical cannabis is legal. Adult recreational use, however, is not. But it will be. In a bid to gain support for his third term (or even higher office), New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently endorsed a plan for full legalization by 2019. This is good in the sense that it will limit incarceration. But it will also eliminate what was, for me, a vital outlet. I sought refuge in cannabis not to get high but to get free: free from my parents, free from the food court, free from the asphyxiation of consumerism. For my children, cannabis will offer no such respite. Cannabis will be just another thing to consume. Phone. Wallet. Weed. Keys.

 

Of course I know this way of thinking is saturated both with nostalgia and privilege. For millions of people, mostly African-Americans, the same trespass that gave me a frisson of rebelliousness had catastrophic consequences. However that doesn’t change the fact that my sons – like all sons – will at some point thirst for rebellion and that, with weed off the table, it’s unclear where they’ll turn to to get their fix.

I was in Nevada for the opening of MedMen’s 26th store in a shopping center off the Strip. These stores are bonkers lucrative, averaging $6,541 of sales per square foot, a full grand more in sales-per-square-foot than an Apple store. The build-out itself looks like a mix between an Apple Store, Bergdorf Goodman, and a Supreme boutique. Long tables occupy most of the area with small specially made circular cases perched atop. Inside these cases are the most exquisitely tufted nodules of marijuana or, as David Dancer, MedMen’s dapper CMO calls it, “flowers.”

Dancer, who previously worked at Charles Schwab and American Express and is fond of black watch plaid blazers and crisply unbuttoned dress shirts, rolls out a new, likely focus-grouped argot. Joints are now called “pre-rolls.” “Bud” is now called “flower.” Oil, which I don’t think even existed when I was a pothead, is (I’m fairly sure) called “wellness.” Vape pens, which I still don’t understand, are called vape pens. [Statemade], the new line of MedMen product on display in Lucite cases, looks for all the world like some new makeup line. The boxes are beautifully made in handsome colors with minimal branding. Each one boasts a short name – Zen, Max, Joy– that corresponds to the effects the unique blend of CBD and THC imparts. It looks like stuff my mom would buy if my mom were fancier. That is, as Dancer tells me, the point.

“Look, a first-time client isn’t going to gravitate toward the pre-rolls. But these,” he says holding a slightly flared truly beautiful brushed copper vape pen or these – he holds up a small bottle of THC oil – “are much more approachable.” He explains to me that although Cannabis is already a $75+ billion industry, there is currently only 14% market penetration with less than half of the US population addressed.

 

My eyes glaze over and I imagine good old Andy Goldberg or Goldstein alongside me, eyes hooded, hoody woven, and mind blown.  I can’t imagine what he’d make of all of this or what I would have made of it back when I was smoking joints in the parking lot behind Genuardi’s grocery store. MedMen is a company run by people who have professional headshots taken of themselves, who slay with PowerPoint, and have, I can just tell this is true, the ability to sit in on countless conference calls in windowless rooms for endless hours without feeling one spark of discomfort. Cannabis is now grown and sold by The Man.

The truth is, I have zero chill now and have never had any chill. I remember sneaking into the house late one night after hitting Andy’s glass-dragon bong pretty hard and finding my mom waiting up for me. She might just have been up. I think a normal teenager would have sought to dodge-and-evade but I, in my weird goody goody two shoes rebellion, said something like, “Mom, I’m so so high!” I don’t know what I was looking for. It certainly wasn’t her response, which was: “That’s nice, Josh. You should just go to bed.”

The thing is, my mom was a stone-cold hippie and had been once since forever. One of her most prized possessions was a purple velvet pillow supposedly made from Janis Joplin’s drapes. Once, while driving her 1992 Geo Prism, my mom told me that during law school she had dropped acid twice a week – on Tuesdays and Thursdays — for three years. Terrified, I made her roll up the windows lest a passerby overheard and narc’d.

The point is, my presumption that weed belongs to the people is bound up in a history to which my children will have no direct experiences. I am part of the generation that inherited dope’s cultural signifiers from the Woodstock crowd, but never went and got muddy. The scene was different but the spirit was the same. I inherited the velvet pillow. One of my sons will take it next, but I wonder what he’ll make of it. It’ll look odd next to his smartly designed pre-rolls or next-gen vape. For as cannabis becomes a product, rebels have become just another consumer demographic to target. As decades pass, Joplin starts to look more like an angel investor than a rock martyr.

A few nights after I got back from Vegas — after my boys and I read The Phantom Tollbooth, which is pretty trippy — I took out one of MedMen’s vape pens. A thin green band around the brushed copper base meant that it was Zen, a [Statemade] blend that, according to MedMen’s website, “will bring you the peace you seek, [allow you to] enter a higher state of consciousness.”

I checked on the kids to make sure they were asleep, took to the couch and inhaled. I sucked in the flameless smoke and tried to see the future.

I’m reasonably certain that I’ll be more strict than my mother was when it came to cannabis. But it won’t be out of any sort of fear. I know that I won’t want my boys to consume corporate cannabis because it feels too ironic for comfort, my sons padding the bank accounts of the suits I rebelled against one joint at a time. Sitting in my dark living room and pulling on my pen, I thought of Andy, forever pimply and chubby and cool. I felt sorry for my kids, who will never meet any iteration of that guy. Then another thought crept into my head. This is good stuff. I took another hit, and fell asleep.