There's a new addition to farmers' markets in San Francisco of late: At a table stacked with empty small mason jars, a few smiling young fellows are handing out free apples.
The apples are bait. These guys are marijuana salesmen.
Stuck on each organic Fuji is a coupon for a free joint from FlowKana, the latest San Francisco-based, app-hailed cannabis delivery startup. FlowKana is a bit late to the “Uber for marijuana, Lyft of pot” game — there are already at least three services promising weed delivered to wherever you happen to be in under 10 minutes. So its angle is different: It'll deliver a product most people don't want.
It sounds like a recipe for disaster. But it could work. There's precedent. It relies on convincing conscientious consumers — the kind of people who care that chickens led a happy, carefree life before they were rendered into stock — to ask a few questions.
They're simple questions, but they're ones most pot smokers don't ask:
Who grew my weed, and why does it matter?
Most legal marijuana in America is grown indoors. This is partially a result of prohibition, which drove pot farmers inside for pure survival. It also drove demand.
Thanks largely to the reputation of cheap, poorly grown black market weed — the kind sold in high schools and mall parking lots across the country for most of our lives — outdoor marijuana is not held in high regard by the typical consumer. At dispensaries, the cheapest bud on offer is almost always grown outside.
“Outdoor” is such a bad word in cannabis circles that dispensaries have rebranded the stuff “sungrown.” It still sells for 20 to 30 percent less than indoor.
This is what FlowKana CEO Michael Steinmetz thinks he can get people to buy at a premium. For “farm-to-table,” “sustainable” marijuana, the former organic vegetable trader is charging $50 an eighth — the same price as top-shelf, mind-bending indoor.
So for the extra money, what do you get, aside from a guy on a bicycle bringing you weed? You get “organically grown” weed (since pot is federally illegal, there's no such thing as certified organic yet). And in the same way you get a newsletter from the farmer in Dixon in your CSA box, you get to know your farmer. In FlowKana's case, you can even email him or her. Trading messages with Cicero-quoting Casey O'Neil, a third-generation Mendocino cannabis farmer, is absolutely something new in the billion-dollar cannabis industry. As is sampling O'Neil's “heirloom” strains — Broken Arrow Royal Kush, Long Valley Royal — the likes of which you cannot find in the store.
You also won't get as high. This is a selling point. “Most commercial marijuana is bred to have high amounts of THC and nothing else,” Steinmetz says. “So you're just gonna get really fucking high, no matter what other experience you have.” O'Neil's weed, on the other hand, “is more earthy, more mellow, more balanced… the word is just more balanced.”
Outdoor cannabis does have a small but extremely dedicated following. They're not bargain seekers, they're aficionados who will outright refuse to smoke anything grown inside.
It's hard to quantify, but there's something different about weed grown using the sun. It tastes different. The high is different.
This is where Flowkana's customers — not to mention Steinmetz's investors — have to take what sounds like a New Age leap of faith. The sun, it appears, gives marijuana more flavor. This is quantifiable in a cannabis flower's terpene count. Terpenes, put as simply as possible, are what determines how a plant smells. More cannabis users believe they also determine a high. It's those terpenes that balance everything out.
Now all Steinmetz has to do is create a demand for the “Whole Foods of weed.”
FlowKana's late February launch party was pure Silicon Valley boomtimes. Guests were whisked to a redwood mansion in the Berkeley hills with stunning views of the entire bay, a full bar, exquisite snacks, an acrobat dangling from a length of red silk, and, of course, loads of finger-sized joints of Casey's weed.
These parties serve one major purpose: Write-ups in TechCrunch, the Verge, and other national press followed. But that was all weeks ago. None of it will mean a thing unless the same crowd that prefers Uber to taxi cabs out of pure cost and convenience — damn what it means for workers — can be convinced to be mindful about its marijuana source.
There are a few things working in FlowKana's favor: economics and climate change.
Indoor marijuana is expensive to produce. It takes a lot of electricity to run grow lights. To grow a pound of indoor pot, you need the energy created by burning up to 2,000 pounds of fossil fuels. Not only is the sun sustainable, it's free. Once full legalization hits California, farms using free solar energy to grow crops will be able to undercut indoor's prices. It may soon be cost-prohibitive to grow inside.
In the meantime, FlowKana is looking for the kind of people who hang out at farmers markets, the folks who prefer Niman Ranch to McDonald's. Farmers' markets are a good place to start. And at least when smokers do finally ask where their weed comes from, there's an answer.