“At the end of the day, the vape you use has to look good at the dinner table,” says Arthur Heine, the founder of a cannabis wine pairing company called Sensunique. “Pinot goes well with Skunk. Purple flowers and Cabernet Sauvignon. Riesling and Silver Haze are great together.”
In the short half decade since it first became recreationally legal—first in Colorado and Washington, then in a number of other states—cannabis has fled the terrain of the dank dorm room and found a new home in the world of luxury. Weed doesn’t just have table manners now. It has fine china. It has wine pairings. And with its shroud of illegality lifted, the plant’s place in our culture is unrecognizable compared to where it once was.
This lavish turn of events may at first seem far-fetched, but the reality is that cannabis has always been expensive. At the height of its black market value, its price per ounce was more than quintuple that of Beluga caviar. Furthermore, weed has been burned as creative fuel by countless members of the music and film industries, making its role in pop culture as formative as it is iconic. Yet the transformation of an illegal cottage industry into a fully fledged luxury category, which now includes a lifestyle offering of accessories at Barneys Beverly Hills (and launching online at the end of the month), is a cultural coup that requires further examination. Some of the many experts consulted in the writing of this introduction and its forthcoming chapters include three cannabis sommeliers, multiple designer-cannabis growers, two high-end bong brokers, a cannabis venture capitalist, a cannabis-friendly “bud and breakfast” owner, two members of the burgeoning cannabis bridal industry, a luxury cannabis paper company, and an array of cannabis beauty entrepreneurs. The fact that any of these jobs now exist already begins to tell an entire story—not just about weed, but about the nature of luxury itself.
Before going any further, let’s recalibrate our vocabulary to avoid any faux pas. Members of this new industry almost universally refer to their product as “cannabis,” and eschew the plant’s myriad nicknames such a pot, weed, herb, or even the more institutional moniker marijuana, which some claim has negative racial connotations. Buds in this world are almost universally referred to as “flowers.” High-end bong merchants describe their wares as “glass art.” In these circles, the word stoner rings like a slur. And even the long-held and scientific-sounding distinction between “sativa” and “indica” cannabis varieties has been replaced with more complex terminology that revolves around “terpene profiles” and “chemovars.” Cannabis’s new vocabulary is itself a reflection of the emotional core that lies within this cultural shift: a desire to bring accuracy, precision, and distinction to what was once a black market item.
“The cannabis industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry, but the vast majority of the ‘experts’ out there are black market horticulturalists that have published stoner-esque books on how to grow stuff in your closet,” says Max Montrose, a cannabis expert and sommelier. “A sommelier can pick up a glass of wine and by smell and taste tell you the weather patterns of the year the grapes grew. They can taste the type of fermentation tank it was in. They can tell you what zip code on Earth the grapes grew in. We are now bringing this level of professionalism to the cannabis industry.”
Yet beneath this desire for connoisseurship and standardization sits a current of slowly evaporating shame about the plant’s former illegality, which still sometimes reveals its rough edges. “People know about the AK-47 strain [of cannabis] or the Alaskan Thunderfuck strain,” says Tony Daniel, the Chief Revenue Officer of the cannabis testing company Steep Hill. “But there is a way to classify it that’s meaningful and more acceptable at a mainstream level. People in Wichita are not going to want to smoke something called ‘Alaskan Thunderfuck’ after Thanksgiving dinner.”
Among the many changes in cannabis connoisseurship is a shift away from black market quality standards, such as its superficial appearance (known as “bag appeal”) and pure THC potency. Referring to the latter, cultivators and experts often point out that a wine aficionado would rather be caught dead than select a bottle based on alcohol content. This change in values is also a reflection of cannabis’s expanding market. “The primary purchaser used to be young men who wanted to have the biggest bang they could get for their buck,” says Karyn Wagner, a cannabis cultivation and extraction expert. “With legalization there’s a whole different marketplace where some of the fastest growing areas of purchasers are women and seniors. They’re not looking to get blasted and fall on the floor.”
However, in spite of this trend toward refinement and destigmatization, cannabis’s checkered history remains central to its identity in the luxury market, a reality made even more complicated by the fact that thousands of people remain in prison for nonviolent offenses related to the plant. Similar to how the lion’s share of cocktail recipes and accoutrements surrounding alcohol were perfected during the Prohibition Era, cannabis’s past as an illegal commodity is embedded into its allure. “Weed and the affluent market have always intertwined beautifully,” says Josh Warner, the Los Angeles–based jewelry designer behind Good Art HLYWD, who created a capsule collection of silver paraphernalia for The High End. “There’s a very strong rock-and-roll industry vibe to the drugs that celebrities do, so weed was always a big part of that scene,” Warner says. “Yesterday’s rebels are tomorrow’s conservatives.”
Discretion, exclusivity, danger—these are all key ingredients that the black market and the luxury market have in common. In search of precedent in a totally new industry, some within the cannabis world draw a comparison between themselves and graffiti or tattoo culture: two formerly taboo undergrounds that now hold a great deal of aesthetic currency within the world of luxury. “It’s kind of like when Banksy turned these older art collectors on to street art, and it became a status thing to have a piece of graffiti in your fine art collection,” says Dusan “Duke” Sigulinski, a glass art dealer who trades in bongs that fetch prices north of $100,000. “I want to be the guy with Banksy before you even heard about Banksy.”
For Caleb Siemon, the master glassblower whose company Siemon & Salazar has been carried by Barneys since 1999, smoking-related glassware was always a source of mixed feelings. Although he looks back fondly at the pipes he made for his friends during his college years at the Rhode Island School of Design, he spent his adult career as a Venetian-trained glassblower thinking of bongs as anathema to luxury. The Orange County native therefore couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that his return to pipe-making came at the behest of his first major department store client, who commissioned a series of smoking objects for The High End that includes a $950 Murano glass piece. “It’s so funny that, after all these years not entertaining any smoking projects at all, Barneys of all people are the ones bringing me back into it,” Siemon says. “When we brainstormed the concept, we wanted to create pieces that didn’t look like paraphernalia necessarily. It could look like something you leave out at home like a piece of art, and people might not even notice you can smoke out of it.”
While heritage and craft are central to the identity of many luxury products, in the newfound cannabis market, they have the effect of washing away the stereotypes that come with the product’s illicit past. California’s Mendocino and Humboldt counties, centers for cannabis cultivation that were once hot zones in the War on Drugs, are now making themselves over as the Tuscany and Bordeaux regions of weed.
Yet no other brand brings this notion of reinvented heritage into sharper relief than Devambez, a centuries-old stationer that now specializes in luxury cannabis accessories, including rolling papers made of hemp grown in the Champagne region of France. Made by French artisans who have created work for brands such as Goyard and Hermès, its items such as pre-rolled conical joints with tips printed with vegetable ink are designed to be dinner party gifts in the vein of a box of macarons or a bottle of wine. “The old world bestowed a level of power to paper,” Devambez’s owners say of the connection between the classical business of fine stationery and today’s cannabis goods market. “Money was printed on paper. Royal edicts were printed on paper. Today, if there’s a warrant for your arrest, it’s a piece of paper. Contracts are signed on paper. Paper is for serious, meaningful moments, yet the power of paper has been kind of lost in the modern world. So when we were thinking, What is the role of paper in the future? And what papers are people still using? We realized that it was rolling paper.” Devambez’s “La Grande Fête” gift set for The High End retails at $8,850.
Beyond the market for thoughtfully made accessories, cannabis’s arrival into the luxury world has gained tremendous momentum from the unique qualities of the plant itself. While most associate medical marijuana with half-baked prescriptions, it has been argued to be an effective treatment for common conditions such as insomnia, anxiety, PTSD, and ADHD. CBD, a non-psychoactive isolate of cannabis with a number of beneficial properties, can now be found in everything from matcha lattes to lipstick. “Beyond all the mystique and innuendo and hype, CBD is a serious skincare active [ingredient] to soothe inflammation,” says Allison Ragusa, the cofounder of the apothecary-chic CBD skincare brand Lab to Beauty. “With my background as a holistic health counselor, I find it absolutely magical because it’s so effective at calming inflammation, which everyone needs.”
Another seemingly magical—and heretofore relatively unexplored—property of cannabis is its ability to carry a wide variety of essential-oil-producing compounds called terpenes. “There’s no other plant that has as many terpenes as cannabis,” explains Tony Daniel. “There’s pinene that gives you a pine smell. Limonene that gives you a lemon smell. Or linalool, which is the lavender smell. Cannabis’s unique ability to support terpenes makes it like a psychological and olfactory skeleton key, or, to put it more whimsically, the real-life version of the magical gum in Willy Wonka. “Citrus is pretty easy to isolate, but combinations that can make a strain smell like strawberry or papaya are where you really need to have a knack for it,” says the cannabis breeder Daniel Hendricks. “In the last two years, you have these fruit-like scenarios evolving, like [the strain] Blueberry Muffin, where you smell it and can envision biting into a homemade blueberry muffin.”
The medicinal and connoisseurship conversations surrounding cannabis often travel far from the reality that it is still a mind-altering substance, one that many experts are still figuring out the potential of. “We still have a healthcare system that sees the mind and body as separate,” says Paul Austin, an expert and advocate for the practice of microdosing. The health and lifestyle trend, which involves regularly taking small amounts of psychedelic drugs such as LSD or hallucinogenic mushrooms, has taken off in the tech industry as a mood stabilizer and productivity booster. “Microdosing can help people be more present, creative, and able to work in flow states,” Austin continues. “Combined with meditation, yoga, or breath work, it has a synergistic effect.”
The cannabis pastilles produced by Beboe, the cannabis brand founded by the legendary tattoo artist Scott Campbell, are designed to be a discreet way to microdose cannabis. Products such as these go beyond the suggestion of replacing one’s nightly glass of red with a joint. Instead, what we find here is an entirely new lifestyle proposal, one in which the cliché of the martini-soaked business person is replaced by a new guard of professionals who are fully yoga’d, well-essential-oiled machines who calmly hustle through the day—albeit while forever slightly stoned.
The cannabis industry’s reinvention of contemporary life as we know it even goes as far as hoping to create new and immersive versions of the museum experience. “At [our museum], you are cannabis,” says J.J. Walker, the founder of Cannabition, a cannabis museum in Las Vegas. “You enter into the space through our 420 Room that talks to you about the celebratory aspects of cannabis. Then the tour guide takes you into the Seed Room that’s filled with a massive seed that’s shaped like a bed. You can lie in the seed, and it will talk to you about germination and the origins of cannabis. Then you go into the Grow Room, where you get harvested, and in there we have these giant buds called Hug-a-Budz that you can hug. Then you get smoked up a staircase and exhaled down a slide through giant red lips. It’s the closest thing you can get to smoking weed without actually smoking.”
The confusing and alluring (and sometimes very goofy) sensations we get thinking about luxury weed all stem from the same root cause: that this is what seeing the future happen feels like. Because beneath the entrepreneurial “green rush” energy of this moment lies the reality that our world is just going to be a little more high than it was before. The high-end arrival of cannabis is not a classy makeover of a once-illegal drug—it marks the closing of the loop on an entire era of culture. The Murano glass bong, the designer shower sandal, the boyfriend shirt, and the cashmere sweatpant all exist on the same spectrum of items created for a new and buttoned-down establishment. We live in a world created by yesterday’s stoners, and now there’s finally a way to buy the hardware to match.
Additional reporting by Patrick McGraw.