Bay area native Berner has created a cannabis empire. His Cookies Fam genetics is responsible for some of the world’s most sought-after strains. He’s opened dispensaries and clothing stores throughout the Golden State and will soon be expanding nationwide. In his downtime, he’s a highly successful recording artist signed to Wiz Khalifa’s Taylor Gang label. We sat down with Berner to learn how this former budtender became one of the most influential figures in the cannabis industry.
You have a reputation as something of a renaissance man. You’re a musician. You’re an entrepreneur. You have a fashion line and of course the cannabis business.
I think it’s just with my obsession and passion with the plant. I’ve been working with the weed for many years now, since I was 15, 16 years old. When getting older and more legitimate and adapting to the new laws and regulations, I just wanted to keep building and spreading my wings and just diving into things that I knew were necessary on the market. Back in the day, when mining was going on, everyone was mining for gold. Not many people focused on the picks and shovels. That’s kind of what I’ve decided to do with, at least, the weed side of business. For music, I just like to do it. It’s my hobby. The music kind of complements the marijuana business, but as far as building what I like to call a “hempire,” from my partnerships, the multiple weed brands, the clothing lines, I think it’s just fun. There’s nothing else I’d rather spend my time doing.
What came first, the music or the cannabis?
They both came together. I think that smoking cannabis made me want to make music, and so I just kind of did both. When I was 18 years old, budtending at the Hemp Center in San Francisco, I was making music. As my music started to develop, so did my position in the marijuana business.
Did the experience of working as a budtender help you as a cannabis business owner?
It helped me understand the marijuana business in general. From budtending, I moved up to store buyer, which means I’d buy all the products for the store, which enabled me to create relationships with vendors and growers and understand new products as they came to market, from edibles to styles of hash. And then from there became store manager, so I was running a store. When I decided to break off and start my own ventures, I knew the cannabis game inside and out, from real hands-on experience, from dealing with vendors and buyers and knowing products and breeders to create new strains that we could build brands around. So I think not just budtending, but evolving as someone that was there helping run the shop, that gave me a lot of knowledge and insight on the business for sure.
That was back in the medical cannabis days. Since then, California has gone full rec. Has the recreational legalization law changed things for you, as a consumer or as a businessman?
It’s changed a lot. You know, you have to adapt with the times. One of the hardest things now for me is the length of time it takes to get product to market. Back in the day, you’d be able to harvest something and the vendor could openly bring it to your dispensary and you could buy right there. Things were a lot fresher, and the way you could sell it was a lot different. At my dispensary, you could come in and be like, “I’ve got $7,” and we would put $7 into the system and it would show exactly what you’d get. Now you can only buy in certain increments, and testing, and quarantine, and distribution… It takes almost a month—sometimes a little over a month—to get something on the shelves, which, it’s affected things, you know? I mean, we can still sell bud, and we still know how to purchase the right bud and grow the right bud, but it just slows down the whole process for me, which is frustrating to someone that knows another way.
Right, after thriving under the old regulations, it must be frustrating entering a new system.
Well, not exactly frustrating for us, because we’re down to adapt with change, but frustrating for the consumer, because you know that they’re getting product that might have been sitting for a little bit or could be fresher, that could be easier to sell in different increments. It’s cool. I mean, you just have to adapt with changes. But it’s definitely changed and it’s a lot of stuff to learn, especially with compliance and the packaging and how it can be displayed. It’s just a new world. But at the end of the day, if you can’t adapt to change, you’re definitely going to lose.
What do you think about the new marijuana markets that are cropping up on the East Coast? New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York are all pretty close.
I think it’s incredible, and I hope that the boys on the East Coast get good genetics in their farms and that people are able to experience something that we’ve been experiencing since 1996 in California. I’m very excited for them, and I think that it’s only a matter of time until it goes federally legal. I believe it’s going to come sooner than later.
Do you have any advice for people out East trying to get into the business?
Absolutely. I think their main focus should be, what are you going to grow? What strains are you going to offer the good people of the East Coast and ensure that the quality of the cannabis that you’re providing is superior? There’s so much good genetics out there and so many good breeders and local talent. Find those guys that have been in the game for a while in your area, that know what they’re doing, that know what’s good, what should be on the shelf. You know, my biggest fear for the marijuana business in general, when my time comes and I end up passing away, is that people will be growing bullshit. I mean, I’ve been able to smoke some of the best weed in the world, all around the world, and my crew is responsible for some of the best weed in the world. We have to make sure that quality product stays on the shelves. That’s my biggest concern.
We did a story on the top 20 trending strains of 2019, and Cookies Fam genetics were all over that list. What strains are you really into right now?
The Lemonchello crosses are some of my favorites by my brand. Shout out to my partner, Brett. But Lemonchello is a very interesting strain. It’s Lemonnade x Cherry Pie, and we crossed that up with a bunch of things this year. Some of our most popular new strains are the London Poundcakes. Those are amazing. So the Lemonchello is some of my favorite, but the London Poundcake 75 that we grow in LA that was bred by Jigga is some of the best herb I’ve ever smoked. It’s got a really nice blueberry funk, silky cherry pie vibe. It’s so good, bro. It’s probably some of the best smoke we’ve curated at Cookies—the London Poundcake 75.
Is that a cross from the Cookies?
Yeah, so London Poundcake has Cookies, Tangie, Sherbet and OG in it, and a lot of crazy flavors came out of the pheno that we picked. It doesn’t really represent any of those flavors. It just created something brand new that we haven’t tasted yet, which is amazing. It was multiple crosses back to different crosses that made that, and we spent a lot of time breeding that. We have a new strain called Gelatti that I like a lot, too, which is a sister to Biscotti, which is the same genetics, just done differently, our way. We crossed that with a bunch of things, too. We just did a collab with Seed Junky. We crossed the Gelatti with the Kush Mints 11, and that produced some really, really crazy ones too.
How long does it usually take to breed a new strain?
You’re looking at over a year if you do it right. You have to cross it. First, you have to either reverse or you have to pollinate with a male. You get the seeds. You have to plant them. You have to flower them out. You have to back them up. You want to run it again a couple times to make sure they’re stable, and then you have to go to your backups and mom those out. It takes a while. A lot of artists ask for strains, and I let them know we really do this. We’re not here just throwing names on fake strains, so it would take a while. Not a lot of people are patient enough to do so.
When do you stop pheno-hunting? What characteristics make a strain a keeper?
I mean, for me, I like the flavor, man. The flavor’s got to be all the way there. If I’m going to smoke something, I want it to taste amazing. First thing is flavor, and then obviously you’ve got to go with high. What’s the high like? I’m not so big into yield, and some of my partners get upset about that because obviously growers want to get something that yields big, but it’s got to be flavorful as fuck, man. And unfortunately, some of the best tasting strains are the finicky ones that no one wants to grow.
You’ve got a bunch of storefronts in Cali where you offer these strains.
Yeah. We have a store in Los Angeles, right on Melrose. Cookies Melrose is an amazing store. It got voted Best Dispensary in LA. We have a lot of the limited drops I talked about there. We have a store in Maywood, which is near downtown LA, and we offer a good amount of strains, same menu there as well. We’re working on the Bay Area, and actually a nationwide rollout. We’re going to be going nationwide and look forward to bringing the love everywhere we go.
I wanted to get your take on social media cracking down on cannabis accounts. Has that affected you at all?
It affected me so much I paid a couple hundred thousand dollars to create an app that I’m launching called Social Club. I don’t care if it blows up or gets bought out or ever monetizes at all. My only goal is to share my menu and all the new strains that we’re working on. Our store accounts constantly get deleted. Our main page for the brand gets deleted. My page, which I’ve worked on for years with over a million followers that’s verified by Instagram, continues to get deleted and I have to go beg for it back. I just got so sick of having to build something and rebuild it. Instagram is almost like a journal. You give your whole life to it. You have memories on it that you might not have saved anywhere else. To have it taken from you all the time is… it’s pretty annoying. So I’m partnering with Weedmaps and building my own app. We just want to create a nice home for people to share their product and their passion for the plant without being deleted.
The sad thing is I truly believe that the social-media crackdowns are by brands that don’t want other brands showing off their new work. I don’t believe it’s actually Instagram, because when I spoke with my rep at Instagram they’re like, “You’re not even violating terms on these posts that you’re getting deleted on. You’re getting mass reported.” So some of these bigger cannabis brands, and you’ll probably be able to figure out who they are by looking at their posts and seeing if they ever get deleted or not, have created bot farms. They mass-report photos that they don’t want up. If I post a new strain that’s going to come out and a competing brand is like, “Fuck that, we don’t want to see him win,” they just take their little bot farm and get it mass reported. Then when Instagram’s algorithm shows that something has been mass reported, it automatically removes your post. So it’s a lot more complex than people think. That’s my belief. People might not want to dive into conspiracy theories, but I think that’s definitely a fact.
Well, we love conspiracy theories. So you think it’s strategic?
Has to be. It doesn’t make sense why, like, four cannabis brands hash every single post, including address of store, time for drop, the details on the cross, where to go get it, and they’ve never been deleted. And then there’s a couple guys that are making major moves that constantly get removed. It’s not every account being targeted by a big group, but a good amount of the ones that keep going down definitely are. So I don’t know.
When can people get your app?
March 10 we’re doing a beta version. It’s going to be for free on the app store for Google and for iPhone. We just want to provide somewhere for people to share their shit, man. Fuck being deleted. That sucks.
It does. So this is our second annual High Times 100 issue, featuring the hundred most influential people in cannabis. And you’ve made the list for the second straight year. How does it feel being at the forefront of the industry?
I think it’s probably one of the coolest things ever, I mean, that people would trust my vision, trust my palate for picking strains that we put on the market, that people enjoy our store. I mean, as a fan of weed, I’m sure you can imagine I did this all out of passion. To actually be in a position that people consider me some kind of public figure is probably the biggest compliment ever, because what stoner doesn’t dream of that? Everyone gives stoners this crazy persona that we’re lazy and we don’t do shit, and that’s definitely not the case. I work harder than a lot of people, and I love it. I think that the fact that it’s High Times, a magazine I grew up reading, trying to figure out if I should order the fake weed on the back [laughs], you know, that’s sitting in my living room on my coffee table as we speak, considers me one of the top 100 people in this business, especially how big the business is, it’s probably the biggest compliment [I could receive] and motivation to keep doing what I do.