Meet the weed CEO making marijuana mainstream in California

Close your eyes for a moment and picture a marijuana dealer. Let me guess, long and lanky hair? Red-rimmed eyes half-closed like they're forever squinting in the sun? An unhealthy obsession with Lava Lamps and Hendrix albums?

Now open your eyes and look at the photo at the top of this story. Welcome to drug dealing circa-2018. Not quite what you were expecting, was it?

The world of pot changed forever on January 1 this year, when adult recreational use of marijuana in California – a place experts tip will soon become the world's biggest pot market – was legalised.

Until then, you needed a trip to the doctor and a loose version of a script to get weed. Of course, you could be issued a script for anything from mild anxiety to writer's cramp, so just about anyone could get one. But still, not everyone wanted to be spotted slinking into a what are commonly referred to as "kush doctors".

Billion dollar toke

But soon it will be as readily available as a six-pack of bad American beer to anyone in California over the age of 21 (although US Attorney General Jeff Sessions is doing his best to derail it, removing the Obama-era easing of federal regulation to put pressure on California's new pot-friendly stance).

But good luck stopping them. Experts estimate the Californian State government will soon be reaping more than $1 billion in taxes from the legal sale of marijuana, with the national market (once recreational use spreads across the country) to be worth as much as $50bn in the next 10 years.

They're the kinds of zeros that get investors salivating, and there's been a rush to buy up "green" companies in the lead up the law change

Already, more than 90 dispensaries across California are licensed to sell weed purely for recreational use, and each found a queue snaking outside their doors on January 5.

The CEO of weed

The man you see in the pictures – all fresh-pressed suit and Hollywood smile – is Sturges Karban, a former investment banker and serial entrepreneur, now CEO of MJIC, one of the tens of thousands of new companies poised to cash in on the green-gold rush, plans to be at the forefront of this weed revolution.


Because as the laws surrounding pot use have changed, so to has the very idea of marijuana use. You can forget people standing on street corners selling baggies. And you can largely forget bongs and even joints, too. The new marijuana customer is just as likely to be a well-heeled soccer mum than a spotty college kid, and they have far more discerning tastes when it comes to weed.

"In some states, parents, the baby boomers, are now more likely to be using cannabis than their children," Karban says. "From an investment standpoint that's a great market; you've got a latent population of soccer moms who are coming to retirement age, they used to do it, they stopped because they were having kids, now they're older, they've got a supply of cash and they're re-engaging with it, and looking at the medicinal benefits as well.

Green goals

"That soccer-mom market is one we talk about all the time; it's a customer in their late 20s to mid-40s, probably in the $250,000-plus family income bracket, and the product design is going to go towards specific demographic needs like that.

"So what kind of products are you selling to that customer, versus the 22-year-old guy who's doing it for fun with his mates, or the executive who's having some at the end of the day with his whiskey?

"What the soccer mom wants is discretion, portability, the ability to manage the dose down, because she's doing it during the day after dropping the kids off. So there are products now that are catering to that, like little breath-freshening strips, that come in 5mg doses of THC. So you pull one out of your purse, you pop it in your mouth and you're done."

The green Apple

Those mums and dads might visit someone like Travis Turner, a weed cultivator-turned dispensary owner, who was putting the finishing touches on his new US$100,000 Los Angeles store when we visited in December. His store, in Paramount, LA, is a Willy Wonka's shop of pot-based products of every imaginable type. If there's a way of ingesting THC, Turner's shop will sell it.

"It's a kind of showroom where people can see, and buy, what we produce; oils, cannabis candies, gummy bears, ice cream, vaporisers, you name it," he says.

But if these new weed customers are in San Francisco, they can visit what might be the fanciest pot retail store in existence, Harvest. Part Apple Store, part Sephora, the Harvest experience revolutionises the idea of buying marijuana, shifting it away from dark alleys and even traditional dispensaries, instead turning it into a high-end experience on par with buying a handbag or watch from a luxury brand.

"You take all of the products from under glass cases or behind the 'bud tender', and you put them on shelves, just the way you would in Sephora or some other cosmetics store, and it's all very high end, you walk in and it's like a boutique on Rodeo Drive or Melrose," Karban says.

"And they have a membership club out the back, which is designed to look and feel just like Soho House, and they've really done it well, it's amazing. You go back there, you smoke with your friends, you get a cup of coffee, it's a nice, classy environment.

"This kind of thing will create a culture we can't even imagine yet."

Business is smoking

Predictably, this huge law change has sparked plenty of interest from investors, some of whom feel like they're standing on the edge of the end of prohibition, and are hustling to snap up stock while they can. One such investor is Australian Gaelan Bloomfield, who runs Greenfield Management Partners (a major investor in MJIC).

"Our fund has put close to $8 million into the US cannabis market, specifically the California market, and from an investor standpoint, in my opinion, and I've done a fair amount of due diligence on this, there is no better investable market in the world right now than cannabis,"Bloomfield says.

So that's why the pot dealer of today, and tomorrow, is a man in a nice suit. Because it's a business, and is booming.