The craftsmen at the front edge of the marijuana‑concentrate boom
We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert in a driving rain, when my passenger, James “Skywalker” Johnson, began to fidget with the well-traveled, antiballistic, Pelican-brand polypropylene case resting on the floor mat between his feet. Hazard yellow and covered with stickers, equipped with double-throw latches and a heavy-duty handle, it resembled something the modern army might carry into battle, a safe box for a delicate gun sight or high-end piece of electronics.
Skywalker is a chunky man of 32 with a burner cell phone, an exceptionally well-developed palate, and a bit of an asthmatic wheeze. A former intern for a Republican U.S. senator — his season in Washington politics left him sprinting for the exit — he has worked as a bartender, a chef, a computer programmer, and a marijuana grower. Now, he says, he’s “an ambassador for a California-based lifestyle brand inspired by the culture of hash oil.” As such, he buys and sells marijuana buds and trim, hash oil and edibles, T-shirts and hats. He’d tell you more, but many of his activities are illegal, even though his products are not. His and the names of many other individuals and companies in this story have been changed.
On a stormy December afternoon, we were headed to Las Vegas for the fourth annual Secret Cup Finals, the culmination of a yearlong series of regional judged events that bring together the best artisanal hash-oil makers in the country. The festivities were to be held in a rented mansion off the Strip. Skywalker had paid dearly for a room in a guesthouse by the pool. His fledgling concern, Jedi Extracts, was one of the sponsors. Besides looking forward to representing his brand, making new contacts, and sampling all the entries — some of which for sure would be “fire,” meaning the best of the best — Skywalker was stoked to meet up again with his friends in the elite community that has grown up over the past half-decade around the business and craft of making hash oil, called extraction.
Cool but nerdy, deliberately unkempt, more comfortable alone or in small groups, these self-taught Heisenbergs of hash oil call themselves Wooks, after the fierce but cuddly Star Wars creatures many of them resemble. Mostly men in their 20s and 30s, they favor beards and tats, blown-glass pendants, food-stained hoodies, and flat-brimmed ball caps with collectible pins decorating the crowns. Known by their colorful handles — Big D, Brutal Bee, Task Rok, Witsofire, the Medi Brothers, Hector from SmellslikeOG — the Wooks devote their lives to producing and smoking the very finest hash oil, a form of concentrated marijuana that can be extracted from the leaves and flowers of the pot plant by a variety of chemical processes, the most common of which employs ordinary cans of highly volatile butane lighter fluid as a chemical solvent.
Hash oil (the formal name is butane hash oil, known as bho) is a modern version of hashish. The butane gas and lab equipment replace the intensive labor of patting, sifting, and compressing marijuana flowers that go into the traditional method of creating hash. Since the 1960s, devotees have been making a sludgy form of hash oil, usually on the stove in a pot using a variety of toxic solvents including naphtha, hexane, or isopropyl alcohol. A precursor to bho began to appear around 2000 in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. The first recognized iteration was called Juice. It was smoked primarily on top of a green screen — a pipe bowl full of pot or pot ash. Some preferred to chase the dragon, using a straw and a hot knife or a piece of foil and a flame.
Almost from the beginning, enthusiasts started making their own pipes. Soon the glass blowers became involved; today you can buy elaborate blown-glass pipes that cost tens of thousands. When smoked, hash oil produces a more substantial rush than marijuana flowers, but the overall high doesn’t last as long. A heavy smoke session often leads to a spontaneous nap. The Wooks call this condition dtfo, Dabbed The Fuck Out. They take great sport in posting dtfo photos of one another on social media.
bho was first widely publicized in 2009, when it won “best product” at the High Times Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam. The founders of the Secret Cup, Jeremy Norrie and Daniel de Sailles, were part of the team that first brought hash oil to the Amsterdam competition. According to many but not all, they helped popularize the term dab, which was coined to describe the approximate dosage. (“Dabbing” means smoking hash oil.)
Like pot, hash oil can be purchased legally in a dispensary or illegally from an extractor or a dealer. The categories of hash oil vividly denote the different textures of the stuff, which originates as a liquid but eventually hardens into a solid state unless otherwise prepared. There is wax, shatter (as in broken glass), budda (butter), honeycomb, live resin (sticky), crumble (like crack), and honey oil. Hash oil of a lesser grade and potency is also used for edibles, tinctures, lotions, drinks, and e-vape cartridges.
The colors range from vivid greens to golden yellows to burnt-sugar browns. A translucent golden amber is considered the connoisseur’s choice. As a rule, Skywalker will not smoke anything that’s not clear, even some of the Secret Cup entries. “I’m not putting that shit in my lungs,” he often says, implying that he doesn’t know who’d extracted it or how.
Because of the stigma against smoking, the medical marijuana statutes recently passed in New York allow only the use of hash oils, edible or vaporized. Smoking pot remains illegal. If New York is a predictor, hash oil may well be the future of the marijuana industry — a national market expected to reach $47 billion in total revenue by 2016.
Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia allow some form of legal marijuana use, medical or recreational. Twelve states explicitly allow for the use of marijuana extracts, which lack the telltale skunky smell of marijuana — the buzzword in the industry is discreet. However, only two states permit extraction, Colorado and Washington, where rigorous laboratory specifications must be met. “In the other ten states,” says Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, “arguably the extracts are legal when they fall from the sky.”
Today, as large companies and venture capitalists rush into the rapidly expanding hash-oil arena, Skywalker and his fellow Wooks are fighting for their piece of the future. Echoing the sentiments of artisanal craftsmen in other fields, they are hoping that quality and discriminating palates win the day — or at least keep them in business as the giants grab bigger shares of the market.
For the Wooks, attending the Secret Cup is like attending a high-level trade show. (For legal reasons, the finals are considered a private party.) It’s sort of a March Madness for extractors — not the only such contest in the world, but maybe the most exclusive. The regional winners were going to be present at the finals as well as some of the winners from the previous year. In all there would be 20 entrants. Bragging rights and future contracts were at stake. If Skywalker and the others want to compete in their rapidly growing field, they need to be known, to be intimate with the doings and players in their industry, to cultivate an aura of insider success.
But it won’t be just work. It is, after all, Las Vegas. These Secret Cup gatherings have become somewhat dear to Skywalker. Wooks are loners. Their lives are furtive and solitary. Most reside in rural areas in states where they could easily be busted. If they are busted — as was a friend of Skywalker’s who blew up a house when the butane exploded — none of the other Wooks will dare to call, fearing their friend’s communications are being monitored by police. As it is, their community exists mostly on social media. Attending the Secret Cup would be some of Skywalker’s best friends, the people with whom he Facebooks and Instagrams regularly. Hanging out for five days in Vegas with his fellow Wooks, eating, smoking, wreaking a little havoc on the Strip — “What’s not to like?” Skywalker said in his gruff East Coast manner.
By three in the afternoon the storm was still raging, and we had two hours left to drive. The desert sky was black. Gusting winds buffeted the car. As we made our way toward Las Vegas, the red lights in front of me were a watery mirage. Skywalker was biting his pinkie fingernail, a nervous tell I’d begun to notice during our time together. At some point, I heard a deep sigh emanating from his vicinity, followed by a rattling cough. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed him reach down between his feet, throw the double latches of his Pelican case.
From the custom foam padding arranged inside, he withdrew his Mini Sundae Cup rig. Five inches tall, made of clear glass by a company called Hitman, the pipe retails for $500 and uses a small amount of water as a filter. The bowl on top, called a nail, is an after-market add-on, fabricated of the finest quartz. (Some enthusiasts prefer nails made of Grade 2 titanium, a type used in missiles.) Placing the rig in the cup holder, Skywalker reached into his backpack and removed a bottle of water, a small paper bindle of hash oil, and a butane torch.
The torch was bigger than a cigar lighter but smaller than a Bunsen burner. He pulled the trigger, a loud click like a gun dry-firing. A 4-inch cone of orange-blue flame burned briefly, illuminating the inside of my car.
“Mind if I do a dab?”
Two months earlier. October in central Phoenix.
A couple dozen white canopy tents, arranged roughly in a circle, baked in the sun like so many covered wagons on an asphalt prairie. Plumes of light smoke rose here and there, mixing in the enervated air with the smell of hot dogs from the vendors by the gate.
The Secret Cup Desert Regional was the sixth stop on the 2014 Secret Cup circuit. Like all the others except the final, it featured a weekend expo open to the public. The Secret Cup could be called a smaller, more specialized version of the huge gatherings made popular over the years by High Times’s Cannabis Cups. A cross between a farmer’s market and a renaissance fair, the expo is a pop-up festival for connoisseurs of artisanal hash oil, edibles, and other concentrates. Available for sale alongside various marijuana products were paraphernalia, art, and clothing. In one area, glass blowers demonstrated their skills. For the price of admission — $20 per day — anyone who presented a medical marijuana license could smoke as many dabs as they were able. There were also deals to be had: A gram of top-shelf hash oil was selling for as little as $50, about half the going rate in dispensaries.
Beneath one of the white tents, in a booth rented by Jedi Extracts, Skywalker and his right-hand man, a guy called the Captain, were working the crowd with the zeal of boardwalk hucksters, pushing a drinkable hash-oil extract. Suspended in cherry syrup, it is sold in a small red pharmaceutical bottle to resemble the narcotic cough medicine known in hip-hop circles as Purple Drank, a combination of promethazine and codeine. You might call it a novelty item, but it has a pleasing taste and a copacetic effect, especially over ice in the heat. Sales were brisk.
Seated alongside Skywalker and the Captain at a folding table was an extractor named Sloth Bear, one of several with whom Skywalker works. By necessity there’s a lot of collaboration in the hash-oil trade. Skywalker neither grows pot nor extracts oil, though he has done both. These days, he finds the weed. He finds the extractors. He finds the producers of hash-oil capsules or gummy bears or syrup. He finds the dispensaries to take these items off his hands. Each deal is different, but the best scenario for Skywalker is when dispensaries provide all the marijuana and Skywalker takes it to someone like Sloth Bear, who extracts the oil. Skywalker and his extractor usually take a 50 percent cut; often they consign their product back to the dispensaries for sale. Skywalker is essentially a middleman. His talent is knowing the right people and finding the right pot, making deals happen, opening territories.
Sloth Bear, who is 29, has an entry in the Desert Regional this weekend. He’s well-known in Wook circles; in the past, he placed in the top four in the hash-oil division of a High Times Cannabis Cup. On the table in front of Sloth Bear was a large slab of fresh oil, gold tinged with green, a pungent form called live resin that’s made with fresh frozen buds. Also on the table, along with the bottles of syrup and cans of soda mixer, were a couple of dab rigs and a butane torch.
Like many of the booths at the Desert Cup expo, Jedi Extracts was giving away free dabs. A double line of customers trailed ten deep into the brutal sun, waiting to taste and buy. They reflected a cross-section of who is interested in dabbing erl, Wook slang for hash oil. A father and son looking like they made a wrong turn on the way to a Lions Club picnic. A graying hippie with a pendant pipe around his neck. A withered man in an electric wheelchair. A 50-ish woman wrapped head to toe in diaphanous scarves. A pair of Suicide Girls with extensive facial piercings. A pair of high school boys trying to look like they belonged.
“Step right up,” called Skywalker, pocketing the proceeds of another sale. “Who needs a free dab? Who wants a pour?”
Born in Queens, Skywalker moved to rural Pennsylvania at an early age. His father was a service manager for a car dealership, his mother worked for a logistics firm. High school in the middle of nowhere was an invitation for hijinks. “Because we were so bored, whenever some little thing popped off,” Skywalker said, “we would go hard at it and just be assholes.” He and his friends would drive down roads taking out mailboxes with baseball bats, hang out at the houses of people who weren’t home, heckle the police, smoke as much weed as they could find.
Skywalker dropped out of tenth grade and went to work for a local newspaper, where his facility with computers and message boards became prized. After getting his ged, he paid his own way through college. From there he drifted around the country, trying various trades. Then he fell into the medical marijuana business and things just clicked. He ran a grow in the Northeast for four years; later he taught himself extraction. In 2011, seeing an opportunity to expand, he moved to California and started Jedi Extracts.
As the day wore on, the temperature continued to rise. Heat eddied off the pavement but the customers kept coming; Skywalker and the Captain kept pouring Styrofoam cups, $10 for a 1-ounce drank with soda, $35 for a 4-ounce bottle. Meanwhile Sloth Bear had brought out another slab. Under arrangement with Skywalker, he was selling (and giving away) his own stuff. Already he’d made back his expenses. Sloth Bear and Skywalker agree it’s cool to travel around the country meeting up with your fellow Wooks and furthering your craft and your business. But it’s quite another thing to pay for all that travel and feed yourself. Accordingly, spirits inside the booth this afternoon were high, despite the wilting temperatures.
“I wish I’d brought another case of syrup,” Skywalker said, looking through the empty boxes at his feet. He would not reveal the source of the syrup or the arrangements under which he was selling it. Like any entrepreneur, however, he basically has three goals at the various Secret Cup expos and gatherings: To make his brand ever more prominent. To continue to make new friends and visit with established ones, opening up lines of commerce and goodwill. To make enough money to continue to operate.
“Gimme two more bottles,” said a returning customer, a tall black man with dreads.
“That’s what’s up,” enthused the Captain, taking four twenties and making change. The Captain brings to mind Turtle from Entourage. A couple of years ago, when he met Skywalker, he was working as a janitor in a fast-food restaurant. Now they’re roommates.
“Mind mixing me a drank?” Sloth Bear asked, weighing out another gram of his live resin on a small electronic scale. A bead of sweat broke free from his thick hairline and slid down his temple.
“Only if you give me a dab,” the Captain said.
“All you need do is ask, my good man,” said Sloth Bear.
Born and raised in Southern California, Sloth Bear is the son of a contractor and a chiropractor. In high school, he was busted with 2 pounds of weed. Three months before his probation was to end, he rear-ended an elderly lady and was charged with dui. He turned 24 in jail. “It was the worst birthday ever,” he said.
After working in a movie theater and then in construction with his dad, Sloth Bear was hired at a hydroponics store. Over four years, Sloth Bear — who is large and furry but not slothful — worked as a manager. Meanwhile, he learned hydroponic growing from his boss, a farmer of legal crops, and from his customers, many of whom cultivated pot. Sloth Bear started growing for others and eventually discovered his aptitude for extracting. At one of the competitions, he met Skywalker and the Captain. They became fast friends and co-conspirators in criminal enterprise that somehow never feels criminal to them. It might be hard and stressful, but at the end of the day, over a number of dabs, each of them will tell you, as Sloth Bear said: “It’s what I was born to do.”
Now, under the white canopy tent, Skywalker grabbed one of the rigs from the folding table and pointed to a dab that Sloth Bear had just prepared for the frat boy standing in front of the folding table. “I’m ready for another dab.”
“That’s what’s up,” said Sloth Bear.
The essence of making artisanal hash oil is that every extractor applies his own method and sensibility, which produces a wide variance in taste and effect.
Early November in the California high desert. Harvest season at Merlin’s MediFarm.
According to the ten-day forecast, a storm was headed toward us. Rain on the plants at this point could wreck the buds. All around the farm, everyone worked with a sense of urgency. A pair of men used a pulley to haul pot from the lower terraces. Inside the curing shed, three laborers hung buds on hundreds of lines to dry. On the porch of the house a woman sorted seeds. Sloth Bear was beneath a shade tent, preparing to blast his next batch.
Making hash oil is an ever-evolving art. Every extractor working today learned his or her craft largely from YouTube, chat rooms, social media, and trial and error. Some extractors choose to leave the buds on the plant longer, some want an earlier harvest. Some prefer the buds, called nugs, to be dried for up to ten days. Some deep-freeze immediately. There is no particular consensus on which method is best. Each strain produces a different result, which is the essence of artisanal erl. As with wine or cheese or beer, there is creative variance between products, a diverse palette of smells and tastes and effects.
Marijuana has two major active ingredients. Tetrahydrocannabinol (thc) causes people to feel energetically inspired. Cannabidiol (cbd) relieves pain and a number of medical conditions, from glaucoma and seizures to arthritis and anxiety. Pot is also rich in terpenes and terpinoids, aromatic hydrocarbons produced by plants to deter herbivores. Hash oil can smell like tangerine, lemon, grapey purple perfume, pine, earth, or cherry candy.
Merlin’s MediFarm grows 63 different strains, among them standards like Chemdawg, Girl Scout Cookies, and Sour Diesel. Sloth Bear has a contract this year to convert about three-fourths of the farm’s 200 to 400 pounds of crop into hash oil. Sloth Bear supplies the butane and the equipment; in return he receives 50 percent of the oil produced, with an option to sell it back to the grower.
Depending upon the strain and the method of growing — and the techniques, tools, and prowess of the extractor — a pound of marijuana will yield anywhere from 30 to 120 grams of oil. The oil will sell wholesale to dispensaries from $20 to $40 a gram and to buyers for between $80 and $100. (For comparison, flower marijuana sells retail from $10 to $20 a gram in dispensaries.)
bho extractors use one of two types of equipment to make hash oil, either an open-loop or a closed-loop system. For this batch, Sloth Bear employed a SubZero Scientific brand open-loop extractor with tripod legs that he bought used for $400. It fits easily into his vehicle along with the rest of his equipment: a couple of medium-size plastic propagation trays (usually for growing seeds or clones); two Pyrex baking dishes; a supply of parchment paper; a 2-inch hose clamp; and a couple of round filters (one paper, one silk) to place at the bottom of the cylinder.
Now, under the shade tent — which allowed for plenty of ventilation — Sloth Bear introduced the nozzle of a large can of refrigerated butane into a receptacle at the top of the SubZero Scientific extractor, which at the moment contained a quarter pound of a strain called Sour Maui Dawg.
As we sat on beach chairs behind a folding table, the liquid butane passed under pressure through the bud-packed metal cylinder, dissolving the crystallized resins in the marijuana flowers, including the thc, cbd, terpenes, flavonoids, and also something called myrcene, one of the primary components of hops, which is partly responsible for the sedative effects of beer. In a few moments, a viscous stream of clear amber oil began to flow. The oil landed atop the organic parchment paper, which was folded to form its own tray within the Pyrex dish, which itself sat in a warm bath of 100-degree water in the propagation tray.
Pleased with himself, Sloth Bear gestured toward the healthy flow of golden oil. “I always wanted to make a million before I was 30,” he said.
By the time this harvest was through, he said, he’d be halfway there.
December again. The Secret Cup Finals in Las Vegas.
By late Saturday afternoon a cloud of smoke, cookout grease, and man funk hung over all the rooms of the rented mansion. Beneath the thunder of the DJ’s rap music could be heard the soundtrack of serious dabbing — the mini-jet-engine whoosh of butane torches, the gurgle of percolating bubbles, the continuous series of barking coughs emanating from here and there like the croaking calls of frogs in a wetland.
The venue, as advertised, was enormous. To one side of the foyer, with its winding staircase and crowning chandelier, was a grand dining room. Under a hand-painted ceiling, the chairs were filled with Wooks. Everyone had a Pelican case. The long table was littered with pipes and bindles and dead cans of ’tane. Many had brought their electric nail, a bowl wired to a heating element to maintain a constant temperature, keeping the pipe ever ready to melt the next hit. Thinking ahead, some even brought extension cords.
On the other side of the foyer was a sitting room. Like much of the house, it was decorated with faux-gold Versace furniture. A faux-gold-plated custom motorcycle occupied a velvet-covered platform in the bay window.
Skywalker was arranged on a gold fainting couch, his eyes at half-mast. The room he’d anted up for had turned out to be a tiny converted cabana. During the storm, which lasted several days, there was a nasty leak. He hadn’t gotten much sleep.
Sitting opposite Skywalker in a Louis XIV knockoff was a Wook named Gerald, from Boston. The two first met at the Secret Cup’s Beast Coast Regional in Providence, Rhode Island. Since then, they’ve collaborated on some deals. They were supposed to be sharing the full-size bed in the wet cabana; mostly they had powered through the gathering without sleep. Their rigs and torches were arranged haphazardly on a coffee table between them. Nearby, on another gold chair, was a vip guest — one of 100 people who’d paid $300 to $500 (depending upon the quality of the gift package included) to be allowed to attend the mansion between 3 and 11 p.m., smoke free samples of the entries, and rub elbows with the finalists. The vip’s glass pipe was also on the table. A pricey piece, it was artfully blown to resemble a dead infant with a bloody amputated leg.
Gerald is 21. He calls his company Southie Extracts. Like many of the other Wooks, he started extracting because he liked erl but couldn’t find any. Last April, at the Beast Coast Regional, he was one of the finalists. “I never really thought I’d win,” he said. “I just did it for fun.”
“Did you try number 17? That’s the winner right there,” Skywalker said with his usual confidence. “It’s the Samurai Bros entry.”
“How do you know it’s the Samurai Bros?” Gerald challenged. The entries wouldn’t be unmasked until the scores were tabulated Sunday afternoon.
“I’ve bought 3 or 4 grams of that shit,” Skywalker said dismissively. With a lot of the West Coast guys, he’s found, you can’t do much arguing; they’re too mellow. But guys from the East Coast like him and Gerald see arguing as sport. Sometimes he misses that. “Don’t you smell that fuckin’ tang?”
Gerald dipped into his judge’s pack, a leather-covered jeweler’s box with foam spaces for 20 small glass jars, each one numbered. As a Secret Cup finalist he was charged with tasting and grading his competitors. He selected number 17.
Twisting open the top of the jar, Gerald retrieved a small folded-up square of nonstick parchment paper, the same as Sloth Bear uses. (Having failed to make the top four at the Desert Regional, Sloth Bear was off in Hawaii with his girlfriend, following the proceedings online.)
Gerald unfolded the bindle once and then again. Between his fingers was something that appeared to be a small, thin, translucent piece of used chewing gum pressed between the sheets of the paper. Gerald pulled apart the halves with a precise movement, bringing to mind Velcro and causing a similar sound. What confronted him at last was a half-gram of shatter — think of a small piece of amber glass you might find on a beach.
Gerald brought the sample to his nose with the practiced air of an oenophile or foodie. “This smells like tangie,” he said, meaning tangerine.
“It’s grapefruity,” Skywalker corrected. “I definitely get more of a grapefruit.”
“It looks flame,” said Gerald.
“It is flame,” assured Skywalker, folding his arms like, Told you so, dude.
Gerald triggered a large butane torch and proceeded to heat the Halen Honey Hole of Skywalker’s Mini Sundae Cup rig.
As he aimed the orange-and-blue cone of fire toward the bowl, I asked if they ever worried about going to jail. After all, their passion and livelihood is illegal in all but two states, and neither lives in one.
“I do think about the legal aspects, but you can’t really worry about it,” Gerald said. Heating a nail can take up to 30 seconds, depending how much fun the user is having, or how mesmerized he gets, or how much residual oil needs to be cooked off. “I am a big believer in karma,” he said, “so I feel like if you live a good life and you’re a good person then bad things don’t happen to you.”
“Extraction is going to be legal eventually,” Skywalker said. “More sooner than later. To be involved in the community now means we’ll have that first jump in our own states when big business comes in with their millions and millions of dollars. That’s why I feel good to be at the Secret Cup. It makes you feel like you’ve made it a little bit. The people here are the major players.”
Gerald continued to heat the nail until the quartz glowed red, then removed the flame and set the torch on the table. He tested the temperature of the nail by holding it near the underside of his wrist, the place where a father might test a few drops of baby formula.
At last he applied the 4-inch titanium dabber to the inside of the heated bowl. At the end of the dabber was a glob of the entry in question. Immediately upon contact with the hot quartz, the dab liquefied, then bubbled, then vaporized. A light white smoke traveled through the chambers, spinning a tiny glass propeller. At the other end of the dabber was a cup called a carburetor cap. Gerald placed the cap over the nail to trap the smoke as he continued to inhale. When he finished the hit, Gerald put down the rig, inclined his chin, and exhaled a thick stream of smoke toward the chandelier.
He noted an immediate increase in his energy level, a cerebral sensation of floating, a tingle at the top of his head. His eyes felt recessed, his point of view at once more internalized and more externalized, everything more vivid and intense. The music washed pleasantly into his ears, into his brain, something hypnotic by Kendrick Lamar: Bitch, don’t kill my vibe. Bitch, don’t kill my vibe.
“That is flame,” Gerald said at last, eyes wide. He looked over to Skywalker for concurrence.
Homie was dtfo.
January in downtown Denver.
I followed Ralph Morgan, the chief executive officer of two related but independent companies, Organa Labs and O.penVAPE, through the front door of a nondescript brick industrial building. Morgan, who is 42, was dressed in Rocky Mountain casual. We’d just finished lunch at his favorite sushi place. Before he got into the pot business, he sold replacement joints, primarily knees and hips. His wife, Heidi, sold pharmaceuticals. “We were totally naïve to cannabis,” he said. “We saw the push for legalization in Colorado on the news and were intrigued. As soon as we started doing our due diligence, we fell in love with the idea. I used to tell people, ‘Hey, we’ve been selling joints and drugs for years, so we’re qualified!’”
The Morgans opened Evergreen Apothecary in 2009. It is located on South Broadway, in an area called the Green Mile, an up-and-coming neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of dispensaries in the world. The business took off. But Morgan was unhappy with the inconsistency of his products. “We were telling patients, ‘Hey, eat this brownie, but just a quarter of it — hopefully that’s the same strength as the last time.’” Morgan said. “If this is medicine, shouldn’t a doctor be able to prescribe a specific type and dosage? We were looking for something that could be reliable and reproducible.”
The Morgans opened Organa Labs in 2010 and O.penVAPE in 2012, the latter in partnership with a chain of dispensaries. For tax reasons, the two companies are separate. O.penVAPE, which makes several different models of battery-powered portable vaporizers, or e-vapes, does not touch marijuana, so it is not subject to the higher taxes on pot-related industry. Organa does all of the extracting. Financial analysts say it is conceivable the combined companies will be worth a billion dollars in two years.
Morgan led me into a laboratory full of gleaming stainless-steel machines and tanks. Dials, hoses, knobs, and wires were everywhere. From floor to ceiling, everything looked spotless. In front of me stood three Supercritical Fluid Extraction Systems manufactured by the Waters Corporation. Equipped with a computer interface and CO2 recycle options, capable of extracting at pressures of 5,000 psi, the machines cost about $165,000 each.
Organa makes hash oil using a process called supercritical CO2 extraction, the same technique for decaffeinating coffee and drawing essential oils from rose petals for perfume. Supercritical CO2 is an organic compound that exhibits properties of a gas as well as a liquid. Because of this, the CO2 is able to flow through the chopped marijuana as a gas would, but it also acts like a solvent, as a liquid would, pulling out the desired molecules of thc and the rest. To achieve this supercritical state, great amounts of pressure are needed, one reason the machines are so expensive.
By growing its own pot, Organa can make hash-oil products with consistent standards and strengths. Its hash-oil cartridges are designed to be used with O.penVAPE’s electronic vaporizers but can be used with others as well. According to the company, it is selling cartridges at a rate of one every ten seconds, more than 250,000 per month. To keep up with demand, Organa has about 90,000 square feet of indoor grow space in Colorado. It has recently bought a 300-acre ranch in Pueblo; city and banking officials are working with the company, because they believe it will bring jobs and commerce.
Among Organa Labs’ most intriguing products are CannaTabs, small tablets designed to dissolve under the tongue. The tabs are sold in pill bottles, 25 mg per tab, and are available in several forms, including sativa, indica, and a hybrid. Sativa has a lot of thc, for an “up” feeling. Indica has a lot of cbd for sleep aid and pain relief. Patients can feel effects in as little as ten minutes, as opposed to 30 to 45 for edibles.
“Our target market is a lot of people who haven’t tried marijuana in 20 years, and now that it’s in this really convenient dosage, they’re willing to try it,” Morgan said, leading me through the facility. In one area sat large industrial vacuum ovens. In another, women with surgical masks and gloves used syringes to fill cartridges with hash oil.
Going through Organa’s extensively inspected, medical-grade lab — where, according to law, every batch of pot gets tested for strength and is given a bar code that follows it from field to dispensary — I couldn’t help but think about all the Wooks I’d met over the preceding six months. Working as fast as possible, Sloth Bear can blast 3 pounds a day with his single-loop extractor. Organa’s three CO2 extractors can blast between 60 and 100 pounds a day; the company has recently purchased an extractor that can process ten times faster. As more and more states pass their own medical or recreational marijuana laws, companies like Organa — with millions in capital at their disposal — are poised to move into the market and dominate.
Skywalker and his fellows will likely never become giant players like Morgan. But it’s also hard to envision a world where creativity, enthusiasm, and refined craft are trampled into dust. We live in an age of multiple choices. We can choose processed cheese or something funky from France. Wine in a box or wine from Italy. Hash-oil tablets from Organa or shatter from Jedi Extracts. As long as there are people like Skywalker and Sloth Bear, there will be makers of erl. For these guys, hash oil is about much more than money. To them, dabs are art, dabs are lifestyle.
The last time I saw Skywalker in person, I was dropping him off at his house after the Secret Cup Finals. He was exhausted from lack of sleep but happy. He had made a new connection with a respected grower who had asked Skywalker to shepherd him through the complexities of the hash-oil market — and to split the profits.
As he gathered his stuff, I told Skywalker I was on my way to Denver because I wanted to see how a government-regulated lab operated with clean CO2. After all the sneaking around, all the paranoia and janky connections, I was jazzed about witnessing an operation that was legal and safe.
Standing outside the car on the passenger side, James “Skywalker” Johnson leaned into the open window.
“That CO2 shit tastes like ass breath,” he said.