Throughout the long dark ages of cannabis prohibition, there was always a business in cultivating, distributing, and retailing the plant. It just wasn’t what you could properly call an industry.
Even under cannabis prohibition, there were always a few legal ways for scrappy entrepreneurs to make money.
Don’t get me wrong, many “industrious” people plied their trade as growers, smugglers and dealers back in the day—and still do in states like Idaho and North Dakota—but it wasn’t something you could put on your resume, never mind casually brag about in the annual family holiday newsletter.
This year both children made the honor roll at school and our OG Kush plants tested out at over 30% THC. We can’t decide who made us prouder!
But seriously folks, just think of all the incredible business people that were forced to remain in the shadows due to senseless laws against a beneficial plant. Ironically, the underground thus thrived on the otherwise untapped talents of those already marginalized from other career paths by race, class, or previous cannabis arrests. Though we also missed out on the talents of anyone who loved cannabis but not enough to risk going to jail for it.
Which brings up the fact that even under prohibition, there were always a few legal ways for scrappy entrepreneurs to make money. You could go the business-to-business route, and provide “picks and shovels” to growers—selling everything from hydroponic equipment to trim scissors. Or you could be “consumer-facing,” and address the needs of John Q. Stoner—selling everything from roach clips to rolling papers.
As a longtime editor at High Times, I met many trailblazing, job-creating, cannabis-enhancing visionaries of both varieties, who at the time had few if any effective means of marketing their products beyond advertising in the magazine’s pages or setting up a booth at the company’s annual Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam. And I can happily report that, almost universally, they came up with their game-changing inventions while high.
Mainstream retailers overlooked these problems, such as millions of people needing to grind up their cannabis on a daily or multi-daily basis—and so necessity becomes the mother of invention. The classic example of this dynamic being the creation of the double-wide rolling paper, the first of our game-changing cannabis paraphernalia innovations.
EZ-Wide Rolling Papers
(Courtesy of E-Z Wide)
Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, demand for cannabis suddenly spiked, as the practice spread from jazz musicians and beatniks to a much wider demographic. This led to a lot of good times, but also put a serious strain on the nation’s already shaky cannabis supply. California’s first generation of “homegrown” cannabis cultivators were just getting started at the time, and still putting out a product only arguably preferable to ditch weed. Meanwhile, the imported high-grade produce of places like Colombia and Hawaii was legendarily difficult to acquire.
This meant most people had to get by with a quality of cannabis far below what we’ve all grown accustomed to enjoying nowadays. How do I know that cannabis of the early 1970s was indeed a lot less potent (and a lot less expensive)? It used to be common practice among habitual joint smokers to take two separate rolling papers and glue them together in order to roll up a “bomber” of sufficient size as to actually get a few people stoned. The only problem was that this method produced a rather fragile vessel for rolling—a community-wide problem that in 1972 led metals trader and cannabis enthusiast Burt Rubin to come up with the fairly obvious idea of selling a rolling paper that’s already twice the size.
As Rubin explained in a 1999 interview with writer Michael Gross, after first copping to being an occasional weed dealer in his youth—one who “smoked grass every day for a long, long, long, long, long, long, long” time:
“I noticed that people were always putting two papers together. I [was in] law school, and I saw that kids that came from Chicago did it and kids that came from Arizona did it that way too, and kids that came from California also. And it just stuck in my mind and when I was working at a metal trading firm there was an article that I read in The New York Times [about] a guy who was moving millions upon millions of booklets [of rolling papers] a month. I borrowed from a bank and [my partner] borrowed from a bank a little bit. And then eight friends got together, we all lit up, passed it around, started throwing names out. Somebody was saying, Easy Roller and somebody said Better Wider and then Connie said well how about Easy Wider?”
(Courtesy of Graffix)
Little seems to be known about the company behind Graffix Waterpipes, which once thoroughly dominated the bong market with fairly cheap plastic pipes adorned with a demonic clown logo. A determined search of the internet uncovers little solid information on the company or its founders. Graffix’s own official “timeline” reveals little beyond noting that in 1988 they “started making water pipes in Tucson, Arizona and distributing to local shops in the Southwest.”
If you smoked a lot of pot in the 90s, you already know how game-changing Graffix and that ubiquitous clown were, as one of the few nationally identifiable brands of the “head shop” era.
Perhaps in a future article we can explore this epic tale in-depth, but for now, I say let’s embrace the mystery. Because if you smoked a lot of pot in the 1990s, you already know exactly how game-changing Graffix and that ubiquitous clown were by simply spreading bong technology far and wide, as one of the few nationally identifiable brands of the “head shop” era. And so, if the internet is a series of tubes, thanks to Graffix, so too was college for a generation of undergrad American stoners who came of age long before anybody thought of getting blazed all day as immersive research for a bright future in the legal cannabis industry.
The oldest water pipes ever discovered, by the way, actually date back a lot further than you might think. Try 2,400 years, according to archeologists in Russia, who recently unearthed a few solid gold bongs used by the ancient Scythians. A “sticky residue” on the devices tested positive for cannabis, but so far as I can tell, none of the elaborate engravings carved into their sides resemble a scary-ass clown.
(Courtesy of Sweetleaf)
Winner of “Best Product” immediately upon its official debut at the Cannabis Cup in Amsterdam in 2000, the Sweetleaf grinder changed the game so definitively that younger readers likely find themselves doubting that the invention of this now essential cannabis accessory came so late in the game it ultimately changed. Even to those of us who lived through the transition, it’s incredible to think back on how many millions of joints were rolled up without the thorough grind of a dedicated device designed specifically for that purpose.
So it’s no wonder that after using scissors or (gasp!) fingers to break up our cannabis from time immemorial, the community adopted this at once simple and cutting-edge new technology at such a dizzying rate. In fact, pretty much every time someone saw someone else pull out a Sweetleaf and turn minutes of work into seconds, another grinder got sold. Not to mention that a proper grinder does the job much better than scissors could ever manage.
Richard Cusick, former Associate Publisher of High Times, recalls the sensation among stoners when Sweetleaf first hit the market.
“Sweetleaf Grinders actually premiered at a packed after-party at a three story townhouse in Washington, D.C. during the National NORML Convention. Joel [the company’s founder] had come into my office a week or two earlier with a crazy sales pitch, but when I used the grinder for the first time, it worked beautifully. I looked up and said I’m never going to break up a bud again without wanting this. He sent me 400, which I dutifully gave out at the NORML party and everyone went nuts for them. Then he came to Amsterdam and won best product.
The first Sweetleaf grinders were wood, and they jammed up pretty quick. So Joel came back with the first stainless steel grinder. By then Sweetleaf had dozens of imitators and after that maybe hundreds. They were the first wave of 21st century style cannabis-branded products, with many more to come. Absolutely a game-changer.”