Flow Kana is a new San Francisco-based, on-demand cannabis delivery service that sources marijuana from small farmers in California. The Bay Area is already blessed with a growing number of apps that deliver weed to your door, but Flow Kana claims it gives farmers much better margins. On Thursday, the startup invited me to a launch party at an undisclosed location in the Berkeley hills. Flow Kana was promising hors d’oeuvres and drinks "paired with curated ‘intermezzos’ of cannabis treats and boutique flowers." Finally, a product I want to unbox!
The invite also pledged to teach us more about the burgeoning "clean cannabis" movement. (Don’t bother Googling it, the movement hasn’t made its way online.) Flow Kana CEO Michael Steinmetz uses the term to mean organic, sustainably grown pot, delivered "farm to table," if your table is where you keep your bong. He says Flow Kana — which is currently invitation-only — will also have "almost zero carbon footprint," because its couriers will tool around San Francisco on bicycles carrying jars filled with an eighth of a pound of weed from every partnering farm.
Flow Kana’s party invitation called for formal dress: "Great Gatsby meets California." I was coming from work, though, and ended up closer to "Urban Outfitters catalog meets Pennsylvania." And for a weed party, getting there was no chill sitch. Guests had to catch a shuttle from a UC Berkeley parking lot, located 20 minutes from the nearest BART station. As soon as the shuttle driver began our rickety ride ascent up a very narrow road, a pre-recorded message about Flow Kana started blasting on speakers. The backing instrumentals recalled the tuning of a violin.
I recognized Steinmetz’s voice by his Venezuelan accent. With legalization on the horizon, his voiceover intoned, it’s critical to ask ourselves the "important questions," such as "Who is going to grow my cannabis, and with what values?" Not my first question, but sure!
The mystery location was a house made of redwood trees. Flow Kana staffers stood helpfully on either side of the road to make sure we didn’t wander into the wrong organic mansion. A woman wearing a crown of flowers welcomed us inside. Later, she and the other "flower girls" would pass around wooden trays covered with joints rolled into such symmetrical cylinders I thought they were taffy.
The view from the top of the hill made me forget how I got there. As did the house itself. I made my way through the corridor festooned with pillows and the swag table covered in mini-succulents for guests to take home.
Flower girls holding perfect joints
I struck up a conversation with Stephen, the lithe middle-aged black gentleman perched next to me, who turned out to be the owner of the house. He said it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright’s protégé Daniel Lieberman, who built it to mimic the structure of an open umbrella. The steel poles in the center that went down hundreds of feet into the bedrock were the umbrella shaft. The umbrella spokes, canopy, and the slats of the railing were all made of redwood. "They can’t even get that stuff anymore," he said, pointing to a beam that extended the length of two floors.
"Must’ve cost a lot," I hinted, hoping to get an exact price. "Uh, yeah," he replied, casually surveying his indoor forrest. "Anytime you spend millions …"
What did he do when he wasn’t keeping an eye on startup parties? "I’m launching a private social network called The Karma Society," said Stephen. It’s for world travelers who need recommendations in other cities. He described it as "like Facebook, but more of a high-end Vogue / GQ Facebook."
Many of the guests adhered to the Gatsby theme, or were at least much better dressed than I was. The bright green-and-red lighting scheme felt more "turnkey tent at Burning Man" than startup, although there was some business to attend to.
Dispensaries are too greedy
Before everyone could get high, we had to listen to six speeches. Steinmetz never really told the crowd how Flow Kana came to be, so allow me. He used to run a food distribution company in Venezuela and came to California to explore the opportunities created by legalization. While working as a consultant at a local dispensary, Steinmetz told me on the phone earlier, he came to realize it was an "unhealthy industry." "Reasonable" margins taken by retail operations are 20 to 30 percent, Steinmetz says, but dispensaries are taking up to 85 percent. He visited Humboldt County, where much of the state’s high-grade marijuana is grown, and found an "almost abandoned town," despite its sizable GDP. After meeting some farmers, he concluded that they were "very much getting the shitty end of the deal."
Under California law, only medical marijuana dispensaries, co-ops, or collectives can deliver weed, so he helped create a nonprofit farmers cooperative. "Think of it as a dispensary, except it’s a nonprofit farmers cooperative," he said. Flow Kana takes a 25 percent cut for deliveries, and the farmers can reinvest profits in the cooperative in the form of solar-panel subsidies and such. When I asked how this was legal, Steinmetz uttered my five least favorite words: "We are a technology platform." (It’s the same line used by Uber and Airbnb to evade all manner of regulation.) In other words, it’s a middleman between farmers and their "patients."
At the party that night, Steinmetz said legalization could mean small-farm subsidies that would "trigger an agricultural revolution." A few minutes later, he described a promotional clip for Flow Kana as "a little manifesto video." "To some, it’s medicine; to some, cognitive ecstasy; to others, it’s a sense of community and a sense of belonging," Steinmetz said. The audience cheered after "ecstasy."
The audience cheered after "ecstasy"
One recurring theme during the presentations was how much secrecy has been required of these small operations. Hezekiah Allen, chair and director of an advocacy group called Emerald Growers Association, is also a third-generation cannabis farmer from Southern Humboldt County. Emerald’s 180 members reported annual revenues of $8,000 to $2.2 million. Current estimates, he said, put the tally at 53,000 small farms, many of which are new. "They grew up in prohibition. They don’t look like farms. They’re in warehouses," he said. "When I grew up, we were scattered around in the forest because we were hiding from the Marine Corps and the helicopters giving the children trauma." No one quite knew how to react.
Allen is focused on changing policy. "What I want California to realize is that we have world-class craft cannabis growers in California," he said, and that the value was something to be proud of. My ears perked up. Any time the word "craft" is uttered, money is sure to follow.
Finally we got to meet one of those farmers: Casey O’Neill, an activist and farmer-owner of HappyDay Farms in Mendocino. O’Neill was wearing a white t-shirt with his farm’s name and brown corduroys, and he spoke in a low, syrupy drawl. He said it meant a lot as a farmer to be at this event and "to do honor to the medicine." His farm also grows vegetables, and it boggles O’Neill’s mind that he has to "somehow separate the medicinal value of my broccoli from my cannabis. It’s back to Hippocrates: ‘Let thy food be thy medicine, medicine thy food.’" Word.
The house became a fog of smoke
After O’Neill came Nicholas Smilgys, a founding member of Sparc, a dispensary in San Francisco, who tried to convey the vast superiority of clean cannabis to its unclean cousins. "On-demand" access from Flow Kana, he said, could also solve San Francisco clustering issues. "No one wants a cannabis dispensary in their backyard. Well now they don’t have to have one. They can just order Flow Kana!"
With that, the flower girls were off. In a matter of minutes the house become a fog of smoke. An aerialist started winding her way to the ceiling on a long swath of red silk.
There was no need to hunt for a flower girl; one was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs. She also saved me from lighting up the wrong end of my locally sourced Mendocino joint. I passed it along to one of the workers from HappyFarms, who was more than happy to take it.
Accidentally eating a dessert empanada
Whatever I smoked definitely made me feel goooooooood. Very mellow, zero paranoia or sleepiness, just pleasantly elevated and in a generous mood — happy to be there, inside a redwood umbrella with all these fine people. I wandered outside to check out the view and accidentally ate a dessert empanada that I thought was savory. Reporters from TechCrunch and Mashable were milling by the sweets station.
Upstairs, I ran into my friend Chris Roberts, who has been covering the cannabis industry for SF Weekly and The San Fransisco Examiner, as well as the publisher’s new site: SF Evergreen, focused exclusively on marijuana news and culture. I don’t have his discerning palette, but Chris said there was a serious difference between "top-flight" outdoor weed and the stuff grown indoors. The good stuff gives you a "less lethargic, more euphoric feeling," and is better for pain relief and anxiety. "It’s not bullshit!"
He also said the prices would drop for indoor growers after legalization. The conspiracy theory was that tobacco companies like Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds would buy up all the farms in Humboldt and Mendocino. But that’s crazy talk, he said. No, no, when "Big Marijuana" comes to California, they’re going to set up shop in Central Valley where it’s sunny year-round. ("Big Marijuana" is actually a thing, so go ahead and Google that.)
We chatted for awhile, occasionally losing our train of thought. The waiters and flower girls passed around more mini beef wellingtons, mini burgers, and laffy taffy, but one puff was enough for me.
My return trip was a breeze. An SUV showed up in under 10 minutes to go back down the hill and was blissfully voiceover-free. When I transferred between BART lines at MacArthur station, the train I needed was idling across the platform. I found a seat and listened to "Novacane" on loop for most of the way home.