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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

July 12, 2014 at 7:49 PM

Startups and speed bumps as pot culture meets Seattle tech

Seattle-based cannabis resource app Leafly catalogs more than 800 varieties of marijuana. (Image: Leafly.com)

Seattle-based cannabis resource app Leafly catalogs more than 800 varieties of marijuana. (Image: Leafly.com)


 

Paul Gambill’s favorite thing to do when he’s high is to listen to the Seattle Symphony.

“There’s nothing like hearing an 80-piece orchestra play a rich, Romantic-era piece,” the 26-year-old mobile-apps project manager tells me.

Modeled on services like Birchbox, Happy Crate sends subscribers a box of cannabis related accessories and activities every month. (Image: Happy Crate)

Modeled on services like Birchbox, Happy Crate sends subscribers a box of cannabis related accessories and activities every month. (Image: Happy Crate)

We were sitting at Ballard Coffee Works, where a drink made from beans enjoys a sophistication Gambill craves for the plant whose vapors he inhales almost nightly.

Now that it’s legal to buy it in Washington state, local tech entrepreneurs like Gambill are taking their shot at shaping pot’s mainstream culture, earning a buck in the process and maybe making Seattle what some say it’s destined to be:

The cannabis tech capital of America.

Before I asked what led him to co-found a business around a product that’s not legal in 48 states — an online delivery service for boxes of cannabis accessories called Happy Crate — it seemed only fair to tell Gambill about my experience with the stuff.

Two bites of a pot brownie last fall at a birthday party for a friend — a friend who loves to point out what a goody two-shoes I’ve been all my life. I blushed.

But to Gambill and others, I’m the opportunity.

“I think it’s super important that new Ents have a great experience with trees,” Gambill posted on Reddit when his service launched in May, using the cannabis community’s “Lord of the Rings”-inspired slang to refer to pot and its enthusiasts.

Screen Shot 2014-07-12 at 7.16.36 PM

“The better experience they have, the more that we can continue changing the culture and fostering acceptance of cannabis.”

Of course, not everyone jumping into cannabis tech is doing it for the love of cannabis.

Some just like good business.

Josiah Tullis and Megh Vakharia are too young to smoke pot legally, even here. The 20- and 19-year-old co-founders of Canary, an upcoming “Uber” for delivering cannabis (the medical kind, to start), are undergraduates at the University of Washington.

One night, after hearing a venture capitalist say he wanted to invest in cannabis-related startups, the two ordered sushi via Postmates, a popular mobile-delivery app. The idea for Canary struck.

“We think that five years down the line, not only is it going to be de-stigmatized, it’s going to be a $5 billion industry,” Tullis said.

Of course, that all depends.

You can’t easily buy cannabis or anything considered “drug paraphernalia” with a credit card. That’s one hurdle. The continuing prohibition of online sales and delivery of recreational cannabis is another.

And then there’s that stigma. When 50 or so people signed up for the first Seattle Cannabis Tech meetup recently (the next one’s in August), one told co-organizer Red Russak he’d used a pseudonym to register online, and several others said they didn’t want to jeopardize their jobs at Big Respectable Companies.

Gambill, who was among the attendees, had no problem telling me he works at Deloitte Digital in Fremont. But he wasn’t sure his Happy Crate co-founder, his girlfriend, even wanted her name in the news. (He asked, and she didn’t.)

The founders of Canary hope to make it the "Uber" of cannabis delivery. (Image: trycanary.co)

The founders of Canary hope to make it the “Uber” of cannabis delivery. (Image: trycanary.co)

Russak, who put on the meetup with Cy Scott, founder of popular cannabis review site Leafly, knows how important the next couple years are going to be.

If cannabis tech is going to grow into a mainstream market from here in Seattle, its pioneers must do more than manage uncertainty. They have to put a face on the industry that the public can trust.

And there may not be much room for error.

“Where we are in the industry, it’s very easy to be put into a box. ‘Stoner.’ ‘Pothead.’ ‘Wacko,’ ” Russak said. “But ‘entrepreneur’ — that commands respect.”

I suspect it’ll help if Seattle’s new batch of “cannapreneurs” remember how good they have it.

“While we live in this utopia, people are still going to jail for this plant,” Greta Carter told me.

She’s the 57-year-old Seattle founder of the Cannabis Training Institute, an online school with courses in the business, science and law of cannabis and which counts former Seattle mayor Mike McGinn among its advisers.

She also runs Hope Clinics — a chain of medical-marijuana dispensaries — is working on starting a cannabis farm and has smoked every day in the evenings since she was 18.

Most places outside Seattle, “People look at you like you’re a drug dealer,” she said.

If you’re here, you might just look like a success.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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