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Million Dollar Cookie: How Berner Built a Business Empire on Marijuana 

Tuesday, Feb 2 2016
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This means Berner, the city native who just a few years ago manned the bud bar at a rundown Richmond district weed club, is now at the helm of one of the marijuana movement's first multimillion-dollar empires.

Where does he go from here?

"Just $200 million," he says. "That's my goal: Get to $200 million and then retire, and take care of my kid."

And all thanks to weed — weed, social media, and hustle. But mostly weed.


Every person in business, from the mogul CEO on down to the neophyte fresh from a seminar at the motel near the airport, will tell you how important brands are. For an industry that could be worth as much as $15 billion in California alone — more than almonds and more than wine — the cannabis industry is almost entirely brand-less.

That's because marijuana is still illegal — at the federal level, at least. And you can't process a trademark or a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for something that's federally illegal.

There are a few exceptions. Branded edibles, chocolates like Bhang and Kiva, are available in almost every dispensary in California. Through licensing deals, you can find these brands in dispensaries in Colorado and Washington as well. (Production is done in-state; nothing crosses state lines.) And big-time brands are finally becoming aware of the enormous opportunity in marijuana. Bob Marley's estate has struck a deal with investors from tech financier Peter Thiel's Privateer Holdings, though "Marley Natural" has yet to appear in consumers' hands or lungs. Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg are similarly looking to branch out beyond mere cannabis accessories.

With one exception, a marijuana brand has yet to emerge into the mainstream. The reason is that you can't yet trademark a strain of cannabis, still a Schedule I controlled substance.

Which is too bad for the crew that came up with "Girl Scout Cookies," because it is the most popular strain in America — and by extension, the world.

Where there's marijuana in the United States, you will find Cookies. "Cookies? Got cookies," is what the street hustlers whisper as you walk by on Market and Haight streets. In New Orleans and in Hawaii, in New York City and in St. Louis, cannabis is pushed by this name, regardless of its true origins.

Bigger than Purple, more powerful than Kush, Cookies has become the biggest name in cannabis over the past five years, and it remains the best-known strain — which is to say, it's the biggest name in the nascent weed game to date. Even California purists can't avoid this craze.

"Half the entries we had this year were Cookies," an Emerald Cup judge told me.

Girl Scout Cookies first showed up on dispensary shelves in the Bay Area in 2010 and 2011. A few years later, the Girl Scouts of America took a decided unliking to this development, and mailed cease-and-desist orders to any dispensary offering "Girl Scout Cookies" and most recently contacted a dispensary in Seattle that dared to use the GSA's trademark.

So growers and sellers dropped the "Girl Scouts," and left us with "Cookies," although you can still find "GSC" or "Original Thin Mint" on weed club menus.

Cookies' appeal is twofold. While the strain's origins are in dispute — the elusive Cookie Fam claims credit, and says its heritage is a cross between well-known strain O.G. Kush and a freak cut of Durban Poison, with unique taste and effects, dubbed F1; at least one weed expert, scientist Michael Backes, author of the definitive tome Cannabis Pharmacy, believes it's a purple phenotype of another strain, Champagne — but the consumer appeal is obvious.

Cookies' nugs grow big and frosty, with shades of purple, the Bay Area's former favorite. The stone is a powerful, mind-numbing mellow, perfect for regular smokers for whom a weaker strain won't get the job done. But more than any of that is the smell. Oh, the smell: thick, musty, slightly sweet. Whether it truly tastes reminiscent of Thin Mints is subjective. What's undeniable is what you're holding.

"From the moment you open up the bag, the whole room fills up," says Luke Coleman, who manages the Cookies dispensary in the Excelsior District. "Everybody knows what you have."

It fills a room, it impresses your friends, it knocks you — and them — on your ass. It's weed tailor-made for the modern urban consumer who wants something potent, high-end, and unmistakably top shelf — in every way the Courvoisier or Hennessy of cannabis.

But the name also hits just right, too. Other famous strains have always had a fatal flaw. Granddaddy Purple is too long, O.G. (which stands for "original gangster") Kush sounds too illegal, Trainwreck and Green Crack all send the wrong message. But Cookies is friendly, easy to digest. It's simple. "Everybody loves cookies," as Berner says.

Berner also found a way around the feds' ban on trademarking a weed strain. As dispensaries in San Francisco found out, you can't trademark a weed brand — there's a second dispensary, also calling itself Cookies, a few miles up Mission Street from the Berner/Cookie Fam-licensed spot (the latter of which happens to be a major SF Weekly advertiser) but you can trademark a weed clothing brand. And once that brand is trademarked, you can hang a trademarked sign outside your cannabis dispensary — and you can sue anyone trying to profit off of your name and your hard work. This, so far, is the lone (legal) avenue cannabis businesspeople have to protect their products from pretenders and fakers — and this is exactly what Berner did in 2013, registering "Cookies SF" as a trademarked maker of sweatshirts and T-shirts.

The story of how the brand initially began is as simple as it is brilliant. On a road trip to Los Angeles, running short on clothes, Berner and his manager, Will Bronson, went shopping but could not find anything that fit his XXXL-plus frame.

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About The Author

Chris Roberts

Bio:
Chris Roberts has spent most of his adult life working in San Francisco news media, which is to say he's still a teenager in Middle American years. He has covered marijuana, drug policy, and politics for SF Weekly since 2009.

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