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

Tuesday, Feb 2 2016
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"He wanted urban clothes in his size and couldn't find any," Bronson says. "Within a week, he had designs. A week after that, he was printing shirts."

But a trademark doesn't mean much if what you're selling is wack. Cookies has the kind of unimpeachable value that corporate suits crave: the kids think it's cool.

"It's the same reason NWA was popular with white, middle-class America," says Jim McAlpine, a cannabis entrepreneur himself who founded the "420 Games" athletic competitions. "Mainstream white America wants to emulate the street kids. It's the same reason why Cookies caught on. It has a cool street culture to it."

From the start, Berner has been Cookies' biggest ambassador. And it makes perfect sense that he would make a weed strain popular. Weed strains were how he made himself popular.

Born at the former Children's Hospital on California Street, Berner had a mostly stable working-class life with his parents. His later mother worked in offices, and his father was a workaholic cook and chef at a Mexican restaurant on Fillmore Street near California.

Along with his younger brother, the Milams lived in homes in the hills above the Haight-Ashbury and in Daly City before the family moved to Arizona when Berner was 13. The plan was for his father, Gilbert Sr., to open a restaurant there; that fell through when Berner's mother caught his father cheating and the couple split up.

Arizona was where Berner grew a thick skin. "I was the Mexican kid with slicked-back hair. I always had to defend myself. It was, 'Oh, you're from San Francisco? You're a faggot,'' he says now, in a rapid-fire patter light-years quicker than his lazy rapping flow. "I was like, 'I dare you to go to Hunter's Point. I'll give you $1,000 to ride the 14 bus down Mission wearing blue. Let me know how that goes for you.'"

It was also in Arizona, with his mother working two jobs, where Berner first tasted weed — pure Mexican-grown brick. "It was bammer weed," he says. "Some of my homies in Arizona, their families were selling hella brick weed. We'd go into their older brothers' rooms and strip squares off the bale. Picture a big-ass fuckin block of bud — we'd rip a corner off of it and then put it in a room with a shower to get it to fall apart, it was so dry."

"We first started chewing it — it didn't taste so good, and we didn't get high with it. So we wrapped it up in a Walgreens receipt and smoked that shit."

The first time he got high, however, was back in San Francisco at a friend's house. "I was telling him about these bricks, and he was saying how he had weed that would sell for $4,800 a pound. I said, 'You're kidding me, dude. There's no way.' So he pulled out some weed — it was kind bud, I had never seen that before. We smoked a joint. I hit that shit twice and I was done.'"

"That's when it clicked for me — there was a huge difference between California and Arizona."

Weed led to his first "honest" hustle: lying about his age to get a job at a pizza joint at 13. (He says he was named employee of the month, just before being fired after his superiors figured out how young he was.)

His teenage years followed a routine. Bored stiff in Arizona, he'd act up and find a way to get sent back to his father's house in San Francisco; trouble there would earn a flight back to his mother's — but there was a common thread.

"Whenever I would go back to Arizona, I'd go down to HP [Hunter's Point] and buy a bunch of 10 sacks — the real Champagne. The real Champelly," he says, name-checking one of the 1990s' best strains. "I always wanted to have the best weed — I'd be the coolest motherfucker in the whole world. My first trip back from Cali, I showed everyone at school this little ass bag of weed."

"I was popular as fuck from that shit. And the obsession clicked."

In San Francisco, Berner, his brother, his father, and one of his father's "cutty-ass chef friends" squeezed into a studio apartment on California Street. (His father, who Berner says now lives in the Sunset District "and still gets up at 2 a.m. every day" to run a catering business, declined an interview request.)

The apartment had very little. When it was dinner time, Gilbert Sr. told his sons to call in a chef favor. "It was, 'Dad, I'm hungry.' He'd say, 'Okay, go to Curbside and get a burrito. Okay, go to Dino's and get a piece of pizza.'"

There was no phone, so when Berner dropped out of Galileo, his father had no way of knowing. There was no cable, either, only a VCR, and they had one tape. So Berner and his brother would "watch Goodfellas," Berner says. "We'd watch Goodfellas, smoke weed, argue, and fight."

Occasionally, they'd get into petty crime: selling weed, mostly, though Berner remembers a short-lived rip-and-run career. One day, the pair of them put a knife to the throat of a kid attending the Drew School, a ritzy private institution on California near Divisadero.

"We get his wallet, but he reported it and a teacher chased us. So we start running. Fuck, dude. It was the longest run ever," he says. "We end up getting in some building and we open the wallet — and there's literally $2 in it. It was like, 'Dude, this shit is fucked.'"

Arizona was also where Berner discovered rap music. At a continuation school, another kid asked him if he rapped. "He said, 'You ever rap? You look like a rapper,'" Berner says. "So he started freestyling in front of me and said, 'You should try it.'"


About The Author

Chris Roberts

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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