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

Tuesday, Feb 2 2016
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That was a gambit for a bigger hustle. Before long, the kid came over to Berner's house to sell him an off-brand karaoke machine.

"I remember asking my mom to lend me the money," he says. "I bought the equipment and made a song right there. I used to go into the garage, where it was 110 degrees, and get my friends to watch me freestyle. I just got into it. That kid sparked something in me."

The karaoke machine was soon replaced with an 8-track recorder. Getting into music led to a permanent move back to San Francisco, where on his trips back and forth, a teenaged Berner would traffic records in addition to weed. Deep Bay Area cuts like the 18 Wit a Bullet mixtape featuring B-Legit, Cougnut, Celly-Cel, and San Quinn; records from Mac Dre, RBL Posse, Messy Marv, The Jacka, and the like.

It was weed that also led him to meet The Jacka. At 18, while working as a bartender at Jelly's at Mission Rock, Berner would visit The Hemp Center on Balboa Street as a customer. Frequent visits — and ties with some cultivators — got Berner a job there behind the counter. (He also got involved with the black market weed trade — and indeed, as a kid bought small sacks of weed from Jigga, the elusive cultivator credited with originating the Cookies strain. This may be why, for a time, he says he was routinely stopped by authorities while traveling through LAX, although he prefers not to go into detail.)

One day, his rap career not quite off the ground but with more weed than anybody needed, Berner walked into Milk Bar on Haight Street and ran into The Jacka. After praising the elder rapper's music, Berner handed Jacka a fistful of weed — and Jacka was impressed enough to give Berner his number. In 2008, the pair recorded a record together, Drought Season, but the reception was brutal. On TheSiccness.net, somebody posted a custom cut of the album, with all of Berner's verses cut out. "Before I ever heard of Berner, I heard of people hating on him," Thizzler.com's Werner says. "You'd hear, 'Berner sucks.' It was crazy.'"

Not that Berner cared. He continued cutting records while working at The Hemp Center, and made connections with other established rappers in the exact same way. If you needed weed — if you needed the best weed — you knew to call Berner. He wasn't exactly private about it, either. During the early days of Worldstarhiphop.com, there was a video competition afoot to see who could smoke the most. That was hard to quantify, so it turned into who had the biggest weed stash. Berner, who worked in a cannabis club during medical marijuana's early days and had every underground connection, would win running away.

This eventually led to the big time. In 2010, Berner got a call from Mistah F.A.B., another longtime established Bay Area rapper. This cat named Wiz Khalifa was coming through town; could Wiz come by and get some weed?

"I said, 'I don't really know, dude.' But I googled him, and saw he had hella views on YouTube. So I said, 'All right, fuck it. Have him come through.'" The pair hit it off. (Search YouTube and you can still see the encounter, with a very relaxed-looking Wiz sitting at the bar of old Hemp Center smoking lounge.)

He was in, but Berner wasn't through. To solidify the relationship, he pulled a stunt. To a Wiz show, Berner somehow smuggled in a five-foot-tall plant of Cherry Pie, one of the Cookie Fam's exclusive high-end strains. "We brought it on stage, and I gave it to [Wiz] as a gift on the bus," he says. "It went from there."

Soon, Wiz was rapping about Cookies on stage. Within a year, Berner convinced both Chris Brown and Wiz Khalifa to appear in a music video for "Yoko," his biggest hit to date and one that received heavy Bay Area airplay.

The strain blew up, and the Cookies name spread across the country. And soon, so would Berner — who was sure to wear Cookies clothing in the music video.


On a rainy and raw Sunday morning in December, the man behind the biggest brand in marijuana is seated on a folding chair in a horse stall in Santa Rosa. Berner was one of the first people to arrive here to the Sonoma County Fairgrounds for the second day of the Emerald Cup, Northern California's biggest and most prestigious cannabis competition, he and his crew driving up from the Bay Area in a steady rain.

Up at dawn, it was Berner who got things moving. He called his entourage, which consisted of four people: his producer, friend, and touring partner, Stinje (pronounced "Stingy"); another longtime friend, Eric; and his lone nod to his current high-profile hip-hop lifestyle, a solitary bodyguard. This is where the Berner show is in full effect. Weed brands can live or die by their booths at cannabis events like this. This is where the kids learn about you, sample some of your product — if you're in that game — and then come home with an armload of your gear (while you head home, hopefully, with hoodie and jeans pockets stuffed with cash).

By appearances, you'd judge the Cookies booth a sad affair. There's no P.A., no dab lounge with couches to crash on, no crazy signage like the two booths next door. But things are bumping. "It's good you came through today," Berner says, after I march up to him and am invited to sit down after the briefest of introductions. Yesterday, I hear, the mob at the booth to buy a $30 Cookies T-shirt — a riff on the Wells Fargo logo, with money sacks and weed leaves on the signature stagecoach — or the official Emerald Cup event T-shirt, an official Cookies partnership, was a constant five people deep.

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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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