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

Tuesday, Feb 2 2016
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Other booths would love to have Cookies' light day. Over the next two hours, I try to carry on a conversation that's interrupted every few minutes by a parade of fans, well-wishers, and customers. Berner greets anyone who wants to say hello, he poses for selfies — and he accepts their gifts of weed.

And the weed. So much weed. Good lord, everybody brings him weed, in jars, baggies, and boxes. He stuffs it all into a backpack (Cookies-branded, of course) already bursting at the seams with flower, hash, and a small wooden container of psilocybin mushrooms, gifted by a nymph-like woman in a broad-brimmed hat who'd be at home at Burning Man. While my eyes are turned, Berner slaps a picture of the mushrooms on Instagram. Within minutes, the post has over 500 likes.

Social media has also been a huge engine — as well as measure — of Berner's success. The rap videos on his YouTube channel have millions of views. One video has over 16 million; his Instagram account has 482,000 followers. (Instagram, which has proven the most effective marketing and engagement tool for the cannabis industry despite a terms-of-service policy that leads to routine deletion of weed-related accounts, axed him around Christmas 2014; he was restored after someone "in the music industry" intervened. He won't say who.)

To him, the same reason why he does well on social media is the same reason why his booth is popular and his brand has taken off: constant engagement with the people, who are convinced that the person they're engaging with is 100 percent real. "I talk to my fans," he says, while breaking up a few buds and rolling a massive joint on a Cookies-branded rolling tray. (These, he says, he's licensed out, but with a deal that works in his favor: 15 percent of sales, and then a permanent deal to buy the gear at cost. "We buy them for three," he says, "and sell them for 20.")

He'll get a few puffs through the joint — which he hands to me for the first hit — before he's waylaid by someone else wanting to say hello. Meanwhile, his crew is flying through gear: shirts, hoodies, rolling trays, and bottles and bottles of the Hemp2o. (Before the last one is sold, though, Stinje takes pains to hand it to me. "You gotta at least try it," he says. Despite the cold and rain, I'm too thirsty to argue.)

Behind the authenticity is a relentless drive. Fueled by anxiety, a hunger for money, the desire to retire young, or all of the above, it's the same drive that led him to keep recording rhymes and approaching rappers, after the internet critics on Siccness tried to shame him. The hustle has everything where it is today: the clothes, the store, the branded smoking gear, Hemp2o (which, as far as I can tell, is his sole source of beef; his former partner, who says he was verbally promised a bigger cut, is suing him); a pair of apps, one of which is in negotiations with Universal for distribution; stakes in companies like pre-roll manufacturer California's Finest, which just dropped its official Jimi Hendrix-licensed "Purple Haze" cannabis cigarettes; and the music career, which continues to gain momentum.

"I'm well aware fashion has its time," he says. "Cookies will probably be cool for two or three years, and then it's onto the next brand, right?"

"That's why I'm always coming with new products, new stuff," he says. "I just gotta stay busy — that's my business."

It's dizzying — for him and the people around him, too.

"If you had to kick it with me for a whole day," he tells me later, in between fielding calls on one of two identical iPhone 6s he has on him, "you'd probably shoot yourself. I'm on the phone all day. No one can handle it."

On a sunny Tuesday morning last week, a black Mercedes S-Class sedan glides up to the Haight Street curb. Berner pops out of the passenger door and heads straight for the opening trunk, where he grabs a fistful of something before heading into the door of the Cookies store — where the manager, who opened a few minutes early, is yet another person Berner's known for more than a decade. "He used to come by our apartment" in the Lower Haight, the manager, Emily, says, "to buy weed." (Of course.)

This is the first meet we've been able to schedule since the Emerald Cup, after Berner's trips to Vegas, Colorado, and Arizona. (A weekend meet is out of the question; that was his four-day stretch with his daughter, who's turning 8). And we only have time for a quick pit stop before Berner and Stinje, who's at the wheel, head to L.A. for another few days — recording sessions, business meetings, and a weekend at the High Times Cannabis Cup in San Bernardino. Berner has about half an hour before a video crew shows up to record an interview about The Jacka, whose shooting death in Oakland was a year ago Feb. 2.

"Wassup," he says, drawing the fist to his nose and inhaling deeply. He opens his hand: another handful of beautiful, exotic-looking nugs. "Gelato #41," he says, before offering two of the strangers on hand at the store a free Hemp2o from the fully stocked refrigerated case. "Please," he says, a salesman's twinkle in his eye, "I'd appreciate your honest opinion."

A few days before, Berner's biggest move yet was announced: the show at the Graham with Cypress Hill. He's recorded with B-Real before and opened for Cypress Hill at the Regency Ballroom — "for free," he notes — but this is the big one. He's producing the show, which means he has to sell 8,500 seats.While breaking up the nug to roll another fattie — the first one ever smoked inside the store, he swears — he admits he's stressing about 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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