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San Diego Startups Giving Marijuana A Makeover — But They Can’t Say That

Evening Edition

Aired 6/11/14 on KPBS News.

Marijuana is fully legal in two states and partially legal in many others. But businesses striving for legitimacy in the pot industry still need to stay hush-hush to avoid running afoul of the feds.

It's no secret. There's money in marijuana. But until very recently, breaking into the pot industry meant having to break the law. And even now — with marijuana fully legal in two states and partially legal in many others — businesses striving for legitimacy still risk running afoul of the feds. As a result, even with a majority of Americans now favoring legalization, the companies pushing marijuana's mainstream adoption can't say they're pushing marijuana's mainstream adoption.

Magic Flight CEO Forrest Landry packs his company's Launch Box vaporizer with a mix of sage, lavender, peppermint and spearmint. May 8, 2014.

Some of those companies have set up shop in San Diego. Magic Flight is one of the most successful. They make a popular vaporizer in a nondescript Midway district warehouse. If you're picturing something like an e-cigarette vaporizer, scratch that image. Magic Flight's Launch Box works with dry herbs instead of liquid concentrates. It's wooden, shaped like a matchbox, and small enough to hide in the palm of your hand.

Magic Flight's founder Forrest Landry isn't your typical startup CEO. He's a very mellow guy who wears his hair in a ponytail. He prefers doing business low to the ground, sitting cross-legged on floor cushions instead of an office chair. Maybe the biggest difference between him and other startup founders is that Landry can't market his device directly to the people most likely to buy it.

"There's so many reasons that's not a good idea," he says. For legal reasons, Landry can't say what most customers buying Launch Boxes already know. This vaporizer is for pot. People use it to get high. If Landry said that, he'd be advertising his vaporizer as drug paraphernalia, basically inviting the Drug Enforcement Administration to step in and shut down his business.

"I feel that there's a need to be able to talk about these kinds of things," Landry says. "Obviously we can't make very many claims. We're trying to promote a sense of awareness without necessarily entangling ourselves."

Landry finds himself in the same position as so many others in this budding industry. He may be helping to change the face of marijuana, but he has to do it all based on a kind of open secret.

Josh Young demonstrates the temperature control feature on the Herbalizer. April 30, 2014.

Across town in Little Italy, another San Diego startup makes a high-end vaporizer called the Herbalizer. CEO Josh Young is eager to let me try it out — on some less potent plants, of course.

"We've got some eucalyptus, we've got some lavender, we got some peppermint, we've got some sage," Young offers.

The Herbalizer is bigger and more expensive device than Magic Flight's portable vaporizer. But Young says it gives users a more hands-on experience, such as letting them fine-tune the temperature at which they want to vaporize.

"With very controlled temperature, you can specifically extract certain compounds from the plant," Young says.

For instance, let's say — I don't know — a plant like marijuana! Pot's active compounds vaporize at different temperatures. So, changing the temperature can change your high.

"Well it's not for that," Young objects. "But it can be used for any herb."

Magic Flight, Herbalizer and lots of other companies are willing to float into this legal gray zone right now because they see huge demand for better vaporizers. Many consumers find it healthier, more efficient and much more discreet. With vapor almost odorless and devices easily concealed, users can often get away with vaporizing in public.

I wondered if anyone in this industry would go on the record admitting that's what their customers are doing with this stuff. Then I met Daniel Yazbeck.

Describing his company's product, Yazbeck told me, "We have various applications. One of them is for cannabis."

Daniel Yazbeck connects his iPhone to a prototype MyDx cannabis sensor. May 8, 2014.

Yazbeck's company doesn't make a vaporizer. They make MyDx, a pocket-sized sensor that hooks up to your smartphone, telling customers what's really in strains with vague names like "Blue Dream."

As a medical marijuana patient himself, Yazbeck knows the industry's lack of standardization first-hand. "I buy a Blue Dream here and Blue Dream there. It's not the same," he says. "It's not the same feeling. So what am I supposed to do?"

MyDx aims to give users an easier way to find out. And Yazbeck will tell you flat out it's for analyzing marijuana. Pop a sample in the chamber, and your phone will show the ratio of THC (the compound that gets you stoned) to CBD (the compound with medicinal properties). But MyDx doesn't give them a way to inhale pot.

"At least according to our attorneys, this does not fall under scheduled paraphernalia laws," says Yazbeck. "So I'm comfortable talking about it based on that."

Some market research projects legal marijuana becoming a $10 billion industry by 2018, and lots of venture capitalists want in now.

The people jumping into the business aren't slackers. Forrest Landry from Magic Flight used to build search engines for DARPA — Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Herbalizer's Josh Young worked on supercomputers used by NASA. And Daniel Yazbeck's résumé lists major companies like Pfizer and Panasonic.

"I come from the Fortune 500 world," he says. "You get fired if you smoke cannabis in that world."

But Yazbeck feels the winds shifting. He predicts this is all going to be legal in five years. And he thinks people with suits and advanced degrees will be the ones to get it there.

Comments

Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | June 11, 2014 at 10 a.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

Would you hire a pot head?

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Avatar for user 'D_Mann'

D_Mann | June 11, 2014 at 11:50 a.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

Damn straight I would. Did you read the article, JeanMarc? These "pot heads" are rational, intelligent, ambitious, and free-thinking human beings. Exactly the type of people I would want working for me.

You can stay in your little world where people who partake of the cannabis plant's benefits are dumb, lazy, incompetent stoners.

I will gladly work with the people you stereotype and I hope we are in competition with each other, because my business will crush yours.

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Avatar for user 'aquatopian'

aquatopian | June 11, 2014 at 12:05 p.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

JeanMarc, would you hire an individual who enjoys a couple of beers in the evening after a hard day's work?

Is there any legitimate reason to discriminate against someone who prefers to vaporize a mild intoxicant that has never caused a single death--ever?

How productive is a hung-over employee? Or one with shaky hands?

For comparison:

Number of alcoholic liver disease deaths: 15,990
Number of alcohol-induced deaths, excluding accidents and homicides: 25,692

http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/alcohol.htm

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | June 11, 2014 at 2:34 p.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

I think you need to put down the vaporizer, aquatopian. Plenty of people have decided to smoke pot and drive around, and then crashed and killed themselves and/or others. If they only killed themselves, and had insurance to cover the property damage caused by their vehicle, I would consider it a net gain to society. Sadly, these types of people rarely have insurance, or jobs, and they kill or injure others when they crash their car.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | June 11, 2014 at 2:38 p.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

D_Mann I am sorry, but in my business dealings I have never encountered a high level executive who was a pot head. They are sharp minded people who do not depend on drugs and alcohol to deal with life.

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Avatar for user 'bighead'

bighead | June 11, 2014 at 3:03 p.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

My daughter works for Magic Flight. She is a college graduate and better yet pays her own way in the world. Magic Flight is a big corporate company, maybe with a lot of pot heads working there Jean Marc I would think that in any business you have encountered, alcoholics, drug addicts and pot heads. Many function a high level and do so for years. Using words like many, never, rarely are generalization. Fact is weed is here, Colorado is bring in big money and cash starve CA is looking at influx of money. Better tax weed than to police it.

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Avatar for user 'SmokingGun'

SmokingGun | June 11, 2014 at 3:24 p.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

So why is this blog turning into what stupid old JeanMarc wants to talk about? Her advocacy of prohibition is a 1990's conversation anyway. Isn't there content here and at least a couple points worth discussing, such as the advantages of vaporizing and the difference that temperature control can make on your experience.

The first Launch Box vaporizer is really cool because it's so compact and even if you do use it for marijuana it can be also be mixed with sage, lavender, peppermint and spearmint. Try doing that if you roll your own. The second Herbalizer has two modes, vaportherapy and aromatherapy, and based on the details of their website is out of this world cool and expensive; but it literally is a computer and worth it if you're a regular user and looking to save money on the amount of herb you buy.

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Avatar for user 'SmokingGun'

SmokingGun | June 11, 2014 at 3:47 p.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

Another comment about the MyDx sensor that tells what's really in strains with vague names like "Blue Dream." Yazbeck points out that he buys Blue Dream here and Blue Dream there, but the feeling's not the same.

What Yazbeck should do is hook up the MyDx with Josh Young and the Herbalizer and sell their devices as a package. If each Blue Dream is different then that means that different temperatures could be used to get the same feeling that Yazbeck is seeking. The ratio of THC (the compound that gets you stoned) to CBD (the compound with medicinal properties) can be used. For example if the first Blue Dream, BD1 measures 70% and the second BD2 measures 60% and Yazbeck finds that 380 degrees is the ideal temperature for BD1 then he may want to experiment vaporizing BD2 at different temperatures to find the same feeling.

This may sound like it's done for fun, but for medical marijuana users it can produce a very serious outcome.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | June 11, 2014 at 4:12 p.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

bighead you think Magic Flight is a big company? How many hundreds of billions of dollars do they deal with every year?

I am talking about real corporate execs, not fly by night pot head company founders.

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Avatar for user 'bighead'

bighead | June 11, 2014 at 5:27 p.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

Amazing enough small businesses provide the most jobs

Small businesses provide 55% of all jobs and 66% of all net new jobs since the 1970s

I am sure every one of their owners thinks of him/herself as an "real corporate executive". As for the " real corporate execs", you think are there no drug addicts, potheads or alcoholics amongst their numbers?
Your expectations are unrealistic as your statements. Thousands of Magic Flight sized companies deal with hundreds of billions a dollar every year.

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Avatar for user 'JustinM'

JustinM | June 11, 2014 at 6:26 p.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

I run a few San Diego-based marijuana websites, and we love the support of the SD community. I can see thousands of local people going to weed websites like GetHigh.com everyday.

We all pay our local business taxes, and hire local employees. Let's hope for a little more leniency concerning the legal roadblocks confronting the industry. Thanks everyone for your support and feedback.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | June 11, 2014 at 11:13 p.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

Marijuana should be legal and regulated just like alcohol.

The only reason it's not is because it's recognized as a "counter culture" "drug".

We need to base this on science, not politics and decades old cultural norms.

Marijuana is no more dangerous (and in fact is LESS dangerous) than alcohol and many prescription medications.

It also has efficacy for medical purposes.

Legalize it state-wide, and get the incompetent city council, incompetent county board of crooks, and incompetent federal district attorney out of it - - they are all simply draconian road-blocks to something that has already left the gate.

Their idiocy is causing people with major medical conditions to suffer greater.

The state of california needs to legalize this and take the power out of the imbeciles.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | June 12, 2014 at 9:36 a.m. ― 6 months, 1 week ago

Peking - I think the real reason marijuana (and other drugs) are not legal is because too many people are making money off their illegality. Private prisons and all involved in this industry (sodexo), the DEA, ICE, Border Patrol, etc.

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