Subscription boxes are a new, cool business model — you might already belong to one or more of these services. If you’re unfamiliar, though, how it works is you sign up to one of these services based on your interests — geek stuff, healthy snacks, clothes, what have you — and the service’s expert curate a collection of products to send you. One of the newest, and perhaps most surprising is Potbox, specializing in medical marijuana.
If you live in San Francisco or Los Angeles, California, you can sign up for Potbox for $150, and receive a quarter ounce of marijuana (split across two strains), plus two pre-rolled joints. We sat down with Austin Heap, CEO of Potbox, to answer some questions about their service.
Unicorn Booty: How did you come up with the idea for Potbox?
Austin Heap: Previously I worked for a subscription billing company and got to watch a number of box-based startup companies grow and valuate in rapid fashion. One night, my friend Ian Buczkowski and I were brainstorming about how we could build a meaningful box-based business around something about which we were both passionate. As medical marijuana patients, we were fed up with the experience and questionable quality at many cannabis dispensaries. That’s when Ian came up with the idea for Potbox. While the idea sounded great, there was no way Ian and I alone could execute on it. We needed an expert to be able to pull this off.
As the universe would have it, a few weeks later we met Evrett Kramer — our third co-founder — who had been working in the cannabis industry for over 20 years and had the connections that Ian and I lacked. We quickly figured out that if Potbox was ever going to happen, this was the group that could do it.
When did you first start using weed? What has made your experiences with weed more positive or negative?
Off the record, weeds are “a valueless plant growing wild” — I used to say “weed” but got one too many stern glares from people in the cannabis industry!
That’s a funny question, you’re the first person to ask me that. I started smoking when I was 15 and it’s been a consistent part of my life since then.
I’m naturally a very high energy person — which I know drives my husband crazy sometimes. I can’t sit still long enough to watch a movie, I stand most of the time even if there’s a chair available, and 14 hour work days seem somewhat normal. That said, cannabis has been an incredibly positive thing for me: it takes me from 1,000 simultaneous thoughts down to about 100 which is much more manageable. It’s nature’s ritalin. I think if you ask people that know me they’d describe me as the busiest stoner they’ve ever met.
Before you laugh at that, check out the science from Heidelberg University Medical Centre on ADHD and cannabis.
What do you think of celebrity strains, like those started by Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg or the estate of Bob Marley?
The same thing I think about all celebrity-endorsed products: People shouldn’t be any less discerning with their cannabis than they would with any other product just because it’s pot, new, and cool.
George Foreman did sell over 100 million units of his grill though!
What do you think is the future of marijuana use?
I think the future of marijuana is bright and exciting! There’s a handful of really innovative companies out there that having amazing teams and are raising the bar every day. It’s exciting to be in a fast-paced industry, there’s no other industry like it.
One thing we already know is that the average cannabis consumer is changing, and fast. People are so accustomed to portrayals of cannabis users as slackers who have the munchies, don’t have jobs, and can’t hold a coherent thought. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The modern cannabis consumer is discerning in their taste, appreciates the genetic variety, and enjoys exploring new things. It’s a spectrum of users ranging from business executives and professional people to artists and soccer moms who for the first time can make informed decisions about what they choose to put into their bodies.
Do you have plans for Potbox to expand into other states where medical marijuana is legal?
Absolutely! We’re incredibly excited for other states to bring their medical and recreational cannabis markets online. Each state is taking a slightly different path — and some are having more growing pains than others. That said, we have all the infrastructure in place to quickly expand into new markets but we’re being very thoughtful about it.
Marijuana is still illegal in most U.S. states. What is your own personal stance on both medical and recreational legalization? Are there any downsides we should watch out for?
It’s been a long and absolutely failed war on a plant. When you think about the amount of people we’ve put in prison and how prohibition has really just fueled an often violent black market, it’s mind blowing that we’re still having this discussion. And that’s without even getting into the medical benefits!
I’m for full legalization with a strong framework for oversight and accountability. The quicker this industry looks and behaves like a conventional industry, the better.
The first thing we need to do though is stop treating medical and recreational cannabis users the same. We’re doing a major disservice to people whose lives depend on cannabis with these flimsy medical requirements in states like California. No one has ever uttered the phrase “it was difficult to get a medical recommendation for cannabis in California.” And that’s a shame, because we shouldn’t be playing this game.
One of the things I didn’t expect when starting Potbox was the number of people who would reach out and share their stories with us. From cancer to HIV, people have opened their hearts to us to share how cannabis has helped and continues to help them in their lives. Everyone you meet in life is fighting a different battle, and for these people medical marijuana is their ammo in that fight.
Cannabis is far from a silver bullet though. The science behind it has really just begun to get really interesting and, almost monthly, we’re learning something new about cannabis that we didn’t know before.
There’ve been worries that the pot industry is making the drought situation in California worse — how much water does Potbox use to grow its strains?
At a high level, there are many ways to farm cannabis that are not ecologically responsible. This includes everything from the electricity used by indoor farms to chemical runoff from farms not using organic practices, and like you astutely pointed out for those of us in California, water sourcing.
In contrast, one of Potbox’s main goals is to produce cannabis in a way that is ethically responsible throughout the entire supply chain — from seed to soul — and this includes water.
Our three partner farms in 2015 used around 190,000 gallons of water to produce their cannabis. When you discuss water usage on agriculture, it’s important to discuss the source of that water. 100% of our water is brought in from sustainable sources, and is not — for example — pumped from creeks, rivers, or other bodies of water which have been decimated by the drought.
To that end, we would never work with a farm that sources water via unsustainable, ecologically damaging, or even illegal means.
There have been reports of people overdosing on marijuana edibles because they don’t know the strength of what they’re eating. How can the industry control that?
“Overdosing” is a very strong word that shouldn’t be tossed around casually. To quote the National Cancer Institute: “Because cannabinoid receptors, unlike opioid receptors, are not located in the brainstem areas controlling respiration, lethal overdoses from Cannabis and cannabinoids do not occur.”
Education education education. Generally speaking society knows the limits around alcohol — if you drink Bacardi 151 you’re going to have a questionable time. That doesn’t mean 151 should be illegal, it’s just something you shouldn’t frequently use. The same is true about cannabis. There are very strong edibles out there, and there’s a time and place for them for some people, but you have to be responsible.
Potbox is slightly more expensive than going to a medical dispensary — at a SF dispensary I looked at, it was about $130 for a quarter ounce of the highest grade strains, plus two pre-rolls, compared with $150 for Potbox. What makes the price increase worth it?
Potbox is slightly more expensive than other services — as you noted — but it’s simple: you get what you pay for. We give our customers unprecedented insight into where their cannabis comes from, how it was grown, and how it got to their door. Along with rigorous lab tests and farming standards, this is how we built Potbox to be one of the most trusted names in cannabis.
It’s infinitely easier to grow cannabis using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It’s also infinitely worse for your body. This is already a noted problem in places like Colorado where people are choosing profits over integrity. That’s not the business we’re running. We’re running a business based on transparency, a commitment to quality, and the gold standard guarantee that our customers have complete insight into what they’re choosing to put into their bodies.
There’s plenty of places to find lesser quality, cheap marijuana. Our approach is to take pride in being the best. Think Popov Vodka versus Tito’s or Grey Goose.
Legalization advocates have criticized white, well-heeled marijuana entrepreneurs for capitalizing on a business built on the backs of imprisoned, non-violent users of color. What do you think of that criticism?
This is a difficult question. I’ve met plenty of people who fit this stereotype. Here’s the good thing about those types: Their businesses generally aren’t successful. Case in point, Issue 3 in Ohio where a group of misguided-to-corrupt people tried to pass a constitutional monopoly on cannabis production. (Thank Nick Lachey from 98 Degrees!)
The cannabis industry wasn’t built on the backs of people following the laws, so I think it’s important for those joining this industry to be respectful of the deep, often uncomfortable history and to pay it forward. It’s not all about getting YOLO-stoned on Swedish Fish with 500mg of THC in them.
That said, paying it forward isn’t always easy and sometimes becomes legally impossible. We were working with one of the largest HIV advocacy organizations in the United States to donate many pounds of medical cannabis to their most at-risk/in-need community members. As I’m sure you’re well aware, one of the most common side effects of Truvada is loss of appetite, nausea, and stomach pain. These side effects along with the virus can create a circular problem which leads to an unhealthy amount of weight loss. It’s well documented that medical marijuana can help alleviate these problems.
Ultimately, the lawyers involved were too nervous about potential repercussions at the Federal level, since their 501c3 non-profit status depends on being compliant with the IRS, and marijuana is federally illegal. These kinds of backwards laws make it very difficult and sometimes impossible for companies like Potbox to be able to give back to the communities we came from.
Do you see Potbox expanding and offering other products — either paraphernalia like pipes or vapes, or different forms of marijuana, like edibles or tincture?
It’s hard to commit to specific expansion plans right now because the industry changes almost weekly. From new laws to new ways to consume cannabis, it’s a rapidly evolving space. I know for sure we won’t be touching paraphernalia as our bank has it made it very clear to us that’s a no-no.
(Featured image via Cannabis Culture/Flickr)