Weed Rosin Is Changing the Way We Get High

Extracts are fundamentally altering the weed business.

An assortment of dab rigs.

An assortment of dab rigs.

Photographer: Carlos Chavarria for Bloomberg Businessweek

In a converted gas station by an enormous stone Buddha in Mendocino County, Calif., Tim Blake stands in front of a mound of cannabis “trichomes.” These crystalline hairs, collected from dried marijuana buds, are rich in THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis responsible for getting a person high. One of Blake’s male, twentysomething employees pours a saltshaker’s worth of these hairs onto a piece of parchment paper, which the employee folds in half and flattens in an industrial heated press. As the crystals melt into a greenish, sticky, translucent solid, a skunky, piney smell permeates the air. They’re making “rosin,” and the aroma of it is as common in these parts as the smell of garbage is in New York City come summer.

Rosin (pronounced RAW-zin) could very well be the future of marijuana, and Blake its Henry Ford. “Right now, rosin is taking over the market,” says the silver-haired 59-year-old, dressed like a suburban contractor in a Carhartt jacket over a fleece and bluejeans on a January morning. Rosin, for those who don’t subscribe to High Times, is a cannabis extract or concentrate, which mean the same thing. Extracts range from solid to liquid and go by names that describe their consistency—including “shatter,” “wax,” and “oil”—depending on the processing technique. Added to other products, they’re responsible for a stunning variety of edible, topical, and smokable marijuana products. Nowadays you can get your fix popping gel caplets, sucking on mints, munching on crackers, inhaling from vaporizer pens, cracking open energy drinks, and slathering on skin cream. If none of those options sounds appealing, there are even suppositories.

Blake in Mendocino County.
Blake in Mendocino County.
Photographer: Carlos Chavarria for Bloomberg Businessweek

Rosin is the extract du jour, and connoisseurs are taking to it like stoners to a 1 a.m. Taco Bell run. Unlike other extracts, rosin is only smoked; you won’t find it in a cracker. But the upside is that smoking extracts—aka dabbing—is the preferred way to interact with marijuana if you’re into pot and under 30, just as baby boomers had joints and Gen Xers had bongs. Smokers love the quality and potency of the “clean” high and say the flavor fully expresses marijuana’s desirable characteristics. “Smoking flowers dates a person,” says Blake. “A guy told me they cleaned out all the old bongs in his head shop—they don’t even have them. Nobody smokes flowers anymore.”

Not nobody—though data on how many people still smoke joints or take bong hits is, not shockingly, a bit cloudy. Blake estimates that by 2030, concentrates will account for 90 percent of legal pot sales. Already, the number of concentrates indexed on Leafly, the Web’s most visited source for cannabis-related information, with 8 million monthly active users, has quadrupled since last summer. Extracts make up about 20 percent of items listed on the site, and in certain markets, such as Oregon and British Columbia, they constitute well over a quarter of all products. “Extracts provide so many benefits to consumers, in terms of control over dosage or convenience of consumption,” says Brendan Kennedy, chief executive officer of Privateer Holdings, which owns Leafly.

Blake says former dorm room hotboxers will start to appreciate the privacy of odorless pot oils puffed through “vape” pens and the powerful, fast-acting high that glass, bonglike “dab rigs” enable. To compare it to another vice, dabbing is like taking a shot of premium vodka. Smoking a joint is like nursing a glass of house red.

What Blake is building in that converted gas station is an extract operation capable of scaling; right now, the market leans toward DIYers using straightening irons to heat trichomes. Think of it like this: Straightening-iron rosin is to Blake’s product as Jesse Pinkman’s “Chili P” meth was to Heisenberg’s “blue crystal” in Breaking Bad. And although Blake is far from the only extract producer in Northern California, let alone the U.S., he has advantages. He’s the founder of the Emerald Cup, one of the country’s most important cannabis trade shows; the event, held at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds each winter, started small in 2003, but attendance rose to 20,000 by 2015. As prohibition has given way to legalization, Blake has acted as a spokesman and an ambassador to what he and his peers call the “straight world.” He runs a dispensary, Healing Harvest Farms, and teams up locally with a company that makes the CO2 cartridges that power vape pens. “Tim Blake is a real innovator who has shaped this industry,” says Leslie Bocskor, an investment banker and industry watcher referred to as the Warren Buffett of cannabis. Blake’s bet on extracts, Bocskor says, may set him up to shape it again. “There are many people who believe the future of the entire industry is concentrates,” he says.

Blake is using the Emerald Cup as a platform to elevate extracts from a recreational product for dabbers to a subject worthy of serious attention. His rosin business has been up and running for about a half-year. He takes an all-natural approach, mixing leaves or buds with ice and water, filtering the slush, and drying the result. Other producers use compressed CO2 or solvents such as alcohol and butane to strip the plants of their oils and chemical compounds, industrial methods that are used to remove oil from peanuts, soybeans, and corn. Blake’s way of doing things is also particularly good at retaining “terpenes,” organic compounds that give marijuana strains their distinctive scents and affect the nature of the high. “We’ve developed what we believe is the finest concentrate-making operation in the world,” Blake says.

Currently he’s producing about 15 pounds of rosin a month, which retails for more than $60 a gram. (Concentrates fetch higher prices than dried herb, from $30 to $90 per gram, compared with about $10 for flowers.) He says legalization will spur an expansion in the market that could spike output to 100 pounds a month. That would bring in about $2.7 million every 30 days—or as someone using his product might put it, a ton of money, dude.

More broadly, U.S. sales of legal cannabis hit $5.4 billion last year, up from $4.6 billion the year before, according to ArcView Market Research. The actual market is much larger. Colorado, where weed’s been legal for recreational use since 2012, estimates that only 60 percent of the pot consumed there is purchased from licensed outlets.

Money and innovation in the marijuana market, as well as changing politics, have attracted Silicon Valley’s attention. Investor Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund participated in a $75 million funding round with Privateer last year; in addition to Leafly, Privateer owns Tilray, a $26 million processing facility on Canada’s Vancouver Island. And in California, Sean Parker of Facebook and Napster fame is backing an initiative that’s likely to appear on November’s state ballot. It’s gained traction with pro-cannabis groups and even Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.

Blake’s converted garage.
Blake’s converted garage.
Photographer: Carlos Chavarria for Bloomberg Businessweek

Should it pass, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act would legalize the purchase of weed by anyone 21 and older—23 million Californians—and further boost the state’s legal cannabis market, which ArcView recently valued at $1.3 billion. (Currently, only medicinal marijuana is legal.) At the Emerald Cup in December, Blake publicly endorsed the idea, which some in the community are wary of for fear it might corporatize the industry. There doesn’t appear to be polling on Parker’s measure; however, a 2015 survey conducted by the Public Policy Institute of California found that 53 percent of Californians supported legalizing recreational weed, the most since polling began.

Blake might just be in the right place at the right time. Through the years, he’s tried his hand in industries such as music (he started a record label that signed funk musician Bootsy Collins), real estate, and virtual reality. His gas station—which he bought after having a vision during transcendental meditation—is also a spiritual retreat and psychedelic-trance music venue.

Technically, what he’s doing now is against federal law, though in California it’s a legal gray area. Blake believes his method is legal because he doesn’t use solvents. Raids happen, though the Obama administration hasn’t prioritized criminalizing these enterprises. Whether a President Trump would consider what he’s doing part of making America “great again” is unclear, but Blake appears safe for now and sees nothing but growth ahead. “The kids coming up, this is how they’re being introduced to cannabis,” he says. “When you’ve tried extracts, you go and smoke a joint and it tastes dirty.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE