Ganja Millionaire

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There's no way. We smoked a joint. I hit that shit twice and I was done. He says he was named employee of the month, just before being fired after his superiors figured out how young he was. His teenage years followed a routine. Bored stiff in Arizona, he'd act up and find a way to get sent back to his father's house in San Francisco; trouble there would earn a flight back to his mother's — but there was a common thread. My first trip back from Cali, I showed everyone at school this little ass bag of weed. The apartment had very little. When it was dinner time, Gilbert Sr. Okay, go to Dino's and get a piece of pizza.

There was no phone, so when Berner dropped out of Galileo, his father had no way of knowing. There was no cable, either, only a VCR, and they had one tape. Occasionally, they'd get into petty crime: selling weed, mostly, though Berner remembers a short-lived rip-and-run career.

One day, the pair of them put a knife to the throat of a kid attending the Drew School, a ritzy private institution on California near Divisadero. So we start running. Fuck, dude. It was like, 'Dude, this shit is fucked. Arizona was also where Berner discovered rap music. At a continuation school, another kid asked him if he rapped. 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 used to go into the garage, where it was 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. It was weed that also led him to meet The Jacka. 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.


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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 , the pair recorded a record together, Drought Season , but the reception was brutal. On TheSiccness. Not that Berner cared.


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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.

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He wasn't exactly private about it, either. During the early days of Worldstarhiphop. 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 , Berner got a call from Mistah F. This cat named Wiz Khalifa was coming through town; could Wiz come by and get some weed? So I said, 'All right, fuck it. Have him come through.

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. Soon, Wiz was rapping about Cookies on stage. 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. 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.

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But things are bumping. 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.

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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.

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Within minutes, the post has over 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 , followers. 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 percent real.

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. 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.

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. I'm on the phone all day. No one can handle it. 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.

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. 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. He opens his hand: another handful of beautiful, exotic-looking nugs.

A few days before, Berner's biggest move yet was announced: the show at the Graham with Cypress Hill. He's producing the show, which means he has to sell 8, 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. And he is. Kids in London, Canada, and Pennsylvania rock Cookies clothing.

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There are Cookies-branded rolling trays, grinders, and other accessories in smokeshops all over the country. Hemp2o, on its way towards following 50 Cent's blueprint to riches with the Vitamin Water, is in 1, stores around the country. This means Berner, the city native who just a few years ago manned the bud bar at a rundown Richmond district weed club, is now at the helm of one of the marijuana movement's first multimillion-dollar empires.

Every person in business, from the mogul CEO on down to the neophyte fresh from a seminar at the motel near the airport, will tell you how important brands are. That's because marijuana is still illegal — at the federal level, at least. And you can't process a trademark or a patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for something that's federally illegal. There are a few exceptions. Branded edibles, chocolates like Bhang and Kiva, are available in almost every dispensary in California.

Through licensing deals, you can find these brands in dispensaries in Colorado and Washington as well. Production is done in-state; nothing crosses state lines. And big-time brands are finally becoming aware of the enormous opportunity in marijuana. Willie Nelson and Snoop Dogg are similarly looking to branch out beyond mere cannabis accessories. With one exception, a marijuana brand has yet to emerge into the mainstream. The reason is that you can't yet trademark a strain of cannabis, still a Schedule I controlled substance.

Where there's marijuana in the United States, you will find Cookies. Louis, cannabis is pushed by this name, regardless of its true origins. Bigger than Purple, more powerful than Kush, Cookies has become the biggest name in cannabis over the past five years, and it remains the best-known strain — which is to say, it's the biggest name in the nascent weed game to date.

Even California purists can't avoid this craze. Girl Scout Cookies first showed up on dispensary shelves in the Bay Area in and Cookies' appeal is twofold. While the strain's origins are in dispute — the elusive Cookie Fam claims credit, and says its heritage is a cross between well-known strain O. Kush and a freak cut of Durban Poison, with unique taste and effects, dubbed F1; at least one weed expert, scientist Michael Backes, author of the definitive tome Cannabis Pharmacy , believes it's a purple phenotype of another strain, Champagne — but the consumer appeal is obvious.

Cookies' nugs grow big and frosty, with shades of purple, the Bay Area's former favorite. The stone is a powerful, mind-numbing mellow, perfect for regular smokers for whom a weaker strain won't get the job done. But more than any of that is the smell. Oh, the smell: thick, musty, slightly sweet. Whether it truly tastes reminiscent of Thin Mints is subjective.

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What's undeniable is what you're holding. It fills a room, it impresses your friends, it knocks you — and them — on your ass. It's weed tailor-made for the modern urban consumer who wants something potent, high-end, and unmistakably top shelf — in every way the Courvoisier or Hennessy of cannabis. But the name also hits just right, too. Other famous strains have always had a fatal flaw. Granddaddy Purple is too long, O. But Cookies is friendly, easy to digest.

It's simple. Berner also found a way around the feds' ban on trademarking a weed strain. And once that brand is trademarked, you can hang a trademarked sign outside your cannabis dispensary — and you can sue anyone trying to profit off of your name and your hard work. The story of how the brand initially began is as simple as it is brilliant. A week after that, he was printing shirts. But a trademark doesn't mean much if what you're selling is wack.

Cookies has the kind of unimpeachable value that corporate suits crave: the kids think it's cool. It's the same reason why Cookies caught on. It has a cool street culture to it. From the start, Berner has been Cookies' biggest ambassador. And it makes perfect sense that he would make a weed strain popular.

Weed strains were how he made himself popular. Born at the former Children's Hospital on California Street, Berner had a mostly stable working-class life with his parents. His later mother worked in offices, and his father was a workaholic cook and chef at a Mexican restaurant on Fillmore Street near California. Along with his younger brother, the Milams lived in homes in the hills above the Haight-Ashbury and in Daly City before the family moved to Arizona when Berner was The plan was for his father, Gilbert Sr.

Arizona was where Berner grew a thick skin. I always had to defend myself. It was, 'Oh, you're from San Francisco? You're a faggot,'' he says now, in a rapid-fire patter light-years quicker than his lazy rapping flow. Let me know how that goes for you. It was also in Arizona, with his mother working two jobs, where Berner first tasted weed — pure Mexican-grown brick. We'd go into their older brothers' rooms and strip squares off the bale.

Picture a big-ass fuckin block of bud — we'd rip a corner off of it and then put it in a room with a shower to get it to fall apart, it was so dry. So we wrapped it up in a Walgreens receipt and smoked that shit. The first time he got high, however, was back in San Francisco at a friend's house. I said, 'You're kidding me, dude. There's no way. We smoked a joint. I hit that shit twice and I was done. He says he was named employee of the month, just before being fired after his superiors figured out how young he was. His teenage years followed a routine. Bored stiff in Arizona, he'd act up and find a way to get sent back to his father's house in San Francisco; trouble there would earn a flight back to his mother's — but there was a common thread.

My first trip back from Cali, I showed everyone at school this little ass bag of weed. The apartment had very little. When it was dinner time, Gilbert Sr. Okay, go to Dino's and get a piece of pizza. There was no phone, so when Berner dropped out of Galileo, his father had no way of knowing. There was no cable, either, only a VCR, and they had one tape. Occasionally, they'd get into petty crime: selling weed, mostly, though Berner remembers a short-lived rip-and-run career.

One day, the pair of them put a knife to the throat of a kid attending the Drew School, a ritzy private institution on California near Divisadero. So we start running. Fuck, dude. It was like, 'Dude, this shit is fucked. Arizona was also where Berner discovered rap music. At a continuation school, another kid asked him if he rapped. 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 used to go into the garage, where it was 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.

It was weed that also led him to meet The Jacka. 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.