[Editor’s Note: Cannabis needs to be regulated, just like alcohol. Would selling it in New York’s Wine and Spirits shops eliminate cannabis shops?]
Empire State spirits and wine retailers look to add value if legislation is passed.
The Last Store on Main Street Coalition, a trade association encompassing thousands of wine and spirits retailers in New York, is lobbying lawmakers in Albany to allow sales of recreational marijuana if it’s legalized in the state. “We are not going to sit back and lose an opportunity,” says Jeff Saunders, founder of The Last Store on Main Street Coalition and owner of McCabe’s Wine & Spirits in Manhattan. “If recreational marijuana is legalized, we need to jump on it.”
The Coalition, a registered lobbying group based in Albany, formed about ten years ago when state lawmakers were considering the authorization of wine sales in grocery stores. The Coalition helped defeat that proposal, as it would hurt wine and spirits retailers. Now the group has a new cause. “It would be a high-class packaged product,” Saunders says of the proposed retail marijuana. “It would fit into my store.”
Saunders notes that wine and spirits retailers already operate under a highly regulated system that can be easily expanded to include marijuana sales. “We are the perfect fit for everybody dealing with controlled substances in our stores,” he says. “We sell a drug right now. You have to be proofed to come into my store. There are video cameras. Your ID goes through a machine. We are licensed by the state, and we went through the background checks.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced marijuana legalization plans to state lawmakers in Albany on January 15. Under his plan, marijuana growers, retailers, and distributors would each need separate state licenses. A 20% state tax and 2% local tax on sales from wholesalers to retailers is proposed, and growers would also pay a tax per gram. If legalized, marijuana is expected to generate approximately $300 million in tax revenue annually. Marijuana sales would be prohibited to anyone under the age of 21. In addition to the governor’s proposal, there are two other proposals for marijuana legalization from other government officials in the state.
In the aftermath of last November’s elections, Cuomo has strong support—with a significant majority of Democrats—in both the state Senate and Assembly, which bodes well for legalization efforts. “It’s going to be a successful product—it’s going to add revenue,” says Sunil Khurana, owner of Westchester Wine Warehouse in White Plains, of recreational marijuana.
While not all wine and spirits retailers are expected to have interest in selling marijuana, many see it as a golden business opportunity. “Most wine and spirits retailers would like it,” Saunders says. “They see the handwriting on the wall in other states. Marijuana sales are taking over alcohol sales.”
The New York State Department of Health supported legalizing marijuana in a 74-page report issued in July 2018. Cuomo, who ordered the study early last year, had previously opposed legalizing marijuana. Now, for regulating marijuana sales, Cuomo is to implement an Office of Cannabis Management.
Under Cuomo’s plan, legal marijuana sales could begin in April 2020. New York has been under increased pressure to allow marijuana sales ever since the drug was legalized in the neighboring states of Massachusetts and Vermont. Nearby New Jersey is also taking steps toward legalization. “In Westchester County, wine and spirits retailers so far are in favor of it,” Khurana says. “It’s going to add value and more revenue for stores.”
[Editor’s Note: Check out what’s selling the best and why from California’s top budtenders.]
Four of the state’s most notorious dispensaries weigh in on last year’s consumer habits and trends, as well as what to expect on this next THC trip around the sun.
Today, shopping for cannabis in California offers more options than ever before. As dispensary shelves grow heavy with a myriad of products that range from dog biscuits to bath bombs, knowing what people in the country’s largest recreational pot market are purchasing — and why — may provide vital clues in our efforts to predict the industry’s future.
Following California’s first full year selling recreational cannabis, owners of top dispensaries in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles — Barbary Coast, SPARC, Harborside, and Medicine of the Angels (MOTA)— kindly agreed to discuss their observations and predictions with MERRY JANE. The conversations offered intriguing insights about what items are growing in popularity, and the shifting demographics of the customers they’re seeing each day.
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length.
MERRY JANE: What were the most popular products purchased at your dispensaries in 2018? Do you expect those products to continue to be bestsellers in 2019?
Jesse Henry, Executive Director of Barbary Coast (San Francisco): Flower and preroll are the biggest sellers, followed by cartridges, edibles, extracts, and topicals. This has been the trend more or less for a few years now, and I expect it to continue.
Erich Pearson, CEO of SPARC (San Francisco, Sebastopol, & Santa Rosa): Our top three categories for 2018 were flowers, edibles, and cartridges (in that order). We have seen customers lean towards lower THC and higher CBD items in all categories as many new cannabis customers have not used cannabis in many, many years — if ever — and are worried about how high THC items will affect them. We expect this trend to go on for quite some time as the market matures.
Steve DeAngelo, CEO of Harborside (Oakland & San Jose): Flowers still were the bestselling category, but [vaporizer] carts have been moving like crazy and are just about even with flowers (each about 31%). Gummies have pretty much knocked off most other types of edibles into “slow seller” categories. Even though chocolate had a higher percentage for the year overall — and tinctures were also up there — if you just look at Q4, you can see they are starting to make more and more of an impact.
Luis Bobadilla, President of Medicine of the Angels (Los Angeles): I think with the advent of adult-use, the big transition has been the ever-growing share of the vape portion of the market. That’s the big one we’ve seen. Speaking to a few years ago, when vapes where a blip, they were still a piece of the business, but marginal. Edibles have now grown into a significant portion of the business, too. One reason is that the edibles market fragmented in the sense that high-dosage, medical consumers now buy their stuff from the black market. I think the restrictions on potency, on packaging, and the costs associated with them have driven the old medical consumers away, and they’ve been replaced by adult-use consumers who are interested in micro-dose, lower THC things. Edibles are still there, but it’s now different products that make-up those sales. We’ve lost the medical people, but somewhat replaced them with a micro-dose, adult-use consumer.
Above, a photo of Barbary Coast’s consumption lounge by Nick Wadler
Acknowledging that every person wants something a little different, did you notice any trends in flower sales specifically in 2018? Are people drawn to “name brand” strains like Willie Nelson’s Willie’s Reserve line?
Jesse Henry / Barbary Coast: At Barbary Coast, we see a lot of tourists because of our downtown location and our consumption lounge. The customer base is still pretty new, so what we’re seeing is a lot of customers that have never tried cannabis or have had very limited experience. So they’re really trying things for the first time. As the market matures, there will definitely be a draw to specific brands.
Erich Pearson / SPARC: We have not noticed customers leaning towards brand names of high-profile individuals, rather than by cultivator. SPARC has been labeling its strains by cultivator for quite some time, as this helps with associating quality and price levels for the customer. By knowing the cultivator, customers can make better purchasing decisions. If there is a strain that they love and we happen to be out of stock, they know they can get the same level of quality and care they have become accustomed to by selecting another strain grown by the same group.
Steve DeAngelo/ Harborside: Absolutely. Our flower is generally from our farm (or something we processed in-house), and prepack is branded flower we receive from outside sources. You can see that prepack items make up the large majority of flower sales as a whole, with branded pre-rolls also taking up a big chunk, and items we process in-house (mostly just our farm stuff) that is “white labeled” with Harborside logos is only 15% of the total in the last six months.
Above, an infographic of Harborside sales data, courtesy of Stevev DeAngelo
Luis Bobadilla / MOTA: In our experience, nobody cares about brands yet. Willie’s Reserve? Nobody cares. I think the best parallel might be wine. If Francis Ford Coppola’s wine wasn’t any good, nobody would care that it was by him.
A photo of SPARC’s entrance in San Francisco
Are people starting to ask more about the origins of flowers, like what farm they came from?
Jesse Henry / Barbary Coast: It’s definitely going in that direction. There hasn’t been enough time on the market for specific farms to establish themselves to customers. But people are definitely asking about the quality of the farm and how the product was grown.
Erich Pearson / SPARC: SPARC has always armed its employees with this knowledge, and it has always been part of our consultations we have with members. We have not noticed an increase in members asking about this information, but have not noticed a decrease either.
Steve DeAngelo / Harborside: Our retail general managers are better to answer this one, but new laws require that it be printed on the package so consumers don’t have to ask. Consumers are not more concerned with the origin than they used to be. Honestly, new consumers don’t care much — they are looking at the effect of the strain. They want it to feel a certain way or cure something they have. The original heads still ask every time, though.
Luis Bobadilla / MOTA: I think we now have a two-fold, bifurcated market. Old medical users still want a certain threshold of potency. I think the medical flower smokers have gone away. They’re being replaced by a broader demographic that’s really driven by how it’s going to make them feel, and [this group] also has a tendency to want much lower potency products.
Prices have fluctuated pretty drastically since California’s recreational market officially got underway. On average, how much flower are people buying?
Jesse Henry / Barbary Coast: Currently, eighths are the most available and comprise at least 90% of loose flower inventory. But pre-rolled joints are very popular, as well. Those two account for about 50% of sales for us. The other half consists of a combination of cartridges, edibles, topicals, and extracts. Of those, cartridges are definitely the most popular.
Erich Pearson / SPARC: On average, customers are buying one gram to an eighth of flower at a time. While many manufacturers are not packaging grams, our vertically-integrated manufacturing team is. This allows members to purchase more strains per visit in smaller weights to see which types of cannabis work best with them. Many of our customers are looking for smaller amounts, as they only use cannabis on special occasions or want to see how it will affect them before purchasing larger amounts. We appreciate the ability to offer smaller amounts to these customers so that we can work with them on finding the right items for them, creating a sense of trust so that we see them return.
Steve DeAngelo/ Harborside: Overall, transaction size has decreased by about 20 percent, which we believe correlates directly with taxes and clone limits. Customers could previously buy 99 and now can only get 6. Although [Proposition] 215 allowed people to buy eight ounces, most of our customers were not actually doing that, so I don’t think the one-ounce limit is making as big an impact (except for during sales). When we did cheap ounces, customers were maxed out [after buying] a single item. So we think it might be better to do cheap half ounces to allow for more add-ons for every transaction.
Luis Bobadilla / MOTA: We don’t have ounce customers anymore. Joints are a much higher-selling item than in the past, and I think that speaks to exactly that. The average purchase is just way lower.
Crystal balls are of limited value when it comes to predicting the cannabis industry, but do you have any feeling for what types of strains you expect to be big sellers in 2019?
Jesse Henry / Barbary Coast: It’s hard to say. It will probably take the market another few years to balance out, in terms of the brand-new recreational customer versus the long-time patient who has a different tolerance.
Erich Pearson / SPARC: Strains that are robust in flavor have always been big sellers, and we don’t anticipate that to change. Many customers still use the age-old saying, “the nose knows,” meaning that if a strain smells good to you, there’s a high probability that you will like it. We have noticed, and anticipate, that items lower in THC have become and will remain big sellers. This is a big change from the medical market, where everyone wanted as much THC as they could get.
Steve DeAngelo / Harborside: I’m not sure of any one specific strain. Lemon-y strains seem to be making a comeback. Same with fruity, cookie kinds of crosses — honestly lots of companies are coming in with some awesome strains. I think the differentiator is more so the brand/cultivator than the specific strain.
Luis Bobadilla / MOTA: It’s like a wine sommelier versus people who are happy to have a glass of wine at dinner — there’s a much different level of engagement now. That’s the big change: the transition of who the customer is now. Medical patients in California were accustomed to a given price structure and a value proposition in so far as the cost of a milligram of THC. They’re much more substantial users, whether it was vapes or wax or shatter or flower or edibles or whatever. They were the largest consumers. The state, with its regulatory oversight and the price differential driven by taxes, has completely alienated that customer, who is now serviced by the black market. Our shops are now frequented by new, marginal-use customers.
[Editor’s Note: Writing jokes stoned and then looking at them in the cold hard light of day when sober, can provide some insight into the mind of a stoned comedian. Being stoned apparently works for many comedians.]
What do white noise apps, Planet Earth, “Space Jam,” “Free Willy” and mean Martha Stewart have in common? They’re all joke fodder, written by comedians who were high AF.
It’s 1 AM, I’m stoned at The Comedy Store in Los Angeles, smoking weed with my friends on a Monday. This is nothing unusual. Suddenly, I start to think about how funny it would be if someone downloaded a white noise app that played the sound of parents fighting. I quickly write it down and revisit it the next day while sober. After my altered state of consciousness dissipated, the joke remained, only to become one of my best jokes. The full joke is, ‘I found a cure to my insomnia recently, I downloaded a white noise app that plays the sound of parents fighting.’ I truly believe that cannabis helped me unlock this golden thought-nugget.
When you are a comedian, the writing process can be tedious and relentless. You carefully choose the right words in order for a joke to work, and you have to constantly generate new material for the stage, the writer’s room, or your new special. You have to be open to allowing the creativity to flow in, and sometimes cannabis makes that process easier. To prove my point, I talked to some comedian friends who inspire me, and asked about the best jokes they’ve written while stoned.
The Lucas Brothers (the identical twin stand-ups, known for On Drugs, Lucas Bros Moving Co., and The Tonight Show) said “we’re pretty certain we were stoned while we were constructing most of our material. The good, the bad, the ugly. We’ve never really judged the quality of our jokes. We suppose the Space Jam bit is one of our more abstract ones. We don’t think it’s our best joke, but we were certainly stoned while writing it. Some of the new stuff is pretty abstract, too.”
During their Space Jam bit, Kenny and Keith question how Michael Jordan convinced Charles Barkley to be in that movie. The Lucas Bros reenact the phone call that Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley had on November 13th, 1995 and it’s truly a unique and hilarious joke.
The brothers got candid as they explained the benefits of smoking before writing jokes. “Our cartoon show [Lucas Bros Moving Co.] was really absurdist, and we were incredibly stoned while writing it. We’re not sure we write our best jokes while stoned, but we enjoy the process much more. We’re less rigid writers. We think more abstractly. We care less, which is tough to do when you’re already apathetic about most things. Writing is tough, but should be enjoyable. You are probing the inner workings of your mind and turning it into something. It’s a fascinating process and we believe cannabis allows us to connect to our thoughts on a deeper level. That doesn’t make much sense, but think of thinking about thinking… the more abstract you go, the better the writing can become. Cannabis facilitates the process better than any other substance we depend on to cope with existence.”
“Getting through anything other than a meatball sandwich is a success for me whenever I’m high,” she said. “However I think my favorite joke was written after I smoked a bit of the jazz cabbage and watched Planet Earth. It was a bird episode featuring all kinds of birds. Pelicans, Peacocks (which are only male birds), Puffins. You wanna lose your mind? Google ‘Golden Pheasant.’ GLORIOUS creature. Anywho, to my female shock, the most colorful and ornate birds were males. Showing off their feathers to the females AND…AND…DANCING, mind you! WTF?!”
She continued. “It made me realize how female women out here doin’ WAY too much! We’re out here in heels, push-up bras, and 37 pounds of makeup shellacked on our face out here trynna not die alone. Meanwhile, these female birds chillin’ up in a branch in sweatpants waiting on a show by Robert the Peacock. So my advice to all women: Chill, sis. Let him put on an outfit and dance for you.”
Photo by Nick Larson, coutesy of Jessimae Peluso
I asked Peluso to elaborate on how cannabis aids in her writing process. “Good cannabis frees me of doubt, worry, insecurity, stress, and allows me creativity, positivity and a zest for life up in my Chi. It spring cleans out my soul, leaving space for openness and love. Life can be so tedious and heartbreaking for everyone. And sometimes we need a little help to get through our difficult days, a little push to be able to continue on.”
We talked about how weed can even be a panacea for the toils of labor, broadly. “Most of us can’t afford to take a day off of work. While I love what I do, it is still work. So I feel grateful to Mother Nature for providing me with a little [weed] to give me the creative fuel I need to be able to become inspired enough to make my comedy and art for people to enjoy.”
“I watched Free Willy when I was really stoned once, and got inspired to write a joke that talks about how Free Willy is a captured whale in a movie that is being played by an actual captured whale, which is messed up… that’s like making the movie ‘Roots’ and using actual slaves.” Kim continued to say, “Cannabis makes me more creative. I love a good sativa. It’s like the weed version of a coffee. When I’m high, my silly ideas feel safer to bring to light. It makes me goofier and loosens up tension in my brain.”
Photo by Frankie Leal, courtesy of Kim Congdon
Like Congdon, I also find that cannabis loosens up tension in my brain. Sometimes it’s hard to remember whether or not I unplugged my hair straightener, or if I responded to an email, let alone come up with a powerful punchline. I often get caught in repetitive thought circles and cannabis seems to create room for my imagination to expand. The mind of a comic is all over the place, and when you’re constantly generating comedic content, you need a way to quiet the stuff that doesn’t matter so you can create. After a smoke session, my mind is normally in a more playful place, making it easier to embrace the comedic thoughts that are rushing through my brain.
I posed the “best-joke-while-high” question to Tony Hinchcliffe (Kill Tony Podcast, JRE,Roast of Snoop Dogg, and MERRY JANE fam), whose answer was particularly visual. He responded by saying,“ Best? That’s a tough question. But when it comes to the jokes I’ve written after smoking….All of them. All of my standup jokes and pretty much all of the jokes that I’ve written while working TV writing jobs I’ve written stoned. I was also stoned when I punched up those jokes, and stoned when performing them.”
Hinchliffe wrote for Martha Stewart on Comedy Central’s Roast of Justin Bieber. “Imagine how much fun it is to help Martha Stewart be mean to people… now imagine that stoned. Being high helps my imagination picture how things are gonna go. Envisioning a joke working well means I can put it on paper in the first place.”
When it comes to strains, Hinchcliffe doesn’t have a preference. “Doesn’t matter the strain… what matters is the amount. I like to smoke slightly TOO much just before writing. My trick is smoking until it feels like a panic attack is settling in, then stopping. In a few minutes that panicked feeling is gone and you’re left in sillyland.”
He elaborated, “To come up with a How did you think of that?-type of joke, you have to think from different and sometimes strange angles, and pot helps tremendously with seeing things from a different perspective. In a lot of the TV writers’ rooms I’ve been in, the room would start to creatively crash after lunch. They are digesting their food, drinking soda, eating sugary snacks… they are yawning… looking at their phones. On a busy day, after lunch is when I like to have my FIRST smoke of the day, throw in a cup of coffee… and it’s on. While everyone else is crashing, I come in with a strong second wind and get everyone laughing again, and we have jokey momentum. One stoned paranoid writer in a room can keep all the others inspired sometimes.”
I always knew that cannabis was a way for me to explore my comedic and creative ideas. I find it fascinating that some of the best young comedy writers unanimously agree on using cannabis as a way to facilitate creative exploration. But comedians aren’t the only ones who utilize the plant this way.
There have been studies showing that cannabis is linked to increased creativity. Take for example this peer-refereed research published in 2014, which quotes Steve Jobs: “The best way I could describe the effect of the marijuana and hashish is that it would make me relaxed and creative.” Whether you’re building a new operating system or writing a punchline that will be remembered for years to come, there’s an undeniable link between cannabis and creativity.
That said, after getting a chance to crawl around the brains of my peers, I now know one thing to be absolutely certain. A good joke transcends altered states of consciousness.
Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times (@latimes) August 31, 2018
There are two flights of stairs curling around the head-turning glass bong, all 24 feet of it. There also will be an elevator to ferry people from the ground floor — where the pipe’s 100-gallon reservoir sits — to the mouthpiece high above.
It weighs more than 800 pounds and the bowl can pack a quarter of a pound of marijuana. It has elements in the glass that will make it glow — greenish mostly — while bathing in black light. Jason Harris, the artist who made it, said it’s his artistic opus to the cannabis culture.
“I make giant bongs,” he said. “They are my voice to make noise in the world.”
But to be heard and noticed on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas — where the bong is housed — is no small task.
It’s a sensory tsunami on Fremont, filled with street musicians playing “Stairway to Heaven” on electronic violins or steel drummers hammering out hits from the ’80s. There are screams from people shooting down a zip line above the street. Tribute bands blast metal music, and boozy packs of tourists point at half-naked men and women trying to lure them into posing for a picture.
And size matters, too.
Vegas Vic — the iconic neon cowboy — towers above a souvenir shop and stands 40 feet tall. There’s a giant pint of Guinness atop Hennessey’s that is 80 feet tall. Slotzilla, a slot machine perched in the middle of Fremont Street, reaches a height of 120 feet.
Harris saw it all as the perfect home for Bongzilla, as his creation has come to be known.
“Las Vegas will be the new Amsterdam of the world,” he said. “I see it as a big lighthouse and beacon that says, ‘Just smoke me.’”
But the 47-year-old knows that can’t happen in Las Vegas, at least not yet.
Though Nevada legalized recreational marijuana in 2017, it can only be consumed in a private residence. But it’s become a booming industry in the state, just the same.
This week, the Nevada Department of Taxation released numbers that showed that for the first full fiscal year, marijuana sales yielded tax collections totaling $69.8 million — 140% of what the state had forecast. Total sales — including medical marijuana and related goods — hit $529.9 million for the fiscal year.
Cannabition, the soon-to-open marijuana museum where the bong resides, is not a licensed dispensary, however. It sits on a leased spot of commercial space near a craft brewery and across from — conveniently for stoners — a Denny’s. The museum is scheduled to open officially in September.
Harris doesn’t really want any run-ins with the law — like that time in 2003 when he was arrested in a massive Justice Department raid dubbed Operation Pipe Dreams that also swept up actor Tommy Chong.
“At that point, I thought my bong-making career was over,” he said.
But by the time Colorado legalized recreational pot in 2012, he was back in the game, riding on his reputation as the founder of Jerome Baker Designs and crafting bongs — some as tall as 7 feet — as the world of cannabis culture grew more mainstream.
Bongzilla, Harris said, was a significant undertaking.
It took 15 people blowing glass eight hours a day — for four days — to make Bongzilla in a studio in Seattle. It then had to be disassembled, packed into special boxes and transported in a truck that wouldn’t draw a lot of attention. It was driven down Highway 95, a two-lane road that runs along Nevada’s western side through a smattering of small towns.
Harris said it seemed remarkable to him that the bong could travel by road through four states where the recreational use of marijuana is now legal — Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada.
J.J. Walker, founder of Cannabition, said it took several days to reassemble Bongzilla and place it in its permanent home along the staircase. He said workers had to build a special clip to secure it to the railing so it won’t move. Reassembling the parts required a special bonding agent that would keep it intact while allowing smoke to flow freely through the tube.
They added a mural backdrop of Tokyo for Bongzilla’s display. No sign of Mothra, however.
Even though Bongzilla can’t legally be used to smoke weed, it was important to Walker and Harris that it work. Just in case.
Nevada state Sen. Tick Segerblom — a Democrat who is running for a seat on the Clark County Commission — said he envisions a day when people can take a hit off the enormous bong.
Segerblom, a longtime advocate for legalizing marijuana use more broadly, said when he first saw Bongzilla, it blew him away. He said the biggest bong he’d ever taken a hit on wasn’t even 2 feet high.
He said he’ll be attending the opening of Cannabition.
“It’s what we do best here, and it fits in well with our party and outlaw image,” Segerblom said. “But I’m also hoping it makes people aware that Las Vegas is the perfect place for the cannabis culture and, if we can pull this off, it will become a major focal point for us.”
Who would have ever thought naysayers like the Texas Republican Party would be endorsing marijuana decriminalization? Let’s face it (if you haven’t realized already) — legal weed is here to stay. Recent news regarding President Trump’s growing departure from Jeff Sessions on cannabis legalization bodes well for our society, yet prisoners of prohibition remain almost entirely invisible during this major paradigm shift.
Vandiver led the group of student filmmakers from Los Angeles’ Koreatown Youth and Community Center (KYCC) with a mission to raise marijuana awareness through their Youth Drug Abuse Prevention Program (YDAPP). Together, they brought Fate Winslow’s tragic story to life.
MERRY JANE: What was the inspiration behind producing Fate?
Korstiaan Vandiver: I was teaching film to younger students, and it was more interesting to me because these kids were in high school. They didn’t use marijuana, or so it seemed. I just know a lot of kids do, so I started looking for things that’d be interesting. I asked myself: Is anyone serving time for miniscule amounts of marijuana across the country? And how can I help turn this into a social justice project?
Lo and behold, we came across Fate Vincent Winslow. He was locked up in Shreveport, Louisiana. I’m from New Orleans so this really gets to me. The fact that he was homeless, and the fact that he sold two dime bags and was doing life ― I was like, ‘this is utterly ridiculous,’ and I wanted to know more. At first, it started as a story, but after communicating with Fate, it became more of a [mission to] ‘Let’s get this guy out of jail’.
They were talking about weed all the time. In general, the students were between 15-18 years old. They would speak on it from various standpoints. It’s something that’s happening in their world, whether it was family, friends, the neighborhood, the music you listen to. It’s everywhere. KYCC administrators were open to the idea because it was a unique perspective of potential negative outcomes of being associated with marijuana.
If anything, what the project did was give them a different perspective on somebody’s situation surrounding marijuana, especially the idea that someone’s freedom could be taken away just like that. We thoroughly discussed irony of other states with legal cannabis. So the discussion became: Why if marijuana is legal in certain states, is anyone in prison? It caused some initial cognitive dissonance and head scratches, but ended with more well-rounded worldviews.
How long did it take to produce and film?
It was October 2016 when we first reached out to Fate. KYCC hired me as a film mentor; they had a budget of under $10,000, and reimbursed me for rented film gear, cast, and crew stipends. Still, we had to raise more money because films are very expensive no matter how small. We barely had enough to get through finishing the film.
There was a huge learning curve, because I had to teach the students how to film. We wrote the screenplay and did various drafts from November to mid-December. Initially, we started casting in January, but had to push the film date back because we had to wait for paperwork for our SAG (Screen Actors Guild) actor, Robert Hunter, who played Fate.
Actors Robert Hunter and Ryan Mulkay in ‘Fate’
I originally saw Robert acting in my friend Steven Caple Jr.’s Sundance breakout film The Land. I reached out to Robert just to show my respect for his work. I shared some of my films, and we hit it off. We agreed to collaborate on a film in the future, and when Fate came into the picture, he was all in. He traveled from Cleveland to California, and we ended up shooting for three days in March. We shot in Arcadia, which was the most southern-looking place in California we could find, as well as the [University of Southern California] library and cafeteria for the interiors of the prison.
How did you go about reaching out to Fate?
It was interesting because when we first tried to contact Fate, we had to speak with one of the assistant wardens at Louisiana State Penitentiary. This assistant warden basically told me that he would not allow me to speak to Fate. He basically said he didn’t want to show favor to Fate because he was no different than other prisoners. Finally, he started screaming at me, because I quoted the basic rights of the law.
From there, I found all of Fate’s former lawyers. They were also very unhelpful and didn’t care. One of the lawyers felt like Fate deserved what he got because he sold drugs. For me, it was like if you want to say he’s guilty, then let’s be real about the sentencing. What people don’t realize about the law is if you get caught with two dime bags, you can be hit with a felony intent to distribute because it’s separated.
I eventually got into contact with a lawyer named Brittany Barnett out of Texas, who worked under the Obama administration to obtain clemency for nonviolent drug offenders. We were trying to see if we could get Fate free before Obama left office, but the timeline was really close.
Brittany advised me to write Fate, and she would do a wellness check via phone call. He eventually wrote back, and said he would love for us to tell his story, especially if he can help other young people not make the same mistakes. We wrote back and forth, and became friends over the course of the year. Fate sent [more] info after we shot; the letter [system] was a bit too slow. We ultimately used his court documents, legal statements, and articles to create the story.
Fate unfortunately has not been able to see the film, but he was still very excited. He actually granted me the rights afterward to create a feature film on his life; we have already spoken to some very influential people in Hollywood who are interested in his story. I told him that it was something that I would never stop doing. I don’t know how long it will take me, but I will really dedicate a part of my life to helping him get free and telling his story. That was my promise to him.
For the time being, we haven’t entered any more festivals but we did submit for a Player’s Network Cannabis Media Grant. It’s centered towards more positive messages around cannabis, but we know confronting the bitter truth of Fate’s story is something that needs to be dealt with.
Korstiaan Vandiver and the youth of KYCC successfully started a petition for the release of Fate Vincent Winslow, which currently has 11,000 signatures — you can add yours here. Korstiaan Vandiver can be contacted at @Korstiaan1 on Instagram, and you can watch the entire short film Fate below: