On a recent evening in Palo Alto, roughly 50 women arrived in a festive mood. For one thing, they were told to dress for a tea party, so they were all wearing gorgeous, 1950s-style dresses and great big hats. For another, they were expecting to get high.
With retail sales of recreational marijuana expected to go legal in California on Jan. 1, one small startup is building its client base with marijuana-laced tea parties around the Bay Area.
For the brainy, well-to-do set in Palo Alto, nothing goes over quite so well as cucumber sandwiches, macarons and a witty, educational talk about the history and science of marijuana.
"One hundred million of us [Americans] live with chronic pain. I'm one of them. I have back issues," co-founder Amanda Jones tells the attentive crowd during a brief but comprehensive slideshow. "We have a huge problem with prescription medications."
If this sounds a little sedate … well, that’s the idea. Kikoko, the company sponsoring this tea party, is targeting women. That is to say, women looking to take the edge off before bedtime, not to get baked on the couch with a pizza, watching Netflix.
Kikoko co-founder Jennifer Chapin explains, "We realized we were on to something when we talked to so many women who were reliant on pharmaceuticals, and not necessarily happily. If we could come up with a reliably dosed product, we’d have a winner."
It wasn’t as easy as you might think, says Jones. "We went through three, I think, science teams? Before …four? Before we actually cracked the nut."
There was also quite a bit of -- cough -- personal research to fix on a product that would stand out from the crowd of options available now on the medical marijuana market: mints, gummy bears, tinctures, et cetera. Jones says, "Just put it this way: In the last three years, we’ve done a lot more weed than we ever, ever did before in our lives."
They finally landed on water-soluble tea blends laced with a tiny bit of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis that gets you high: 3 to 10 milligrams, tops; “micro-dosing,” they call it.
Partygoer Lori -- let’s just call her Lori, shall we? -- says she is not looking for a new addiction.
"I am not a big, uh, marijuana person."
I ask her what I ask everybody at the party who responds in this fashion: "Did you use it in college?"
"Yes," she replies, before going on to assure me she's not a regular user now. For some women, this is doubtlessly true. Others at the party are concerned about the judgment of their bosses or clients. After all, recreational marijuana is not legal yet.
But Lori would like a little help getting better sleep and, sweeping her arm to include the rest of the room, Lori says she suspects others want the same. "We’re all looking for the magic pill, I guess."
Kikoko's teas run the gamut from herbaceous to fruity, and like its marijuana-free competitors, each promises to address a different issue; or should I say desire. Chelsey McKrill sizes up one guest and suggests she try a cup of Sensuali-Tea.
McKrill explains, "It’s 7 milligrams. It has rose petals, cardamon, hibiscus, cloves, lavender. It’s not caffeinated so it’s going to enable you to go to sleep later and have some fun in the meantime."
This is not a product your teenager will want to steal from the cupboard, unless it’s for the flavor.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Chapin explains she and Jones were originally inspired by the difficulty they observed a friend experience trying to find a medical marijuana product that would address her physical suffering without wiping her out.
"Our friend Jan had ovarian cancer and she was using cannabis to medicate for sleep, pain, appetite. On the one hand, she had great results with it. On the other, she’d be knocked on her butt and she’d be crawling on her hands and knees."
Small dosages may also be a better fit for customers either just beginning to use recreational marijuana, or coming back to it for the first time in many years.
"We’re seeing cannabis consumers coming out of the closet, and they don’t look like the traditional 18-21-year-old male. They span every race, every ethnicity, both genders, as well as all income brackets," says David Downs, cannabis editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.
He adds, "Prohibition drove up the potency of these products and legalization is going to drive them back down, as companies seek to reach bigger and bigger markets. Most of those markets have very low tolerance for cannabis."
To purchase Kikoko teas today, you do have to have a medical marijuana card. In January, the game changes, and Kikoko’s potential market expands. The question is: Are they ready for expanded competition?
Downs worries that all the new regulations and red tape coming down the pike in California will quickly drive out small players like Kikoko. "Cannabis is in a period of intense capitalization, and it goes without saying that the people with the most access to capital in America tend to be white males."
Don’t tell that to Jones and Chapin. They have no illusions about gender bias in business, but they’ve managed to raise more than $3 million so far, from investors who trust they know best how to market to people like themselves.