Now that weed is legal, it's all about data.
Photo: Bobby Jimmy/Flickr
For certain types of aging technology workers, especially in the Pacific Northwest, two favorite hobbies have reached a strange convergence: self-tracking and getting stoned.
Quantified stoners wear FitBit and Jawbone wristbands to track their daily activity, log their runs and bike rides on apps like Strava and RunKeeper, graph their moods, keep spreadsheets documenting their sex lives, and now optimize their buzzes with high grade weed and a range of data-enriched gadgets to go with it.
"She's mad because her husband said he likes to go out to walk the dog with his one hitter and boost his step count," Jenn, another mother I know from around our Northeast Portland neighborhood, told me recently during a quick gossip session. (Names and identifying details have been changed at the request of the seemingly respectable adults quoted.) The husband in question is not atypical
On July, 1, it was officially legal to get high in Oregon, and on October 1, recreational retail marijuana sales became legal. Neighboring Washington state had legalized recreational weed the year before. I didn't think much of it: weed already seemed ubiquitous in Northwest culture. But, in Portland over the summer, all of the sudden, the weed stores sprung up. NE Sandy Boulevard, home to strip clubs, churches, used car lots and still-seedy dive bars, had eight of them as of October 1, henceforth branded "The Green Mile."
All of the seemingly responsible adults I knew were getting high, and no one seemed to expect it, or know exactly how to measure the impact. The whole experience of buying weed had changed, moving a lot of people to do it legally: Oregonians bought $11 million worth of weed in the first week after legalization.
Moving a gray economy above ground poses a new set of questions for government, law enforcement, and regional planning, not to mention the average customer who just wants to calibrate her high. Thus, there is a sudden need for data. The legal weed economy is scrambling for a very square commodity: metrics.
Over the past year, as weed snuck inside the bounds of respectability, it made a mad dash for the geek dad market. Over the summer, weed seemed to become even more ubiquitous in my social circles. Several friends smoked weed with their parents for the first time, and a few thirty- and forty-somethings I know learned how to roll a joint
Others adopted stoner gadgets as part their domestic technology stacks. Louise, a composer, proudly showed me her stainless steel Da Buddha vaporizer she'd set up in her studio next her her Thunderbolt display. A creative director I worked with raved about his Pax 2. A schoolteacher showed me a homemade vaporizer he'd made out of a gas mask in his garage workshop.
He rattled off data points: energy efficiency, growth conditions, and of course, the THC levels in the White Widow and Obama Kush clones
I went to a Fourth of July barbecue in Southeast Portland, hosted by an earnest techie couple who'd recently relocated from the Bay Area. The husband gingerly took guests, in small groups, into his garage grow operation, chattering in the classic way that economically comfortable men like to show off their hobby equipment, whether it be model trains or kayaks or grow lamps. He rattled off data points: energy efficiency, growth conditions, and of course, the THC levels in the White Widow and Obama Kush clones.
Quantifying consumption is kind of the perfect late capitalist pastime, and consumer technologies have dovetailed nicely to enable us to do it. If I'm going to track and share and identify with the food I eat, the exercise I do, the people I hang out with—and live with having these things tracked by technology companies, data brokers, government agencies, advertisers, anyone else who wants to get into my business, really—at some point my state-sanctioned recreational drug use is going to enter the equation.
Of course, weed is a fun interest for the data-inclined citizen. Because it's well, a plant, there's a lot to learn about hybridization, new varietals, and the chemical compounds within it that get you high. The gardening section of the local paper has run a "Pot Grow Diary." Legal weed is also spurring legal metrics for quality assurance around mold and pesticides.
"There's so much to know!"
These are some quite useful data points in the retail weed experience, now exchanged for the first time outside of marijuana growers, which is kind of delightful for detail oriented geeks. Strain types, THC and CBD levels are displayed prominently at retail stores, like stats for a sports team. For example, I've become very fond of MediHaze, a Sativa-dominant hybrid with a 5.03 THC/10.3 CBD ratio that I picked up at my local social-justice focused dispensary. You see, Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) is the psychoactive cannabinoid that makes you talk about aliens, and CBD is its chill, non-psychoactive sister that gives you a nice body high and calms inflammation. The Sativa in the mix gives it energetic qualities (as opposed to the "in da couch" qualities of a heavy Indica). It is great for my back spasms and period cramps, and makes doing the dishes after putting my daughter to bed a little more tolerable.
Yet, despite the uniquely 21st century joy in "space weed" and reading cannaboid levels like system performance reports, there is something bittersweet in the loss of mystique in getting stoned. Growing up in Texas in the 90s, weed was available, but a little more nerd-proof. You had to have a certain amount of social skill and proximity to a certain type of dude to buy weed, and a lot more to sell it. The only product differentiation was its source: at my high school you could go to Gabe, the Mexican-American goth who had graduated a few years back and cruised the parking lot in his Datsun, or Tom, who drove a lifted Bronco. Weed back then came in bagged increments, all fractions of a brick, brownish green from being soaked in Pepsi-Cola and compressed for transport from Mexico.
In my grownup life, having spent years in and out of interactive agencies, I can't help but think, cynically, about the sausage-making in branding and designing the new legal stoner experience. The legal weed economy is struggling to integrate the data with the brand: designing not only logos or packaging, but the integration of experiences and indicators. Snoop Dogg hired design legend Emily Oberman at Pentagram to rebrand his edibles. (This seems like no small design challenge as no one can ever tell how strong edibles are.) Taking weed above ground requires sellers to impart once craft knowledge to a less-savvy consumer.
"There's so much to know!" said my friend Julie, a software engineer. Having not smoked weed since college, Julie and her husband Ben took a trip to one of their neighborhood dispensaries in Portland's Southwest hills. "It turns out Ben and I like totally different kinds of pot. And we had to buy a pipe, because I don't know how to roll a joint."
A friend said she wished there were "like, an Uber delivery service," and then "add a period tracker, so I can optimize what to smoke during times in my cycle"
Weed quantification isn't just about marketing to nerds or reassuring newbies that they know what they're buying. It's also a necessity for regulation. In an effort to convince themselves that things won't get terribly out of hand, state and local governments have put some tracking requirements in place for possession and purchase limits. The weed industry seems to have taken a lesson from the service design of the surveillance state. "They scan your license when you go in, so it's like the library or Netflix," my friend Heather, a stay-at-home mom, said about her neighborhood shop. "They know what you got last time, and also, they're like, 'Hi Heather!'"
Outside brick and mortar shops and their leaderboards, there's the Leafly app, which allows users to review and rate different strains and suppliers. Quantified stoners should no doubt look forward to stoner-centric apps. My friend Leah, a computer science professor and QS gearhead, mused about a future where there's "like, an Uber delivery service," and then "add a period tracker, so I can optimize what to smoke during times in my cycle."
However, one might wonder if the pot economy might already be suffering from data fatigue. When I asked my friend Matt, a metal guitarist and erstwhile trimmigrant, he seemed unphased by the discursive shift in legality. "It's just weed," he told me. "The more you smoke, the more you realize it's all the same."
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