I’d been traveling for work—to Europe then to Asia then to Europe again while pinging back and forth from L.A. to New York. For months my carryon contained the sneakers that I didn’t use in the hotel gyms I never visited. I was exhausted to the brink of tears since previous to this spate of travel. I had a schedule so rote I could give myself jetlag by sliding lunch up half an hour.
I’d gone straight to the weed store from LAX—ragged—trundling my suitcase past the spangly Turkish restaurant with the outline of a hookah on the sign, ducking into the alleyway with the Thai massage parlor on one end and my dispensary on the other. On the inside the shop looks like a cross between an Apple flagship and a Danish lighting boutique except there’s a security guard with a gun and a brown-haired girl who checks your ID and card and buzzes you through.
I bought a vape pen. Two actually.
I didn’t know I’d ever want a vape. It seemed like getting into magic or CrossFit—a whole production and the mandatory acceptance of an accompanying ethos. But at the time I was susceptible to marketing and there was a display with samples and nifty disposable rubber nubbins that went over the mouth end to keep it hygienic.
I often get overwhelmed purchasing marijuana. Like when you go to Ikea without a game plan. I waffle endlessly. There’s just too much to look at. I understand that top-shelf stuff commands flaunting. (How else to show off the bushiness of the cured flower and clusters of trichomes—those hairy crystalline sprinkles of cannabinoid?) But it’s like explaining music by smell or flavor by dance. I want to know how I’ll feel.
The vapes I bought are made by a company called hmbldt. There are six hmbldt formulations on the market and they’re labeled according to what they do. I got Sleep, the one for sleep and Calm for in case my rush-hour Lyft driver was chatty (in L.A. they’re always chatty!). They’re disposable which might be appalling given their staggeringly, demoralizingly expensive price-tag at $100 a pop. It means that you’ll need a separate pen for each ailment but it also means you don’t have to fiddle with cartridges or even flower. I don’t consume cannabis fast enough for any denomination of actual buds not to become petrified and uninviting and hmbldts have 200 doses so you can hang on to them for a while.
White, slender with a rounded tip—they’re the vape version of smoking Capri cigarettes and they’re about as long as one but wider. They look, to be honest, as if Muji made a tampon. They take their name (in a very web 2.0-y way) from Humboldt County in Northern California which evokes marine layer, Redwoods and (for those in the know) very good weed from 1996 onwards when Proposition 215 made growing medical marijuana legal in the golden state. And probably illegally since before.
Part of my decision was the brevity of the buying experience. No faffing with specials or personal suggestions (which I sometimes love but not always) but mostly it was that these days I’m scared of weed.
The thing is, at my age (mid-30s) a joint is produced with reliable frequency—barbecues, outdoor shows, birthday parties, and even a few picnic-situations where babies are present (provided they’re upwind). Basically any occasion that calls for rosé.
And I like weed. A lot. Enough that I wish I could smoke every vehicle for marijuana that crosses my path. But the last time I took a wee toke of a smoldering cone passed to me by a trusted friend in the spirit of conviviality it took me out of commission for the rest of the day. I couldn’t even speak. I watched my hand lift the joint towards my face and then it was tomorrow.
It’s not news that we’re living in a golden age of legalized marijuana. If golden is to be defined by weed so mighty it renders you catatonic. Two years ago a 19-year-old in Colorado leapt to his death upon eating a pot cookie. Louis C.K. has a bit about how he, “didn’t know they’d been working on this shit like it’s the cure for cancer.”
It’s true. Weed is virtually unrecognizable. It’s incredible to think pot’s changed this much. It used to feel low-rent like Boone’s Farm or Whip-Its. But now it’s the recreational drug version of the kid who was a nothing in middle school who becomes God-hot over summer break. To a genetically—celestially—engineered degree that could irradiate you. Weed, frankly, had evolved past my enjoyment of it. Especially if I have a job where one of the requirements is that I show up.
It’s for these reasons that I understand when people aren’t into it. It seems somehow both sleazy and intimidating. On one hand it’s a drug that’s illegal in most parts of the country and on the other, you’ve got luxury brands that are touted as the “Hermès of Marijuana,” and the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club that sells buds that cost as much as their weight in white truffles.
Plus, people who know too much about weed are annoying. Most invitations to smoke are accompanied by a story that serves as a kind (ha) of tax about Sativas or Indicas and how hybrids are the sweet spot and OG Kush or Girl Scout Cookies or else how Alaskan Thunderfuck is a magical journey. It’s like how Pappy Van Winkle bourbon doesn’t become interesting until someone threatens to pour you some. The really inviting thing about hmbldts (and perhaps this is true of most vapes), is that there’s less pressure to share.
The pens are aesthetically pleasing—certainly more so than a handblown glass bong resembling a dragon or those cumbersome oblongs known as box vapes. Each three-second pull you’re doled out exactly a 2.25 milligrams dose, with just under 2 milligrams of cannabinoids. The vape vibrates to let you know when you’re done. Comparatively a puff of a joint deploys around 3 milligrams of cannabinoids.
The edibles company Kiva Confections is good at this too. Their Terra Bites—chocolate enrobed morsels like coffee beans and dried blueberries—carry 5 milligrams each. But hmbldts aren’t just low doses; each pen is color-coded and blended in specific formulations for a prescribed effect. The thinking is that when you smoke you’ll know where you’re headed. Hmbldt is partially owned by Anomaly, the ad agency that does Coca Cola and Beats by Dre which explains their slick packaging (that could inspire suspicion in a #wellness product) but it’s the first to design directional highs.
I can report that Sleep is good at sleep. Inducing it and then keeping you under. I did have a wicked weed hangover the next morning (that grogginess of not being quite finished sleeping but running out of time) but eight consecutive hours was a profound relief.
The Bliss pen was pleasant. An all-purpose high and familiar as a Sativa dominant strain or a “morning weed,” the way Indicas are soporific and considered better at night.
Hmbldt also sells Relief for pain management, Arouse to promote intimacy and Passion for seismic culminations of aforementioned intimacy. If it seems as though it’s overkill or gimmicky that we’d need Arouse and Passion, I’d say I agreed with you. That is until I tried them.
The medicinal properties of marijuana are well known—that it’s effective for alleviating physical discomfort and insomnia, or how CBD (cannabidiol), the lesser-known, non-intoxicating cannabinoid (the active agents in marijuana) behind the psychoactive THC (tetrahydrocannabidiol) is an effective treatment for seizures—but I’m a recreational user. We’re so used to seeing drugs in binary terms—sober or altered—and while intensities differ (nursing a beer vs. any time you think shots are a good idea) we rarely administer a white wine spritzer for headaches or a Long Island Iced Tea for anxiety. Usually it’s blunt-force drinking. A holistic approach to anesthetizing.
But there are benefits to customized formulations that I hadn’t before considered. Calm skews heavily CBD, you’ve got a body high without any of the mind altering effects of THC.
“THC activates a system in our own bodies called the endocannabinoid system,” says Igor Grant, the director of The University of California Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research (CMCR) and the chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego. The CMCR studies the effects of cannabis on HIV Neuropathic pain and how it impairs your driving skills. “[They’re] signaling molecules that have to do with functions as basic as appetite control, inflammation, coordination, memory and other cognitive functions. The effect of THC is to affect these circuitries in the brain. CBD does not appear to have direct psychoactive effects. It doesn’t cause changes in cognitive function or emotions. Or neurologic coordination issues.”
Typical marijuana flower has a THC to CBD ratio of 20 or 40:1. Hmbldt’s Calm has THC to CBD ratio of 10:1. Relief is 2:1. With Calm I don’t experience paranoia—that running commentary of how high I think people think I am. I can even write on it which makes it singular to any marijuana I’ve ever sampled.
There’s a new formulation that hasn’t hit the market called Focus with a CBD to THC ratio of 4:1. It will be blended with cannabinoids that narrow your attention span to the task in front of you without compromising your creative process.
Samantha Miller the chief science officer at hmbldt says there’s a spectrum of response to cannabis but she blends to cover the bases. For one in four people, CBD is an upper for the rest of us it isn’t. “I’m trying to effect a balance between who’s going to go one way and who’s going to go another and how to help bring some of that 25 percent over,” she tells me.
She also adds cannabinoid profiles that drives towards the myriad issues associated with each ailment. “There’s a lot of different issues with sleep—going to sleep and staying asleep,” she says. “Those root causes could be anxiety, pain, restless leg syndrome—there’s all of these sleep disrupters. The THC and terpene profiles shut off the frontal cortex get you into that mode where you can be sedated and CBD inhibits the enzyme in our liver that breaks down THC so that extends the benefit while you sleep.”
When Miller talks about terpenes, she means the essential oils that give fruit and plants their smell and flavor, likeLimonene in citrus peel or Myrcene in mangoes. Paired with cannabinoids they do all sorts of other things.
Before hmbldt, Miller pioneered cannabis testing with her lab Pure Analytics. The majority of CBDs strains available domestically had their start in her lab, from two to over 80 in the span of a year. She’s personally tested tens of thousands of strains. She’s also sampled thousands of types of cannabis. Hmbldt formulations have been tested by over 750 consumers, with three to seven iterations for each “destination” or effect. And while Miller manipulates CBD and THC ratios and percentages and Terpene profiles, akin to twirling dials on a sound mixing board, the oil inside the pens are blends from strains grown in Humboldt county. “In Sleep you have fuel strains like OG Kush and Sour D and Bliss is three different Jack Herer strains that I blended,” says Miller. All the formulations reflect what she calls “the terroir” of hmbldt. “In Relief one of the Terpene profiles is from a strain called Silly Strawberry that was developed by Sunshine Johnson,” she says. “Her family owns the regional radio station.”
The marijuana used in clinical studies with institutional review also comes from a particular location. “To do human studies we only have one legal source of marijuana,” says Dr. Grant. “The federal government. They have a marijuana farm at the University of Mississippi. The highest strength is 12 percent THC. Street marijuana has gradually increased the concentration where the average is 12 to 15 percent and there are reports of much higher.”
I wouldn’t smoke Sleep recreationally but one puff of the Relief feels like taking off your outside pants after a long day at work. The priority isn’t all the Cheetos nor is it affixing yourself onto the surface of a couch until Netflix asks if you’re still there. It’s an immersive experience, like pot-VR where I’m inhabiting a kind of skin, a wakeful dreaming where I know I’m dreaming but it doesn’t freak me out not to be awake.
The souped-up CBD quotient feels different in the Relief formula. And truthfully I don’t know how much of it is the blend or the smallness of the dose. In my dismissal of marijuana because of its brute high I’ve often wished there were more bespoke drugs. More types in existence. I’ve wanted to micro-dose LSD since Ayelet Waldman’s book where she treated a painful shoulder and bipolar mood swings by taking a tenth of the dose needed to trip, but I didn’t know where to get it. I didn’t have a magical professor friend-of-a-friend who was nearing the end of his life and wanted to bequeath it to me.
But the Arouse pen is such an odd bird. It’s designed to lower inhibitions in initiating sex but it’s also a type of high that I didn’t realize could exist in the quiver of marijuana highs. You’re aware of the way the ground feels underfoot and how your toes feel in your socks. The racing of inputs—the din of being high—like how the cars are loud and so are other people or that feeling of maybe it’s me, it’s probably me, never kicks in. It’s a level high. An even keel. As with Relief you’re conscious of how you’re steering. Arouse is wavy. Or else sparkling. It’s the tissue-soft cotton of a T-shirt washed hundreds of times rippling in a warm breeze. They may as well have called it Tulum. Or Pink.
And, for the record, Arouse and Passion are nothing alike.
Just as it’s not recommended you take Ambien every night, I wouldn’t suggest revolving through hmbldt’s entire catalogue for every pinch of discomfort and tiny indignity. Marijuana isn’t addicting from a pharmacological or physiological standpoint but it is habit-forming and creates withdrawal. The thought of becoming reliant on Focus for every email or edit is unwelcome (as is paying for it). And if this directional, reliable mood altering is where the marijuana industry is headed, I’m excited.