It wasn’t so long ago that it was a bad idea for Americans to post a photo of their weed on the internet. Your employer might see it. The cops might come. The juice wasn’t worth the squeeze, if the juice was just an edgy Instagram.
For most people in America, this is still the case. Even in states with some level of legal weed, using cannabis can cost you your job, and the belief that the drug might be in someone’s house, car, or pocket has been a pretense for an untold number of police searches, the consequences of which have disproportionately affected people of color.
But thanks to an emerging class of high-end cannabis products and services, tweeting or Instagramming your stash is becoming a bit more common. Now, a heavyweight has stepped into the ring: The luxe department store Barneys New York announced this week that it would launch a new Instagram-ready cannabis department called The High End. Given luxury shoppers’ average demographic—wealthy and white—the launch is a stark reminder of how much the risk of smoking a little weed in America can vary from person to person, and whose interests legalization is primed to serve first.
Barneys is the first major American department store to get into the weed game, but it’s natural that both large-scale and luxury retailers would take an interest in the growing market for cannabis-adjacent products as state and local laws about the plant loosen. In inviting customers to order cannabis for delivery and shop for gilded vapes and art-object bongs, however, Barneys has joined businesses like vegan bakeries and glossy lifestyle publications in rushing to sell a suite of products whose legality varies wildly, and whose sale or consumption can still have real consequences for most Americans.
The High End, which Barneys describes as a “luxury cannabis lifestyle and wellness concept shop” in its press materials, will make its debut in March at the company’s Beverly Hills location. When it arrives, it will be lovely: Renderings show it as a nook filled with marble surfaces and green (get it?) accents, with glass displays, a metallic sales counter, and a seating area. It looks like an environment made for chic Instagrams, and the store hopes it will be.
Barneys had to nudge some of its vendors in the direction of cannabis in order to find properly high-end products to stock. “Instead of just taking product from the existing world, it came from partnering and customizing and making new things that don’t exist,” says the company’s creative director, Matthew Mazzucca. The results are a $1,475 grinder rendered in sterling silver, French-made rolling papers from organic hemp, and hand-blown glass pipes.
What you won’t find on the premises is tetrahydrocannabinol—more commonly known as THC—which is cannabis’s psychoactive ingredient. Recreational weed might be legal in California, but to sell it, the state still requires a dispensary license that Barneys doesn’t have. To circumvent that technicality, Barneys has enlisted the help of Beboe, a company that has been called “the Hermes of marijuana.” Beboe will act as the conduit between Barneys and California’s legal weed market, educating shoppers in-store about cannabis and taking orders that will be processed off-site and delivered via a service called Emjay.
Beboe’s co-founder, Scott Campbell, thinks of the partnership between his company and the Barneys shop as a natural expansion of the plant’s wide appeal. “I’ve always loved weed culture and head-shop culture, but they’re sort of grimy places full of pipes and paraphernalia,” he says. “I kind of yearned for something that’s a little more grown-up, in the same way the 15-year-old stoner kid in me has grown up.”
Together, Barneys and Beboe are trying something new in the American consumer market. But its newness is closely tied to the fact that, until legalization began in earnest just a couple of years ago, the cannabis market was risky, illegal, and pushed to the margins of polite culture. This market survived (and, in the majority of America where weed is still partially or entirely illegal, still survives) on the labor of the largely young, nonwhite population whose economic precarity made the risk of selling weed seem worth the reward.
The optics of luxe cannabis aren’t great in this regard. Weed’s legality—and the business opportunities created by it—is expanding against the backdrop of modest-at-best state efforts to redress the harms done by old drug laws. Although Proposition 64, which legalized marijuana in California, makes it possible for people in jail on state-level cannabis charges to petition for release, that generally requires the often expensive services of a lawyer. Some local jurisdictions, like that of San Francisco’s district attorney, have taken a more proactive approach in freeing those jailed over weed, but thousands remain in California prisons on federal marijuana charges, over which the state’s laws have no sway.
Even for non-THC products, what’s allowed and where is constantly changing. Recently, local health departments in New York and other cities have started cracking down on the proliferation of cannabidiol-laced food products in bars and restaurants, which had gained quick, unregulated popularity with many American consumers.
With these concurrent and contradictory layers of weed legality, cannabis entrepreneurs such as Beboe are attempting to adapt to the new laws and determine how to assimilate into existing cannabis culture. “Our initial fight was to be able to do this and navigate it legally and make sure we don’t end up in jail ourselves,” says Campbell. “As the smoke is clearing and this is congealing into a real thing, the question we’re asking ourselves now is, What’s the responsible thing to do?”
Beboe has helped UCLA’s cannabis-research unit fundraise to offset what Campbell characterized as chronic underfunding and omnipresent bureaucratic issues, and he says he and Kwan have discussed how the brand’s resources might be used toward prison reform and fighting stigma. Mazzucca told me that although Barneys didn’t have any specific plans to wade into cannabis-adjacent philanthropy, it’s something the company would look at in the future.
Even the most socially responsible cannabis entrepreneur can only do so much to directly affect positive change, but the investment of large, traditionally respectable companies like Barneys probably does make it more difficult for anti-marijuana hard-liners to convincingly characterize the drug as a health scourge for dangerous deviants for much longer. Elected officials might be able to tune out advocacy, but they seem historically less inclined to tune out money. Campbell agrees: “This genie is out of the bottle in a way that it is never going back in.”