Getting high with strangers on Zoom didn't sound like fun. Then I did it
The box delivered to my door, artfully decorated with colorful flowers and strange creatures, is curious enough. The directions that accompanied it are even more so. While I'm welcome to peruse the contents of the box, I'm told to refrain from consuming anything within. In a few hours I would receive an email containing a link to a Zoom meeting. At the appointed time, once I had the box and a few household items at the ready -- an ice-filled glass, a bottle opener and an ashtray -- I am to click into the meeting and open the box.
At precisely 7 p.m. on the last Thursday in June, I click the link, flip open the box and find myself joining a virtual salon -- part cocktail party, part smoke sesh, part buzz-building, brand-awareness event -- for the recently launched L.A.-based cannabis brand Drew Martin. Joining me are a handful of SoCal creatives that included, in no particular order, a documentary film director, three fashion designers, a pair of comedians, a singer, a magazine founder, a pastry chef and the brand's founding trio. Over the next hour, the three would raise cocktails, light botanical-blend low-dose joints and nibble artisanal chocolates -- encouraging the baker's dozen of us to do the same using the contents of our boxes -- as a way of introducing their take on weed to the world.
It wasn't really supposed to happen like this, the founders would explain as the evening went on.
Given their backgrounds in the hospitality space, the original mid-May launch was supposed to be accompanied by a series of 40-person -- and in-person -- sit-down dinners, where their four varieties of pre-rolled joints would be meticulously paired with complementary food and drink, all of which would be sampled by the kind of celebrities, celebrity-adjacent influencers and high-profile friends of the brand that can mean the difference between a moon-shot launch and fizzling on the launchpad.
Then the coronavirus outbreak permanently scuttled those plans, forcing them to pivot to Zoom. (Full disclosure: Times owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is an investor in Zoom.)
During the last four months there have been more than a dozen such Drew Martin salons, and it appears the approach has been bearing, at least, some fruit. Sweet Flower's Melrose Avenue dispensary, where the brand launched exclusively in May, sold through its initial order in a month. (Distribution has expanded since; a list of current stockists can be found on the Drew Martin website.)
Some of the salons, like the one I find myself in, have been small and intimate; others --like the one at the private West Hollywood club San Vicente Bungalows that included interactive cocktail mixing -- were larger affairs. All told, the salons have introduced the brand to an estimated 250 people, most of them in the privacy of their own homes.
Even if you're a cannabis enthusiast, the notion of getting high with a bunch of total strangers on videoconferencing during a pandemic probably doesn't sound like an awful lot of fun. There's something inherently sociable about marijuana consumption that makes the prospect of a shelter-in-place, pot-party-of-one feel forced almost to the point of silly -- even if a dozen other people are doing the exact same thing on the screen in front of you at the same time. (That's why I am beyond skeptical when the time came for me to boot up, log on and fire up.) What follows are excerpts from my cyber-salon adventure.
7 p.m.: Seated at my dining room table, with my box in front of me, I briefly worry if I'm dressed OK. I click through and watch the other guests arrive. The Zoom grid quickly fills, each square popping to life like a Technicolor popcorn kernel. People I haven't met yet adjust themselves on overstuffed couches, patio furniture and wheeled office chairs in dimly lit living rooms, lush, leaf-framed porches and minimalist spare bedrooms. The default expression falls somewhere between excitement and bemused wariness.
7:04 p.m.: The PR handler -- the salons are part of brand launch strategy after all -- does a speed round of introductions. Sharing a square are the three Drew Martinites; mixologist-herbalist-brand namesake Drew Martin Gosselin, his partner in and out of business Andrew Freeman, who heads up marketing and branding efforts, and the brand's Chief Executive Nicholas Pritzker. Also on hand on behalf of the brand are Manuela Sanin (former executive pastry sous chef of Eleven Madison Park restaurant) and James Bailey (a brand investor), whose wife, model and actress Devon Aoki, would pop in and out of view over the course of the evening.
Among the inhabitants of the other squares are Marvin Scott Jarrett (founder of Ray Gun magazine and co-founder of Nylon), Colin Day (director of the documentary film "Saving Banksy"), recording artist Jean Claude (whose recently released song "God of Grace" fronts and benefits the Recording Academy's MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund), Justin Romero and Valerie "Vally" Campbell (designers of the L.A.-based streetwear label Freak City), swimwear designer Leah Shlaer, event producer (and one-third of the queer nightlife collective Black Charmed) Dennis Haynes, and writer, actress and comedian Rheeqrheeq Chainey ("American Princess," "GLOW").
7:09 p.m.: With introductions made, Team Gosselin urges us to open our boxes and remove the first item -- a slender glass bottle -- open it and pour the contents over ice. It's rose sour (made with rye whiskey, Meletti, rose cordial, mint, lemon and bitters) crafted by Gosselin specifically to enjoy alongside the brand's rose petal and peppermint blend pre-roll joint. (The drinks vary from salon to salon. A different night might bring a lavender paloma to pair with a lavender and passionflower pre-roll.)
Across the grid, bottles obligingly pop, and liquid glug-glugs into glasses. A note in the box cautions that, once poured, the drink should rest in the ice for five minutes. That turns out to be just enough time for Team Drew Martin to hit the high notes on the brand background.
"I'm Drew. It's my name on that box that you have so I should probably tell you a little bit about myself," Gosselin says, going on to describe himself as an "herbalist, mixologist and wanderer" whose peripatetic life had taken him from Brazil to India to "an off-the-grid queer commune in the South" to New Orleans and eventually to Los Angeles. His twin passions for plant medicine and mixology, he says, guided his approach to cannabis.
"One of the most important things I learned behind the bar was how to take these kind of really complicated and challenging spirits and translate them into something that a customer could enjoy (by) creating cocktails," Gosselin says. "And that's what I wanted to do with cannabis. In the same way that adding syrups, liqueurs and juices to spirits can make them more drinkable, I wanted to add botanicals to make weed more accessible, more interesting and really kind of more smokable."
In addition to adding a pleasant floral flavor, Gosselin explains, the botanicals help keep the levels of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis) in the sativa hybrid cannabis blend in the 7% to 10% range (compared, Gosselin says, with the 17% to 22% of most pre-rolled joints). The other two botanical blends in the Drew Martin arsenal are a chamomile, yerba santa and calendula pre-roll and a ginger root, lemon balm and damiana pre-roll.
"For a lot of people, picking up a (regular) joint and taking a few hits -- and it's not too long before you're too high and kind of like hiding in a corner somewhere," Gosselin says. "This product is more like sipping a glass of wine instead of throwing back shots of tequila."
7:15 p.m.: The brand founders hoist their drink glasses toward the screen and say, "Cheers." The rest of the squares return the toast. The first sip is confoundingly delicious, pleasantly sour, lightly floral. I sip it again, sniff it and then sniff the rose petal and peppermint joint I'm absentmindedly rolling back and forth in my hand. Lighters begin to spark.
"I developed this drink around the rose in the pre-roll," Gosselin continues. "The rose sour is kind of a twist on a whiskey sour, which, I think, is a really cool drink because it takes whiskey, which is something that's dark and woody and rich and kind of bitter ... and kind of flips it on its head and makes it really bright and lively. And the rose in it kind of shines in contrast with the richness of the whiskey as well as pairs really well with the rose in the joint."
More sparks fly across the Zoom grid, which begins to fill with tendrils of smoke.
7:18 p.m.: Pastry chef Sanin (who is heading up the group's yet-to-be-announced next project) urges us to fish a small oblong package from inside the box. Nestled in it are small, brown half spheres mottled with gold. They're rose raspberry chocolates made with raspberry jam, chocolate ganache and Valrhona chocolate made to match the rose and peppermint pre-roll. (For the lavender and passionflower pre-roll at another salon, the confection in the box was a lavender chocolate crunch bar.)
"For these chocolates, I created a small bite just to encompass the flavors in the joint," Sanin explains. "When you take a bite, you'll notice that there is some acidity to it. I made a raspberry jam with fresh raspberries and lemon to brighten it up. The next thing you'll notice is the dark chocolate playfully and subtly hinting at the rose. If you're eating this while smoking the joint, the cooling effect of the peppermint (in the joint) acts a little bit like a palate cleanser."
Silence descends on the grid while chocolates are sampled and joints inhaled. "This is how we should all be living every day!" declares an unidentified square. Others mutter in agreement and nod, mouths full.
7:25 p.m.: Socially lubricated by the cocktail and cannabis, the virtual salon gets a little more chatty. There's a brief discussion about steeping rose petals. "If anybody here hasn't lit the (rose petal and peppermint) joint yet, please let's do that," Gosselin says. (The salon boxes contain a four-joint variety pack, which has one of each flavor.)
"Honey, I think we've all started smoking," says someone from a smoke-filled square. Other squares chuckle.
As things get more laid back, the brand pitch part begins to fade into the background and old-school party chatter _ the kind you might actually have out in the real world _ comes to the fore. By the time Gosselin's finished explaining the inspiration behind the pre-roll flavors (the peppermint a nod to sipping afternoon tea in Morocco; the rose petals a throwback to watching his mother tend her rose garden), the laughs are getting louder. Someone makes an offhand remark about getting high at a bus stop. It quickly becomes a running joke.
The cocktail chatter registers in snippets. "This is much less stressful than family Zoom meetings," someone says from the grid.
"Usually I'm just dabbing concentrates, which isn't very sociable," says someone else. Someone asks the Drew Martinites about launching an indica strain.
"To be honest, I'm an indica guy," interjects Jean Claude, "but I love this so much I'm not missing indica (while I'm) smoking this at all."
"If you launch an indica product, you should call it 'Bus Stop,'" someone wisecracks, trying to crowbar the running joke back into circulation. It works.
Freak City's Campbell holds a skull-and-crossbones-emblazoned bag of weed up to the screen. "This is what he smokes," she says, nodding toward Romero sitting next to her. "It's something like 28% THC, which is way too much for me. If I smoke that, I'll be on the floor. I'll be in outer space, so I was pretty happy when we got (the Drew Martin joints). They've got different herbs. It's something light, and I can actually function."
7:42 p.m.: Nothing happening on-screen at this point even remotely resembles what most of us would consider work. Make no mistake about it, Gosselin, Freeman and Pritzker, holding down the upper left square on my grid, explain they've been hard at work trying to leverage these virtual sit-downs into brand awareness.
"We've actually had one every single night this week," Freeman says, "and we have one tomorrow night, too." He adds that in the last three months there have been 15 such salons.
"Dennis actually co-hosted our very first one," Gosselin says, referring to event producer Haynes, who is kicking back against an aurora borealis virtual background just a few squares away.
"I did it on 4/20," Haynes says. "It was the first time I'd gotten high in like two years, and I was getting high on Zoom during quarantine."
"We knew Dennis would blow it out of the water," Freeman says, "because his events are always just like the ... coolest parties in town."
Haynes says that aside from a one-and-done event in late June ("It was with HBO for Pride (Month) because it was timely, and the producers of the party were all Black," he says. "It was a conversation that needed to be had."), he hasn't brought his event-producing skills into the virtual space.
"I'm so used to throwing (live) events. It's been so challenging thinking about what (works) in the virtual world," Haynes says. "Obviously people thrive on human connection, and you don't get that through social media."
Haynes' comment seems to tap into something across the grid. One by one the chattering, cross-talking, wisecracking squares go quiet as if everyone all at once came to the same realization. (What three-quarters of an hour earlier had been nothing more than a group of strangers connecting by a love of weed and a common PR contact had become something else altogether.)
Sure, the Drew Martin virtual salon, with its low-dose joints, bespoke cocktails and floral-themed desserts gets some of the credit for the metamorphosis. But _ and maybe this is the pre-roll talking -- it's also because the pandemic-induced isolation has stoked our need for human connection.
"My dream situation would be if we were all sitting around a table together, honestly," Gosselin says. "But this is the closest thing right now. ... At least I can see you, chat with you and smoke a joint with you."
7:50 p.m.: Like slowing pops signaling almost-done popcorn, the lulls between quips and snippets grow longer. The Drew Martinites seem to sense it's time to bring the exclusive cyber-soiree to a close.
"We would love to meet you all in real life," Gosselin says. "When that's possible."
"At a bus stop!" a wiseacre from the dimming grid says, lobbing the evening's running gag one last time. Genuine, hearty laughter erupts.
7:54 p.m.: As the last of the salon stragglers signs off, I suddenly find myself transported from the swanky virtual salon back to the home I've left only briefly in the last 109 days.
It turns out that getting high with a bunch of total strangers on videoconferencing during a pandemic can actually be an awful lot of fun.