In the space of four short years, Ophelia Chong has become an indomitable force in cannabis. The founder of StockPot Photography came into the cannabis industry through family illness and quickly realized there was much work to be done around changing the stigma of cannabis and its users.
A stunning amount of poise and grace adorn her razor-sharp eye and wit. These characteristics have led her through an illustrious career in design advertising and imagery for top-level clients.
She is one of those pushing for all of us to grow cannabis at home — and she leads with her actions. So when you read her words, know that it is preceded with plenty of action.
Cannabis Aficionado: Tell us, who is Ophelia Chong?
Ophelia Chong: Let’s start with the physical. I was born in Toronto, Canada. I became an American citizen in 2000 which I’m very thankful for. Considering our political climate right now, I might not have been able to get in and it would be a harder road today to becoming a citizen. I came down here and graduated back in ‘89 from the Art Center College of Design.
I went into photography to support myself and was hired by David Carson at Ray Gun. I shot for them for about three years. I followed him after he left Ray Gun and worked for about a year for his clients. Because I was in that business of shooting bands and art I was hired by many other labels as well and eventually came up on the radar of some film companies.
One in specific was Strand Releasing, and they are a niche. It was right around the time of Sex, Lies and Videotape… Sundance just started bursting out. I was involved with that because the company I was at acquired a lot of films for Sundance, Toronto Film Festival, Berlin and New York, Outfest, that were in our niche. We were always on the fringe. Plus, a lot of LBGTQ.
What was the majority of the work you were doing at this time?
I was a creative director, so marketing films, designing and we were a very small company, so everyone did a lot — but we did a lot. We either released on DVD or video and also theatrical, probably about 50 films a year. Because of that, I joined Slamdance film festival, which runs congruent with Sundance, for 10 years as their creative director. Releasing and directing their film festivals and all that. Chris Nolan had his first film with us at Slamdance.
Then let’s fast-forward to Jennifer Aniston where I got snagged from a film company to design her website, which no longer exists. And I’m not going to say the URL because if you go there, it’s all porn. Someone snagged that all of her real quick. Then from there to publishing; I designed monographs for about 10 books over four years. So, a large monograph. Then I went to magazine design and a lot of illustration as well. Book covers, for Simon & Schuster and I am featured in about 10 books with my illustration work. A lot of work by hand and letterpress. I’ve had many gallery shows, my work is at Saatchi and Saatchi in letterpress. Everything I do, I love it, it just seems to get out there.
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What was the catalyst for your transition into cannabis?
I discovered cannabis in 2015 so I’m a very late comer. I’m not an OG. I’m not one of those people that are out there with Dennis Peron. I’m not going lay claim to that.
I got involved in it for personal reasons. My sister is very ill, she started to use cannabis to relieve some of her issues. She is still on it she is on CBD. And that’s why I came into weed, so we can fast forward to all of this.
So, you didn’t really have interactions with cannabis younger in your life as a designer and an artist?
No, because on March 18 I just celebrated 14 years being sober. That’s sobriety from alcohol. Because of that, in those 14 years, I had to abstain from everything. Because if you are in AA, you can’t say well I can do this, but I can’t do that.
In the last five years, I had to really make the decision to be in this industry. If I’m going to be consuming this, what do I do? So, I made a plan for myself; “OK, so you can start by trying an edible. Then you can only have it at night after your work.”
I have to set up these boundaries for myself. And I still adhere to it now. I only will have one joint at night after I finish working. Usually after eight or nine and if I need to, I’ll take an edible to go to sleep. Because I know my own habits and how I operate and if I don’t control it in that way, it can get out of hand.
What is it about edibles that you like?
It’s going back into working with how your brain works. An edible is not food, but it can be considered food because you’re chewing and tasting. So, I went that way at first. It took me about six months after I was in cannabis to actually smoke a joint. Because there was an inherent fear of falling off the wagon. That was my biggest issue because I had worked so hard to stay sober, so I really needed to work a way that I can smoke and still manage my obsessive compulsiveness. Because alcohol is that. It’s about drinking so much or telling yourself you’re not an alcoholic because you don’t drink on weekdays but you do get flipped on weekends. But that still an alcoholic, it’s the mindset that you use to justify something. I needed to work my way through all that.
So now I really do enjoy smoking and ingesting an edible or a tincture. But in public, if I am driving, I will not smoke because I know the effects of driving under the influence of alcohol. With cannabis, I know how it affects me, I get very tired, basically, it helps me sleep, so I know I can’t do that when I’m driving.
I don’t need to show someone I am in the business by smoking in front of them. They need to understand my reasons why I can’t. I do believe though if you are in this industry, you do need to smoke. I’m not going to hold it against you if you’re not smoking it right there in then. I’m not going to use it as a litmus test like that. Hopefully, people don’t use that on me when I say, “Hey, I would love to, but I just can’t right now.”
Could you speak a little bit more to what you’ve noticed about the ability to use cannabis and have it not affect your alcoholism? What is that discovery like?
Part of alcoholism is the need to disentangle yourself from reality. I use cannabis to fall asleep. I’m not using it to leave where I am right now to a different reality, right? I’m not doing it to get that high. I’m getting high so I can fall asleep. That is the difference.
With alcohol, I was using it to just get out of my own head because of the pressure I was under. I was at the end when I stopped drinking. I was with a company that was very high pressure and also the people I worked with were alcoholics and previous cocaine addicts. I was in this environment with people who had no filters and no boundaries. Being a people pleaser, I would drink along with them and at one point I just couldn’t do it anymore. I looked at my behaviors and I realized I just had to stop.
With cannabis, when I’m around people that are high it’s different because it is a different type of behavior. As you know a drunk is way different than someone who is stoned. What I’m getting at is for my use I see it differently. I see my use with cannabis as a way to relax and fall asleep not to black out and leave reality. When I’m high, I am still in reality, I am still experiencing everything as it is, and I am able to experience it on a level that alcohol wouldn’t let me.
There must have been some trepidation the first time you use cannabis having been an alcoholic?
A little. By the time I did try I had done enough research because I was also creating Stockpot at the same time. I did a huge dive into what cannabis is, the history. I bought a lot of books. I did a lot of research online plus I did a lot of cold calling and ask people “Can you help me?”
It seems like you took your first cannabis consumption on as a design project, doing all the research before you even took one step?
I wanted to know what it was and get past the propaganda. The reason I started Stockpot was to get away from how we viewed cannabis consumers. Because my sister was a consumer, I looked at her and I thought “Man, she’s a stoner” but then again, after I thought that in my head, here I am, a person of color stereotyping my sister, who is ill and about 80 pounds and calling her something that was derogatory in my head. That is the moment I created Stockpot to change my perception of who my sister is… basically that was it. Because how can I do this to her and then I realize it’s because this is the image that I have been fed? So then going into it, if I were going to sell this, then I needed to know what it was.
I did all the research and considered my habits and dipped my toe in. Then I did the foot and then the whole body. Then my whole bucket list. Now also I have images of psilocybin. So now I’ve been microdosing mushrooms because I need to know the effects. If I’m going to sell these images I need to be able to talk about it authentically. Plus, I’m going to be growing them too.
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Speaking of growing, you’re vocal about people growing their own plants?
When I first started Stockpot I went to see a woman up in San Luis Obispo. I call her a white witch, she has an amazing house that almost looks like Goldilocks. Or Hansel and Gretel. But she doesn’t make kids into cookies, she makes weed into cookies. She opened up this mason jar and she said “Open up your hand,” she gave me a few seeds. “They are not feminized and what you were going to do is you are going to go home and you’re going to grow this. This is the only way you’re going to know what this is.”
That first year I grew 23 plants. Probably only had three males. I brought them all the way up to harvest, cured, trimmed. I did everything so I knew this whole friggin plant. I even would call people and say “Can you bring over your magnifying glass to see if she’s ready to harvest yet.” He would say “Ophelia, look at the resin, look at the color look at the trichomes, this is when it’s ready.”
After that I didn’t do that many, I do about ten now because that’s what I can manage. But it was growing a plant all the way from seed to smoking it that made me appreciate what it is. Also learn every part of it, because if I’m going to sell this I need to know everything about it. Convincingly right? So that’s the story of that part of where I am now to destigmatizing my sister to growing the plant plus opening up Stockpot.
How are you getting the message out?
I made three posts on Facebook. First one was if you were going to be in this industry you should be growing a plant. A plant, right? I got a lot of blowback from that. The second one was you should at least smoke it. I got some blowback from that. And the third one after getting a lot of feedback I posted well you don’t have to smoke it or grow you just have to have a really great marketing plan which was capitulation. First I poke the bear but then the whole leg goes up his ass.
It was interesting reading the comments such as “I can’t grow but I still love the plant” and “I live in an apartment and I can’t grow,” which is fine. Or “I can’t grow because I don’t want to get arrested because I have kids.” But when I see these comments I’m kind of thinking well the people who grew had all the same reasons. They have been growing since before Prop 215 and I’ll have the same reasons. But they did it anyway to get you here, to where you are now.
It was slightly ironic in that point where I can’t do this because I have these excuses yet they are trying to build a business off the people who had all the same excuses but went ahead.
One guy even asked me who is Dennis Peron and Prop 215? And he claims to have been growing since fleeing to Colorado so that his kid, who unfortunately did pass away, could get hemp oil right. He asked me who is Dennis and why are you saying LBGTQ is behind this? Then I realized we are even in worse trouble than I thought.
There is a serious lack of education about the history and the heritage upon which this whole thing is built.
Exactly. And probably those three posts brought out a lot of that. The fact is, if you have great marketing then you can get away with it. There are CEOs of cannabis companies who don’t smoke or have never touched a plant. I just really believe if you were going to be a fervent advocate of cannabis at least know the stages of the plant or just learn what it is.
I’m not expecting someone who wants to take pills to go and make Tylenol from scratch, that’s unreasonable. They are not scientists. But to grow something is human. That is how we feed ourselves. It’s from day one of the human race that we had to grow to eat. The fact that you can’t or you don’t want to grow something that you are involved in really speaks to me about why are you here. Because humankind grew to eat right? And to feed their animals, that they then ate as well, or they got milk from. So, it is natural for us to grow something because we have to feed ourselves.
But now we are in this consumer society where you could just go to the store and get some nice package in a nice styrofoam dish with some plastic wrapper that’s containing an animal that’s been slaughtered that you never came in contact with. It’s just a piece of them. Or a bag of carrots, we have no connection anymore to our agrarian roots.
Also, I’m really observant. I was a very shy kid growing up, so I would just sit in the back of the class and just watch everybody and everything. I learn how to be very observant and also watch body language and be that. Now just observing the people in our industry — and again, I’ve only been in it for five years — is very interesting. It is divided into certain groups. And those memes I create talk about those groups. I try not to be too mean. What I do see is the ones that come in for monetary reasons. And then the group that has been in it for at least ten years that are seeing this new group come in and making money, or at least trying to make money. And then you see the group that was 20 or 30 years ago basically working on and living on handouts. Or no one knows their name.
The group now that is making the 18 karat gold vapes get all the media play because they are shiny, they are new, they are young, they are fun. But there are people that have been in it for a long time, like Pebbles Trippet right? She’s not young, she’s not blonde, she doesn’t post the side boob on Instagram. I would say not a lot of people know who she is, but they should. She is one of the few reasons why they able to sell 18 karat gold vapes.
What really ticks me off is that they don’t have any respect for this or where it came from. Of course, I’m involved with some of those people but I’m always taken back when they don’t at least acknowledge where it came from. Especially looking at many of the comment online from people in the industry saying who is Dennis Peron and what is Prop 215? I had to basically send the guy a Wikipedia link to it and say this is the group that made the way for your CBD company. Have some respect for it. Because it didn’t begin with you. So that’s a big issue. Respecting the elders, because they are almost gone.
You are asking the cannabis world to learn how to use design thinking in their process. And the first thing you do in design thinking is you understand history and do research.
Exactly. So well put. We need design thinking in our industry. And I’m not talking about great looking packaging. I am talking about the design thinking of fundamental empathy for the customer and the product. Did you do your research? Did you do your homework? Did you get in and dig in the dirt? Did you throw down and pay tribute and understand whose shoulders you’re standing on, and then, start standing? It’s fine to stand on the shoulders of giants as long as you know and respect who those giants are.
There’s a great designer that I respect whose name is Mau. He put out a book called Massive Change. There is a great quote in there which I feel really reflects cannabis is this one. “Most of the time we live our lives within these invisible systems, blissfully unaware of the artificial life of the intensely designed infrastructures that support them.”
So, for me, this is about cannabis. These people that are coming in now are blissfully and intentionally unaware of what built it, and what supports them. That ignorance, this is what happens when the ignorance hits. When they see that it’s invisible, that’s when their businesses are going to fail.
5 Tips for Owning and Operating Successful Cannabis Dispensaries
The cannabis retail landscape has changed. Once regarded as somewhat of a novelty, legalization has allowed cannabis dispensaries to evolve into modern and innovative retail storefronts more akin to an Apple Store than the dark, secretive spaces they used to be. Some, like Shiny Bud, are proving to be leaders in the space, setting an exemplary standard of a contemporary cannabis retail experience.
Shiny Bud is one of Canada’s most successful dispensary chains. They pride themselves on offering customers a premium experience from the moment they enter, from a contemporary and inviting store design to highly trained staff, and of course, premium products.
Co-founder Alex Ledesma joined the cannabis industry when the Canadian government passed the Cannabis Act in 2018. She comes from a forward-thinking family of entrepreneurs, so the move to cannabis was an obvious next step.
“I saw an opportunity to be part of something big in Canada’s history, so we started following the industry, and applied for an application,” said Ledesma.
Shiny Bud opened its first dispensary in Toronto on February 14. Fast forward only a few months, and the company has opened the doors to its fifth location in a small town called Orleans, just outside of Ottawa.
“We have a pretty aggressive rollout,” said Ledesma. “Coming from a quick-service industry, we’re quite comfortable with builds and finding locations. We took our expertise from that and put it into cannabis. And it’s all completely within the family.”
Shiny Bud was awarded 75 dispensary licenses by the Canadian government. The company’s expansion plans include two more Ontario store openings this year, bringing the total number of store openings to seven. And they have no plans to slow down.
“We should be hitting 30 stores by the end of 2021. And we’re planning on maxing out to 75 stores allocated. When we stop to think about it, it can take our breath away.”
The constant march forward of legalization has created an ever-growing interest in dispensary ownership. Below, Ledesma offers up five pieces of advice for those looking to enter the cannabis game.
1. Have a Well-Trained Team That’s Focused on Customer Experience
As the industry is still so young, formal education in cannabis is still relatively scarce amongst prospective employees. For Shiny Bud, this presents an opportunity to reinforce one of their most important business objectives: provide cannabis education and training for their budtenders to pass on to their customers.
“Education is everything because the industry’s so new,” Ledesma said. “We truly believe that we’re an industry where we need to listen to our guests. This is one of the first things we teach our budtenders, along with providing a safe and educational experience for our customers in-store.”
For many customers, the biggest value in going to a dispensary is learning which products are best suited for a specific condition or effect, whether they’re seasoned cannabis consumers or newly curious.
“The goal for budtenders at Shiny Bud is to ensure customers are choosing the right product for them to provide a safe experience both in-store and at home,” Ledesma said.
2. Create a Guest Centric Environment
This goes without saying, but customer service is critical to the success of any retail operation. Ledesma attributes Shiny Bud’s success to the brand’s core vision of providing a “fast and friendly cannabis retail destination.”
“We strive to offer our customers a unique and memorable experience — this has stayed with us since day one,” Ledesma said. “When you walk into any of our Shiny Bud cannabis dispensaries, they’re bright, they’re big, and there’s a lot of education. The budtenders are dressed uniformly, and there’s personality — it’s not what people expect.”
Watching the change in customer demographic has been encouraging to Ledesma, who notes the increase in the 60+ demographic looking to add cannabis to their health and wellness, whether it be recreational, or to aid with a specific ailment.
“As a disclaimer, we always have to tell them that we’re not doctors and we can’t give them medical advice, so to start low and go slow,” Ledesma said. “It’s nice to see people like my mom, my dad, and grandparents come through the door, because you also know you’re helping break down the stigma.”
3. Stock the Best Inventory
With so many quality products now available, choosing which ones to bring to Shiny Bud is quite a lengthy process.
“We carry out a lot of research in terms of what’s new or trending, and what our customers are looking for in each location,” Ledesma said. “I wish I knew consumers’ buying preferences before our initial order was placed. We ended up buying too much!”
“We also use recommendations from our team members, our budtenders, and our customers. A lot of times we bring in representatives of the licensed producers to educate our budtenders about the products we’re selling.”
The three most popular purchases across three Shiny Bud locations are dried flower, vapes, and pre-rolls. “Our most frequently asked question is, ‘what is your highest THC or CBD?’” Ledesma said.
4. Have a Great Location
The age-old proverb of “location, location, location” rings true in the cannabis industry, too. Finding the right real estate is arguably the most important part of retail success. Plus, because of the industry’s prohibition history and the nature of the products being sold, it’s important to find understanding landlords.
“Initially, landlords have said to us, ‘absolutely not, we will not entertain the idea of having a cannabis retailer here,’ so I invite them to take a look at one of our dispensaries so they can see the vision of what and who we are as a company and as an industry.”
5. Ensure Your Cannabis Dispensaries Connect with the Community
Dispensaries are already major focal points in their communities. For Ledesma, giving back and helping break down old stigmas related to cannabis is a top priority.
Shiny Bud is in the process of launching a collaboration with Tsaichedelic to create a line of tie-dyed tees and other merchandise. The proceeds will go towards supporting Cannabis Amnesty projects, like providing legal counsel to get those with criminal records over minor cannabis charges expunged.
“Being a woman and a person of color in the cannabis space, I really believe in the fact that it needs to be the same playing fields for everybody,” Ledesma said. “Teaming up with Cannabis Amnesty just felt right.”
With the regulated cannabis market still so new, it’s important that business owners are able to adapt to changes and weather the ever-changing landscape of cannabis and the regulations.
“It’s ever-changing, so we’re constantly learning and growing from it,” Ledesma said. “Regulations are always changing, so being fluid helps a lot.”
Look for Shiny Bud cannabis dispensaries in Canada and keep an eye out for their expansion into America in 2021.
Gwyneth Paltrow and a Slew of Celebs Invest in ‘Social Tonic’ Brand, Cann
Gwyneth Paltrow is one of several high-profile celebrities investing in cannabis-infused beverage company, Cann.
Rebel Wilson, Ruby Rose, Darren Criss, Tove Lo, Casey Neistat, former NBA star Baron Davis and Bre-Z have also invested in the company.
The actress and Goop CEO and founder calls cannabis a “hero ingredient of the future” for wellness and says she was drawn to Cann’s drinks, which are infused with small doses of THC and CBD, as an appealing alternative to alcohol.
“There’s a whole sober-curious movement that’s going on and the cannabis-curious movement that’s going on, this is kind of at the intersection of those things in a way,” said Paltrow.
Cann is not the health and wellness moguls’ first cannabis investment. Paltrow admitted that while she’s not a big cannabis user personally, she acknowledges its “amazing medicinal qualities.”
“There’s no reason why alcohol should be so much easier to purchase than Cann, and I’m confident the founders will lead the charge in finding ways to integrate it into the same purchasing channels and drinking environments,” she said via a news release.
Cann founder Luke Anderson called the comments made by Gwyneth Paltrow “a sign that Cann (and microdose beverages more broadly) are a viable answer to that very common consumer pain point.”
He added that when people think of Paltrow, “they don’t think of ‘weed’ – they think of cutting-edge solutions for today’s health and wellness needs.”
Cann has positioned itself as a “healthy” and hangover-free alternative to alcohol. Most of Cann’s “social tonics” contain roughly 30 calories and are “microdosed” with 2 milligrams of THC and 4 milligrams of CBD. A recently introduced Pineapple Jalapeño flavor contains 50 calories and 5 milligrams of THC.
Earlier this year, Cann secured $5 million in funding as part of the company’s 2020 production and distribution expansion plans for 2020.
According to TechCrunch, the beverage startup has sold 150,000 cans, which retail for $4 each, since last May. Cann products are available at just 60 dispensaries in California, and online via the Eaze cannabis marketplace, making the $600,000 in revenue the company generated in less than a year even more impressive.
Miss Marijuana: Canadian Beauty Queen Alyssa Boston Is on a Mission to End Stigmas
Alyssa Boston is a woman on a mission. The 24-year-old Canadian beauty queen is using her platform to start a conversation on ending stigmas around mental illness, competing in pageants — and cannabis.
While she doesn’t actually smoke weed, Canada’s crowned Miss Universe caused a media uproar when she wore a sparkling cannabis-inspired look during the 2019 Miss Universe competition in Atlanta, Georgia.
Cannabis Aficionado spoke to her about breaking stigmas, social media and of course, that costume.
CA: How was your Miss Universe experience?
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