LOS ANGELES — Chris Folkerts started selling electronic cigarette-like devices from the trunk of his car two years ago. Now he and two partners own one of the biggest brands in the business, with products in 4,000 stores nationally, an art deco office on the city's fashionable Miracle Mile and an endorsement deal with rapper Snoop Dogg.
The rapid success of Grenco Science, the privately held company Folkerts founded, mirrors the fast growth of the business it is in — marketing devices that allow marijuana users to vaporize their psychoactive weed rather than smoke it.
"This is a big industry — it is the future,'' Folkerts, 31, says. "We're really on the cusp of exploding.''
With Grenco's "G Pen" line and a vast marketplace of competitors, marijuana users can avoid the hassles, hazards and telltale smell that goes with lighting up a pot pipe or cigarette, as well as the uncertain dosage and delayed effects that come with ingesting marijuana-infused food and drink.
Just as e-cigarettes have transformed the business and national debate over tobacco smoking, e-cig technology and vaping are bringing major change to cannabis culture and business — even altering the way pot is packaged and sold in states where it is legal for medical or recreational purposes.
Steve DeAngelo, a marijuana entrepreneur and activist who founded the Harborside Health Center medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, says the arrival of compact, portable, microprocessor-controlled vaporizers and advances in extracting active ingredients from cannabis plants have caused a shift in consumer demand.
Some dispensaries such as his and many in Colorado, where recreational pot is legal, now do roughly 50% of their business in raw marijuana leaf or flowers, and the rest in edibles and concentrates, some prepackaged in cartridges for use in vape pens, he says.
"The percentage of raw (pot) flowers we sell has been dropping steadily,'' DeAngelo said. "The percent of extracts and concentrates ... has been rising steadily.''
A TRUE GROWTH INDUSTRY
The transformative technology comes at a time when marijuana is gaining in legal and public acceptance.
While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, Colorado and Washington have made it legal to possess and use, and 20 states have made it legal for medical uses. Alaska has scheduled a vote on full legalization in August, and legal changes for pot are afoot in several other states. Recent public opinion polls for the first time show majority support for ending pot prohibition, and President Obama recently said marijuana was no worse than alcohol.
The rise of marijuana e-cigs coincides with the development in recent years of potent new forms of concentrated marijuana extractions in liquid, viscous and waxy forms. Those concentrates lend themselves easily to vaporization and are used to fuel many of the vape pens on the market, though there also are many vaporizers made for consuming marijuana leaves and flowers.
Vaping's growth, ease of discreet use and high-strength concentrates raise alarms among pot's opponents.
"This really portends the next generation of marijuana use,'' says John Lovell, a Sacramento attorney and lobbyist for the California Narcotics Officers' Association and California Police Chiefs Association.
Those law enforcement groups remain strongly opposed to marijuana legalization, and Lovell says the rise of high-strength concentrates for vaporizing "gives the lie to the allegation that somehow marijuana use is benign.'' Home manufacturing of the concentrates can be dangerous if flammable solvents such as butane are used, he notes, and their potency can deliver a fast and powerful high to the user.
The concentrates can be composed of as much as 80% or even 90% THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), the psychoactive ingredient of the cannabis plant. Advocates such as DeAngelo say the extraction process can be designed to concentrate another ingredient, CBD (cannabidiol), for non-psychoactive medical uses.
A DANGER FOR CHILDREN?
Some parents are alarmed that pot concentrates may be discreetly vaporized by children.
"It's a perfect combination — it's so easy (and) there's no odor,'' says Marcie Beckett, a San Diego mother of two who is part of a coalition opposing marijuana legalization. "People beware: Kids can now use these vaping devices to use marijuana, and you'll never know.''
So far there's been little scientific research on the use of vaporizers, though the federal Food and Drug Administration has announced its intention to examine and regulate e-cigarettes. Many cities, including Los Angeles, have moved to prohibit e-cig use in public.
Some doctors who support marijuana's medical use recommend vaping with reservations.
Bob Blake, a San Diego-area physician, says he advises patients against vaporizing concentrates because of unknown health risks with some types of vape pens. He says the long-term health effects of smoking marijuana are far less than smoking tobacco, but he recommends vaporizing cannabis flowers and leaves to many patients who don't smoke. He hands out an informational paper on vaporizing to patients, including some in their 80s, and recommends certain vaporizers he thinks are safest.
But the biggest market for vaporizing may be for those who wish to consume marijuana without detection by others.
"People want discretion,'' Blake says. "With vaporizers, in a large room a person can be medicating without offending the other person in the room.''
Because of marijuana's legal status, finding reliable estimates of the size of the marijuana business and pot vaporizers market is difficult. But the money involved speaks volumes.
High Times magazine, which chronicles pot culture, recently expanded to its largest size ever, up 26 pages to 152 pages, to make room for vaporizers ads, Managing Editor Jen Bernstein says.
"These pens are great,'' she says. "We definitely increased the book size to accommodate this growing corner of the market.''
In Denver, more than 600 people showed up last week for a job fair by a vaping device maker expanding staff.
Investors are attracted to the growth potential of vaporization.
Seibo Shen quit his Silicon Valley tech and software work less than two years ago to form a vaporizer start-up, VapeXhale. He raised $143,000 in 40 days through a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo.com, he says, then raised more from private investors. He met his partners through an online forum for vaping enthusiasts.
He said he has been vaporizing pot since the late 1990s, but only in the last few years has the technology become smaller and consumer friendly. He estimates three-quarters of the tech executives he knows in Silicon Valley use marijuana, and that health-conscious white-collar workers who don't like smoke are his target market.
"People are trying to be healthier in general,'' he said. "Why shouldn't their cannabis consumption follow suit?"
He is working the high end of the market. G Pens have a retail price of around $100, and many cheap imports go for as little as $20, while the first model from Shen's VapeXhale sells for more than $450. It is a heating unit attached to bong-like liquid-filled glassware, designed to deliver a maximum high without concern for portability or discretion.
At Grenco Science, now housed in a landmark former bank building on Wilshire Boulevard called the Deco Building, Folkert declined to reveal Grenco's sales or revenue figures. But with an office in what was the bank vault, he says business is booming, even as the company battles cheap knockoffs from China and counterfeit sales.
The company sells its pens through thousands of smoke shops, head shops and other retailers as well as directly online. He is creating fashion, art, music and extreme sports marketing tie-ins to extend the product's reach into new sales outlets, such as at South By Southwest, the tech and music festival in Austin this month.
Snoop Dogg, the rapper who flaunts marijuana use, has his own line of G Pens sold by Grenco. The rapper stars in an instructional video and is the brand's public face.
The rise of handy vaporizers has boosted retailers, too.
"I've been in the business for 20 years, and I've never seen anything impact the market like this,'' says Tony Van Pelt of Pomona, Calif., who sells vaporizers and related items online and in stores.
"This is the moment I've been waiting for,'' he says. "This vaporizing thing has changed the whole world.''
WHAT IS VAPING?
Vaporizers, often powered by battery or electricity, extract the active ingredients from marijuana by heating it to a temperature lower than required for combustion.
• Cannabis leaves or concentrates are heated to around 338 to 356 degrees Fahrenheit, less than the approximately 450 degrees required to burn.
• When air is drawn through cannabis heated to the proper temperature, it emits a vapor that is inhaled.
• Because there is no fire or combustion, there is no smoke.
•They can be as small as a ballpoint pen or as large as a toaster. Some have digital controls for precise temperature controls.