Taft’s dispensary, a squat, chartreuse and gray shop called 420 Central in the Orange County city of Santa Ana, was bringing in up to 600 people a day—more than five times as many as the month before, when only medical marijuana patients were allowed. Taft dropped his son at school and then picked up his usual breakfast—Aloha Goddess green juice and organic oatmeal with blueberries and bananas—and got back in his car to head to work. Then his phone rang.
On the line, Taft says, was a sales representative from Weedmaps, a website and app that lists nearby dispensaries and delivery services. Though more than a dozen other sites offer a similar service, Weedmaps is one of the oldest and most popular. The interface looks much like that of any other local search site, with businesses rated from one to five stars and comments ranging from the practical (“very fast service”) to the petulant (“dry ass herb”). Pot shops can upload menus, photos, and daily deals to their pages.
Listing your business on Weedmaps can be free. But if you want top billing, you often have to pay an advertising fee. Pricing for placement “is dynamically determined based on user impressions, market demand, and site activity,” Weedmaps told WIRED last summer. Taft says he paid $20,000 a month for about a year to be listed third from the top on Weedmaps for Santa Ana. (None of the listings appear to be labeled as “sponsored” or “ad.”) But by the beginning of 2018, Taft had run the numbers and decided that it didn’t make sense for him to pay that kind of money. The rep was calling, Taft says, to try to reel him back in.
Taft is a bald and pugilistic 49-year-old with a 5 o’clock shadow. He says that, on the phone that day, he tried to keep things polite. But he quickly cut to his only question: “Are you guys still going to be listing illegal businesses?” he asked.
The sales rep responded, Taft says, without hesitation: Yes.
As he got off the phone, Taft was newly frustrated. Here he was, a guy with a temporary permit to sell marijuana framed and hanging in his office—a permit that had taken tens of thousands of dollars, months of political maneuvering, and a little bit of luck to acquire. He was doing everything by the book: paying his city taxes, his state taxes, his federal taxes, his licensing fees, his worker’s comp. But plenty of other dispensaries in the state, it seemed, weren’t following the rules and were still listed on Weedmaps.
“In most cases, if you don’t have a license, you are not legally operating,” says Alex Kreit, a professor at San Diego’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law with an expertise in marijuana law. “If you’re unlicensed, you’re probably not paying taxes, you’re certainly not paying licensing fees, and you’re not participating in all the regulations and oversight the state has in place.”
The number of businesses listed on Weedmaps fluctuates as shops pop up and shut down, but by the beginning of August 2018, the site was listing about 2,000 total marijuana dispensaries and delivery services in Southern California. At the same time, according to the state’s new Bureau of Cannabis Control, Taft’s shop was one of only 239 legal cannabis storefronts and delivery services, along with 35 microbusinesses licensed to sell marijuana in the region. (Weedmaps has said it believes many of the groups it lists are nonprofit medical collectives, which the state allowed to operate without licenses until January 2019.)
From Taft’s perspective, Weedmaps wanted him to pay through the nose to list his licensed cannabis store next to what he felt were a bunch of miscreants. It was even more incomprehensible, he says, because Weedmaps had been a major donor to the effort to legalize pot in the state. It was soon clear that local and state officials appeared to be as irritated as Taft. As part of legalization, the state requires all marijuana advertising to include a business’s state-issued license number, to ensure that only legal entities can promote themselves to consumers. In February 2018, the Bureau of Cannabis Control sent Weedmaps a cease and desist letter asserting that the website contained ads for businesses that weren’t licensed to conduct commercial cannabis activity. “Weedmaps.com must immediately cease all activity that violates state cannabis laws,” they wrote.
One of Weedmaps’ biggest competitors, Leafly, had already announced on its site that it would stop listing unlicensed businesses by March 1, 2018: “The state has made clear that only licensed retailers and delivery services may advertise via technology platforms,” it said. But Weedmaps demurred, claiming protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—the crucial clause that shields platforms like Facebook and YouTube from liability for content posted by users. As “a technology company and an interactive computer service,” the company’s leadership wrote in a letter to the state, “Weedmaps is not subject to the bureau’s authority or ‘state regulations.’ ”
After two decades of unregulated pot chaos, the beginning of 2018 was supposed to herald a new era for California—one that established a clear line between legal and illegal marijuana businesses. Of course, the federal government still considers cannabis illegal, but Weedmaps, ironically, has claimed protection under federal law, leaving sellers and state regulators exasperated.
In the beginning, the goal of Weedmaps was to help people find pot. According to The Wall Street Journal, Justin Hartfield, the bushy-browed idealist who created the platform, started smoking pot around 1997, when he was 13. He reportedly sold weed in high school, and he once told the Jewish magazine The Forward that he took his SATs stoned. At college he majored in computer and information sciences, and within a few years of graduating, he launched Weedmaps. The site was a success from the start, pointing local customers to medical dispensaries, but it wasn’t making him much money, because he didn’t charge for listings. Hartfield tried his hand at self-publishing (The Ultimate Guide to Picking Up Women On Facebook) but, according to the website of Entrepreneur magazine, his ebooks were a flop. Then he met Doug Francis.
Francis is tall, with a body like a teddy bear’s. While Hartfield became known for an antic, activist streak, Francis was focused on business. He’d been working in mortgages when the market crashed; he then cofounded a network of brick-and-mortar medical evaluation centers whose main service was to provide the doctor’s recommendations necessary for patients to get into marijuana dispensaries. Hartfield got in touch with Francis when he saw they both lived in California.
At first Francis hired Hartfield to help him improve search engine optimization for his network’s website. “He got us to the top of every major keyword within months,” Francis remembers fondly. By 2009, Francis and Hartfield had partnered on Weedmaps and had begun charging dispensaries for listings. “I gave him a spreadsheet that said I would hit $300,000 in the first 30 days,” Francis said in an interview in 2016. “I hit it, and the rest is history.”
As the company grew and weed became more mainstream, Hartfield took on a more public role, joining the boards of marijuana advocacy groups and giving blustery, frank media interviews about his life, business strategy, and pot use.
The company also spent increasing amounts to lobby politicians and donated to campaigns that pushed for full legalization. According to an email that Weedmaps sent WIRED, the company’s “central policy goal is to advance effective legalization at the federal, state, and local level” such that “illegal market share is reduced to the smallest level possible through effective setting of license density, tax rate, medical access, product variety, and legal supply chain safety.”
In 2015 the Bay Area news site SFGate reported that Hartfield had pledged to donate roughly $2 million toward legalizing the recreational use of marijuana in California. Early the following year, a few months after the text of California’s legalization initiative was finalized but before the campaign began in earnest, Weedmaps announced that Hartfield was stepping down from his position to become the chairman of the board, and Francis was taking over as CEO. Soon after, the company’s executives mostly stopped talking to reporters. (WIRED made a number of attempts to seek Weedmaps’ comment for this story and requested answers to dozens of fact-checking questions. The company declined to answer most of our questions; Weedmaps’ lawyers responded with a letter to WIRED’s legal department, calling many of the questions misleading.)
Long before he opened 420 Central, Robert Taft had been an entrepreneur. As a teenager, he ran a fleet of delivery vehicles. A gig at a law firm led to a career as a court services officer—digging up information, searching for offshore bank accounts, tracking people down to serve legal papers, and getting paid for it by attorneys all over Orange County. In August 2000, Taft’s life took the turn that led to him opening a dispensary. He had been tasked with serving a neurotologist with court papers in a child custody case. When he showed up at the woman’s house in tony Newport Beach, she held a gun to his head and wouldn’t let him leave. The standoff lasted for about an hour, according to Taft. During that time, the doctor sprayed Taft with a canister of tear gas before finally releasing him. As he stumbled away from the house, he says, he called the police.
Six months later, Taft was walking up to another house and whoosh, everything came flooding back. Wasn’t that the same pool as the one the neurotologist had? The same wall in the front yard? In the weeks after the panic attack, Taft couldn’t sleep, and his therapist told him he had post-traumatic stress. Pot was the only thing that helped.
Smoke and Mirrors
California law says local municipalities get to set their own limits on how cannabis can be sold.* But even if an area has banned storefront pot sales, that doesn’t mean you can’t still find a local shop on Weedmaps. —Saraswati Rathod
* County policies apply only to unincorporated areas, so individual cities often set their own, separate cannabis policies.
Sources: California Bureau of Cannabis Control; California county officials; cities of Anaheim, Bakersfield, Fresno, Los Angeles, and Santa Ana; Weedmaps
Medical cannabis had been legal to consume with a doctor’s recommendation in California since 1996. By the time the first US states voted to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, Taft had been using pot for 11 years. But California still considered the commercial sale and production of cannabis to be illegal, with few exceptions. Some municipalities offered licenses to a few medical dispensaries, but without the support of the state, shops still got raided and owners prosecuted. Most weed entrepreneurs ignored the law and started medical dispensaries without licenses, but Taft didn’t want to do that. When he read about how difficult it was to get a marijuana business license in states that had newly legalized it—the bureaucracy, the regulations, the compliance headaches—a light bulb went off. I know how to navigate all that, he thought. His entire business as a court services officer involved navigating legal documents and red tape. If he could get his city or county to give him a medical marijuana business license before California legalized pot, he could help lead the way to full legalization. So in late 2013, he went to see an old friend, Randall Longwith, who was working as a criminal defense lawyer on cannabis cases.
“I want a license,” Taft told him. Longwith looked at him like he was crazy. “There aren’t any here,” Longwith replied.
Well, Taft thought, let’s change that.
Together, Taft and Longwith started working on ballot measures that would create permits for medical marijuana dispensaries in a couple of Orange County cities. Other people were doing the same, all over the state. But Taft and Longwith pretty quickly found that negotiating with both city councils and other activists was harder than expected.
Taft had heard about Weedmaps and its lobbying efforts. “You couldn’t miss them,” he said. “If you were doing anything to do with laws, they were there.” At the urging of a Weedmaps employee, he says, Taft personally donated $12,500 to a ballot measure to regulate medical marijuana shops in Santa Ana, where he lived. And Weedmaps pitched in $30,000, making the company the largest contributor to the campaign. The measure passed, and at the beginning of 2015, the city held a lottery for about 20 dispensary licenses.
The very last ball that came up belonged to Taft. Eight months later, on October 31, 2015, he opened the doors to 420 Central. Taft was grateful that Weedmaps had helped support the ballot proposition that allowed him to get a license. And when he started paying the company $20,000 a month to appear as number three in his region, he says, he assumed the company was going to stop listing unlicensed shops. Why lobby for a licensing regime otherwise? But as the months wore on, the rogue shops remained.
One day near the end of January 2018, Taft and Longwith attended a workshop put on by the state to help more weed businesses go legal. Representatives from the California agencies overseeing legalization sat along one wall of a banquet room in an Orange County Marriott, answering questions.
As the crowd thinned, Longwith noticed something on his phone. He showed it to Taft, whose eyes widened. They then walked straight up to Lori Ajax, chief of California’s Bureau of Cannabis Control, so she could see what they were seeing.
The pair called up the web page of what appeared to be an unlicensed marijuana dispensary. At the bottom, the page read: “WM ID/LIC #,” followed by a seemingly random series of digits. The California law requiring marijuana advertisements to include the company’s license number had gone into effect. And on page after page, Weedmaps was listing what looked like license numbers for each shop and delivery service in California. An uninformed visitor might have assumed these were state license numbers.
According to Taft and Longwith, Ajax was surprised. (Ajax was not available for an interview, but her office confirmed her reaction to the WM ID/LIC # field with WIRED. Weedmaps told WIRED in an email that WM ID numbers were a “unique internal identifier”—a “long-standing company identifier used to assist with internal functions” such as billing. Weedmaps added that these numbers were only briefly visible to the public while the company was developing a way for businesses to add their state license numbers to their pages, in compliance with California law. At some point, the WM ID numbers were removed from public view.)
A few weeks later, the Bureau of Cannabis Control sent Weedmaps that cease and desist letter, saying the company was violating state law and aiding and abetting illegal activity by advertising unlicensed businesses, adding that the WM ID numbers were not valid license numbers. “Please be advised that such violations may result in criminal and administrative penalties, as well as civil penalties for each violation,” the letter read.
The following week, the California State Assembly held a hearing on legalization, the second half of which was dominated by two concerns: What more could California do to shut down illegal operators, and how could it stop the advertising of unlicensed businesses? As Ajax testified alongside other officials, assemblymember Evan Low of the 28th District pointed out that ads for seemingly unlicensed businesses had appeared in a number of outlets and noted the existence of what he called “fictitious” license numbers, though he didn’t specifically name Weedmaps. About advertising businesses that didn’t have licenses, Low said, “This is a complete disregard and gross negligence of the respect of the law.”
“You’re right,” Ajax responded, looking pained. “It’s vast.” According to The Sacramento Bee, Ajax said in March that her agency was scrutinizing Weedmaps, citing complaints from license holders that unlicensed retailers were gaining an unfair advantage by sidestepping taxes, fees, and regulatory mandates. “It is prevalent across the state, and it is jeopardizing the legal market,” Ajax told the Bee.
On March 12, Weedmaps issued a public response to the state’s cease and desist letter. It claimed protection under Section 230 and asserted that many listings on the site were for those lawful cannabis collectives. “Scrubbing the internet of the reality of unlicensed operators that have created thousands of jobs over the last 20 years does nothing to fix the underlying issues,” it wrote, hinting that bad policy is to blame for the state’s large illegal market.
Several pot entrepreneurs working with the state to become compliant were stunned at Weedmaps’ defiance of the regulators. But in the past year, as Weedmaps’ stance became clear, it seemed less and less likely that Ajax or anyone else in California was going to do much about it. State legislators proposed slapping fines on weed-related businesses using fictitious license numbers in advertisements, at $10,000 per incident, but a committee analysis of the proposal recognized that Section 230 might render it moot for websites: “In light of the legal barriers to enforcing the state’s cannabis advertising laws against internet platforms,” the analysis said, “it is arguably advisable that any new laws or regulations do not seek exclusively to hold websites liable for their content.” The bill died.
Many tech analysts see Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (a clause that was passed in 1996 as part of the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in more than half a century) as crucial to the early growth of platforms like Facebook, Google, Yelp, and YouTube. The section protects platforms from liability for content posted by third parties.
In correspondence with WIRED, Weedmaps wrote that currently, “businesses are responsible for amending and editing their listings and ensuring the accuracy of the information contained therein. All businesses represent that they are in compliance with applicable state and local law. It is important to note that Weedmaps is an agnostic information platform. Listing policy is uniform, and does not vary by geographical jurisdiction.”
Weedmaps has come to serve a somewhat similar function for the chaotic marijuana market that Google does for online search: Rather than produce or sell its own products (with the exception of hats and T-shirts), the website exerts influence over how people come across other people’s products. But Weedmaps also has something rare for a tech company: a lucrative niche that is at least temporarily safe from the acquire-or-crush tactics of tech giants. Ad titans such as Facebook, Google, and Yelp, unwilling to run afoul of federal law, currently don’t accept advertising money from marijuana businesses. Local television stations, too, shy away from accepting pot ads. The US Postal Service has even issued a statement classifying publications containing ads for marijuana as undeliverable.
Even so, the nation’s most populous state, and one of the world’s biggest economies, is working to bring its $15 billion pot industry into a comprehensive regulatory system. To obtain licenses in the state, weed businesses must pay taxes and follow rules on everything from zoning and transportation to packaging. Compliance is expensive. Which means that even though it is risky, it’s simply cheaper to run an illegal shop. The state initially projected $175 million in tax revenue from legal cannabis in the first half of 2018, but the actual total was only $135 million.
For now, the actions state and local law enforcement have taken (such as serving warrants) have focused on illicit operators themselves—not on the websites that make those businesses more accessible to the public. As of December 2018, 527 storefronts, 217 delivery services, and 117 microbusinesses (small operations that grow and sell their own product) were legally entitled to sell marijuana in California. The state has sent letters to about 1,400 illicit operators, ordering them to either obtain a license or close. In December, WIRED found that at least a third of those individual businesses were still listed on Weedmaps without a valid license number.
California might have parallel marijuana markets—one legal, one illegal—for a very long time. And some marijuana dispensaries are paying a percentage of their profits to a website that gives them visibility, whether or not they follow the rules. For the state’s cannabis users, it can be hard to know
Amanda Chicago Lewis (@msamandalewis) is a writer based in Los Angeles and a columnist for Rolling Stone.
This article appears in the February issue. Subscribe now.
Let us know what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor at [email protected].
More Great WIRED Stories