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Saturday, 19 April 2014

How Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are rushing to cash in on cannabis.

Mat Honan


Like many people in San Francisco, Sasha Robinson is working on a startup out of his home. His living room is a riot of wires, battery packs, pliers, and metal casings. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was a bomb maker. But these are just the raw materials for a new gadget he’s creating. It’s something revolutionary, he thinks, and he should know. In the 2000s, Robinson ran software development at industrial design firm Moto, where he oversaw new product development for the Flip HD camcorder. 

Before that he was at Juniper Systems and Silicon Graphics, two of the Valley’s foundational tech firms. 

His cofounder, Mark Williams, has also bounced around Valley software firms, but his main experience was at Apple, where he managed a Mac OS design team. These guys have tech cred.

They also met at a Burning Man party. “We would hang out socially and always ended up talking about ideas and inventions,” says Williams, explaining how they came up with their new product in his living room. “We were sitting on my couch in my apartment, smoking. I was over 40 then, we could really feel it in our bodies. We were social smokers, but we both felt it …”

“Wait. Are you talking about tobacco here,” I interjected.

“Yes … ,” Williams says, looking sideways and grinning. “I am?” Pregnant pause. Robinson chuckles. 

“That’s what the line has to be from any manufacturer importing into the US,” he says. Openly acknowledging that your product—in this case a high tech vaporizer called the Firefly–is intended for marijuana use exposes you to classification as a distributor of drug paraphernalia, opening you up to the risk of the federal government seizing your assets and bank accounts. And that makes it difficult to pay a lawyer.

Sasha Robinson and Mark Williams in Robinson’s San Francisco home, which doubles as Firefly’s prototyping lab and office.
Photo: Ariel Zambelich

So, officially, the Firefly is for pipe tobacco. But I didn’t try any pipe tobacco in it. You probably won’t either. I did, however, sample some marijuana, for which it’s really, really great. A personal disclosure: I’ve smoked a lot of pot. I’m no stoner, but I’ve been smoking it for more than 25 years, and in that time I’ve used all sorts of vaporizers. They’ve evolved a great deal over the years, from giant complex tabletop devices to today’s generation of e-cig-style vapes that deliver brain-hammering doses of butane-extracted cannabis oil. The Firefly does those devices one better, magically and almost instantly vaporizing actual plant material at the touch of a button. It is just wonderful.

It offers all the convenience of a pipe—it’s portable and downright stealthy; you can slip it in your pocket, carry it loaded up with marijuana—but it’s less harmful than a conventional pipe, because you are inhaling vapor, not smoke. The Firefly uses a lithium-ion battery to power a convection heating element that reaches 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The chamber is insulated by air, which means the Firefly’s housing doesn’t get hot enough to burn your fingers, or anything else, when you slide it back into your pocket.


If the future of pot is being plotted in Silicon Valley, it’s playing out in Colorado. In 2012, the state passed a law legalizing marijuana for recreational use. It went into effect this year, and storefronts inviting any adult with some cash to walk in and buy pot opened up all over Denver. The state set up a rigorous tracking system designed to keep pot out of the black market. So far it’s been a success. Defying projections, crime has dropped since the law went into effect January 1, and the flow of new tax revenue, more than $2 million a month, is on par with the state’s haul from alcohol taxes. Is this what the pot-friendly future of America looks like?

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