Ever wondered, when you’re smoking a blunt or eating an edible, what went into making the thing that’s made life slightly more tolerable this past year?
It’s an old tale by now that the weed industry, still in its infancy at only 6 years old, has undergone massive and unrelenting challenges like oversupply, price plummets, wildfires, and a litany of banking and insurance issues because of cannabis’s federally illegal status.
Despite the uncertainty of working in the cannabis industry, those who make a living from it—sometimes a precarious one—are among the most devoted people you’ll ever meet.
They will talk endlessly about what they do, with great vigor, and have unending faith in the power of the plant. This past year, those people have endured singed crops, financial woes, burglaries, the threat of increasing monopolization, and an ever-fickle market.
While you were taking a pocket puff from your vape pen, pretending not to be the parent of the most intrusive toddler on the playground, very real people were laboring away to help bring you that little dose of temporary sagacity.
Here are six of those people. You can thank them by buying more weed.
Amanda Metzler, owner of Bigsby Farms
Dressed in muck boots and a Western snap shirt, Amanda Metzler walks the rows on her farm. That was not originally the plan.
When she and her husband first decided to invest in the industry back in 2017, they were living in Southern California. Amanda worked in politics, and her husband was a full-time 3D artist.
“We had no background in farming, we were just going to be the silent investors on this farm,” Metzler says.
Now they’re here full time.
On any given afternoon during the cannabis harvest season, Metzler, her husband and their expert grower take an ATV through the cannabis fields to assess whether the plants—eight strains in total—are ready to be picked the next day.
They look for cloudiness of the palms and color of the buds.
If the plants are ready, everyone meets up bright and early the next morning—7:30 am. They need four pickers and two to hang the plants to dry, one of whom is Metzler’s 73-year-old mom from Ohio.
Before starting out, they cook eggs, with spicy barbecue leftovers, on a flat top grill outside the barn. It’s usually quiet as the crew munches on breakfast, still waking up. The farm’s 13 sheep, including Cher, Dolly and Jolene, bleat gently.
Then they split up and spread out.
Pickers double up for each plant. Standing on either side of 5-foot bushy cannabis plants—each holding pruning shears—they trim the stalks.
Generally, they would prune all the way to the ground, but this year Metzler presold the farm’s leftover biomass to a processor for extraction of oils and distillates.
“Prior to harvest, we signed an output contract with a processor for our biomass,” Metzler says. “We were lucky—that was right before the crash.”
There’s been a steady price drop for flower the past few months, because of oversupply. (Demand has remained steady). Farmers—many still desperate to sell last year’s flower—have been selling even their best buds to processors for distillation, which is normally where only the less valuable biomass gets funneled.
“There were rumblings throughout the industry about a flower price crash in June,” says Metzler. “It started in earnest in August.”
Plopping an industrial scale right there in the middle of the field, the farmers—Metzler says the Oregon State Master Gardener program was their crash course—chop and weigh the plants before toting them back to the barn.
Metzler’s mom is already there, climbing ladders to carefully hang the plants along the rafters.
The cycle repeats—cut, weigh, package, drive and hang—about seven more times in a day.
At 5 pm, the 12-hour shift ends, and any employees who aren’t directly related to Metzler trudge home.
Harvest season is the time when farmers have to gauge, every year, whether it’s worth it, or even possible, to stay in an infant industry that’s been battered by natural disasters, price gluts, and ever-shifting regulations.
For Metzler, that terrifying adrenaline surge—of whether you make it or you don’t—is part of the fun.
Pansy Wilcox-Fridley, trimmer at Old Apple Farm
It gets dusty in the barn. When dawn’s light shines through the six barn doors, it makes all the particles look like snow.
There’s no dress code at Old Apple Farm, except the required close-toed shoes and gloves, but most choose to wear a lightweight long-sleeve T-shirt.
Pansy Wilcox-Fridley says it helps with the dust. Her hired trimmers sit or stand, two to a folding table. Some chat or joke.
The barn has a DIY craft shop territorial feel: Each trimmer readies their favorite pair of scissors as a truck trundles in a massive amount of cut and dried weed. .
Each trimmer takes a bucket of plant and a three-tiered sifting tray. Then they get to work.
As they splice and cut up the plants, the first tier of the tray sifts out the trim and the second tray sifts out the kief. What’s left in the top tier is the gold: The A-buds.
A single trimmer produces about a pound of A-buds every eight hours.
Wilcox-Fridley makes her rounds to check on the trimmers. She strolls from table to table, making sure they’re not trimming carelessly.
“I would say it’s a playful student-teacher relationship,” she says. “They call me ‘trim mom.’”
Old Apple has a range of trimmers this year: There’s an even gender split, and a handful of over-50s. The real surprise: a whole lot of former line chefs or prep cooks.
“They’re the rising stars of the cannabis industry,” Wilcox-Fridley says. She looks for seasonal workers on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and more standard channels like Indeed Jobs.
When each trimmer is done, they holler at Wilcox-Fridley. She collects the material, meticulously weighs it and logs it into the system: A-buds, B-buds, trim and waste. If all the plants from the tractor are gone, the trimmer can go home. If there’s more, they’re given another bucket until the shift is up.
In the cannabis industry, being a trimmer is an entry-level job. It’s not high-paying, it’s monotonous, and it can be hard on the body. The barn gets dusty.
But for some, that’s the joy of it: It’s predictable, you don’t have to talk to your table mate if you don’t want to, and no one’s complaining that you’ve oversalted the pasta.
Chris “Condor” Backhaus, extractor at Mule Extracts PDX
Extractors and processors got a bad rap when they first came on the scene, in 2018. A series of butane hash oil explosions cast doubt on this part of the supply chain.
“Immature people not doing regulated stuff,” Chris Backhaus says. Processing is no different from any other certified lab using flammable chemicals and gases. “It was just a few bad apples that made us look bad.”
Putting Metzler’s crack of dawn to shame, Backhaus wakes up every workday morning at 3 am. He fills a to-go mug with drip coffee and drives a short distance to the Mule Extracts lab in Estacada.
After he arrives, he preps the company extraction machine: a Frankenstein-esque contiguous hunk of metal tubes and cylinders. It takes about 15 minutes for the extractor to rumble to life.
Backhaus fills four mesh screen cylinder bags—colloquially called “socks”—with bud, trim or whatever material he’s using for that particular run. The part of the cannabis plant he uses determines what extracted oil the machine produces, which then determines what product will be made: edibles, shatter, diamonds, tinctures or butters.
The extractor machine is loud, but no noise-canceling earphones are allowed in the room. All the proper ingredients—namely pressurized butane and propane—are present for an explosion, with just a spark.
Backhaus says he would liken his job description to somewhere between a scientist and a machine operator. Once he loads the socks into the machine and starts the process, the next two hours entail Backhaus carefully monitoring the run. He turns valves to adjust pressure when needed.
The end product is anywhere from a viscous, amber-colored oil to a thinner, golden product. Backhaus stores it in Pyrex dishes or jars until the oil can be taken to smaller machines in the lab to be made into the final, marketable products.
In Oregon’s legal cannabis industry right now, processing is where it’s at: Extractors are immune to the flower market’s flimsiness and are bombarded by farmers and wholesalers desperate to get rid of product due to the current oversupply of flower.
Extraction is incredibly flexible. Depending on where demand is, extractors can make more edibles, tinctures or cartridges.
“I view this as a career.” Backhaus says. “I enjoy it. I’m in it for the long haul.”
Ryon Nicholson, wholesale distributor at Cosmic Treehouse
Ryon Nicholson’s monthly journey up and down the Oregon Coast is reminiscent of the routes door-to-door salesmen once trod.
For him, it’s a relic of times past. He has, for the most part, grown Cosmic Treehouse to a point where now he tells other salesmen to scour the roads.
But on a recent Wednesday, Nicholson did what he used to do nearly every day: got up at 5 am, bought a mocha at Starbucks —peppermint mocha if it’s wintertime—and drove to his warehouse in Southeast Portland to load up bundles of flower stored in thick totes, bud and sometimes other cannabis products into his truck.
He loaded up 32 pounds worth of pre-ordered flower and 25 pounds of “improvisational” flower from 23 different farms he hopes to sell on the fly.
These days, Nicholson makes $40 to $60 per pound of flower sold. A pound can cost anywhere from $100 to $2,000—depending on whether it’s sungrown, greenhouse-grown or indoor-grown..
For the next 14 hours, he drives down the coast of Oregon, stopping by eight cannabis shops and farms. Some have pre-ordered flower, so it’s a simple drop-off. For others, he’s arranged what he calls “show and smells,” where he brings different types of flower into the dispensary’s backroom so the manager can inspect it. Occasionally he’ll even show up unannounced, to dispensaries, to try to see what he can sell.
“They used to love me showing up. Now it’s here and there,” he says.
He has about 25 farms that he gets regular product from and takes his position as the middleman seriously; if he doesn’t sell, neither he nor the farm profits.
In a market that’s fluctuated dramatically since 2016, Nicholson says he’s loyal to those in the industry who have been by his side. He rarely takes on new farms.
Wholesalers are becoming slightly less relevant as vertical integration slowly creeps in on the Oregon cannabis industry. Bigger companies, both in and out of state, are creating their own supply chains, cutting out the middlemen like Nicholson. It’s inevitable in any maturing industry, but Nicholson feels like he’s still in the sweet spot.
He has no plans to stop what he’s doing.
After Nicholson dropped off his remaining product—16 pounds of flower—at the warehouse, he said he got home around 6:30 pm, ate a leftover meatball sandwich, and went to bed.
THE DISPENSARY MANAGER
Gwen Miller, dispensary manager at Hashtoria
Gwen Miller’s favorite customer at the dispensary she manages was a hefty pastor who didn’t want anyone to know he smoked weed.
“He was a pastor and a family man. A Sunday school and Bible studies guy, all that. I had no clue. But one day he says, ‘Nobody knows that I smoke,’” Miller recalls.
Miller’s shop, Hashtoria, is the catchall of unsuspected users in the suburban town of Gladstone—because it is the only dispensary in town.
Sometimes at Starbucks in the morning, before opening the shop, people recognize Miller.
“I’m glad there’s only one of you,” an older stranger once said, out of the blue.
But Miller says older people are some of her most regular customers. They appreciate Hashtoria’s discreet feel—nestled at the end of a cul-de-sac. It screams suburban soccer mom, not dispensary.
“They’re still a little leery about the whole smoker and reefer thing,” Miller says. “To them, it’s still a bad thing—you might as well be doing the meths.”
Each morning, Miller comes in an hour before opening to unload the safes, arrange product in the shop’s glass cases, and unlock the doors. By 8 am, there’s generally a line.
COVID-19 launched Hashtoria’s profit margins into a realm the shop had never seen before. But even with those profits, Miller was terrified: Her whole family works at Hashtoria, and it was unclear whether the governor would deem cannabis an essential business.
“If we all lost our jobs, our entire household loses our income,” Miller says.
Over the past year, Miller has also struggled with high employee turnover—she blames stellar unemployment benefits.
“It’s a really easy job. You have to just hang out and sell weed all day, and if you partake, you’re already pretty knowledgeable about it,” Miller says. “I had a couple younger guys, and they just didn’t give a shit.”
Her team right now includes a former Marine and a dad—none of those young guys who don’t give a shit. She’s happy with them, and grateful for Hashtoria’s predictable autumn lull.
“This time of year slows down a bit, because it’s ‘Croptober,’ when people cut down their own weed plants,” Miller says. “But pretty quickly everyone gets sick of their own weed and comes back.”
THE DELIVERY DRIVER
Adrian Wayman, co-founder and delivery driver at Green Box
At age 17, in Atlanta, Adrian Wayman was arrested for possessing weed.
Ten years later, in 2016, he got the first city of Portland license for weed delivery.
“I didn’t want to just sit back and let a bunch of white people take advantage of this,” Wayman says. “It wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t lobbied for it.”
Wayman’s business model is like Stitch Fix or Birchbox—a package of customizable goods delivered to your door in a pretty box.
He spent two years lobbying the city of Portland to create a weed delivery license. He went to every public hearing. He wrote letters to city officials. He even met with then-Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Amanda Fritz.
Now, Wayman spends his days driving across Portland—the soundtrack to his drive alternates between visionary rappers like Young Thug and entrepreneurial podcasts like How I Built This—on delivery runs, distributing his pristinely packaged green boxes to the front doors of Southeast 122nd Avenue apartment complexes and ritzy West Hills houses alike.
It’s not unusual, Wayman says, for customers to order two to three boxes a month—which generally averages out to 20 to 30 home deliveries a day.
COVID-19 doubled his business’s demand, and it wasn’t uncommon during the shutdown days for Wayman to pull up to a house at the same time as a Grubhub driver.
Part of the allure of Green Box is that clients purchase from the privacy of their homes, negating possible embarrassment or shame for those still stuck in the taboo of cannabis.
“I have some people that make it look so much like a drug deal,” Wayward says. His favorite is a 57-year-old businessman who lives in a downtown high-rise. “He comes up to my car window and sticks his ID up to it. We usually deliver in our fancy box, but he’s like, ‘Just put it in a brown paper bag.’”
“He’s an older white man, I’m a black guy in a black-tinted window black car in downtown Portland. I’m like, ‘This looks really sketchy, but I’ll do whatever you want.’”