Ben Cohen’s Cannabis Company Tries to Undo the Harm of the War on Drugs | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Ben Cohen’s Cannabis Company Tries to Undo the Harm of the War on Drugs


Published April 19, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated April 20, 2023 at 10:17 a.m.

Ben's Best Blnz merchandise - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Ben's Best Blnz merchandise

Some of the most popular strains of cannabis sound more like ice cream flavors than plants: Blue Dream, Girl Scout Cookies, Sour Diesel, Strawberry Fields, Granddaddy Purple.

They would fit right into the freezer case with the funky names of some of Ben & Jerry's most iconic products, including Chunky Monkey, Phish Food and Chubby Hubby. But Ben Cohen, Ben & Jerry's cofounder, took a decidedly more mellow approach with his new Vermont cannabis company, Ben's Best Blnz.

His pre-rolled joints come in five carefully crafted formulas designed to deliver specific states of mind: Focus, ECS (enhanced, creative and stimulating), Cloud 9, Kick Back, and Dream Sweet Dreams. Each of these Blended SloSmokes is supposed to do what the name says.

Cohen entered the cannabis business to bring something different to the party — both operationally and philosophically. Blended SloSmokes embrace the latest innovation in weed, emphasizing terpenes over THC to create a more effects-driven experience. The products are expected to land at Vermont's medical cannabis dispensaries around May 1 and in the retail market a few weeks later.

With Ben's Best Blnz, aka B3, Cohen will carry on the social and political activism he started at Ben & Jerry's to raise awareness — and money — for progressive causes ranging from voter and LGBTQ+ rights to climate and racial justice. Cohen plans to use the earnings from B3 to correct what he sees as the longtime injustice of U.S. drug policy, giving back to the marginalized communities most harmed by it. Cohen remains a Ben & Jerry's employee, with the title of cofounder, though he has no involvement in running the ice cream business today, he said.

B3 is registered in Vermont as a 501c3 tax-exempt entity. Cohen said he'll draw no salary or profit from the business. B3 will distribute 80 percent of its proceeds as grants and loans to Black cannabis entrepreneurs, 10 percent to the Burlington-based Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, and 10 percent to the Last Prisoner Project, a national effort to release individuals incarcerated on cannabis-related charges and expunge their records.

B3 itself isn't licensed in Vermont to cultivate, manufacture or sell cannabis. It makes money by selling the rights to use the Ben's Best Blnz brand, product formulas and package designs to small, mostly minority-owned weed growers, processors and distributors. For the moment, Cohen is concentrating on building the business in Vermont, though he has plans to eventually expand the model to other states.

"It was Black people, mostly, that got screwed over by the war on drugs," Cohen said. "So we're trying to use as many Black vendors as we can."

As when he and Jerry Greenfield founded their eponymous ice cream company in Burlington in 1978, Cohen grew his latest enterprise from an unfilled niche in the marketplace.

"I was sitting around a campfire with a friend of mine, smoking some pot," Cohen said. They both agreed: "The problem with pot today is that it's just too fucking strong," Cohen said. "You can't have the experience of enjoying the process of getting high, because you take one or two tokes and you're done."

In college, Cohen said, he'd pass around a joint with THC content between 4 and 8 percent and slowly get stoned. Most weed for sale today has 20 to 30 percent THC, the element of cannabis that gets consumers high.

"Somebody oughta come up with a brand of pot called 'Mediocre Marijuana,'" Cohen said his friend suggested. "I couldn't get the idea out of my head, so I decided to actually start a business that would put out this moderate-THC pot."

High levels of THC have dominated the cannabis market, Cohen said.

"Most people are first familiar with THC," he said. "So what ended up happening was that people who wanted to buy pot would go into dispensaries and say, 'I want the highest THC you got.' That's all they knew."

B3, on the other hand, touts "terpene-forward" pre-rolls. THC gets you high, but the terpenes determine the kind of high you get. As Cohen likes to say, "Terpenes make the music. THC is the volume." (The THC content in Blended SloSmokes ranges from 6 to 8 percent.)

Cohen brought in Chris Walsh, a former owner of downtown Burlington nightclub Nectar's, to help him formulate B3's products. Walsh is a cannabis industry veteran who spent a year in Jamaica growing weed for the University of the West Indies medical school, which was studying terpenes. In Burlington, he helped start Green State Gardener, a cultivation shop in the South End, and Upstate Elevator Supply, a company producing CBD- and now THC-infused beverages, edibles and other products. Walsh also serves on the advisory committee to the Vermont Cannabis Control Board, which governs the state's cannabis industry.

"You can't go wrong with Ben Cohen creating a product for himself," Walsh said. "A lot of famous products were created by people that wanted something that they couldn't find."

Cohen, Walsh and B3's development team blew through many attempts to come up with the right formulas for the Blended SloSmokes. Working in a lab that Walsh referred to as the "bat cave," in an undisclosed Vermont spot, they used a gas chromatograph to measure and analyze the chemical components. They balanced major cannabis terpenes such as myrcene and limonene with cannabidiol, cannabigerol and THC, using different strains of flower to create the blend that gives the joints the desired effect, reliably.

"In almost any other industry, a brand stands for a consistent product," Cohen said. "But in the pot industry, that's not the case."

To check that the blends delivered the intended results, Walsh put together a testing panel of weed smokers of various ages, some heavier users than others.

"We had a couple of J. Peterman types in the group," Walsh said, referring to the eccentric, globe-trotting parodied version of the founder of the real-life J. Peterman Company on the TV series "Seinfeld." "They would say, 'This evokes that weekend I spent in the Serengeti. I smell fresh-cut grass and lion dung.'"

Cohen recognizes that he got his business ventures backward: He should have started his pot company first and then, once followers were overcome by the munchies, sold them ice cream.

But pot wasn't legal, and wouldn't be anywhere in the United States for another 40 years, when Cohen and Greenfield met as seventh graders in Long Island, N.Y. They were the slowest runners in gym class when they hatched the idea to sell ice cream — their drug of choice at the time, Cohen said. Cohen's limited sense of smell, a condition called anosmia, compelled him toward concoctions with big chunks and a creamy mouthfeel.

Vermont still hadn't approved the adult-use sale of cannabis when Cohen had the idea for his new venture more than three years ago.

He started it in Colorado, the first state to legalize nonmedical cannabis sales, but it had barely gotten off the ground when the pandemic hit. So he moved the company to his home state of Vermont and continued to develop the products.

B3's first local production and distribution partner is Lee Stowell, a former Wall Street junk bond broker and now general manager of Grassroots Vermont, a medical cannabis production facility and dispensary in Brandon. Cannabis giant iAnthus, a multistate operator based in New York and Toronto, currently owns Grassroots Vermont, but Stowell is in the process of buying out the larger entity and earning the state Cannabis Control Board's approval to sell adult-use weed. (Walsh spent years as Grassroots' president and previously served on iAnthus' board.) The deal with B3 will give Stowell, who is white, a big boost, she said.

"I'm very excited to see how the market responds, because Vermonters love Ben. Vermonters love his ice cream," Stowell said. "I think Vermonters are gonna say this is a differentiating product."

From left: Chris Walsh, Ben Cohen and Craig Mitchell - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • From left: Chris Walsh, Ben Cohen and Craig Mitchell

C&C Higher Love is another B3 partner, a for-profit marketing company owned by Walsh and Craig Mitchell, a well-known local DJ and Black gay activist with experience in the "legacy" cannabis market. While Walsh develops and explains B3's products to potential partners, Mitchell handles selling them to medical and retail cannabis dispensaries.

Mitchell has to educate those "budtenders behind the counters" not only on lower-THC weed but also on B3's social justice objectives.

"People are reaching out like crazy," Mitchell said. "We want our products on shelves, and we want it to be prominent. We want them to commit to what we're doing and the mission behind what we're doing."

While the product names aren't so colorful, the Blended SloSmokes come in plastic-free boxes with vivid, neon colors and groovy designs by local Black graphic artist Eddie Opara. Available in recyclable tins and glass tubes, B3's organically grown pot is vacuum-packed and nitrogen flushed to keep air out and stay fresh.

B3 plans to have other products, including a rotating selection of limited-edition, high-THC buds of single-strain, not blended, cannabis. A discerning team of five testers decides if a particular flower makes the cut.

A line of full-spectrum vaping cartridges is pending, as B3 awaits a July 1 change in state law that now imposes a 92 percent wholesale tax on all vaping products to discourage e-cigarette use. Edibles are likely to emerge down the road, as well.

Just don't expect a cannabis ice cream. Cohen said he's done with products that require such extreme temperature control — even though he recommends that B3 customers store their weed in the refrigerator to maintain freshness.

"One of the nice things about pot, as opposed to ice cream," he said, "is you don't have to keep it frozen."

Correction, April 19, 2023: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story incorrectly stated when Walsh served on iAnthus' board.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Joint Venture | Ben Cohen's "terpene-forward" cannabis company tries to undo the harm of the nation's past drug policies"

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