Island Founders On Reinventing The Pre-Roll And Redefining The Smoke Break
Island's on a mission to make smoking great again.
It’s just before noon on a Monday when the sun dips behind the clouds, the sky goes from a deep blue to a dark gloomy grey, traffic slows, and the 110 freeway turns into a parking lot. I’m driving south, toward LAX, en route to meet with Island CEO and founder Ray Landgraf and the company’s COO, Brandon Mills. Based in Los Angeles, Island produces pre-roll joints using high-quality California cannabis.
Island's "Premiums" line comes in filtered tubes, and aesthetically speaking, more closely resemble cigarettes, and are available in both THC and CBD blends. The CBD cigarettes also offer consumers a unique take on the “traditional” pre-roll and are part of what Island hopes will set them apart from the competition. In LA alone, hundreds of pre-roll brands compete for dispensary shelf space, while more will likely enter the space as regulations governing retail sales take effect in January.
When they’re not on the farm with growers or in the production facility, though, Brandon and Ray manage the startup from an office on an industrial parkway that runs perpendicular to the airport’s runways. Which is where we spoke about producing high-end marijuana products, and the brand’s creative process.
KINDLAND: What inspired you to join the industry?
RAY: I got involved in the industry back in 2012 when Washington passed 502. My wife’s family is fourth generation farmers. It was kind of a joke, ‘Hey let’s add another crop to the mix.’ There were no delusions of becoming an overnight millionaire or anything like that, it was literally they were growing soybeans, wheat, and alfalfa and this was a lot cooler. I got heavily involved on the business side just setting up the operation and going through the regulatory side, and the more I learned about it, the more interesting it was from an entrepreneurial standpoint. Brandon’s been one of my business partners for the last 5 years, and we were looking for other things to do. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, nothing was any more exciting than getting into the cannabis industry. So we got in on the brand’s side a couple years later in 2014.
KINDLAND: Do you see yourselves expanding into other markets besides California?
RAY: We’re looking very closely at Nevada right now. We’d love to get things back up to Washington per the original intent. We’ll see where things take us, there may be other markets outside of the U.S. too that would be interesting.
KINDLAND: In terms of CBD, do you see the Island CBD pre-rolls product as a tobacco replacement or kind of a wellness product?
RAY: There’s a lot of blue ocean out there, so I still think the cannabis consumer is evolving very rapidly. I think that product has the opportunity to speak to a bunch of different types of consumers, though. For those consumers that are using a tobacco product today and are looking for an alternative, that can be a really strong product offering. I could also see it more for just casual users as a replacement for smoking when they’re out socially. And then certainly folks who are looking for medicinal benefit. The one word everyone keeps using is ‘relaxed.’ They say they feel very, very relaxed.
BRANDON: With the CBD blends, the ratios are a really comfortable zone for a lot of us, and that’s something that doesn’t really exist in the market today.
"In most cases, we’re taking stuff off the farm within a week or two of dry cure, and it becomes an Island within a week or two of that."
KINDLAND: We were on the Santa Monica pier yesterday and I just kind of pulled them out and it looked more or less like we were smoking cigarettes; no one even batted an eyelash. It really didn’t even smell too weedy, either. I know if you lit up just a normal pre-roll everyone’s gonna be saying, 'Oh, what are these punks doing? Smoking weed.’ But it was super relaxing, felt very natural.
RAY: When we created that it wasn’t necessarily for the discreet nature of it, although we’ve gotten lots of positive feedback on that. It was really just to be more accessible, since a lot of people who don’t smoke find a non-filtered joint really harsh or difficult to inhale. And then, obviously, from an accessibility standpoint, the filtered cigarette tube is one of the most popular drug delivery mechanisms on the face of the planet. A lot of people have experience consuming a drug through that format, which makes it very familiar. For something that’s made to be a little more high functioning and more accessible, it just lent itself really well to it.
KINDLAND: Can you have a pure CBD pre-roll? Is it possible to cultivate a cannabis plant void completely of THC?
RAY: The CBD flower that we’re using looks like an indica or sativa in a lot of ways. It wouldn’t be mistaken for hemp, lets put it that way, and it’s a real flower product. As research has become more available, and genetics have been more shareable and growers have been able to come out from the black market, I think we’ve seen a lot of progress on the breeding side that’s giving us a lot of new strains.
KINDLAND: How do you vet different farmers and growers that you work with, and how has that changed since you launched?
ISLAND: We got into it early enough that this is still very much a relationship business, so we haven’t been on a single farm that didn’t come out of a relationship from someone in our network, so that’s Part A. Part B is getting on the farm and making sure that our philosophies are aligned. Part C is just knowing that there’s accountability.
KINDLAND: Does the filter filter out any aspect of the THC or CBD? Has this been tested?
RAY: I’m sure that it does. We’re not going to sit here and tell you guys that it doesn’t, you can look at the filter and see that it’s capturing all kinds of stuff. Some of that is probably stuff you don’t want in your lungs. We’ve, interestingly enough, had some professional athletes who’ve been buying that product and they said, specifically, it’s because they’re trying to keep their lungs clean. When we started doing the research, we learned that the filter captures some kind of terpene profile, so yeah it’s modifying the flavor a little bit, and capturing some THC, much like how water bongs capture a lot of residual THC.
KINDLAND: How do you see California’s recreational initiative changing things in terms of your business model, or how you source materials broad spectrum?
RAY: At the highest level I think it’s a huge win for the consumer, because now the consumer is going to get truly safe medicine. A lot of consumers go into a store and they see that something was tested, most of the time it’s just tested for potency as part of a marketing pitch. For example, though, if Eagle20 fertilizer is in your product, that turns into cyanide upon combustion, and is really bad for a consumer. Beyond the Island brand or anything, we’re very excited that every product in stores, under a regulated structure, will be safe for the consumer.
Now, for our business, that means we’ll be competing on a level playing field, because right now we’re doing things where a lot of other people are taking shortcuts and it’s really tough to operate that way. Sometimes that means we can’t put an indica on the menu, because we haven’t seen a proper one in six weeks, no matter how many farms we call. That’s not to say there’s not a good number of cultivators doing it the right way, just that there’s demand for safe product, so that drives prices higher, and we get capped out in certain ways. It’ll be interesting because in a lot of ways we’re dealing with holding ourselves to a regulatory standard that isn’t being enforced yet.
"We got into it early enough that this is still very much a relationship business. . ."
KINDLAND: It’s interesting that you’re already self-enforcing those regulations. Do you see other brands not doing that getting weeded out?
RAY: Part of it is consumer education. We don’t speak poorly of any brands, but there are definitely some other brands that are doing it the right way, and I think the consumer responds well to that. There’s a reason that people value brand, it’s supposed to mean something and stand for something. From day one we wanted our brand to stand for high-quality, safe medicine.
KINDLAND: From the time the flower is harvested to the time it’s packaged and ready for sale, how long is that? And what steps are taken throughout that process?
RAY: It’s a little bit tough to give you the exact farm-to-table since a lot of farmers have different dry cure methodologies. But in most cases, we’re taking stuff off the farm within a week or two of dry cure, and it becomes an Island within a week or two of that, and then it’s right out to the consumer. Fortunately, and unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, we actually don’t even have inventory right now because we sell everything we can make. So nothing is sitting around on a shelf right now. About as quickly as we get it off the farm and rolling, it’s going into the hands of a consumer.
BRANDON: There’s a reasonable chance it was manufactured that week. We have custom ziplock bags inside of our boxes and our boxes are sealed pretty tightly, so I think we do a pretty good job at preserving freshness if you compare it to other brands that don’t have an internal baggie. For now, we’re investing to make sure that regardless of whether it was a week or a month, that it’s as fresh as it possibly can be when the consumer tries it.
KINDLAND: From a consumer standpoint, if I bought one and was saving it for later, what’s the recommendation you give as far as storing the joints? How long, or what’s the proper way to store it?
RAY: Between 60-80 degrees [Fahrenheit] would be optimal. I think 80 is on the higher end. If you can store it somewhere in the 60-degree area that’s dark and has relative humidity, around fifty percent, that’s probably optimal storage conditions. At some point we’ll start printing on the box a born-on date or a use-by date. We personally have never sold something that we manufactured longer than sixty days out, so we just kind of hold ourselves to that standard. We’ve looked at donating it to patients in need and stuff like that. We don’t have that problem right now, but I think generally speaking you should try and use it within a couple of months. It’s a plant material, so it degrades.
"There is no average day."
KINDLAND: What has been the brand’s biggest challenge so far?
RAY: Probably the two biggest [challenges] have been regulatory and capital. We’re eager to play in a regulated market. Unfortunately, it just takes forever to get there. And then capital. Those are probably the two things you hear from every cannabis business, though. Capital is tough, and not having access to traditional banking when the business is doubling every few months makes it really stressful.
BRANDON: The other one that’s challenging right now is that it’s just really noisy from a retailer’s perspective when you’re a brand. You walk into a store and they’re getting pitched by hundreds of other brands every week for shelf space, it’s tough. I think right now it’s not that hard to spin out a test product and go pitch to dispensaries on it, how many of these brands and products are going to be here five years from now remains to be seen.
KINLAND: What’s an average day like for both of you?
RAY: There is no average day.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
All photos courtesy of Island.