By Quinn Russell Brown
For the Bellingham Business Journal
Wes Abney sinks into a couch at his home office near Martha Lake in Snohomish County. On the floor nearby are zip-tied stacks of Northwest Leaf, the 100-page medical marijuana magazine he publishes each month.
Framed covers of past issues hang on the wall behind him.
Abney, 26, is a cannabis journalist. For the past four years, he’s been on the front lines of weed in Washington.
“We look at this as something we’re covering as an industry,” he said. “It’s like pot is our beat.”
Wearing a shirt that says “Marijuana is Safer than Alcohol,” he talks effortlessly and at length about medicinal cannabis — the benefits, the politics, the legalese.
Next to him is long-time friend Daniel Berman, also 26, the photo editor and designer of Northwest Leaf. He occasionally chimes in to explain a style decision or point out something innovative about the magazine.
“It’s not a highfalutin view of cannabis,” Berman said. “Whether you’ve used cannabis for years or never taken a hit before, you’re going to learn something from Northwest Leaf.”
The magazine has a monthly circulation of 20,000, distributed free of charge to about 300 medical marijuana dispensaries, as well as to doctor’s offices and glass shops. Advertisers pay anywhere from $800 to $5,000 for a spot inside, putting Northwest Leaf on track to gross around $500,000 in revenue in 2014.
Abney is a full-time employee of the magazine, Berman a “busy freelancer.” The two met in middle school, went to the same high school and worked side-by-side on the student newspaper at Shoreline Community College.
The idea for a pot publication came in 2010. Abney saw some of the medical marijuana magazines being made in California and felt like he could do a better job. A few months later, he designed the first edition on 16 pages of newsprint, borrowing $1,600 to put out 10,000 copies.
“My dad called me stupid. My mom was really nervous,” he said. “At the time medical marijuana wasn’t a thing yet, as brick-and-mortar businesses. A lot of them would open up for a few months and then shut down.”
Northwest Leaf declared itself “the patient’s voice.” Abney started selling ads and switched over to a magazine format to hold more content. He made a profit by the third issue.
It was around that time that Berman, who had transferred to Western Washington University for a photojournalism degree, took over as lead designer.
“In the beginning it was basically just us,” Abney said. “Honestly, it felt like we were making a pot issue of our old college paper.”
Four years and 44 issues later, Northwest Leaf now hires a dozen regular freelancers. They’re paid anywhere from $50 to $250 for articles.
“If I’m sending someone to an event and they’re just getting high and sending me back a synopsis, I’m paying them 10 to 20 cents a word,” Abney said. “An investigative piece or a naturopath who writes for me, they’re getting paid 25 to 30 cents a word.”
The medicinal focus of Northwest Leaf separates it from so-called “stoner mags.” The magazine offers what Berman calls “a nuanced look at cannabis,” with local and national news, personality profiles, shop reviews and grow techniques.
“We really try to take a consumer reporting role,” Abney said. “We’re here for anyone who wants to use cannabis medicinally, and who wants to treat it with respect and learn about it in a more in-depth way.”
What’s there to learn about cannabis? For one, many people associate being on marijuana with a glazed look and a decrease in motor skills — getting “stoned” — but Abney says that the sativa strand can function as an energy supplement, similar to a Red Bull. Another strand, known as indica, gives you a body high.
The cover story of the July issue was “Tannins & Terpenes,” a guide to mixing alcohol and weed.
“Everyone knows that there are thousands of types of wines, but people think that pot is just pot,” Abney said. “And that’s not the case.”
Northwest Leaf reviews local medical marijuana shops and the products they sell. Abney pays writers to do “blind buys,” which means they don’t inform the shop that a review will be written. The samples are brought to Analytical 360, a marijuana testing lab in Seattle, and then photographed by Berman. Finally, the writers go home and try it out.
They’ve given bad reviews to marijuana edibles — “medibles” — for being far more potent than the labels warned. Abney said that while he personally prefers medibles with 25 milligrams of THC, there are products ranging from 15 to 1,000 milligrams.
“No, you’re not going to die. No, there won’t be any lasting effects,” Abney said. “But it can be the most miserable six, seven, eight hours of your life.”
He likens taking a medible without researching it first to using a power tool without reading the instruction manual.
The hard-news side of Northwest Leaf is telling patient stories. They’ve written about an Everett attorney who defends parents fighting to get medical marijuana for their children’s seizures; an 88-year-old woman who was pulled over for a marijuana DUI in Ocean Shores and forced to sit on the ground until she wet herself; five medical cannabis patients in Eastern Washington who face 10 years to life in prison; a grower in Bellingham charged with 14 felonies.
Berman once traveled to Wennatchee to do a story about a young man who lost his job because he had to miss work for a marijuana court date.
“We were driving down an abandoned orchard, there wasn’t a person for miles,” he said. “And we showed up at this mobile home in the middle of nowhere to tell this one kid’s story, and to do it right. His charges ended up getting dropped soon after.”
Northwest Leaf doesn’t shy away from being political. In February, when there were 25 medical marijuana bills in the Washington Legislature, Abney paid a graphic artist to design a cover in the style of “Schoolhouse Rock,” with a bill rolled up into a joint and the words “For medical marijuana patients, every bill is a bad bill.”
They opposed Initiative 502, the 2012 ballot measure that legalized recreational marijuana, because it didn’t acknowledge the medicinal benefits of cannabis nor permit any home growing. On top of that, they say the recreational pot shops that have opened are two to three times more expensive than medical dispensaries.
“We’re just hoping to protect medical,” Abney said. “We want the state to be successful, but not at the cost of patients.”
Still, Abney and Berman support I-502 shops now that they’re open and even ran an ad for one (the state doesn’t allow recreational businesses to do any public advertising).
“We’re going to give a fair shake to recreational marijuana,” Berman said. “Because we want people to have the right information — good, accurate information about what’s in their neighborhood.”
The New York Times recently hired Berman to shoot a series on I-502. Still, pot stories make up only about half of the assignments he takes on. He photographed Bill Gates for an Italian publication in May.
“I said, ‘Should I refer to him as Mr. Gates? Bill?’” Berman recalled. “They said, ‘Don’t worry, you won’t be talking to him.’”
Since marijuana is illegal under federal law, banks do not explicitly deal with pot-related businesses. Abney said he’s been bumped from accounts in the past.
“All it takes is them Googling your business and you’re kind of screwed,” he said.
Some of Northwest Leaf’s advertisers switch bank accounts as often as every three months, but most of them avoid banks altogether. As a result, Abney spends four to five days a week traveling around the state to pick up cash payments and drop off magazines.
The time on the road is his biggest complaint about the business, but it hasn’t stopped the magazine from expanding.
In July, they launched Oregon Leaf with 5,000 copies, and the Colorado Leaf is on deck. Then there are plans for Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii, Florida. Abney envisions a bureau chief in every state.
“We’re always going to be pushing, till everyone can grow this plant safely and everyone can have access to medicinal or recreational cannabis,” he said.