Wes Abney is the founder of The Northwest Leaf, a medical cannabis industry magazine based out of Washington. He and show host Shango Los discuss how he grew The Northwest Leaf over time, how the cannabis industry has begun to trade prohibition-era isolation and paranoia for a willingness to come out in the open, what he thinks about cannabis advertisements that exploit women’s bodies, and how cannabis specific media outlets can “set the record straight” when the mainstream media butches the topic.
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Shango Los: Hi there andwelcome to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast. I am your host Shango Los. The Ganjapreneur.com podcast gives us an opportunity to speak directly to entrepreneurs, cannabis growers, product developers, and cannabis medicine researchers, all focused on making the most of cannabis normalization. As your host, I do my best to bring you original cannabis industry ideas that will ignite your own entrepreneurial spark and give you actionable information to improve your business strategy and improve your health of cannabis patients everywhere. Today my guest is Wes Abney. Wes Abney is the founder, publisher, and editor of the Northwest Leaf, Washington’s longest running cannabis magazine since 2010 now publishing in Oregon as well. The magazine distributes 35,000 copies monthly to medical and recreational cannabis users. Wes is a vigilant cannabis activist, journalist, medical patient, and a dedicated husband and father. Welcome Wes, thanks for coming on.
Wes Abney: Thank you for having me Shango.
Shango Los: As one of the first cannabis magazines in the country, you’ve been reporting on cannabis activities on the fringe of legality for a long time. How did you manage staying legal and not outing any gray market producers when the laws themselves are usually so darn vague?
Wes Abney: Well you know, it’s been an exploration and a process over the years. I still remember quite vividly my first trip to a grow, to a garden in 2010. We got in the back of this SUV and the characters who will remain unnamed looked back at us and said all right, time to put the blindfolds on.
Shango Los: Oh wow.
Wes Abney: I was not having it. From day one I was like, look we don’t have to have your face or your name but we’re going to treat this like it’s legal and we’re going to treat this like it’s journalism and we’re going to treat this like it’s something safe and normal. Ultimately, since it’s just a plant, the only fear is really from the government.
Shango Los: That’s really interesting too because, for a lot of growers, their head spaces are still in the prohibition era. I can imagine that both you and your journalists are constantly running into issues with producers where they want to blindfold you like you said or they’ll go so far in their answering questions and then suddenly you can feel this invisible wall come up.
Wes Abney: With the Leaf, people know that it’s going to be going public so before we even get to an interview point, we do kind of go over things of that nature. I think that over the last five or six years in the cannabis industry things have progressed to the point where people are all over Instagram with their gardens and all over the internet. Luckily at this point, we kind of know what boundaries to ask about, certain areas where we don’t ask, and we try to focus on what people are doing that’s cool, that’s innovative, that’s creative and in the medical what’s helping patients and keep focused on that.
Shango Los: I can imagine that having a really conversation at the outset, to set up boundaries before you start the formal interview really helps you as a publisher because that kind of pushes the onus of safety and legality back onto your interviewee or guest. If they decide to say something, it’s not up to you to determine whether or not it’s legal or not, it’s up to them to decide where that line is. In a lot of states, the laws are abstract still. What is legal is up to interpretation.
Wes Abney: I think the important thing to do is remember that all of this is federally illegal from the get-go but having that conversation in the beginning is really helpful and letting people know kind of what to expect. A lot of people have been shocked when we’ve showed up to do an interview and we bring in full studio lighting even. Just letting people be prepared for the idea that hey, you’re going to be putting yourself in the public eye for something that just a few short years ago you would’ve been scare to tell anyone but your closest friends or family that you did. It’s definitely a major shift for a lot of people but on that same note it’s also very exciting. For the most part, the hardest part is containing people from being overly excited. It’s a good problem to have, I suppose.
Shango Los: Along those same lines, have you ever had somebody who was excited and then did an interview with you but then they wanted to renege it? They’re like all oh my God, what did I say or I don’t want to be in the magazine anymore.
Wes Abney: We’ve had a couple of issues over the years and we kind of followed the doctor’s oath in the sense of do no harm. We always want to highlight and help protect people. The worst thing that I could ever imagine would be having someone get in trouble because we wrote something about them or a quote was taken out of context or any of the many things that can happen. We have had people request certain photos be removed, certain quotes not be used. We’re always really happy to accommodate where a normal journalist publication like the Seattle Times, they would never give someone the time of day on removing something. We’re a little more sympathetic because although we are journalists, we are advocate journalists and we’re here to help people.
Shango Los: There’s a really great perspective. I’ve experienced that myself when people have reached out to interview me. If it’s cannabis journalism, it kind of feels like they’re on my side but some of the more national pop publications, it really feels a lot more like gotcha journalism where they’re dying for me to say something inexact that they can kind of run with.
Wes Abney: They really are and there have been cases where people’s statements have been taken out of context and used against them in mainstream media whether it’s within a community or even legally. We have to be very careful as a community what gets said to press and even realistically to someone like myself, I have had people confess things that weren’t what I would feel comfortable with legally and again, since our goal is to protect, it’s something that we have actually cut interviews because of people saying things that we didn’t feel comfortable with but we’re not in that role of gotcha style journalism. For sure, if the Seattle Times catches you saying something inappropriate or a publication like that, you can expect that it’s going to be printed.
Shango Los: Do you find that you’re ever trying to help people in the cannabis industry who may have got gotten in the popular press and so maybe you’ll run something that helps kind of set the record straight?
Wes Abney: I think that we’re always trying to set the record straight. The last couple of years have been really frustrating for me watching the editorial boards say like News Tribune or the Olympia or even the Seattle Times and watching them vilify medical cannabis and vilify the industry that has sprouted up from it. I feel like every issue what we’re trying to do is correct stigmas or perceptions that people have created. In terms of individual cases, we’re writing this month about a couple who have faced federal charges for doing something that they thought was state legal. In the media, they weren’t given a real fair shake and a lot of people even in the community don’t realize that people are still going to jail for this. We’re always trying to correct that and help people realize that this is safe, it’s a plant and that we deserve to have access to it.
Shango Los: Wes, you’re very much a start-up and as is the case with start-ups, employees come and go. Watching your publication for so long, I’ve seen journalists come and go, different photographers. Do you find that it’s hard to get a cohesiveness in the magazine itself with people coming and going and kind of living on the edge and being a pioneer in this industry?
Wes Abney: It’s very much about being open about what kind of employees you want to attract and what your expectations are of them. Our core staff of writers have been with us since pretty much the very beginning. Dr. Scott Rose has been writing her naturopath section, Help and Sciences for gosh almost four years now. Our main photographer has been with us this whole time. The areas where I’ve had the most kind of turnover have been in sales or deliveries or kind of the more mundane aspects shall we say of running a magazine. As far as our core writing staff, we’ve been very blessed to have great voices on our staff and most of them are really dedicated to the Leaf and to the message that we’re putting out there. For a start-up, that’s absolutely essential to know that you can count on your people to show up. For a writer, meeting deadlines is huge and we’ve had in Oregon especially a few hiccups in the first year. You smooth that out and you get things going and like I said, we’ve just been really lucky to retain good people.
Shango Los: I guess with you yourself being founder, publisher, and editor so long as you’re at the helm and so long as you can keep yourself straight, you’re probably the guiding rudder that kind of keeps things consistent.
Wes Abney: I’ve been jokingly called the rock by a few of my employees. The truth is, I wear a lot of hats in the business. It’s not uncommon for me if a delivery driver doesn’t show up, to go out and do deliveries on certain routes. I serve as a bill collector. I serve as an invoice writer. I serve as an advertising salesperson down to running booths at festivals. I do a little bit of everything and the truth is I love this industry and love this plant that has allowed me to have a place as a journalist. For me, it’s always just been fun and even after five years and a lot of hard work and looking at many more years of hard work, it’s never lost that funness and I try to pass that along to all the people that we bring in the belief and share the passion and keep things going in the right direction.
Shango Los: Now you really sound like you are a start-up wearing many hats. We’ve got to take a short break and we’ll be right back. You are listening to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast.
Shango Los: Welcome back. You are listening to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast. I am your host, Shango Los. Our guest this week is Wes Abney, publisher of the Northwest Leaf and the Oregon Leaf Cannabis Magazine. Before the break we were talking about the similarity of cannabis publications being like a start-up. People all through our industry are all in start-up mode. Even people who are experienced in other industries and have brought their skill set to cannabis now suddenly feel like they’re in a start-up.
Wes, Northwest Leaf survives on ad revenue and I would expect that you’d have many advertisers that either are prohibition or heritage growers of cannabis so have never really had to advertise or folks who have advertised in different industries that don’t understand how kind of wild west advertising can be in cannabis. Do you find it more difficult to work with advertisers in this industry than other industries? Do you find that you’re teaching advertisers how to advertise?
Wes Abney: Over the last five years, it’s definitely been an evolution in what we’re seeing from clients. Five years ago we had Word document ad files being sent over pretty regularly and just really low demographic style advertising but today I find that the industry is growing so professionally that we’ve had agencies starting to step in and start creating professional marketing strategies for companies, which has been a relief for us. With that being said, we still on a monthly basis are sitting down with clients and essentially building out marketing platforms for them and plans. I’m a big advocate of marketing your business, obviously because that’s part of what I do but not just in print but online, through social media, through different avenues. We’re always working with our clients to be as successful as possible because if they are successful, they can continue to advertise with us. We’re working always to refine people’s messages in their advertising and make sure that obviously there’s nothing derogatory, nothing of a sexual nature but also making sure that they’re reaching the people that they want to reach, which has been a curve over the last few years.
Shango Los: The derogatory part is an interesting aspect of it. I know that the MJBA Women’s Alliance is very active in making sure that there’s as little to no advertising out there as possible that degrades women in the cannabis world. Do you have any kind of standards for your magazines about the kinds of ads that you wouldn’t take because they’re demeaning to women?
Wes Abney: Since day one we’ve had a no sexualization policy. For me, as a father of daughters, I want them to be raised in a world where they’re recognized for their accomplishments and not just for how they look. The same thing is my approach with cannabis. I view the plant as a gift to us and I’ve never thought that we needed sex to sell a plant or sex especially to sell a medicine. That’s been our biggest line we’ve drawn. Of course, we would never take an ad from somewhat that’s derogatory or slams another company or unfoundly targets another company or is making outright trademark violations or things of that nature. Mainly, that’s to protect our clients and their image but it’s also to protect us on the back end to make sure that we don’t have any issues with our readers or legally.
Shango Los: That’s probably one of the reasons why your magazine kind of sets itself aside as being so professional because you do. Listening to you describe it, I’m like, yeah that’s true. I don’t see demeaning ads and I don’t see your advertisers taking subtle potshots at each other. It’s all very on the up and up. I bet you that kind of creates more of a family environment. I don’t mean like families will read your magazine together but that you and your advertisers are working together like a family to get the word out about good cannabis.
Wes Abney: Absolutely and we are a family in this industry. We’re a community that has for the last hundred years or so been persecuted. If you go to the wrong state right now all of us who enjoy our legal comfort abilities whether you’re a 502 producer or not or something along those lines, you go to the wrong state and you’re looking at prison time. We do try to build that sense of family and community both with our advertisers and our readers.
Something that’s always been important to me is that no matter what age you are as long as you’re over the age of 21 you should be able to pick up the Leaf and find something interesting, find something useful, and learn something new. In fact, I do really encourage people especially grownups in their 30s or 40s to talk to their parents who are in their 60s, 70s, and 80s and take the Leaf to them. Share with them the idea that cannabis is a medicine. People do sit down as families and read the Leaf and share the information. I’ve heard many, many stories of how peoples’ lives have been changed by access to cannabis and access to information on cannabis. That’s what keeps me really passionate about helping serve this industry.
Shango Los: As a reader of both your first magazine, the Northwest Leaf and second magazine, the Oregon Leaf, I know that a lot of the articles are education and there’s a whole bunch of current events covered but also there is some investigative journalism as well. It’s always interesting and surprising and cool to read those because a lot of niche magazines don’t really bother with that. They just do the current events and that’s it. What would you say is one of your investigative pieces that you’re most proud of as publisher?
Wes Abney: It’s hard to pick just one because we’ve published so many great stories I think over the years. The biggest thing that I would say I was proud of that was a little bit difficult was trying to expose the different areas in which Initiative 502 wasn’t being really helpful to the true kind of legalization term. It’s been a definite razor’s edge for us to walk as the patient’s voice supporting also 502 businesses and we want to serve both industries and I think the biggest thing for us has been trying to expose where laws are wrong or where laws are flawed and how patients or recreational users should be protected from those.
Beyond that, we’ve looked into issues like banking, into different criminal cases, and I’ll tell you sometimes when you look into a criminal case you think it all makes sense and then you find out something else and the whole world starts getting turned upside down. There are so many different aspects of this industry that are changing and we’re always trying to investigate and look into them and see how we can educate people and help keep them safe and out of trouble.
Shango Los: With your new magazine down in Oregon, the Oregon Leaf that’s got to be a different process than when you first decided to start the Northwest Leaf being your first magazine in cannabis. What have been the major differences that you’ve experienced from the first time bootstrapping the Northwest Leaf to your second time doing the Oregon Leaf which while you may have done it once now is an entire state away.
Wes Abney: It’s been a learning experience. Although I will say this, I do regularly run down and have lunch in Portland and I’m home for dinner with kids down and back in a day. It’s not too far away but at the same point it’s been a learning experience. The biggest thing I would say that has been different is adapting to the legal aspects. I’ll go down to Oregon and implement an access point which is a term we use up here for collective garden access points and people look at me very confused. We’ve had to learn to adapt to the laws and to the nature of how their industry is set up. For the most part, people love our model which is bringing local target based information that people care about.
It’s been pretty easy to get started down there. Our readers have loved us since the first issue down there and we’ve eased into the business. The thing is to let the industry know that hey we’re here to serve the industry as much as we are to potentially profit off of it. I think that going to Oregon has really helped me refine my business model for how I want to expand into future states and the biggest goal for us in that is just complementing the industry, serving the industry, and helping people have a voice while sharing our own.
Shango Los: It probably didn’t hurt too to have most of the people in Oregon be readers already of the Northwest Leaf so that when they got their own imprint they’re like, oh yeah we have a frame of reference for this, we trust this.
Wes Abney: People feel really special knowing that we’re not just the same magazine down in Oregon as we are in Washington. Having the ability to do different stories and feature different products often I get a little bit jealous actually of my writers down in Oregon and some of the beautiful products that they get to review. There is so much cool things happening in the industry and great innovative products being developed. I’d say that we’ve never had a shortage of things to write about and for the readers in Oregon it’s been a gift to be able to treat them with this kind of information.
Shango Los: We’re going to take another short break and be right back. You are listening to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast.
Shango Los: Welcome back. You are listening to the Ganjapreneur.com podcast. I am your host, Shango Los and our guest this week is Wes Abney, publisher of the Northwest Leaf and the Oregon Leaf cannabis magazines. Wes, I know that your business is very much family oriented. You’re a very active father and husband and you also involve your wife, Corey Marie very significantly in the magazine. Do you two find it that it’s hard to leave your work at the office when you both share the same work concerns when you get home and there suddenly you are over the dinner table probably really tempted to talk about work.
Wes Abney: It is a little bit of a challenge especially since I run a home office currently. It’s also been the most beautiful thing about Northwest Leaf for me has been the fact that Corey and I are able to work together on a magazine, that I’m able to be at home for the most part although I am on the road a lot doing photo shoots, interviews, things of that nature. When I’m working from home, I can be a writing a story and take a break and go play with my kids for a half hour or even do the dishes or something as mundane as that. Having that freedom has really allowed it to blossom.
I think that there are definitely some times where either Corey or I will say, hey let’s just not talk about work right now because it does creep into the everyday life. On that same note, we’re just really thankful for the fact that we can be supported in life by operating a magazine and serving the readers of Washington and Oregon. For the most part, I’m just reminded every day of the blessings of being able to be a father and enjoy the early years of my daughters’ growth and being able to be there for them. It’s been wonderful.
Shango Los: I think too that having someone who you trust enough to marry and be the mother of your children would be an incredibly good person to also help you run your magazine. Somebody that you know that you can trust and have good communication with when the chips are down.
Wes Abney: Absolutely. Trust and communication are the foundations for any good business relationship or personal relationship for that matter. Part of it too is being able to in a fair and helpful way say hey, I don’t think that idea is going to work or I don’t really like that idea. Having that communication has been the best thing for the Leaf on my end of things is being able to know which directions to take it, how to serve the readers and having Corey and I and Daniel and the rest of our staff we all communicate with each other. Sharing those ideas is what has allowed the Leaf to really have the personality that it has as a publication.
Shango Los: You’ve been a champion of terpenes for a long time now. You’ve had a couple of different issues that have featured articles and you’ve had it on the cover. You’re one of the people that is not afraid to say, hey listen it’s a lot more than just THC in cannabis, it’s terpenes. It’s the smell, that is what makes the uniqueness of the high. That’s where the medicine is really. Tell us a little bit about that and why you’re so passionate about terpenes specifically.
Wes Abney: Sure, I’ve always, like you said, been a champion of the idea that it’s not just THC. The entourage effect is really what allows the cannabinoids in the plant to work with terpenes and flavonoids that are also there. I always tell people who don’t smoke cannabis, the same limonene in a lemon or a lime is the same in your super lemon haze. It blows peoples minds to think that for one, cannabis is so similar to other plants that we already or vegetables or fruits that we already interact with and that it kind of breaks down that stereotype of pot being this dangerous scary drug. That’s what allowed us to kind of leap into tannins and terpenes, which is an annual issue of our magazine that we’ve been doing for the last four years where we pair wines with cannabis based on their tannin and terpene similarities.
Opening the doors to people’s minds in the sense that wine is different from all over the world in different regions and there are different styles and flavors and that’s the exact same thing with cannabis. To celebrate Oregon’s legalization, we’re actually doing our first tannins and terpenes event this September where we’ll going to allow people to come out for free and sample small, small amounts of alcohol but pair it with cannabis and learn about how terpenes affect flavors and how they affect also your body’s interaction with the cannabinoids that we know and love.
Shango Los: That sounds like it’s going to be really great outreach for the community. There are communities all over the country that are moving towards normalization and there are probably other people like yourself who have got this vision to help bring their community together by starting a magazine like you’ve chosen to do now twice. If you were to give one piece of advice to the folks that are thinking about starting a magazine in their own community, what would you tell them?
Wes Abney: I would say to be confident in your messaging and in your platform. Without getting too far into the black hole that print is in the mainstream world, there is a little bit of advantage being in such a high demand industry like cannabis for starting print. Ultimately, it’s about having a solid message and a solid platform and a solid voice. When we work each month on the Leaf, it’s that voice that allows to continue doing what we do and stay passionate. That would be my advice to anyone who wants to start any way of reaching people whether it’s a magazine or a website or a blog or even a podcast. Have your messaging be solid, we need more voices and I encourage people to share theirs.
Shango Los: Right on, well thanks for chatting with us, Wes. I really appreciate you spending some time with us and sharing your views. Wes Abney is publisher of the Northwest Leaf and the Oregon Leaf magazines. You can find the Ganjapreneur.com podcast right here on the Cannabis Radio Network website. You can subscribe to the podcast in Apple iTunes store or you can listen and read interview transcriptions on our home website of Ganjapreneur.com. Thanks a bunch to Brasco for producing the show. I’m your host, Shango Los.