July 25, 2006 in Business

Even the cops are buying

Associated Press The Spokesman-Review
 
The Spokesman-Review photo

A close-up of one of White’s decorative silk marijuana plants.
(Full-size photo)

GREENFIELD, Mass. – Joseph White’s home office is like a modern-day hippie hangout.

Books on Buddhism and yoga mingle with business planners and a laptop computer. An acoustic guitar rests next to a shuffle of sheet music for “Mr. Tambourine Man,” just across the room from a fax machine.

And then there are the marijuana stalks. Towering 6-footers. Pint-size plants for personal medical use. He even has a few ripe buds kicking around on a desk, not far from his cell phone.

His stash is for sale, but it won’t get you stoned. These lifelike botanicals are made of silk and wood.

Behold, counterfeit cannabis.

During the past two years, White – a trim 51-year-old with thinning hair and a small stud in his left earlobe – has rolled his pro-pot activism and business savvy into New Image Plants, a startup company that sells the make-believe marijuana online.

“The business name reflects exactly what I’m trying to do – create a new image for these plants,” he said. “They’re beautiful plants and people should be able to enjoy them without fear of arrest.”

White won’t say whether he smokes pot or has in the past. But he began pushing for marijuana legalization about seven years ago after talking to one of his sons about anti-drug advertising.

“He wanted to know why adults were talking down to kids and trying to scare them,” White said. While he doesn’t condone the use of marijuana by minors, White rebukes the notion that pot is a harmful drug that inevitably leads to the use of harder drugs.

“Kids know those claims aren’t true,” White said. “So when they hear an anti-drug message like that, they just discount it.”

So he started a nonprofit group in 1999 called Change the Climate, which advocates the legalization and taxation of marijuana and better education about the drug.

“My vision was that I needed to tell the truth about marijuana,” White said.

By getting his artificial plants into private residences and public spaces, White is betting that more people will start appreciating the natural beauty of the real thing’s jagged, seven-point leaves, lithe stems and robust buds instead of thinking of marijuana as an evil weed.

His early customers were people looking for gag gifts, party planners in search of unique decorations and law enforcement agencies needing replicas for training missions.

Then Hollywood came calling, and New Image Plants hit a financial high.

In April, White received an order for 355 plants from “Weeds,” the Showtime cable television series about a single suburban soccer mom who deals marijuana to support her family.

Julie Bolder, the show’s set director, needed to concoct a grow room stocked with what would look like $1 million worth of marijuana. She called White after stumbling on his Web site.

“I looked hard to find somebody to make us good weed, and Joe did the best job,” Bolder said. White’s pot will make its television debut early in the show’s second season, which airs in mid-August.

“All the weed you see on the show is Joe’s weed,” Bolder said.

The order brought in about $40,000, about five times what White said his company had earned since it sprang up 18 months ago.

Suddenly, the business became bigger than he expected — or needed.

Along with his continued work for Change the Climate, White is the senior vice president of Share Group, a private organization that offers consulting, fundraising and marketing services to nonprofit organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood.

He is also the president of another marketing company that works with smaller clients.

Although he isn’t relying on New Image Plants as his main source of income, White sees no competition in the mock marijuana market and expects his sales to continue building from the interests of “the hundreds of millions of people who smoke pot and the hundred of millions of people who have no problem with it.”

The plants are assembled by White’s manufacturing partner in Jupiter, Fla., by workers who attach stems and leaves made from imported Chinese silk to a thin, wooden trunk. The plants are wedged into a pot with a foam base, then topped with moss. The flowering marijuana models that sell for $80 to $190 come with a few buds attached. His hemp models, which do not have flowers, sell for $65 to $150.

Until his order from “Weeds,” White’s biggest buyers were law enforcement agencies in Virginia and Ontario, Canada. And that was a hard fact for the dealer to deal with.

“I have deeply mixed feelings selling to law enforcement,” he said. “They’ve been some of our largest customers. If an average order is $150, the average law enforcement order is over $1,000.

“But at least those tax dollars are coming back to help fund the reform movement,” White said.

So far, his products haven’t disappointed even the most discerning customers.

“When you come through the door and look at them, you’d swear you’re looking at real marijuana,” said John O’Reilly, an instructor at the Ontario Police College in Canada. After finding just one other company that makes fake pot plants, the college purchased 30 of White’s 2-foot-tall stalks to simulate a homegrown marijuana cultivation operation.

“We’ve had people see them and want to know why we’re growing marijuana.”

The New Image Plants products have also fooled some other connoisseurs.

After ordering a bogus bud online, one customer called White to ask how soon her shipment would arrive.

“I could tell in her voice that she thought she had ordered the real thing,” White said. While he did his best to set her straight, the caller was adamant that actual marijuana could be bought through the Internet, he said. But he insisted that she not try getting high on the silk supply.

“We cannot be held liable for stupid people smoking our plants,” he said.


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