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The WeedTubers: these people make a living getting stoned on YouTube

These entrepreneurial twentysomethings are riding a wave of marijuana legalization to online celebrity. Call them Cheech and Chong for the digital age

Josh Young makes as much money smoking weed on Youtube as he did working in the restaurant industry. Photograph: Handout

Josh Young makes as much money smoking weed on Youtube as he did working in the restaurant industry. Photograph: Handout

Last modified on Tue 23 May 2017 15.52 BST

J osh Young smokes weed before he eats breakfast. He gets high before lunch, too, again before dinner, and usually one or two more times on top of that. Most days, on at least a few of those occasions, he’s filming it for his YouTube channel, StrainCentral, which has more than 373,000 subscribers. Millions watch him every month.

This is how Young pays his bills. And if that’s a hard idea to wrap your head around, Young said it’s even harder to answer the question of how he makes a living.

“It’s a pretty impossible conversation to have with just about anyone – Uber drivers, people in elevators,” Young said. “I’m like, ‘I smoke pot on the internet, I guess?’”

Often, his devoted followers come to his channel to learn about marijuana and the many ways to use it. They want to know, for instance, whether blunts are more potent than joints or how to make edibles. Other times, they want to see feats of consumption they’d never dare try – smoking a gram of cannabis in one minute, for instance – and, of course, the grisly aftermaths. Frequently, they watch simply for the company of a charismatic fellow smoker as they light up wherever they are in the world.

“A lot of people on YouTube are just looking for a smoking buddy,” Young said.

Coral Reefer, from Santa Cruz, makes about as much money through YouTube as she did as a waitress.

Young, a 21-year-old medical cannabis patient in Washington who suffers from gastroparesis, is one of a group of popular weed-centric YouTubers – or WeedTubers, as they call themselves – riding a wave of marijuana legalization and its concurrent growth in mainstream visibility to online celebrity. They’re Cheech and Chong for the digital age.

But unlike the iconic stoner duo, who came to national fame through Hollywood films, WeedTubers are bootstrappers who have paved their own way creatively and financially in an arena that’s sometimes hostile to their “420-friendly” labor.

Google AdSense, a big money-maker for equally popular YouTubers operating in more family-friendly industries, is less lucrative for WeedTubers, since the video-sharing site doesn’t permit monetization for age-restricted videos. Instagram, meanwhile, sometimes shuts down accounts with marijuana content – a devastating blow for content producers who depend on large followings across multiple platforms for their livelihood.

They may not be millionaires like some YouTube stars, but the most successful WeedTubers have managed to build full-time careers through a combination of sponsorships, branded content deals, and merchandise sales. Young, for one, started StrainCentral shortly after getting his medical marijuana card in 2014, and by last February he was making enough money online to leave his job as a line cook and waiter. He makes about as much money online as he did in the restaurant industry.

The key to breaking out of the pack, he said, was consistency – that is, making sure his followers could rely on a steady stream of content to smoke along with throughout the week. Recently, as the WeedTube community has become more crowded, he said it’s also become important to heed his followers’ requests to participate in “challenges” involving increasingly extreme consumption.

“Things like that are going to be shared a lot more than educational videos a lot of the time,” he said.

That formula has proven especially effective for WeedTube’s irrefutable king, Joel Hradecky, whose channel, CustomGrow420, has amassed a following of more than 1.2 million since 2013. A video in which he tries to smoke a gram of THC oil has racked up more than 1.3m views. A subsequent video of him coughing for nearly seven minutes straight after the attempt has more than 1.5m views.

“People obviously like watching other people suffer,” said Bryan Gerber, the 25-year-old co-founder and CEO of Hemper, which sells monthly subscription boxes for smoking accessories.

I only urge people to get into this if they have a message. If they’re looking for fame or money, I suggest porn

Hradecky isn’t just an entertainer, Gerber said, he’s also a connoisseur –“like the Billy Mays of WeedTube” – and audiences take his recommendations for bongs, marijuana strains and other accessories to buy. That’s why Gerber pays Hradecky and other knowledgable WeedTube stars, ideally those with more than 100,000 subscribers, between $300 and $1,000 per video to promote his product on their channels, plus money for every new customer they refer.

Gerber usually works with between 15 and 30 WeedTube channels at any given time, he said, finding them to be a relatively cheap and highly effective advertising platform. Other entrepreneurs in the burgeoning cannabis industry turn to YouTube influencers for that same reason, and to avoid stringent cannabis advertising regulations, which vary from one locality to the next.

Cannabis companies may have their sights set on WeedTubers, but the interest, for many WeedTubers, isn’t exactly reciprocal. Cody Miller, 20, who lives with his father in Connecticut, said he could probably sustain himself on earnings from his channel, xCodeh, if he were to move out, but focusing on business “ruins the fun” and takes away from YouTube’s appeal as “a creative outlet”.

Companies regularly get in touch looking to partner with him, but he usually turns them down, he said, mostly out of a desire to avoid losing “credibility” with his fan base.

Kimmy Tan, a prolific WeedTuber.

Kimmy Tan, a 22-year-old tattoo artist, musician and model living between New York and LA, is best known on YouTube for taking 100 hits of weed in a row. She said she’s “really wary” about working with cannabis companies after a few bad experiences. She makes videos, she said, to “have a good time” and “connect people” rather than to make money.

Santa Cruz-based Coral Reefer, 28, said she makes about as much money through YouTube as she did as a waitress, and doesn’t recommend a career as a WeedTuber for those planning to get rich.

“I really can only urge people to get into this industry if they have a message they want to share. If they’re looking for fame or money, I suggest porn or waitressing,” she said.

For his part, Young’s ambition is simply to keep doing what he’s doing as long as he can, and to help pave the way for a future in which a life like his won’t seem quite so unusual.

“I want my grandkids to be able to smoke weed without being looked down upon or being stereotyped as a stoner. If I can be a small part of the legacy of smart, responsible cannabis consumption, that’s the major long-term goal,” he said.

These entrepreneurial twentysomethings are riding a wave of marijuana legalization to online celebrity. Call them Cheech and Chong for the digital age

How to Build an Empire by Getting High on YouTube

“Yo yo, what up YouTube—YouTuuuuuube!”

Such is the characteristic greeting Joel “Jolie Olie” Hradecky uses to introduce all of his videos. On March 19 of this year, he celebrated his three-year YouTube anniversary. That’s all the time it took for the Colorado native to establish his channel CustomGrow420 as a cornerstone of the weedtuber community.

With over 800,000 subscribers, Jolie Olie reigns over a YouTube niche devoted exclusively to cannabis and its uses, both medical and recreational (but mostly recreational). Most of the videos the baseball cap-wearing host posts online consist of getting stoned in as violent a fashion as possible. This endeavor is made possible thanks to his remarkable lung capacity: He is capable of combining five bong hits in one inhale, cementing his status as a top-tier smoker.

To dive into the 450-something videos on CustomGrow420 is to discover a vast variety of modes of cannabis consumption. Jolie Olie is a great enthusiast of dabbing, a method that consists of taking rapid, strong inhales of vaporized cannabis concentrates. These substances are available as oils or granules, and contain between 70 percent and 90 percent THC, the psychoactive molecule in cannabis. By comparison, legal weed sold in Colorado with THC concentrations of 30 percent is considered extreme. The standard “dose” of THC in Colorado is set at 10 milligrams, which should give you an idea of how fried Joel Hradecky gets when he absorbs one gram of concentrate in a single inhale.

With 1.7 million views and counting, THE ONE GRAM DAB. is to this day the most popular video on CustomGrow420. Jolie Olie’s other successes are in the same thematic family: There’s the gas mask transformed into a water bong, the glass blunt, the 7-gram blunt… In the video where he alternates between dabs and large whiffs of helium, he almost passes out.

It goes without saying that this Jackass of toking is not for everyone. On r/trees, the Reddit subcategory devoted to cannabis consumers, his detractors are legion: “He confirms many negative stereotypes,” laments one user. “With all of his followers, he could educate the community about cannabis and the laws surrounding it,” adds another. “All he does is pack $80 bongs, describe what he just smoked, and explain how high he is.”

More still than his flippant, even risky, attitude towards the recreational consumption of marijuana, it is Joel Hradecky’s past that fuels the real scandal. In 2006, a young man by his name was arrested after assaulting and robbing visitors at a Washington state park with four others. Armed with machetes and hatchets, they threatened some of their victims with decapitation and tried to force a young woman to undress, while screaming out the signature cries of Insane Clown Posse’s notoriously redneck fan base. In the eyes of his critics, Jolie Olie’s is nothing more than a reformed Juggalo. If that was indeed him, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in October 2007.

“Sometimes my private life can, you know, fall into my fantasy life here on the internet.”

Rumor also has it that Joel Hradecky is both a bad father and a bad husband. One day in August 2014, all of the videos published by CustomGrow420 during the previous three months were deleted. This drastic move was accompanied by an alarming message broadcasted on the weedtuber’s channel: “CustomGrow420 just left his wife and 5 yr old daughter and 1 month old son because he is an abusive asshole who cannot treat his family right. It’s sad that everyone can idolize a man that is abusive to his family. […] Everyone should go somewhere else and give a kind person the benefit of your adoration.” Those words could have belonged to his wife, or to an angry hacker. Naturally, those who dislike Jolie Olie believe the first scenario.

One thing that is definitely true is that the YouTuber will soon be charged with illegally trespassing onto a bridge, camera in hand—a gaffe that won him the honor of a TMZ mention.

Despite his real or fabricated troubles, the importance of Joel Hradecky within the digital cannabinoid universe is undeniable. A self-described web developer with 15 years of experience, “Scott,” told Motherboard France that Jolie Olie is his favorite YouTuber: “I started with him,” Scott said. “He’s extremely entertaining and he’s good at crafting videos that I enjoy watching.”

It was while watching this world-class stoner choke on dabs that Scott got the idea for creating Weedtubers, a site that brings together YouTube channels dedicated to cannabis consumption. “I got the idea at the beginning of the year after subscribing to CustomGrow420,” he said. “He uploaded new content every day and I would watch it during my lunch break. Then he stopped posting on a daily basis, so I started searching for other videos about weed on YouTube. I thought it was fun, and so I figured we needed a site that lists all the videos uploaded by the weedtuber community.”

Weedtubers went live on January 21. Under the slogan “Connecting the Weedtube Community,” it brings together 47 channels, regardless of their popularity—one channel counts only two subscribers. Some compete with CustomGrow420 in the unreasonable consumption category; others focus on testing out the different varieties of green available on the market or through home growing. Some channels even offer exhaustive guides to help you vary your modes of consumption.

In the end, however, most can be summarized by a single image: people getting high. The exact plant, pipe, and other details are of molecular importance. Some have decided to accept this fate and film videos of banal smoking sessions. In fact, this is how the oldest representative of online toking made a name for himself.

If CustomGrow420 is a sprinter, then Marijuana Man is a marathon runner. The shaggy, easygoing Canadian, whose real name is Stephen Payne, began blowing smoke into the camera in 1997. Yahoo users baptized him Marijuana Man, enthralled with his videos that combined intense smoking with casual chatting. “I’m 45 and have been smoking now for 23 years,” he told Vice last June. “I don’t want to say I’m an addict, but I definitely smoke like one. I’ll smoke between ten and 15 dabs every day.” Motherboard has since checked in with him, and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down: “I smoke around one gram of shatter a day.” The level of THC in this cannabis concentrate, which owes its name to its intensity, generally varies between 80 and 90 percent.

Stephen Payne exported his formula to YouTube as soon as it launched in 2005. His current channel, 2MarijuanaMan, has garnered over 100,000 subscribers and 12 million views since its launch in 2008. Marijuana Man even broadcasts smoking sessions in real time on Ustream. The habit ended up working in his favor: In August 2012, while he was broadcasting live, two armed men broke into his smoking chamber and violently assaulted him, then robbed him. Three months later, after they were identified in the video, they were sentenced to six and seven years in prison. This misfortune is now part of the Marijuana Man mythology, just like the famous “Fire in the hole!” he shouts out before lighting up a bong.

Just like Joel Hradecky, Stephen Payne owes a lot to his laid back charisma. The “half marijuana, half man, 100 percent fun” Canadian is well-liked on Facebook, where his official page counts almost 700,000 fans. This large audience allows him to make a living. “In ten years, YouTube has given me about $2,700,” he told Motherboard France. “I make practically double on Facebook each month. […] All of my income comes from sponsors that I find myself.” Each social media post is sponsored by a brand of vaporizers, a producer of cannabis concentrates, and a merchant that sells home growing equipment. One of these sponsors even supplies him with “everything [he] needs to smoke,” from materials to consumables.

Marijuana Man is far from being the only YouTuber who generates income through sponsorship. In his videos and descriptions, CustomGrow420 never fails to mention the manufacturer of the tools he uses. Jolie Olie has even produced several videos that are essentially advertorials, promoting a clothing brand, several kits of smoking utensils, and a marijuana store. It’s impossible to estimate the exact amount of his income, but it’s safe to say that Joel Hradecky wants for nothing. The same hypothesis holds true for HaleyIsSoarx, the princess of weedtubers. The young woman regularly touts the merits of her equipment manufacturers to her 520,000 subscribers. Yet the genius in her business model lies elsewhere. Haley utilizes her YouTube channel to draw users towards another dimension of her small kingdom: her pornographic webcam.

With over 6,500 admirers, the smoker is mainly popular on the adult streaming platform MyFreeCams. According to her, she rakes in $40,000 per month with her X-rated videos. Some of these freely combine sex and cannabis consumption. While she keeps her two activities separate on Twitter, Haley unveiled her pornographic career on her YouTube channel in January 2015, and mentions her weedtuber status on her camgirl profile. This crossover visibility, crafted behind the screen, proves one can make a good living off a simple webcam.

Of course, all of this raises issues around legality. The wonderful business of weedtubing would never have existed if parts of the United States hadn’t legalized marijuana. Its recreational use is authorized in Alaska, Colorado and Washington, and the weedtuber community is concentrated within those three states. In addition, medicinal use is legal in around twenty other states. This is why HaleyIsSoarx mentions that she is a “patient” in all her video descriptions, and that the bongs, joints and her other THC concoctions she absorbs all serve medical ends. Given that police pay close attention to pot smokers on the web and social media, these precautions are far from superfluous.

The wonderful business of weedtubing would never have existed if parts of the United States hadn’t legalized marijuana

Over on the edges of the giant American smoke cloud, in Marijuana Man’s native Canada, the recreational use of marijuana is illegal. On r/trees, it is said that Stephen Payne can inhale with total impunity because he works with police. This theory emerged in February 2013, after the Canadian uploaded a video in which he asserts having set up his two robbers in collaboration with authorities: “These people were let in to do what they were going to do, with police waiting outside at the door to arrest them,” he explains with a smile. “They were basically set up. It’s something I do with my work. I don’t really want to get into great detail because my work is kind of private, but sometimes my private life can, you know, fall into my fantasy life here on the internet.”

The bad guys get caught, police is happy, internet users are entertained, sponsors get promoted, and weedtubers are satiated: It seems that even on the internet, the free consumption of marijuana is nothing but a good thing.

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Legalization in the US has allowed marijuana mavens to build a following on camera. ]]>