Created by a UC Irvine graduate in 2008, Weedmaps has become one of the most recognizable technology companies specializing in the safe access of cannabis in multiple states across the nation.
Since its inception, Weedmaps has evolved, forging relationships with advocacy groups, policymakers, cannabis cultivators and educators, creating a well-rounded niche as a standout resource and viable technology in the cannabis space.
Ironically, however, Weedmaps, which is used primarily as a search engine to locate cannabis dispensaries, delivery services and cannabis products, is headquartered within the cannabis dispensary-free city of Irvine.
Given the fact that Irvine does not have any brick-and-mortar cannabis dispensaries, it may seem like an odd location for a company as deeply entrenched in the cannabis industry.
Juanjo Feijoo, chief operating officer and chief marketing officer at Weedmaps, spoke with Irvine Weekly about how a tech company like Weedmaps shakes the “weed company” stigma and what has made Irvine so attractive for so many years.
“I don’t think we think there’s anything wrong with being a cannabis company – we wear that badge with pride,” Feijoo explained. “We are both a cannabis company and a technology company, but part of what we’ve done as far as our marketing and advocacy efforts is remove the stigma. The way we try to do that is simply by delivering cutting edge technology.”
More importantly, while Weedmaps proudly identifies as a cannabis company, the core of Weedmaps’ functionality is technology. Considering the technology juggernauts currently occupying Irvine – Rivian, Google, Amazon – Feijoo explained that over the years Irvine has become an epicenter of innovation in Orange County, with a deep pool of accessible talent.
“It seems like a great place to attract talent – not only from the local talent pool, but a place that seems very able to attract talent from other tech hubs,” he said. “Pre-pandemic, we had about 350 people here in Irvine. Obviously, after March of last year, with COVID-19, we went to a very remote focused environment.”
Another part of the core goal at Weedmaps is working to beat the overall negative stigma of cannabis, and it is doing so by showcasing technological advancements and state-of-the-art market research.
From the Weedmaps user’s perspective, the app or website can be seen as a digital marketplace that can be searched by term, brand, location – even the type of cannabinoid desired. But from Weedmaps’ perspective, it has used consumer data to study habits in cannabis consumption for more than a decade.
“The technology work that we’ve done over the last 13 years, to capture, manage and make useable our consumer data – we’ve basically been learning about consumer behavior for the last 13 years, and it’s gotten us to a point where we have a very rich and valuable personalization engine. I think it is going to be a definitive mode for us as the company grows,” he said. “It’s very hard, given the lack of consistency of things like brand cataloging in the industry, to have normalized data – but it’s one of the things that we’re very proud of from the technology perspective.”
An example of Weedmaps’ decade-plus of market research in action is the recently released “Cannabis In America” report. Published in November, the report is the cannabis industry’s first data and insight report that highlights more than a decade of industry trends.
Chris Beals, CEO of Weedmaps, said that the first-ever Cannabis In America report is the product of years of research from the birth of the legal cannabis industry in Colorado a decade ago, with more recent data on how the industry has changed post-Proposition 64 in California.
Beals says he hopes this data will continue bringing more inclusion to the cannabis industry, which may ultimately lead to changes in policy.
“This report highlights attitudes and trends within the industry by providing data and information directly from consumers – an important step as we work towards the goal of building a transparent and inclusive cannabis economy,” Beals said. “Ultimately, this report represents the first steps of Weedmaps beginning to make its unparalleled levels of cannabis industry data available to policymakers, cannabis business holders and industry investors to help them make more informed and accurate decisions.”
Despite the lack of dispensaries, Feijoo added that Irvine can also be viewed as a strong case study for the proliferation of the cannabis delivery model that so many consumers are utilizing through the Weedmaps infrastructure.
“We’re starting to see regulations shift a little bit,” he said. “Orange County is a very, very active delivery market, and I think that’s part of what’s interesting because when they aren’t at the dispensary, consumers still want to access their medicine. Orange County, as well as Irvine, is one of our most competitive markets.”
Still, as the costs of operating a cannabis business in California continue to rise, Feijoo admits that legacy operators can be left behind. For some operators – and consumers – the black market continues to offer cheaper opportunities, free of taxes. However, risks can result in both financial and legal consequences.
Through the development of social equity programs like Weedmaps T.E.A.L. (Together, for Equity, Access and Legalization), along with a dedicated Weedmaps government relations team, Weedmaps is also working with local and federal legislators to create a more inclusive industry.
“We set out to create a global and inclusive cannabis marketplace. We truly believe that anyone who wants to be in the industry should be able to be in the industry,” he said. “But even on top of that, those that the war on drugs has had an outside negative impact on them or their community should be given a leg up in the industry.”
While the black market still exists, Feijoo said Weedmaps does not view the black market as competition, but said he views the presence of the black market as a barometer for how well the community is responding to regulation.
In fact, he said in some legal cannabis markets, a black market does not exist.
“It entirely depends on how the legal market is regulated,” he said. “Oklahoma is the most extreme example of open legalization. Oklahoma has more active dispensaries than California, despite having a fraction of the population and that’s because they’ve taken a very open approach to licensing. They essentially don’t have a black market in the state, though there is some struggle with cross border, particularly with Texas.”
As the legal cannabis industry continues to grow long-term, Feijoo said he already sees a “deep acceleration” toward a global “de-stigmatization” and acceptance of cannabis legalization happening around the world.
“In the last few months alone, Germany, South Africa, Spain, Luxembourg, have all introduced bills to legalize in some way. They’re probably six to 10 years behind where the U.S. is – but they’ll catch up,” he said. “The de-stigmatization will become more global and with that will come new more avenues for how you actually build this industry.”
Looking ahead, Feijoo said he does not expect legalization to hamper regulation, and envisions the cannabis industry aligning with more mainstream industries.
“Cannabis is never not going to be regulated. I don’t think anybody expects cannabis is going to be sold like lettuce. It will probably be regulated akin to alcohol or pharmaceuticals,” he said. “With that, I think you’ll start to see much more strength in brands – but for the most part consumers don’t have strong brand affinity, and I think that’s going to change over the next few years.”
When asked if people will be watching cannabis companies advertise on television within the next decade, Feijoo opted for a rare one-word answer, adding that 10 years may be too long.
“Yes,” he said. “I think we’ll see it much sooner than 10 years from now.”
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting Irvine Weekly and our advertisers.