28 grams of game from Berner’s inspiring rise to the top

Published on January 18, 2022 · Last updated October 28, 2022
Do you smoke the same as the rapper and cannabis mogul Berner? Compare smoking notes by clicking ‘listen’ below. (Courtesy of Berner, #ShotbyFarid)
(Courtesy of Berner, #ShotbyFarid)

A decade ago, Berner was best known for making independent music with pot culture icons like Wiz Khalifa. But after building Cookies into an international brand, he’s now one of the biggest legacy players in the entire legal weed industry.

“Cookies outgrew me,” Berner said proudly when asked about his multi-state operation on The Bootleg Kev Podcast last year.

“People know what Cookies is and don’t know me. That’s amazing.” – Berner

But he still remembers when it was the other way around. Before he was fielding billion-dollar offers for his company, Berner was an independent rapper who loved weed so much that he got a day job at a dispensary. He stayed close to the plant, grew an organic network, and applied his prolific grind to both music and marijuana throughout the 2010s.

On his way to the billionaire buds club, he’s introduced the world to iconic strains like GSC via his music connections, and set up friends like rapper Rick Ross with their own legal weed operations. And with over 40 independent albums and enough genetics to plan strain drops through 2080, he’s still got much more to teach the world about growing green on your own terms.

For all of the budtenders, breeders, and sellers following the trail Berner blazed to legitimate generational wealth, we rolled his journey into 28 quick hits of game that you can carry with you on your way to the top.

New strain alert: Cereal Milk! A cross of Snowman with The Y. (Courtesy of Berner, #ShotbyFarid)
Grab some game and elevate your future moves. (Courtesy of Berner, #ShotbyFarid)

1. Plant solid roots

Berner was raised in San Francisco and moved to Arizona as a teen before returning to the Bay to focus on music and explore the medical weed scene. And even as Cookies blossoms globally year over year, Berner’s stayed deeply rooted to his native soil from day one.

Northern California’s Emerald Triangle is known to yield some of the best bud in the world, and the neighboring Bay Area has a rich history of producing self-owned rap pioneers like Too $hort and E-40. With ownership of both his weed and music ventures, Berner’s biggest moves hold deeply true to his NorCal roots.

2. Grow from the ground up

“If you want to get in the weed game, go work at a dispensary… Start from the ground up, like I did. Learn the business. Understand what you want to do and why you’ll be impactful in that space. And work your way up.” – Berner’s advice on The Bootleg Kev Podcast

After leaving school and returning to The Bay, Berner dove head first into the blooming medical marijuana field around 2001. Then he spent the next half decade working his way up to manager at Hemp Center in San Francisco. “That’s when I really fell in love with the shit,” he remembers. “I got hired as an intake person, checking doctor’s notes, then budtender, then buyer.”

3. Study the game

Berner stresses that aspiring owners must eventually learn all levels of their business if they want to be successful. His years of experience with customers, suppliers, and branding planted the seeds for his generational vision for Cookies.

“Understand the consumer, understand the vendor, understand the grower, understand the POS system, understand the budtender, understand how to merchandize, everything before you get in.” – Berner’s advice to cannabis entrepreneurs

4. Have a plan

Your goal shouldn’t just be: ‘Get into the legal weed game.’ Find a practical way to add value from day one that you enjoy. Berner lists some of the dozens of entry points that exist for those who don’t have their vision fully mapped out yet in many of his interviews.

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So how would you answer if you met Berner tomorrow and he asked: “Do you want to be a designer? A grower? A store operator? Do you want to build a brand?” Be prepared to answer, whether you meet him or not. Because your ultimate goal will inform the steps you take along the way.

5. Expand organically

Berner’s status as Cookies CEO still doesn’t overshadow his impressive catalog of music. His 2021 Spotify wrapped reported 8.2 million fans enjoying almost 100 million streams. And he hit those numbers without chasing the charts artificially. “I don’t wanna go big. I don’t wanna be on the fucking radio, bro,” he explains.

“I like being an underground artist. Mainstream artists, as soon as they come off the radio, they say they fell off. But if you look at my music career, it’s only gone (up steadily) every year. Naw, I’ve never shot up, never had a straight home run. But I’ve elevated every year. So if I get a record that hits, hits… I’ve got a 42-album catalog to back that up.” – Berner

6. Diversify your buds

Berner’s diverse approach to both weed and music have helped all of his ventures grow rapidly. But he admits, “It’s kind of spooky sometimes,” reflecting on all of the cookie jars he has his hands in. “There’s a crazy ecosystem of very valuable companies,” he told Bootleg Kev in a hushed tone. “Cookies (clothing) is on path to do $50-55 million in 2021 on just clothing. Up from $32 million last year.” Remember, that’s not the weed, just the clothing.

“If you look at Cookies clothing, Cookies cannabis, Vibez papers… Crazy traction… Equity in WeedMaps. Stuff like GPen and Santa Cruz Shredder… And then you got (Cookies’) sister brand, Lemonade, which is killing it, too…” – Berner

And that’s not counting his music money, or businesses he forgot to mention like Hemp2O, Exotics by Berner. “I could honestly live and raise my family off (my) music,” he says. And he knows that people say, “Oh he’s just the weed guy.” But he prefers it that way.

7. Play chess not checkers

Federal prohibition and the stalled status of the SAFE Banking Act still make it difficult for legitimate cannabis businesses to operate. Another reason Berner’s music is such a valuable part of his empire.

“Music is bankable revenue for me. With cannabis, you can’t bank that. You have to play chess and move it around. It’s such a grey area because it’s not federally legal yet, but the iTunes check hit that bank every month, I can pay my mortgage every month.” – Berner

8. Use your genetics

Berner is aware of the traits he got naturally from his parents, and does his best to use them. He credits his prolific work ethic to his dad, a Mexican chef. And he blames his social charm on his Italian mother, an office worker who taught him, “You have to be a good conversationalist.”

“I’ve never met Berner’s team, I always talk to Berner directly, ” observed DJ Envy in an interview earlier this year. Berner explained, “I got it from my mom… If you’re not hands-on, you’ll be misrepresented.” He also saves money on paying managers and middlemen to handle his business for him.

9. Don’t quit your day job

Even as his independent rap career took off, Berner didn’t stop showing up to work. He saw the value of continuing to network with vendors and learning the industry. But he also knew when it was time to let go and grow.

“People would come in, fans of the music, (that) couldn’t believe I just worked there. I just was fucking working there because I loved it. And as my music career got bigger and bigger, I had to commit less and less time to working there.” – Berner

Berner patronizes a medical cannabis club in the 2000s. (via High Design)

10. Stay grounded

After Cookies on Melrose was raided and damaged in spring of 2020, Berner took to Instagram to show his support for the people over his property. While many CEOs prioritized their expenses, Berner showed solidarity with the outcry that boiled over after George Floyd was murdered.

“It’s extremely unfortunate what happened to our store tonight on Melrose. But as a human living in the world we’re living in today, I cannot expect anything less until justice is served,” he said in the video posted to his 1.8 million Instagram followers. “We can rebuild our store, but you cannot bring someone back to life.” The Melrose location reportedly makes $450,000 per day.

11. Equity over easy money

Berner has a warning for those cannabis entrepreneurs who are rushing for a quick payday. Consider doubling down on yourself before giving away a piece of your pot.

“A lot of people are looking for that money right now. (But) there’s power in building equity. When I look at my equity in Cookies (weed side) alone. I only take a small salary from Cookies weed side. I get a salary that’s almost laughable (for) the type of shit I do. But the equity is there if I ever want to pull.” – Berner on The Bootleg Kev Podcast

12. Stay close to the plant

In the words of Leafly California Bureau Chief David Downs, “always stay close to the plant.”

“If you go to my studio session right now, there’s 42 jars laid out on the table. All different names on them. I’ve got a note pad next to those jars. I’m just smoking them, taking notes on what I like and why I like it. Slowly putting them aside, picking which one’s I’m gonna keep and which one’s I’m gonna give away… It’s a fucking process. I love this shit.” – Berner on his love for buds

13. Curate your environment

As medical cannabis expanded in the 2000s, Berner built an eco-system that suited his goals perfectly. By 2012, he was running a club that served as a safe space for cannabis users and creatives. And when stoner icon Wiz Khalifa visited, they instantly clicked. Berner ended up signing to Khalifa’s label, and helped him breed and roll out the infamous Khalifa Kush brand.

14. Document the process

“If you go back to YouTube, I think the reason why Cookies resonated with people is I documented every step of that process. So if you’re gonna build something, document it. You can go see me pulling strings through my hoodies ten years ago on YouTube. You can see me making those hoodies, selling that shit. You can see me (working) in the dispensary way long ago. I’ve documented every (part of the) process.” – Berner

Berner and B-Real bring livestreams, new music, and stores deals to 4/20. (Courtesy B-Real)
Berner and B-Real of Cypress Hill released a collaborative album about weed titled Prohibition in 2014. (Courtesy B-Real)

15. Give the OGs their flowers

Berner took his music game to the next level by collaborating with Bay Area legends Equipto and The Jacka early on. The OGs showed him how to produce high quality music on his own terms and he took the flame and ran with it.

Berner also gained the confidence of music industry heavyweight Steve Lobel who became an early investor. “When you have close friends like Steve Lobel to call up, you pretty much can get any feature you want,” says Berner. He even got an official co-sign from the estate of elusive Mob boss John Gotti. Gotti Jr. gave Berner clearance to use the family Gotti name, image, and unreleased tapes from the Teflon Don’s real life RICO cases.

16. Collaborate constantly

Working with rap superstars like B-Real and Rick Ross is a no brainer, but Berner’s also got a talent for turning underground greats into valuable partners. He’s released more joint albums with other rappers than we count with two hands, but also uses his current powers to give back to the pioneers who paved the way.

“The first person I partnered with was Branson. (He’s) been an O.G. for a long time. So that was the first person I wanted to do a deal with… We’ve been showing him what the rec game looks like. And his mind’s been blown by it.” – Berner

In addition to working with NYC weed trailblazer like Branson, he’s also helping Chris Webber bring legal cannabis access and opportunities to Detroit via Cookies U.

17. Swim with the sharks

There are already a handful of billionaires in the legal and illicit cannabis industries. But few in or within reach of the billionaire buds club hold the clout that Berner’s name carries from farms to boardrooms. His double-barrel clout was on display in a meeting with 7-Eleven executives. And while most would be intimidated in a meeting with corporate bigwigs, he calmly used Instagram Live to send 40,000 comments to the company’s page in minutes, leveraging his brand’s impact right before their eyes. That’s a level of power that can’t be bought overnight.

18. Do what you love

Berner’s had independent distribution with Empire since 2006. As one of the first clients for the label that now serves many of the biggest indie artists in music, he’s fostered a symbiotic relationship between his music and marijuana endeavors on his own terms. He’s so successful that he said he feels bad when he learns that fellow artists “don’t make any money off their music,” or “they can’t drop their music when they want.”

He explains that “Music is therapy, it’s like a journal. So how could I not drop it when I want to drop it when I want to drop it? If I decided to put down Cookies today or stopped doing anything else, I could live off my music.” That’s why when he was offered traditional record deal recently, he replied: “Why would I do that?”

19. Prioritize your health

Berner’s life may have been saved by his decision to get an early cancer screening at the advice of his doctor. He was told that another six months without detection would have killed him. “1 in 3, will be diagnosed with cancer in their lives and 71% are getting cancers that aren’t commonly screened,” he said on The Breakfast Club.

He is recovering from a recent surgery, heading into his second round of chemo, and is sharing the fight with his fans on IG, a decision that would be difficult for many.

“If I fight I privately, no one’s gonna know what the fuck I’m going through mentally. But if I’m straight up about it, and I share it with the world, that energy’s powerful. People give you energy that you don’t even know. And you need that shit. And two, people will know what I’m going through. So maybe they’ll lay off a little bit. Or when I cop a little attitude they won’t take it personal. But I really did it to feel the love because I needed that shit… It makes me want to keep fighting.” – Berner on The Premium Pete Show

He is now an outspoken advocate for the early screening technology that saved his life, hoping it can save many others. Berner channeled his emotions about the diagnosis into the Gotti album, which had an unlimited production budget and his surgery day as the recording deadline.

20. Stand out from the crowd

Cookies’ signature blue is one of the most distinct marks in the game. And many start-up brands are tracing Berner’s outline instead of forging their own path.

“I was in the dispensary and I noticed nobody had a real brand. When you see that blue, you know what time it is… It was the first hoodie I made. Give me a different blue.” – Berner

Dozens of artists have name-checked the designer brand as a status symbol, including Migos and Young Thug. In 2018, Berner said he spent two hours every morning preparing gift bags for the influencers he would see throughout the day. Considering Cookies’ current social media reach and impact, it was time well spent.

21. Take big shots

In 2012, he premiered the iconic Cookies blue hue in a music video he shot with on a $500 budget. “When I did that song, I ran into Chris Brown in the studio,” Berner told Bootleg Kev. “Management approved the record, but (said) we can’t do any video.” That didn’t stop Berner from finessing a professional-quality video with a 16-wheeler, 5-figure race track location, and two of the biggest artists in music (his friend Wiz Khalifa also joined).

22. Don’t sell yourself short

When asked if he ever turned down a near-billion dollar offer when Cookies was still baking up, he said, “Yea, we get crazy offers all the time. I know next time we raise money for Cookies, it’s gonna be in the multiple billions.”

“I picked a very strategic, unique model. The reason we turned down $800 million back in the day is it was mostly stock. There was a good upfront, don’t get me wrong. There was a lot of cash. But most of it was stock. I decided to raise small, $20 million. And I’m still working off that same $20 million. And we stretched it and turned this shit into a fucking empire. Because we decided, instead of going out and buying assets and building from the ground, that would take too long, and a lot of money.” – Berner

He adds: “Fuck major labels. They never understood me. They never wanted to take the time. That’s probably their biggest mistake, because they probably would have had a piece of everything I’m doing now.”

23. Plan for the next generation

“I want to be a hundred-year brand,” says Berner. He’s already planning strains that will drop in 2080, along with marketing and messaging to customers to explain his vision even if he’s no longer around to lead the company in 60 years.

“We’re menu planning out for a hundred years. Not just right now. I got so (many) genetics in my hands right now form all the breeders that we have in-house and the ones we collaborated with. I kind of treat it like (collecting) beats. I pick A, B, C, D, E, F, G, keep ’em, (then) release a couple a year.” – Berner

24. Understand IP

Berner popularized the strain formerly known as Girl Scout Cookies, then seamlessly rebranded it as just Cookies to avoid legal issues because, “We knew we were gonna get sued.” Protect your intellectual property as fiercly as your physical property, and respect the laws governing other peoples’ IP.

25. Keep a clear mind

Berner famously doesn’t drink alcohol. He had a wild streak from 18 to 23, “bartending and doing coke.” But it’s been 15 years since he drank heavily or did substances other than cannabis.

26. Make grassroots investments

Berner thinks that big money players should invest in the growers at the ground level before trying to raise more funds. That’s how he built his multi-state network:

“Go around the world, go around the country, find the operators that are killing it right now. Let’s do a partnership with them that’s very rich in their favor right now. We keep the majority of money coming in right now. But we get a roll-up option on their stores. We get to purchase their store in the future. We get a small rip on percentage, and we get creative control of their operation. So you empower a great grower, provide them with an exit plan, (and) you empower their knowledge and their skills. I would rather work with a bunch of talented people than have to build everything, because it would take too long.” – Berner

Berner enjoys a joint while recording his daily shenanigans for social media in the 2000s. (via High Design)

27. There is no competition

“I’ve seen weed unite people all around the world. That’s why I do it. (And) I love weed. I’m obsessed with it… I’m passionate about this shit. When you’re passionate about something and you really live it, and you understand why you’re doing, I don’t think you can even worry about no one else. So I welcome everyone getting in the game with open arms.” – Berner

28. Own your own story

These days, it’s important to own your narrative. And the steps we just outlined couldn’t tell the half of what Berner went through on his long path to success. That’s why he’s teaming with a co-creator of Snowfall to tell his life story in his own words. And we can’t wait.

28.5. Prepare your exit plan

An ounce is really 28.3495 grams. So, here’s an extra nug:

If you don’t have an exit plan for every situation you’re in, you’re not playing the game, you’re playing yourself.

It could be retirement down the road, freedom now, or wealth for your children’s children. But whether the party goes on all night, or ends early, you need to have your exit mapped out from the moment you enter.

“If I ever exit, if there’s ever a liquidity event… My goal is to pass this shit to my daughter. I tease her all the time. You’re about to be a little CEO, you better learn the game.” – Berner

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Calvin Stovall
Calvin Stovall
Calvin Stovall is Leafly's East Coast Editor.
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