By James Longshore
Comedy and cannabis are an age old pairing, and Simon Espinosa, the creator and host of En Volá.cl, a budding comedy empire, and founder of Quema, a Chilean distributor of high-end cannabis accessories, knows his market. En Volá has over 420,000 followers across its social media channels– a number that equally befits its audience.
I spoke with Simon about his endeavors before the outbreak of the current, violent unrest in Chile, so I followed up with him to get an on-the-ground perspective of its impact on his livelihood in the cannabis industry. Before we learn more about Simon and En Volá, we must first investigate the climate in which he works and practices activism:
James: As we look to the future of legalization, how do these events affect the cannabis sector? How is En Volá personally impacted by the crisis?
Simon: The cannabis movement has historically been critical of the Chilean Government. Not only this government, but all of them. None have legalized or regulated cannabis for medical or recreational use, and none of them have been clear about our drug law. [It] entitles personal and exclusive consumption of any given substance, but it doesn’t state how much is actually considered “personal consumption” (For example: If I can smoke 100 joints a day and can prove it, is that considered personal consumption?).
But more importantly, the cannabis community will always support the legitimate claim of justice and freedom, for we know very well injustice and persecution. This pacifist revolution has shown that alignment towards the greater social benefit.
Independently, our company is a startup; therefore, the impact of a social movement hit us hard in sales, but this is collateral damage that we are happily willing to pay. Even if it means that the owners will experience pay cuts in our salaries for the next months and that our profitability may experience a decrease. We will work hard to get back on track. There is no price for freedom and En Volá, as media, will always stand for those beliefs.
We do believe Chile will quickly evolve to a better society after this, and we hope our media and company will evolve to become a tool for change towards equality.
Besides that, liberty and business wise: The only obstacle for legalization was a conservative and non-flexible Government. So we have never been closer to cannabis legalization. We are very optimistic about how these changes will positively impact the local cannabis industry and we can now, for the first time, add our own dispensary to our sales projections. So the glass is way more than half full.
J: How is En Volá devoting its resources to aid during this tumultuous time in Chile?
S: We’ve suspended our regular content line up, since we are usually focused on humor and commercial content. These times require support [for] the society we live in, and we understand our responsibility as media.
We have created an IGTV resistance news show to support social demands and communicate human rights violations. We focus each chapter of our news show on a specific claim that has risen from our people: An assembly for a new constitution, natural resources staging, direct democracy, penalization of political corruption and vindication of our native cultures.
We also opened our platforms for different social organizations that need visibility to raise awareness about specific urgent matters. And we offer them diffusion in our show as well.
This is only the beginning, as we believe these changes are deep and will be essential for a new society that we will contribute to creating.
I first met Simon Espinosa of En Volá after hearing him speak on the Spannabis WCC “Marijuana On Air: Between Freedom and Censorship” panel with my fellow subject Dra. Weed. Turns out he was already a fan of my comic book James Bong, as well!
In our lengthy cannaversation via Skype video call, Simon and I cover the 4 C’s – Cannabis, Chile, Comedy and Censorship. Here’s Part 1. Enjoint!
J: Ciao, Simon. Tell us a little bit about En Volá–What it’s all about, how you sparked it up…
S: En Volá started 7 years ago. We initiated a platform to share thoughts we had with my brothers when we were high. Because we were raised in a culture with this very strong stigma over us that said, among many other things, that stoners were stupid. We started sharing this inside chat room, where we would post our ideas with my two other brothers, and we had fun. They were basically jokes, one-liners that were inspired by Mitch Hedberg’s thoughts. And we started sharing our own one-liners. One day, [a friend] accidentally read what we were sending and said, “Dude, you have to post this. This is funny.”
So we did, and we registered and created the Envolá.cl domain, and that’s the first time we were out there sharing our high thoughts with the world. It’s funny how things are, we got some traction very quickly. People were like “Oh, fun shower thoughts, the Spanish version of shower thoughts.” But cannabis related–we made that evident for everyone because En Volá means “the thoughts you have when you are high”.
And one day this brand, Piecemaker – they make silicone pipes, told me: “We spotted you, and we can’t understand what you do in Spanish, but we know that the people who follow you are likely to buy our pipes. Could you please do a shout-out or something for us in your media?” Not even in our wildest dreams did we think that would happen.
By then, after starting En Volá, I got hired by a comedy TV show as a scriptwriter. I would write jokes for a living. We were not willing to make something basic or boring [for Piecemaker], so we created a show for them called En Volá Reviews (Ressena En Volá) and did a review for the product with stand-up comedians. People loved it once we published it. We shot it out with just two cameras; the quality was horrible; the audio was not even understandable, but people loved it.
Back in the day in Chile, nobody thought that a cannabis brand was something that a retail store could put out. There were no cannabis brands in our market. So everybody told us, “No, I’m not going to import a $20, $50, $100 bong because no one’s going to buy it.”
I sold my car. My brothers used all their savings. We put them in this company, and we started with $8,000 [of] initial capital. With that, we made our first importation. It was hard because we didn’t know how to move goods in the world. It was a new language and everything, but it actually started quite fine. We created this e-marketplace that’s called quema, and we started selling our products online. All the logistics were done by us.
We were delivering pipes, and that went very well. We kept growing and growing, and we made a distribution company afterwards. Now, it’s this media and distribution company. So, we have a media channel that does all the advertising and marketing; the distribution company capitalizes [on] those efforts.
J: So you took the model of [one] person making the media, [another] person selling something, and they’re sort of symbiotic but don’t meld. You said, “We’ll do both.”
S: Exactly. Our clients who want marketing are suppliers of products that we distribute. We offer them a very affordable solution with an effective marketing strategy, plus all the points of sale they need in the region.
With all that information the next question is “Why don’t we do our own lines, our own bongs and genetics? We know what people want.” For the first time, I think we have a first draft of what the Latin American cannabis consumer looks like, built by us, so it’s very interesting.
J: What are some of the products you are preparing to launch? What is your angle with the products? What makes them different from the products you’ve been supplying?
S: [These are] data-driven decisions. We know what the average receipt is, here in Santiago. We know, for example, how much a Chilean or a Peruvian or a Colombian is willing to spend on a bong or a regular water pipe. Then we know by soft data what are the popular design lines.
So we created a new brand that’s called Cabo Smoking Gear. Basically high-end, high-design, simple bongs manufactured overseas.
What we guarantee is good marketing that’s backed by the best prices in the market. We offer our clients the best margin possible.
This is what happened. It’s a good product. We create the brand, we promote in En Volá, we sell at Quema. That’s three lines of business combined. A single organism that is our digital platform or cannabis hub, if you will.
Our business model is integrating all the parts of the supply chain and offering a high-end service on the other end. For people to be able to engage the brand properly.
J: What’s happened to your En Volá? You’ve gotten into all these distribution networks– do you still have the high thoughts?
S: I like to be creative and able, with this profit we are making from distribution, to create new content that will open doors in the future. Documentaries that are more related to activism than commercial activities. We don’t get paid for that, but we get the money to do it. That’s the privilege we were aiming for, to discover and map this industry and become one of the communication players. Approaching it in a smart way, a fun way, a viral way.
En Volá has gone viral. Today we are cannabis media that is part of the mainstream in our region. It’s funny because cannabis is illegal.
J: What’s it like on the ground there, the cannabis community and the cannabis movement? And you just mentioned that you guys have the data – so tell me, what is a typical cannabis consumer in Chile?
S: It’s a first draft, because cannabis is not legal. We don’t have dispensaries – we do have dispensaries, but they’re not formal; they’re basically associations.
They are nested under a legal loophole. In a nutshell, the consumption of any product, not just cannabis, is legal as long as it’s meant for personal and exclusive consumption.
Which means that you can have it, and you can use it yourself, but you are not allowed to share it. They say cannabis consumption is legal, but they don’t state the quantity that is considered personal consumption.
J: So how do they police it? How do they choose who to prosecute, or is it just ‘wrong place, wrong time’?
S: That’s the right question to ask. There is no protocol for this, so if two people get caught with 100 grams, for example – one in Santiago city, one in another region–they might have a different sentence from the judge. One might get a ticket, the other one can go to jail.
It’s not a reasonable source of law. That’s the social context. In our country, for centuries almost, we’ve produced hemp. Chileans used to grow hemp all over the central valley. Even though it’s not yet legal, we’re used to it.
People have smoked weed for a long period of time, and even though we’ve faced harder times in terms of law enforcement – police used to raid houses very often– that has changed. Now you can smell it in the streets, people smoke it in the parks, nobody gives a shit. You won’t do it by a police officer…You have to be smart, but we’re doing it.
A contingency comment on this: they are currently discussing a new deal in the government which will entitle consumers to grow their own cannabis. The remaining questions are focused on how many plants or how many grams those plants are supposed to produce. That’s going to set the groundwork for a new cannabis law.
After that happens, the community is going to grow much more. Then, we’re going to realize how many people are formally cultivating their own cannabis, and then the government is going to think what everyone else in the world is thinking: what happens when this becomes a commodity market? Growing tomatoes is legal, but nobody grows their own tomatoes.
The government wants to get taxes on that because the agricultural industry is huge. How do we tax this? We need law. Then they need a place for people to be able to buy; we don’t want them to grow that weed in the house if they can pay taxes for it.
After this happens, it becomes necessary to have formal regulations. That’s why it’s such a big step to have this homegrown law protecting consumers. Plus, it’s good not to go to jail for smoking weed. Always a good thing.
J: Does Chile have clubs like Spain? Is it strictly black market?
S: We have a strong black market, and we also have the Chilean version of a cannabis club. It’s just like a cannabis club in Spain, but everyone’s got a medical prescription. They have chronic itch or insomnia or whatever.
J: So then tell me from the data you do have, what is the profile of the cannabis user in Chile?….
Good question. We’ll find out in Part 2, so stay toked because it’s rolling up soon…
James Longshore is an actor and writer who has appeared in award-winning films and TV series which have played around the world. Mr. Longshore has written for the cannabis sector since 2014, but most importantly, he is the creator, writer and artistic supervisor of James Bong: Cannabis Crusader, the only comic out there starring a hero for the legalization movement! You can learn more about the James Bong series by following the comic universe on Facebook.