Photos by @nabil
I heard Berner didn’t do interviews, so I was very honored when he decided to give one to us. The infamous rapper and cannabis entrepreneur (born Gilbert Anthony Milam Jr.) is a mysterious presence. A former graffiti artist, musician, family man, and businessman, few people can pull off being a mononym, but Berner can.
Rumor has it that he was offered over $800 million for his infamous cannabis brand Cookies, and he turned it down. One of the most globally respected brands on the market, Cookies was established by Berner and his cultivation partner Jai in 2008, and it’s been revolutionary for legitimizing the cannabis industry ever since. The company just celebrated a significant milestone, opening its first American consumption lounge in California through a partnership with cannabis brand Evidence, founded by the Dalton family, and reggae icon Damian Marley.
Today Cookies offers a collection of over 150 proprietary cannabis varieties and product lines, everything from flower and vapes to CBD and medicinal mushrooms. Well known for its California success, where it has opened numerous dispensaries, Cookies has expanded operations in recent years to enter markets in other regions across the nation and the world. This summer, the juggernaut announced its first steps into the East Coast by partnering with TerrAscend to open New Jersey stores, and a collaboration with Gage Growth Corp. to operate in Canada.
Under Berner’s directive, Cookies actively works to enrich communities disproportionately affected by the War on Drugs. Its social equity program partners with local organizations such as The Hood Incubator to prioritize economic development, business training and justice reform to reverse Prohibition’s harmful effects on the Black community. Additionally, the brand is known for large-scale collaborations with other legendary artists focused on social justice, including a special social impact collection from Snoop Dogg called The Doggy Bagg. Berner maintains close relationships with friends such as Wiz Khalifa and other musicians, who were featured in his 2011 music video “Yoko,” where the Cookies clothing line debuted for the first time.
Berner is special, spiritual even. He speaks about energy, vibes, and connection. The mogul, whose favorite Cookies strain is London Pound Cake, was everything we’d hoped that he would be. An open, friendly, down to earth person, who -- well, you kinda want to ‘bern’ one with.
HONEYSUCKLE MAGAZINE: When was the first time you called yourself Berner?
BERNER: I got the name Berner in my early high school days when I was doing graffiti in San Francisco. I would smoke these joints with crazy hash in it. And the hash would kind of drip out the joint and just burn holes in my clothes.
Do you still do art?
I just practice my one flow and I've practiced little styles. I was never a big muralist. I just would just do quick little throw ups every here and there. So yeah, on pencil and paper, I do it.
You’ve had a supportive relationship with the Last Prisoner Project. We understand you helped Richard DeLisi’s son while his father was incarcerated 31 years for nonviolent cannabis crimes.
I support everything the Last Prisoner Project does. They're doing things that need to be done, and prison reform is super important. Taking care of people that have been accused or have been incarcerated for cannabis, should be a number one priority for people like myself in the business.
Have you found it challenging to convince people of that or get some of the more affluent business people on board to care? What would you recommend to other operators?
I focus on what we can do. I can't really persuade or influence people to do what's best, but I just know that Cookies and myself in general are trying to do the best we can.
I'd encourage other operators out there who are positioned like us, or in a bigger position than us, to share their platform with minorities; share their platform with people who have been done wrong by the system, and who have been advocating for cannabis legalization for a long time.
When Richard DeLisi was released from prison, the first thing I did, besides help put a little money in his pocket, was sit down with him and figure out a way to build a brand and put him in the game. We're constantly empowering - not only minorities and social equity empowerment groups with our platform - but we're empowering people that deserve to be empowered. Imagine 32 years of prison for this plant.
I'm glad that we stepped up to the plate to give him a platform and a home for him to be in the business legally. So I just want to encourage other operators to take some of their access to their platform and share it with others that really deserve it. That's the most important thing to me right now.
Tell us about your new project HURB, with Damian Marley.
The brand's special; I had the chance to go out to Jamaica with Damian and Dan (Evidence co-founder) and experience it in a whole different way than I ever have. I've been there before. And just understanding how important herb is to the culture out there and how much it actually benefits the world. We're just collaborating on bringing an incredible venue experience to the table and thinking outside the box when it comes to the markets that we want to enter into.
In Jamaica, we went to Nine Mile to see Bob Marley's area and where his body is. It was a very pure experience. We cooked food with the locals and we smoked together and shared stories. It was very special. It was actually on the anniversary of my mom passing and I felt a weird vibe the whole day, just I was feeling down and kind of lost, in a weird mood. And as soon as we got up on the mountain, the vibe changed for the better for me. It was really cool, and very spiritual.
I met Dan through a mutual friend, and found we share a similar vision and vibe. Not just in building a partnership and a brand, but also his passion for the space, for what he does with Evidence (which operates on the grounds of a prison,) what he does at Last Prisoner Project, and what he's doing with Damian was super attractive to us. It made all the sense in the world to do something big, not just something regular, like a strain or something. We want to build something special.
Do you find cannabis provides a spiritual outlet for you?
I believe in the universe, I believe in the soul and I believe in the soul is a lot stronger than we actually really ever acknowledged. I believe there's so much more to life than we understand. And so, I just embrace it. That things happen for a reason. We're in a very powerful place as far as energy.
Do you think plant medicine helps people get in touch with that energy?
I think plant medicine brings people together, and it maybe opens up your mind a little more. We need to be there for each other in general. It unifies people all around the world. I love that. The cannabis business gets hard and frustrating, and really cutthroat at times. But what the plant actually does for people holistically, is why I'm still in it. It's always going to be a medicine to me, no matter how recreational it becomes.
You recently opened the first Cookies U.S. consumption lounge with Evidence in Coalinga, California. What was it like for you to consume at your first U.S. lounge?
I bought a really, really, really big joint. I put some hash in it and I sat down and I smoked it all to the head. This being our first consumption lounge in the U.S., I really wanted to take the time to enjoy the sounds by Scoop DeVille, the beautiful atmosphere, the weed and just relax. And it felt great.
What do you love most about being in the cannabis space?
What I like most about the cannabis industry is that it really truly brings people together. And I was able to build something special that's acknowledged all around the world. As I sit here on my tour bus riding down the I-5, I hear people honking and screaming out my name and the brand name. And to me, that's just dope, to bring people together and spread positivity and good energy and build something special that will never come back around again, because we're in a very unique time. So bringing people together, putting our genetics all around the world, sharing some of the best weed in the world with people all around the world, it's a true blessing.
What would you like to see change in the industry?
As far as what I don't like about the industry or challenges, taxes are a major challenge. I think California really needs to take a second look at the way that things are being taxed. They need to make it fair so we can make the prices a lot more fair for the consumer. And I really don't like this competitive cutthroat, edgy energy within the industry about brands and, and who's next, and who's the biggest brand. I think people should focus on doing the best they can instead of worrying about the next man. A lot of competitive vibes out there, and it's not really the way cannabis is here to help people. It's here to bring people together. Some of the more cutthroat and competitive attitudes out there are overwhelming. And I think that we could really work on that as an industry together and just focus on doing the best we can and letting our work talk for ourselves.
What are the biggest distinctions between Jamaican ganja and U.S. weed?
Mostly the way it is grown. One of the programs we want to do is give some of the farmers in Jamaica growing tips on weed that we've learned out here in California, as far as outdoor cultivation, curing the flower when it's done, planting schedules, et cetera. We plan to try to compliment what they've been doing there for a long time and put some really cool genetics in their hands as well.
*A version of this article first appeared in Honeysuckle's FREEDOM print edition. Buy your copy now!
For more about Cookies, visit cookies.co or follow @realcookiesenterprises on Instagram. To learn more about Evidence, visit buyevidence.com or follow @evidencebag on Instagram. For more on Last Prisoner Project, visit lastprisonerproject.com or follow @lastprisonerproject on Instagram.