Caleb Counts – Connected Cannabis
In a contest between quality and quantity, the former prevails.
That’s at least the reasoning of Caleb Counts, whose experience as a cannabis user and entrepreneur long preceded the plant’s 2016 recreational legalization in California.
Now, as he keeps things above board, Counts can’t help but be affected by those who, because of taxes, regulations, and what-not, operate illicitly. Still, by adhering to the rulebook and being as hands-on as practically possible, his Sacramento-based operation, Connected Cannabis, has outlived hundreds of others in this still nascent industry and brought its distribution to Arizona and Florida with other states targeted.
Good weed speaks for itself, says Counts, who’s cultivated a variety of high-end strains, vapes, pre-rolls, resin gummies, chews, and an extensive merchandising array. His emphasis on quality control might lead to more of everything as he learns more about this specialized line of horticulture and its potential for derivatives.
Only, as he emphasizes to Vanguard, it won’t be at the expense of quality.
“We maintain full control, and nobody touches our product even if it’s in someone else’s facility and under someone else’s license,” Counts says. “All those standard operating procedures are developed here and then exported.”
The original grower
Counts sees himself as an OG—industry parlance for “original grower”—and he’ll tell you how cannabis has evolved since his introduction to it as a preteen during the 1990s. Back then, an ounce of low-quality, usually Mexican-grown weed could be had for between $40 and $80. Nowadays, the average price of an ounce sold legally is around $320, though $30 or $40 less in the states where Connected Cannabis operates.
Users want their money’s worth, and Counts says he takes pride in his carefully cultivated strains, each as unique as the fine wines distilled in Napa Valley. There’s Biscotti, a hybrid between what’s called Gelato #25 and South Florida OG—the former originated from Thin Mint Girl Scout Cookies and Sunset Sherbet strains, and the latter whose roots literally come from the Sunshine State’s underground scene. Quite the mood-uplifter as well as a pain-reliever, Counts assures.
Then there’s Gushers, another hybrid combining a different and fruitier Gelato with the energetic and creative strain of Triangle Kush that makes for higher THC content. “This strain is not for the faint-hearted,” the website advises. But despite its potency, Gushers is said to be not overly sedating and thus an option for those who need to stay functional. Those beset by chronic pain or depression might also want to light it up.
Counts’ wares include other strains, among them Nightshade, which he calls a complex blend of earthy, sweet and grassy flavors. “The first inhalation welcomes you with a prominent earthiness, soon to be followed by a surge of sweetness that dances on the palate,” the website says.
A toke for teamwork
Familiar as Counts is with cannabis in general, he’s quick to remind that these strains, as well as the nonsmoking derivatives, aren’t all his doings. It’s a team approach at Sacramento headquarters and the San Francisco and Stockton satellites, and Counts wants his hires to consider themselves owners rather than renters.
“For the company to evolve, I need to use the opinions and expertise of others to make sound decisions,” he says. “And that’s really what I’m doing right now. I’m giving my team the trust and the space they need to develop this program and tap me in whenever they need me. I’m trying to be one piece of the process rather than some dominating force.”
It’s all part of him staking a bigger claim in an industry rife with vagaries that already have thinned the herd of those who bolted into the so-called green rush. Count Counts among the survivors, as he founded his company as a medical dispensary in 2009 after selling houses for the five years that followed his graduation from California State University, Chico.
But just as the dispensary gained momentum, the feds padlocked it, causing Counts to make his livelihood in other endeavors, including a year’s stint as operations manager to a bail bondsman. However, by 2013, he was ready to make another go in his preferred industry, co-founding Connected Cannabis with friend Luke Coleman, who Counts gives much credit for the company’s growth.
“He really developed the foundation, and then I built the structure,” Counts says. “On top of that, I was really good at bringing people together and deal-making.”
High among those deals was the 2019 acquisition of Alien Labs, which bills itself as inspired by skate culture, connoisseur-level cannabis, and all things nerd—essentially three attractions for the all-important youth demographic. Through this partnership came the designer strains, related products and even a clothing and accessory line that turns users into walking and talking advertisements.
Then, Connected Cannabis partnered with Cultiva Systems, which provides HVAC infrastructure for indoor cultivation. Through these initiatives and more, Counts reckons Connected Cannabis is on sturdier ground than at least most of its competitors, though he doesn’t mind if they use his firm as a role model.
“Anything that raises the bar for quality is a win for this industry,” he says.
And it’s an industry vexed by vagaries that include the feds banning its interstate transport, banks hesitant about extending credit, insurers dubious about extending liability, booms and busts, complex tax structures and a labor shortage shared by agriculture in general.
“I couldn’t see anything other than positivity resulting from federal legalization,” says Counts. “It makes absolutely no sense for us to have fragmented business units in each state when we have excess capacity in California.”
That said, he sees the tide turning in the industry’s favor, what with more states allowing recreational use. Though President Joe Biden wrote some of the toughest drug laws as a senator, he’s issued mass pardons for marijuana convictions in the past couple of years.
But unconditional legalization or not, Counts has friendly advice for anyone who’s mulling a career in cannabis cultivation and distribution.
“It’s a crazy, dynamic market that requires a finger on the pulse at all times,” he says. “Being cost-conscientious is your best move.”
View this feature in the Terra Firma Vol. I 2024 Edition here.
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