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Rare Backwoods: How the Blunt Wraps Became California’s Cuban Cigar

Golden State stoners are paying hundreds of dollars in resale prices and sparking new sectors of cannabusiness, all in a hunt for hard-to-find blunts and the social media clout they carry.

by Zach Harris

Not all blunts are created equal. Sure, the various paper and foil packages look pretty similar behind the corner store counter, and the fruit-flavored names all pull from the same rhyming dictionary (Mello Mango, Blueberry Burst, etc. ), but America's cannabis-fueled love affair with tobacco wraps has historic intricacies, regional nuance, and now, obsessive collectors.

First rolled in the late 1970s and early '80s while being immediately woven into cannabis culture, blunts have long been the wrap of choice for America's inner-city smokers. Soon becoming one of hip-hop's most referenced muses, blunts quickly rose in popularity throughout the country, paralleling rap's immediate influence across every social, economic, and demographic barrier. Those trends continued into the new millennium, with a 2014 peer-reviewed study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine reporting blunts to be the prefered consumption method of over 20% of cannabis users nationwide.

Traditionally, blunt choice has been a matter of regional preference or obsessive fandom, with different brands often promoted by specific rappers. On the West Coast, Swisher Sweets have typically dominated shelf space, while East Coast bodegas are known for selling Dutch Masters, White Owls, and Phillies by the caseload. But as social media has propelled regional tastes to a worldwide audience over the last decade, and artists from the American South have cemented themselves at the top of hip-hop's dynamic cultural landscape, so too has the South's blunt of choice — the once-niche Backwoods blunt wrap has grown to international prominence.

While any U.S. smoker with proper ID can grab a five pack of Backwoods in flavors including Original, Sweet Aromatic, Honey Berry, and more from any number of corner stores and gas stations around the country, at least six flavors — Banana, Grape, Vanilla, Wild Rum, Wine, and Port — won't be found behind the register at any stateside convenience store, as they've been long discontinued from the American tobacco market.

Now, like Montecristos smuggled from Havana to Miami, or limited Nikes sold only in Japan, dedicated stoners are paying hundreds of dollars in resale mark-ups and international shipping fees to roll their weed in those exclusive flavors, all in a never-ending quest for social media status, personal satisfaction, and, presumably, a good buzz.

Before one can make heads or tails of the cult phenomenon of rare blunts and the underground economy it's spawned, you need to understand why smokers like Backwoods in the first place. Compounding its popularity with rappers and their diehard followers, a Backwoods' natural tobacco leaf wrap is both flimsier and significantly larger than the rigid, pressed wrap of a Swisher, Dutch, or White Owl. This allows stoners to roll a whole lot more weed into each blunt.

"I first heard about Backwoods from Mac Dre," professional skateboarder and cannabis enthusiast Stephen Lawyer told MERRY JANE. "When he said, 'You can take your Swisher Sweet to the face / I'mma go get me a Backwood and roll me an eighth,' it was like, fuck, you can actually fit an eighth into these?"

That may sound like an entire week's stash in one session, but in recent years, ardent smokers have continually upped the ante, packing as much pot as humanly possible into their Backwoods. And with so much of the modern cannabis community existing within the walls of social media one-upmanship, posting an Instagram photo of a Backwood stuffed with eight grams of indoor-grown Gelato is almost guaranteed to make it rain 'likes' and followers.

For most of us, social media may be nothing more than a platform to air daily grievances, lurk on our crushes, upload blurry selfies, and repost cat videos. But on top of that, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, and the like have undeniably become constantly churning vehicles of capitalism's most sacred pastime: competitive conspicuous consumption.

With every spare minute spent nose-deep in our phones, those ever-updating apps have replaced the schoolyards and subways as the layperson's runway. They've taken over as our primary portal for consumer validation, offering sneakerheads, hypebeasts, video gamers, workout junkies, cosmeticians, and countless other subcultures a global audience for their figurative and literal flexing. For the world of weed, where showing off pounds of skunk in public and even lighting up in certain spaces are still crimes, social media feeds are a safe space. On our apps, cannabis aficionados are free to boast anonymously, as well as fervently attempt to one up each other in crop, consumption, and follower count — all from the comfort of their couch. As a result, it should come as no surprise that weedfluencers like to go off on image-based apps like Instagram.

In Southern California, where turkey bags of weed are as common as Whole Foods shoppers, and simply having huge quantities of bud is no longer enough to incite heightened levels of jealousy or praise, those Instagram status symbols are pushed to their absolute limit. In recent years, California cannabis enthusiasts have embraced a number of 420-specific products as social media clout tokens, including — but not limited to — Mothership brand dab rigs, lighter cases hand-crafted from genuine designer leather, and of course, increasingly huge blunts rolled in the industry's most sought-after tobacco leaf.

But somewhere along the line, as Backwoods' popularity climbed and legalization spread, even posting a photo of a fat blunt no longer cut it. Soon, smokers looking to stunt on the 'Gram could be found ditching the readily available Honey Berry and Sweet Aromatic cigars for hard-to-find packs of Vanilla, Banana, Grape, and other discontinued Backwoods flavors. Because the blunt wraps themselves all look more-or-less the same, rare 'Woods smokers make sure to snap the hard-to-find packages in each and every flick.

Backwoods' ever-growing community is chalk full of rumors about why those rare flavors are no longer sold in the U.S., including persistent claims about federal flavored tobacco bans and rumored collusion with Big Tobacco. According to Mark Smith, Director of External Communications for Backwoods' parent company, ITG Brands, those flavors were simply discontinued from U.S. sales at the brand's discretion. But while that clears up rumors of presumed legal barriers, Smith offered no explanation as to why flavors like Banana and Vanilla were taken off U.S. shelves, or when — even after a week of daily conversation and inquiries to his supervisors.

"Those flavors are only sold overseas," Smith told MERRY JANE. "There are flavored tobacco bans in certain cities, but nothing to ban them on a federal level."

Regardless, Smith confirmed to MERRY JANE that the discontinuation has not extended to countries like Australia, Israel, and a number of European, Asian, and Middle Eastern nations, where the so-called exotic 'Woods are still sold freely.

Identifiable by their international smoking warnings, the value of imported Backwoods has exploded on the American resale market, with the average price of a five-pack of Grape or Wine flavored cigars in their factory-sealed packaging hovering around $40-$45. And for the harder-to-find Banana blunts, eBay and Instagram sellers willing to part with their stash have flipped those five packs for north of $100 dollars. For reference, a five pack of common Backwoods costs only $4-$9, depending on regional tobacco taxes.

Of course, importing untaxed tobacco products into the U.S. is illegal, but the Trump administration has moved to dismantle the tobacco-enforcing powers of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), instead proposing that the U.S. Department of Treasury hire only 24 new agents to take over the entirety of ATF's civil and criminal enforcement duties. Accordingly, cases of Banana and Grape Backwoods flying from Paris to San Bernardino do not appear to be at the top of the agency's hit list.

Outside of international brokers willing to test U.S. Customs, California Backwoods fans have taken cues from a bygone era of crate-digging DJs. Blunt-minded treasure hunters have been visiting tobacconist stockrooms across the country, where lucky seekers have turned up cases of decades-old Grape, Banana, and Vanilla-flavored Backwoods produced and distributed before the domestic discontinuation. Relics from when Backwoods were sold in packs of eight cigars instead of the current five, the rare 'Woods are easily distinguishable from their imported counterparts by the classically American "Surgeon General's Warning" label. And while those ancient domestic 'Woods still pull in the same price as imported flavors on the resale market, unlike aged Cuban cigars properly stored in a humidor, vintage Backwoods are often dry and cracked — not only rare in form, but in function, as well.

"I still have a pack of Grape 'Woods from 1995," Lawyer says. "They're so old that you can't just unwrap them out of the pack; you've gotta get them completely wet, roll them in a damp paper towel, soak them for like 10-15 minutes. Then you can unravel them, wait for them to dry, and then try to roll them up."

Photo via @rarebackwoodsLA's Instagram

With that much painstaking dedication, and plenty of people willing to spend piles of cash for rare 'Woods, it shouldn't shock anyone that California ganjapreneurs quickly tried to monetize the hype.

In a 2014 article for LA Weekly, reporter Amanda Lewis went on a search for pre-rolled blunts throughout Los Angeles, noting that California's original medical cannabis law, Proposition 215, fully allowed the sale of tobacco products alongside cannabis, as long as retailers obtained proper tobacco sales permits. Even with nearly every pot shop carrying pre-rolled joints, Lewis reported at the time that "not one" Southland pot shop offered ready-to-smoke blunts.

Since then, the pre-roll problem has disappeared. First popularized by the brand Barewoods, countless California-based Backwoods pre-roll companies have emerged over the past few years, with most following a similar formula: one or two grams of flower paired with 0.2 grams of cannabis concentrate, sealed with non-toxic cigar glue (instead of spit), and equipped with a glass smoking tip. At dispensaries, those designer pre-rolled blunts run anywhere from $35-$50. Like Barewoods, most pre-rolled Backwoods companies have names only one syllable removed from the OG blunt brand, making sure there's no confusion as to what leaf they're rolling green in.

"We started the pre-rolls as a first-time handout for medical patients through our delivery service, but they got so popular that the delivery service was just selling the 'Woods and the company started from there," Chaney, the owner of L.A.-based Litwoods, told MERRY JANE. For legal reasons, Chaney and the other Backwoods pre-roll producers quoted in this article requested that their last names be withheld.

Photo via @rarebackwoodsLA's Instagram

In the last year or so, Chaney says Litwoods' demand has increased so much that it surpassed the company's manufacturing capabilities — so much so that he's slowed pre-roll production and shifted his focus to expanding a Litwoods clothing brand.

The difficulty of keeping up demand was confirmed by Elle, a spokesperson for Packwoods, another Los Angeles-based Backwoods pre-roll brand that only started five months ago. Elle told MERRY JANE that even with a team of twenty rollers, Packwoods have been on near-constant backorder.

Unlike machine-packed cones that serve as the industry standard for pre-rolled joints, each ready-made blunt must be twisted by hand, adding hours of manpower and quality control to the production process. And even if you can train and schedule enough professional rollers to create a consistent product, you still need enough wraps to roll. While there's literally too much marijuana being produced up and down the Pacific coast, Backwoods are getting significantly harder to find, even through legal channels.

Plus, although Prop. 215 allowed the sale of pre-rolls wrapped in legally obtained blunts, California's newly implemented adult-use cannabis regulations have made it entirely illegal to produce or sell any products containing both cannabis and tobacco, no matter where the wraps come from. This has added even more complications to the already-tenuous prepared blunt industry.

Both Litwoods and Packwoods source the majority of their Backwoods from traditional tobacco distributors, the same process followed by local convenience stores. But with the hype around Backwoods at an all-time high, Elle and Chaney both said that Los Angeles' distributors have begun raising their wholesale prices. Not to mention, many stores still go days, weeks, and even months with the hot cigars sold out entirely.

To make matters worse, Smith told MERRY JANE that a Backwoods plant in Puerto Rico suffered severe damage during Hurricane Maria, slowing production even further in recent months.

"We've had to send an assistant out to every corner store and smoke shop in L.A. to buy up as many Backwoods as they could find," Elle of Packwoods said. "We can't get them fast enough."

A number of companies, including Barewoods and Litwoods, also put out limited quantities of ready-made blunts wrapped in rare flavored Backwoods like Grape, Vanilla, Banana, and Wild Rum. But with such high prices for the cigars themselves, along with the uncertain quality of material, Chaney says trying to keep up with the hype of rare flavors is a losing battle.

"Because they're discontinued, there's no telling how long they've been out there," Chaney told MERRY JANE. "Something like 70% of what I buy is basically thrown in the garbage. Most of them can't even be saved."

In a batch of Litwoods, Chaney said he usually includes only a handful of rare-flavored pre-rolls, all for the sake of dispensaries' Instagram page. He claims this drives waves of customers to the shops, even after the exotic flavors have sold out.

"The only reason we do those is for the pictures and the hype," Chaney said. "In an order of 1,000 Litwoods I may send 50 to 100 rolled in rare 'Woods, but the overhead is so expensive and the quality isn't always there."

Even putting aside the rare flavors, though, California's new tobacco ban for the cannabis industry could end the pre-rolled Backwoods craze only a few years after it began. For now, brands like Litwoods and Packwoods are trying their hardest to continually supply Southern California's myriad of unlicensed medical marijuana dispensaries, many of which have continued to operate despite the state's new rules. But with regulatory tides shifting, both brands are already reading the tea (or, better yet, tobacco) leaves.

By July 1st, the end of the state's limited legal weed grace period, Elle says Packwoods plans to be rolling their products in a hemp or otherwise state-approved wrap in order to comply with the regulations of California's adult-use cannabis market. They want to make their updated pre-rolled blunts taste and smoke as much like a Backwoods leaf as possible, without using the real thing.

"In the legal landscape, pre-rolled blunts are dead," said Chaney, who noted that he plans to expand the Litwoods clothing line to include skateboard accessories.

Photo via @rarebackwoodsLA's Instagram

As for the deep-pocketed stoners stunting on Instagram, the hype around exotic Backwoods has shown no signs of slowing. Those days could be limited, though, regardless of state regulations. As Backwoods struggles to make enough cigars in general, Mark Smith of parent company ITG Brands told MERRY JANE that Backwoods is currently in the process of reconsidering its discontinued products and even contemplating a return to the American market for flavors like Banana, Grape, Vanilla, and more.

Smith said that no final decision has been made, and no timetable for that possible transition yet exists. If those flavors do return to stateside corner stores though, it's hard to imagine an easily attainable product would continue to influence resale profits or social media clout.

If you ask Lawyer (who keeps a collection of wrappers from all of the rare 'Woods he's ever smoked), even if Backwoods does bail on bringing rare flavors back to the States, the novelty will eventually fade. After all, it wasn't too long ago that California smokers went head over heels (and wallet) for weed sold in hermetically sealed cans, moon rocks, and even bouquets of untrimmed bud.

"There's always gonna be something new," Lawyer says of cannabis trends and flower fads.

And when that next hot pot product inevitably arrives — be it THC eye drops or blunts that can accomodate a quarter pound each — California's opulent stoners and social media stars will undoubtedly be there, with new hashtags and rebukes for their haters. In the meantime, the race for vintage blunt wraps persists. Don't believe it? Just head over to eBay, where a vintage 8 pack of Grape 'Woods is currently listed for $149 — before shipping.

Follow Zach Harris on Twitter


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Zach Harris is a writer based in Philadelphia whose work has appeared on Noisey, First We Feast, and Jenkem Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @10000youtubes complaining about NBA referees.



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