Cheryl Shuman, founder of the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club, arrived at the Perennial Holistic Wellness Center, an upmarket medical-marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles, in a red 2010 Ferrari California, a gift, she said, from a friend. She had come to get supplies for a “mansion party” that she was hosting the following evening, one of the semiregular events she organizes with her daughter, Aimee, to promote their marijuana enterprises. Shuman, a tall 54-year-old blonde with the unflagging cheer of someone accustomed to being noticed, handed the keys to Perennial’s valets with a Mae West-inflected “Careful, boys.” She headed inside to present her state-issued Medical Marijuana Identification Card.
“Did you miss me?” she asked the receptionist. A polite, potbellied man who appeared to be under the influence of Perennial’s offerings, he brightened at her greeting. “Always,” he replied, as he reached under his desk to buzz her into the marijuana room.
Shuman uses marijuana for a variety of medical conditions, including hypertension and a benign mass on her liver. She typically begins each day with a “power smoothie” of marijuana, wheatgrass and vegetables. She ingests the drug regularly via a vaporizer and seasons her food with it as well. Shuman says the B.H.C.C. supplies its 50 members from a 68-acre marijuana farm in Northern California that she started in 2008. (She has another 1,700 “social media” members who can attend club parties but can’t sample the goods.) Today, however, Shuman wanted a wider variety for her event: a dinner that would feature a “cannabis tasting” paired to each course.
A strong aroma, floral and skunky, pervaded the marijuana room, which was dominated by three fluorescent-lit display cases. One was stocked with an array of “edibles,” including marijuana-laced brownies, pretzels and goldfish-shaped crackers. Another contained 13 small jars, each filled with one of the marijuana strains available that day. The third case held Shuman’s line of Beverly Hills Cannabis Club products: golf shirts in long and short sleeves; ashtrays; hemp-infused shampoo and olive oil; and a line of hand-held marijuana vaporizers.
Shuman conferred with her friend Sam Humeid, Perennial’s owner, about which strains to bring to the party. A former financial planner with heavy-lidded eyes and spiky hair, Humeid was unabashedly stoned. Shuman showed him the dinner menu for the event, which she had printed on heavy-stock paper and embossed with the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club logo. He scratched his chin with one finger for a few seconds, lost in thought.
“Now I’m really hungry,” he said. “Thanks, Cheryl.”
From the first case, Shuman chose 3.5 grams each of Juicy Fruit, Super Lemon Haze, Maui Wowie, Cannatonic and her favorite, Phyllis Diller, so named because once ingested, everything seemed funny. She studied a photo of Diller on the display case, dressed in a florid pantsuit and brandishing a cigarette holder. “I need to get one of those for my next photo shoot,” she said of the cigarette holder.
Shuman’s entrepreneurial approach to marijuana has not endeared her to her peers more firmly rooted in the activist world, many of whom view advocacy as a cause, not a market opportunity. In 2011, for example, Shuman was forced off the steering committee of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (Norml) Women’s Alliance, after it was discovered that she used the group’s email list to promote her marijuana interests. (Shuman denies using the list improperly.) Diane Fornbacher, a founding member of the alliance who has clashed repeatedly with Shuman, told me: “She may be good at publicity and things like that. But she’s not interested in reform.”
Shuman draws little distinction between business and activism, and in fact regards the former as a more effective approach to the latter. “I can stand on a corner waving a sign, and no disrespect to the people who do that,” she told me. “Or I can go on national television and reach millions of people.” Her most prized guests for the event the following evening would be the executives from FremantleMedia, the production company that brought to the United States the franchises that “American Idol” and “America’s Got Talent” are based on. Fremantle had entered into a partnership with the documentarian Morgan Spurlock to co-produce a reality show (working title: “High Society”) starring Shuman and Aimee. Ultimately, Shuman’s ability to generate publicity means that she cannot be excluded from activism conversations. “Cheryl Shuman is always selling herself,” Allen F. St. Pierre, executive director of Norml, told me. “When I see her fluffing it up on television, it drives me crazy. But she’s leading the discussion.”
When California passed the first medical-marijuana law in 1996, the legal landscape for marijuana has undergone a significant transformation. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia currently have medical-marijuana programs. In 2012, Colorado and Washington became the first states to enact recreational-marijuana laws; Alaska, Oregon and the District of Columbia passed similar measures in November. (Congress blocked portions of the district’s law a month later.) This legal shift, and the broader cultural one surrounding it, can be attributed, at least in part, to the increased acceptance of marijuana by women.
“Before 1996, women were the hardest group to get traction with,” St. Pierre told me. “But over time, the narrative changed with them, from ‘Just Say No’ to compassion, to marijuana as a medicine, as something you shouldn’t go to jail for using.” Women are like the battleground states of marijuana: Any bill that hopes to pass must be framed in terms likely to appeal to them. All of which means that women like Shuman — highly visible members of the still-small cadre of women willing to talk publicly about marijuana — are power brokers. They also act as a counterbalance to all the unsophisticated stereotypes of the marijuana user: the glazed-eyed hippies, the bong-ripping frat boys and the blunt-huffing hip-hop stars. Shuman is none of these things. She likes to refer to herself as “the Martha Stewart of marijuana” and holds the trademark on the phrase “Stiletto Stoners,” injecting a note of female glamour into the pot debate.
Shuman spoke of her holding company, Cheryl Shuman Inc., as the base from which to start a profusion of future marijuana-related ventures, some of them more plausible than others. There would be Stiletto Stoners, a clothing line for fashion-conscious marijuana users; the Hautevape vaporizer for women (gold-plated, pavé-set diamonds); Cannalebrity, a digital marijuana-celebrity magazine; and Shaman Therapeutics, which would retail cannabis-and-herbal remedies in pill, salve and other forms. “I want to do 420-friendly resorts,” she said, using a slang term for marijuana, “420-friendly yoga studios, Internet cafes, assisted-living centers.” There is, she said, “no limit to how big this can be.”
For the party, Shuman rented a faux-Italian villa on a winding private-access road in the hills above Sunset Boulevard. She hadn’t arrived when I got there at noon, but one of her “brand ambassadors,” an athletic college student from New Jersey named Briana, took me on a quick tour of the house — vast kitchen, vaulted ceilings, elevator — before depositing me at the poolside gazebo.
Shuman showed up in the early afternoon. After a quick inspection of the house and a chat with the chef, she settled into a chair in one of the bathrooms to have her makeup and hair done. Shuman knew the stylist from the “old days,” before marijuana, and they chatted amiably about her hair, their mutual friends and how satisfying she found it to work with her daughter. “Growing up, I knew I was going to start a family business,” she said. “I just didn’t know it would be in pot.”
Shuman was born in Buena Vista, Ohio, a tiny farming hamlet in the rural Appalachian corner of the state. “We literally grew up in a holler,” she said. Her father, a musician, left when she was a child. As a young woman, she parlayed a self-published coupon-clipping newsletter into a recurring segment as the Coupon Queen on a nationally syndicated TV news program called “P.M. Magazine,” after the producer dispatched to do a story on her got lost. “I ended up on camera, presented the stuff,” she said. “My attitude was ‘No one knows this better than me.’ ” In 1983, however, she was badly injured in a car accident and lost her spot on the show during her recovery.
Twenty-three, unemployed and a single mother (she had divorced her husband, her high-school sweetheart, with whom she had Aimee), Shuman searched for her biological father in Los Angeles, where she knew he was living. She found him after three weeks spent living in her car. “Knocked on dad’s door,” she said. “But his wife wasn’t too thrilled to see me.”
Shuman ended up working a $5-an-hour job at an eyeglass store in Encino. She made friends with a prop master working on a film starring Shirley MacLaine. MacLaine’s character wore glasses, and Shuman offered to go to the set to do measurements for the frames and lenses. “In Appalachia, everyone made house calls,” she said. “It was as normal as breathing for me.” Shuman turned that chance encounter into a million-dollar business, Starry Eyes Optical Services, which provided eyewear for movies and TV shows like “Malcolm X,” “Terminator 2,” “When Harry Met Sally,” “Murphy Brown,” “Cheers” and many other productions. She also did a turn on the QVC shopping network as the Optician to the Stars, demonstrating her natural affinity for both cross- and self-promotion. “I was the only one doing this, and people were really captivated by my story,” Shuman said. “The coupon queen, the car crash, a single parent living in her car. I was an urban legend.”
In 1995, Shuman’s already cinematic story line veered to the bizarre, in the person of Steven Seagal, whom she had fitted for glasses on several films. The tabloids learned that Shuman had sued Seagal, the pony-tailed martial-arts expert and action-film star, for sexual harassment and breach of contract after an alleged sexual liaison. Shuman further accused him of hiring thugs to threaten her life, in retaliation for bringing the suit, which was ultimately dismissed. (At the time, Seagal’s lawyer called Shuman’s claims “frivolous and without merit.”)
Shuman’s eyewear business collapsed after the scandal. She says she spent several years in semihiding, worried that Seagal was out to get her. Shuman was reluctant to tell me much about her time underground, describing it only as “a strange nomad space where I lost everything.” She broke into tears on the phone when I asked where her children were. (Shuman has another daughter from her second marriage, which also ended in divorce.) “I didn’t see my kids for a couple of years,” she finally said. “It still breaks my heart.”
In 2006, Shuman found out she had ovarian cancer. She underwent a radical hysterectomy, but the cancer spread to her colon and bladder, and she believed her condition was terminal. “I’d clipped a coupon from Pennysaver for my own cremation,” she said. Shuman had been using marijuana since 1996, when she started the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club to help alleviate the stress from the Seagal debacle. Now, though, she began treating herself with high-doses of marijuana oil, which at first she had to smuggle into the hospital. “I was bedridden, catheterized, totally dependent,” she said. “Then, in 30 days, I was off my IV morphine pump and all the pharmaceuticals I was being given. I was able to bathe myself and walk. At 60 days, I was able to drive. At 90 days I was back to work full time.”
Many people expressed doubt about Shuman’s illness. Some even suggested that she had invented her diagnosis and recovery as a means of self-promotion. (The American Cancer Society warns of “serious health consequences” for those who rely on marijuana for treatment.) Shuman laughs off her doubters: “Yes, I made up having cancer to get a reality show seven years later.”
Dinner began just past sunset with a beet salad and a tutorial from Shuman on how to operate the FlowerMate Vapormax V, a hand-held vaporizer designed to resemble an iPod Mini. She unscrewed the white silicone mouthpiece from the top and sprinkled a pinkie-size amount of Juicy Fruit — her suggested accompaniment for the salad course — into the exposed heating chamber below. A Vapormax awaited each of Shuman’s 13 guests, positioned on their place settings next to the wineglasses.
“You have to click the button five times in a two-second period, until the light turns red,” she said, indicating a power button that activated the heat, which would convert the marijuana to a vapor. Shuman sipped ruminatively from the gadget, then exhaled a fine white mist toward a low-hanging chandelier. One of the Fremantle executives, a sharp-eyed man in his 40s, fumbled with his Vapormax.
“Take the mouthpiece and screw it in the top,” Shuman said, coaxing him along.
“I’m basically smoking beet juice here,” he said.
A waiter circulated among the tables with a Cannador, a walnut-and-cherry-wood box designed to store marijuana at the proper humidification levels. He offered the guests a choice from among the strains Shuman had brought.
“Do we only get to choose one?” David Dinenberg asked. Dinenberg, a suntanned transplant to Los Angeles from Philadelphia, and his wife, Jen, who had dressed for the party in a clingy black dress and rakishly angled fedora, were the co-founders of KindBanking, a financial-services enterprise for marijuana businesses. They had hired Shuman to do PR work for the company. “We did our research,” Jen said. “And she was everywhere.”
Aimee Shuman assured David Dinenberg that he could have as much as he liked. “In that case, I’ll do Juicy Fruit,” he said, picking up his Vapormax. “I just suck?” he asked.
Shuman provided tasting notes and a brief botanical history for each strain. Super Lemon Haze was a crossbreed of “Lemon skunk and Super Silver Haze, grown from greenhouse seeds”; it was, she warned, “not the best strain for people wound tight.” Maui Wowie “leaves you energetic and inspired,” while Cannatonic, she said, lived up to its appellation. “Do not drive home on this.” Most of the guests, however, gravitated toward Phyllis Diller, which one of the Fremantle executives described as the “Red Bull and vodka” of marijuana.
Urban Smedeby, a fair-haired investment banker originally from Sweden, surveyed the gathering with an incredulous smile. He was not a marijuana user. “I’m in the twilight zone,” he said. “This is a little bit far out for me.” His firm, Bridgewater Capital, was based in Irvine, and he had driven up to vet Shuman for investment. “We don’t have a clear view of her, what her revenue model is, frankly,” he told me over the phone a few days earlier. “We need to find out if we give her five or 10 million dollars, what will she do with it.”
At another table, Jen Dinenberg was telling Shuman and another guest, the founder of an activist group called Moms for Marijuana International, about “the talk” she recently had with her two young children. “They need to know what Mommy and Daddy do,” she said.
Her husband smiled his agreement, and plucked at his Vapormax, which was empty. Shuman refilled it with Super Lemon Haze, noting that this strain had been a Cannabis Cup winner. She asked if Jen had ever been to the Cannabis Cup, a large marijuana festival and competition organized annually by the magazine High Times. She laughed and said, “No, I don’t get down with the hippies.”
The conversation shifted to whether the rapidly growing marijuana industry had entered a bubble. The consensus was that it had not. David Dinenberg, whose company planned to offer a debit card called the KindCard, envisioned a future suggested by the party, in which marijuana and high-end cuisine were commingled. “You’ll see it in Aspen first,” he said. “Because it’s legal.”
During a break between courses, Shuman called her guests to attention. She thanked everyone for attending and predicted great things for the coming “pot-com boom.” She teared up for a second as she praised the “fine cannabis, fine food and fine company.” She paused to collect herself and looked intently at her daughter. She seemed unsure what to say next, stunned by the effort to fathom the benevolent and strange forces that had led to this moment in her life.
“That’s an amazing speech,” Aimee said, breaking the moment. “But you didn’t mention me.”
Not long after the party, Shuman began exploring a move to Nevada, which is expected to vote on a recreational-marijuana ballot measure in 2016. “Nevada is the promised land for us,” she told me. “I want to be in Vegas when it goes live.” The show with Fremantle never did get off the ground, though. The cable networks declined to take a chance with family advertisers on a mother-daughter pot team. But Shuman didn’t mind, claiming that Fremantle wanted to make her into “the Kim Kardashian of pot.” She added: “And that’s the last thing I would want.”