When we talk about the expanding legal marketplace—from the influx of big new money to the changing face of the “cannabis executive”—it’s easy to wonder what happened to all of the lifers who paved the way to where we’re at now. Certainly, most of the suits flooding the space right now weren’t here a few years ago, and it’s getting harder and harder to see faces in a world with few in-person events; the gatherings that we do attend are frequently in corporate environments with new and surprising restrictions along with steep taxes that are imposed at seemingly random times.
These past few years have been tumultuous for many of us, but for some, riding California’s the waves from Proposition 215 to Proposition 64 has seemed like a natural evolution. Many of these brands that came out during this era, such as Cookies and Connected, have become household names to consumers far outside of their home territories even while making best efforts to do things the proper and legal way. One of my favorites, and a company on a slightly different path than most others, is the legendary California brand Doja.Pak.
While many brands aim to monetize every step of the cannabis ecosystem, Doja—the brainchild of Ryan Bartholomew, also known as Doja Exclusive—has chosen to stick to the lane it has dominated for so long in the cannabis marketplace, and that’s supplying the best products California has to offer, no matter where they come from. You see, what Bartholomew has built with Doja is the enterprise version of your favorite rock-star dealer—no matter what your tastes or preferences, the Pak has the best available version of it.
“We’ve all been working with the plant our whole lives—since I was 16, probably around ’98 or ’99,” Bartholomew said. “But when the dispensaries started opening up, that’s when I realized like, ‘Okay, I can probably really do something with this. I’m not just selling weed anymore,’ and I tried to really do it. As I got more active in the [Prop.] 215 scene, I started copping more flavors and working with different collectives. Under no name, no brand. People just knew me as Ryan. People just knew that I had good weed.”
Bartholomew’s dedication to selling top-shelf flower became even more refined after he linked up with some influential folks at none other than the High Times Cannabis Cup. “Then, when the very first High Times Medical Cannabis Cup came to the Terra [event center] in San Francisco in 2010, I went to that because I felt like this is a big deal,” Bartholomew said.
“We met mad people there—it was the first networking event of its kind. I met some dudes at that Cup that ended up being very beneficial to where I am now. That’s how I got into my first [Prop.] 215 cultivation—in Sacramento in 2012. This was still prior to any branding; this was just Ryan as a person. We kept building, I got into an additional grow with another guy, so I had different cultivations. They were just like 12 lighters, but we were pulling down packs. That’s when I started to understand the influence that you get from having these dope packs.”
With over a decade in this game, Bartholomew has such a refined palate that he might look at 100 packs and pull only one or two to put his name on. With access to many of the most impressive growers (and not to mention brands) in the industry, Bartholomew’s reputation is built on having better batches of dispensary-brand cultivars than are found on the shelves of those same dispensaries. Many brands, especially back in the medical-marijuana Prop. 215 days, knew that Bartholomew’s network could command higher prices on the street due to this reputation, and they would in turn save the choicest packs for him to maximize their own prestige. As a result, Bartholomew’s stature has only grown.
“That’s kind of where this whole thing started,” Bartholomew said. “I used to feel like I was famous when we’d pull these packs, bro. Like I was famous in my area. This was, like, the first dose of clout, I guess you could say—and damn, I liked it. This was before Instagram—even if you were Prop. 215, the feds were still hitting those spots and giving those dudes mandatory minimums. If you had a warehouse back in those days, you were balls-out gangster. It was a different game.”
Fast-forward to the adult-use Prop. 64 era, and Doja has evolved into showcasing new cultivars. Rather than just selling strains that the market is already hyped for, Bartholomew has begun branding unreleased genetics and spreading the gospel by utilizing the strength of the brand he’s built. He’s quick to note, though, that he’s not growing these crops on his own, but instead relying on the refined skills of plant masters like Wizard Trees and breeders like Deep East. Cultivars like RS-11, which I recently reviewed for the High Times online publication, have quickly become some of the most in-demand strains in the streets.
“In 2016, when the recreational bill passed, that was when I was like, ‘Maybe it’s time we really take this shit seriously,’” Bartholomew said. “My boy was like, ‘Let’s make a brand,’ and I realized that was what we needed to do. I was trying to think about finding a graphic designer—that was the first year that branding really took off. A lot of the brands that are really popping off right now, that’s when they started. Like Alien Labs, they paved the way for a lot of what we’re doing. Berner was doing the thing with Cookies. I was like, ‘This is pretty dope what Cookies did, or Alien Labs did’—those dudes were crushing it. Sherbinskis was just putting out Gelato. It used to trip me out how dudes would be in the street with this branded product—homies in the hood got eighths with stickers on the jar, and it’s the same shit in the club!”
Bartholomew recognized the next step was killer branding, and, luckily, he knew just the guy who’d take it to the highest level.
“So I hired Al Freshko—I didn’t have any branding experience,” Bartholomew said. “He charged me a few bands for a logo, and at the time, that sounded crazy, but I paid him, and once he came with the logo, I started putting that on jars. We built a lot of clout off of Weedmaps ads, and it got to where the brand was being recognized, so I started to hit up more well-known cultivators.
“I got in the door with a few of them, which then would put me onto other dudes because they’re seeing me have their homies’ packs. One of the first big dogs I really connected with was Green Dawg; once I dropped his name to Connected, they gave me a wholesale account. Once I got those Connected flavors, that’s where you can say things really started, because that’s when we started getting recognized outside of our little delivery area. My IG started going up hundreds of followers a day; my engagement was going up. I realized the power of the branded product and that I had to cross-promote myself alongside these guys.
“I pulled two of my best drivers, Doja EK & Doja Drew,” Bartholomew continued. “I told them they weren’t going to be driving anymore, and I put them to work. They just bubbled up. It was crazy seeing the way they blew up, but we had that traction; people knew our name. I started meeting with people in LA. We would go to the seshes, which had a ton of influence. People from all over—London, New York, DC, Florida, Michigan—tried our work, and it just came back like a boomerang. You hit a sesh with a bunch of dope weed and for the next four weeks your engagement is crazy, people hitting your DMs like, ‘Yo, that’s the best shit I’ve ever smoked in my life’—it came back crazy. That was because everything we did with the brand had to be dope. The formula worked because we just put out a bunch of dope.”
But the path hasn’t always been clear. When new packaging bubbled to the surface, even though he didn’t fully understand the appeal, Bartholomew knew the importance of staying in front of the pack.
“Once I realized the European infatuation with cans, and we started putting our product in those, that’s when the worldwide recognition really kicked in,” said Bartholomew. “We’ve never done business outside of California, but I have pictures in my phone from people all over the world holding Doja cans in front of the Eiffel Tower, holding cans in Dubai—they went all over the world, bro. Spannabis 2019 was the first time in my life that I signed an autograph, and people were just coming up to me with cans nonstop. I realized like, ‘Man, we really put out 80,000 business cards, and they all had dope weed in ’em.’
“My partner, Brett, noticed the Mylars started popping and started making these fire designs, so we went from cans to Mylars but kept the same branding. I moved down to LA at the end of 2018, and the brand went from doing numbers in the Bay [Area] and [Sacramento] to having a whole different level of demand out here. We already had hype all over the world, but when we came to LA, it just got out of control.
“In LA, I was trying to network, so I met with a bunch of cultivators,” Bartholomew added. “Once I connected with Wizard Trees, and I put his product through our platform, we both really started bubbling up. I started pushing his flower because it gave me a cultivator. If we look at it like a band, if I’m the lead singer or guitarist, but I’m only as good as my drummer. I’m not a producer. Wizard Trees was so cutting-edge, everyone was copying him. The way he grows is just crazy—the RS-11 averages over three pounds a light. It was like I found one of the best cultivators I’ve ever seen, and we really connected.
“Everything we do now, we do together. I’ve been working all these years, ever since that first grow op in Sacramento, trying to find the right cultivators to blow this out with. Wizard Trees is the next level that can hold that down—and not only that, he’s very business-oriented himself. I wouldn’t trade the position we have in the industry for anybody else’s. What I want to do now is put out new genetics—real genetics, not renamed. All new shit. We’re pheno hunting in-house, and it will all be exclusive to us.”
While the folklore about RS-11 continues to spread, Bartholomew has no plans to slow down on this growth. Now that his product is available in dozens of legal shops across California, including many of the most hyped, he continues to promote new cultivars like Studio 54, American Pie and the highly anticipated Giraffe Puzzy, all while continuing to push some of the most in-demand strains throughout the rest of the market. When it comes down to it, Bartholomew attributes his success to two things: always having the best product and owning the influence.
“I’ve never not paid a debt, I’ve always done good business,” he said. “You can drop my name because everybody knows me, and no one’s going to have anything bad to say about me. Since the beginning, I was going around handling the wholesale thing with my wife, mingling with people. I like to keep direct-to-consumer influence—that’s why I still, to this day, if a homie hits me up, even just to get a seven, I’ll still do that because I want that influence. I’m not giving that up. I want people to be able to say, ‘I used to get eighths from that dude.’ I’m passionate about it to the ground level.”
To learn more about Doja Exclusive, visit its website at dojaexclusive.com.