The swirl of excitement around developments in the cannabis industry is at an all-time high, with an endless parade of biz cons and trade shows trumpeting the latest innovations in genetics, technology, equipment, and extraction. The Dank Duchess cuts through the noise with her passion for traditional hash making and her mission to educate people about the subtleties and nuances of creating the most phenomenal melt in the world.
It’s a cool gray day in Far Rockaway in Queens, New York, when we meet via video call, and The Dank Duchess is in peaceful repose on a blanket on the beach as gulls cry and waves crash in the distance. She recently moved back to New York City, where she grew up as a first-generation Panamanian American.
“I moved away at 17,” she says. “And 26 years later, I’m home.”
Duchess speaks thoughtfully, with the slightly formal tone of an educator, as she unfurls the details of her life and career in cannabis. After graduating from Howard University in Washington D.C., where she studied mathematics and psychology, Duchess moved to Miami, where she smoked weed for the first time.
“I didn’t have my first puff of cannabis until I was out of college for two years,” she says. “And it was because I had this boyfriend, who I thought was pretty brilliant, but I didn’t understand why he smoked so much weed because weed was going to kill you. Right? Everyone knew that.”
Nevertheless, one day she felt the pull to try it when one of his glass pieces struck her as particularly beautiful.
“It called me,” she says. “And I felt like anything that could be associated with it couldn’t be that bad. So I had my first puff, and yeah, it’s cliché, but my life changed. I suddenly went from a binary perspective, where everything was very black and white, to seeing all these different shades of gray—it was almost a visual opening up of doors. I was amazed.”
Very soon after that, Duchess started growing her own cannabis. But after a decade of growing in Miami, she wanted to shake off the stresses of living in a state where simple possession of a joint could land you in jail. She considered moving to Seattle, but “it was so gray it made me sad,” she laughs. So instead, she chose Oakland for its sunnier weather and because the city had passed an ordinance making adult cannabis offenses Oakland’s lowest law enforcement priority.
“I knew that I wasn’t ever gonna be worrying about any kind of legality—and that made me flourish,” Duchess says. “I took that opportunity to grow a good amount of weed on my roof.”
Duchess wanted to write about cannabis as well. She was an avid magazine reader and felt weed media, in particular, failed to include diverse voices and perspectives. Soon after landing in Oakland, she went to a HempCon event, where she spotted the industry pioneer and hash-making legend Frenchy Cannoli. She knew Frenchy was a contributor to Weed World Magazine, so she seized her chance and asked him to coffee, not suspecting that the meeting would transform her life.
They’d briefly met at a High Times Cannabis Cup in June of that year, where she remembers being dazzled by the superabundance of concentrates at that event: “BHO was flowing like a river.” She saw a huge crowd gathered around a booth and made her way to the front.
“I expected to see the most beautiful golden nuggets, dabs, crumble… and all I saw was chunks of chocolate. I was super disappointed because I don’t like chocolate.”
She said as much as she turned to leave, “and this little voice says, ‘This is not chocolate. This is hashish.’” It was Frenchy.
“So I got my first dab of hashish, and it was awesome,” Duchess says. “And I took a picture with this little French man and went about my business.”
A few weeks later, she moved to California. She knew that besides growing great weed, she could offer a writer’s perspective that was sorely lacking.
“In 2014, I felt like there was nobody writing for any of the cannabis magazines who really related to my situation,” Duchess says. “And I don’t feel like that’s changed much at all. Part of the issue is that there are cultural concerns we’d rather have addressed by people of that culture. You don’t see many Black and brown faces in cannabis media.”
As a longtime subscriber of Weed World, she was determined to write for the mag. Frenchy was an esteemed contributor, with highly regarded articles like “The Lost Art of the Hashishin” and multi-part series on the origins of concentrate and cannabis terroir. Duchess knew they’d have plenty in common, but she was surprised by just how much: “We were both web designers in the ’90s; Frenchy went on to do purse design in Japan, and I did landscape design, so we traded stories of being hardcore designers.”
Frenchy asked if she’d be interested in writing for Weed World—on one condition. She’d need to learn how to make hash. “I’m always honest about this,” Duchess says, shaking her head at the memory.
“I was disappointed that Frenchy felt that for me to write about hash, I’d have to learn to make hash because I didn’t care about that. I moved to California to contribute to cannabis media and to grow more weed. Hash did not appeal to me.”
However, she didn’t want to miss an opportunity, so a month later, Duchess found herself in Frenchy’s basement, making hash for the first time.
“It was Sept. 10, 2014. What we used to do back then was, after the hash was collected from the plant, we would air dry it. That took seven days. On the 17th, I pressed the hash. I celebrate Sept. 17 every year because, on that day, I knew that there was no way I wasn’t going to do this for the rest of my life. It was everything.”
Under the gray Far Rockaway sky, Duchess glows with the recollection, her voice warm.
“I fell into caressing the hash the way when I’m writing, I want to caress words about hash. Hash making is so visceral. And when done well, it’s so beautiful. The aesthetics are mind-blowing—and the effects. Whew!”
Thus began her hash career, as she learned the traditional art of hash making using a method called bottle tech, now colloquially known as “Frenchy tech,” in which a hot bottle of water is rolled over hash to both homogenize and partially decarboxylate it. Armed with newfound knowledge, Duchess started profiling hash makers for Weed World. She’d learn their backstories and methods and sample their melts.
“Every single hash maker I interviewed contributed to my hash-making style,” Duchess says, “and Frenchy’s foundation is a good 60 or 70%.”
She’s written over 100,000 words about dozens of hash makers, production, growing, and experiencing the wonders of hashish in all its forms. She’s posted much of her learning online, with “how-to” videos on YouTube and Instagram.
“People I’ve never met thank me for teaching them hash making through the internet,” Duchess says.
She also posts about how she integrates cannabis, hashish, and psychedelics into her everyday life.
“I’ve found that my approach has been key in reaching women who often feel mansplained to,” she says. “I’ve told stories about wins and losses, and my life journey is the background for exploring mind, body, and soul.”
Duchess found a second home in the cannabis community when she visited Barcelona in 2015.
“I was recognized in San Sebastian by one of my favorite hash makers—Edu, a.k.a. Blue Ice,” she says. “That set off a series of introductions that have proven immeasurably beneficial in my growth as a processor.”
Hash-loving Spain has been the perfect environment for Duchess to flourish in, both as a hash maker and a writer. It’s also the only place she’s ever run afoul of the law—in March 2017, she was arrested for hash possession and spent two days in solitary confinement.
“I was released with a warning to not get into any trouble in Spain,” she says.
But in September 2018, she was served by the U.S. Department of Justice with a notice that she was being charged with international drug trafficking and could face five years in prison.
“My tremendously good lawyer had that reduced to two years,” Duchess says. “I had the option of taking a two-year ban or returning to Spain to fight my case.”
After years of seeding her place in the Barcelona cannabis club ecosystem, she was reluctant to turn away, so she fought the case and was acquitted in February 2019.
Now that she’s back in her hometown, Duchess plans to continue teaching the traditional style of hash making as a consultant. She’s also considering collaborating with growers on limited offerings, rather than seeking a New York license for herself, she says: “I’d like to be able to touch resin all over the state.” In addition to her consulting and educational work, Duchess plans to build a content platform focused on high-quality concentrates and their makers and another focused on Black and brown women in cannabis. She also has a line of eyewear coming out in collaboration with Method Seven, called “The Duchess,” designed for indoor growers with a sense of style.
Duchess is also keeping her eye on regulators and lobbyists as legal weed comes online.
“I feel like the future for New York is bright,” she says. “It’s such a huge market that opportunities for influence on the global scale are infinite. What happens here influences everything. And I feel like right here is where I need to be.”
This story was originally published in the November 2022 issue of High Times Magazine.