How to Build an Empire by Getting High on YouTube

“Yo yo, what up YouTube—YouTuuuuuube!”

Such is the characteristic greeting Joel “Jolie Olie” Hradecky uses to introduce all of his videos. On March 19 of this year, he celebrated his three-year YouTube anniversary. That’s all the time it took for the Colorado native to establish his channel CustomGrow420 as a cornerstone of the weedtuber community.

With over 800,000 subscribers, Jolie Olie reigns over a YouTube niche devoted exclusively to cannabis and its uses, both medical and recreational (but mostly recreational). Most of the videos the baseball cap-wearing host posts online consist of getting stoned in as violent a fashion as possible. This endeavor is made possible thanks to his remarkable lung capacity: He is capable of combining five bong hits in one inhale, cementing his status as a top-tier smoker.

To dive into the 450-something videos on CustomGrow420 is to discover a vast variety of modes of cannabis consumption. Jolie Olie is a great enthusiast of dabbing, a method that consists of taking rapid, strong inhales of vaporized cannabis concentrates. These substances are available as oils or granules, and contain between 70 percent and 90 percent THC, the psychoactive molecule in cannabis. By comparison, legal weed sold in Colorado with THC concentrations of 30 percent is considered extreme. The standard “dose” of THC in Colorado is set at 10 milligrams, which should give you an idea of how fried Joel Hradecky gets when he absorbs one gram of concentrate in a single inhale.

“All he does is pack $80 bongs, describe what he just smoked, and explain how high he is.”

With 1.7 million views and counting, THE ONE GRAM DAB!!!!!! is to this day the most popular video on CustomGrow420. Jolie Olie’s other successes are in the same thematic family: There’s the gas mask transformed into a water bong, the glass blunt, the 7-gram blunt… In the video where he alternates between dabs and large whiffs of helium, he almost passes out.

It goes without saying that this Jackass of toking is not for everyone. On r/trees, the Reddit subcategory devoted to cannabis consumers, his detractors are legion: “He confirms many negative stereotypes,” laments one user. “With all of his followers, he could educate the community about cannabis and the laws surrounding it,” adds another. “All he does is pack $80 bongs, describe what he just smoked, and explain how high he is.”

More still than his flippant, even risky, attitude towards the recreational consumption of marijuana, it is Joel Hradecky’s past that fuels the real scandal. In 2006, a young man by his name was arrested after assaulting and robbing visitors at a Washington state park with four others. Armed with machetes and hatchets, they threatened some of their victims with decapitation and tried to force a young woman to undress, while screaming out the signature cries of Insane Clown Posse’s notoriously redneck fan base. In the eyes of his critics, Jolie Olie’s is nothing more than a reformed Juggalo. If that was indeed him, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison in October 2007.

"Sometimes my private life can, you know, fall into my fantasy life here on the internet."

Rumor also has it that Joel Hradecky is both a bad father and a bad husband. One day in August 2014, all of the videos published by CustomGrow420 during the previous three months were deleted. This drastic move was accompanied by an alarming message broadcasted on the weedtuber’s channel: “CustomGrow420 just left his wife and 5 yr old daughter and 1 month old son because he is an abusive asshole who cannot treat his family right. It's sad that everyone can idolize a man that is abusive to his family. [...] Everyone should go somewhere else and give a kind person the benefit of your adoration.” Those words could have belonged to his wife, or to an angry hacker. Naturally, those who dislike Jolie Olie believe the first scenario.

One thing that is definitely true is that the YouTuber will soon be charged with illegally trespassing onto a bridge, camera in hand—a gaffe that won him the honor of a TMZ mention.

Despite his real or fabricated troubles, the importance of Joel Hradecky within the digital cannabinoid universe is undeniable. A self-described web developer with 15 years of experience, "Scott," told Motherboard France that Jolie Olie is his favorite YouTuber: “I started with him,” Scott said. “He's extremely entertaining and he's good at crafting videos that I enjoy watching.”

It was while watching this world-class stoner choke on dabs that Scott got the idea for creating Weedtubers, a site that brings together YouTube channels dedicated to cannabis consumption. “I got the idea at the beginning of the year after subscribing to CustomGrow420,” he said. “He uploaded new content every day and I would watch it during my lunch break. Then he stopped posting on a daily basis, so I started searching for other videos about weed on YouTube. I thought it was fun, and so I figured we needed a site that lists all the videos uploaded by the weedtuber community.”

Weedtubers went live on January 21. Under the slogan “Connecting the Weedtube Community,” it brings together 47 channels, regardless of their popularity—one channel counts only two subscribers. Some compete with CustomGrow420 in the unreasonable consumption category; others focus on testing out the different varieties of green available on the market or through home growing. Some channels even offer exhaustive guides to help you vary your modes of consumption.

In the end, however, most can be summarized by a single image: people getting high. The exact plant, pipe, and other details are of molecular importance. Some have decided to accept this fate and film videos of banal smoking sessions. In fact, this is how the oldest representative of online toking made a name for himself.

If CustomGrow420 is a sprinter, then Marijuana Man is a marathon runner. The shaggy, easygoing Canadian, whose real name is Stephen Payne, began blowing smoke into the camera in 1997. Yahoo users baptized him Marijuana Man, enthralled with his videos that combined intense smoking with casual chatting. “I'm 45 and have been smoking now for 23 years,” he told Vice last June. “I don't want to say I'm an addict, but I definitely smoke like one. I'll smoke between ten and 15 dabs every day.” Motherboard has since checked in with him, and he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down: “I smoke around one gram of shatter a day.” The level of THC in this cannabis concentrate, which owes its name to its intensity, generally varies between 80 and 90 percent.

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Stephen Payne exported his formula to YouTube as soon as it launched in 2005. His current channel, 2MarijuanaMan, has garnered over 100,000 subscribers and 12 million views since its launch in 2008. Marijuana Man even broadcasts smoking sessions in real time on Ustream. The habit ended up working in his favor: In August 2012, while he was broadcasting live, two armed men broke into his smoking chamber and violently assaulted him, then robbed him. Three months later, after they were identified in the video, they were sentenced to six and seven years in prison. This misfortune is now part of the Marijuana Man mythology, just like the famous “Fire in the hole!” he shouts out before lighting up a bong.

Just like Joel Hradecky, Stephen Payne owes a lot to his laid back charisma. The “half marijuana, half man, 100 percent fun” Canadian is well-liked on Facebook, where his official page counts almost 700,000 fans. This large audience allows him to make a living. “In ten years, YouTube has given me about $2,700,” he told Motherboard France. “I make practically double on Facebook each month. [...] All of my income comes from sponsors that I find myself.” Each social media post is sponsored by a brand of vaporizers, a producer of cannabis concentrates, and a merchant that sells home growing equipment. One of these sponsors even supplies him with “everything [he] needs to smoke,” from materials to consumables.

According to her, she rakes in $40,000 per month with her X-rated videos. Some of these freely combine sex and cannabis consumption. 

Marijuana Man is far from being the only YouTuber who generates income through sponsorship. In his videos and descriptions, CustomGrow420 never fails to mention the manufacturer of the tools he uses. Jolie Olie has even produced several videos that are essentially advertorials, promoting a clothing brand, several kits of smoking utensils, and a marijuana store. It's impossible to estimate the exact amount of his income, but it's safe to say that Joel Hradecky wants for nothing. The same hypothesis holds true for HaleyIsSoarx, the princess of weedtubers. The young woman regularly touts the merits of her equipment manufacturers to her 520,000 subscribers. Yet the genius in her business model lies elsewhere. Haley utilizes her YouTube channel to draw users towards another dimension of her small kingdom: her pornographic webcam.

With over 6,500 admirers, the smoker is mainly popular on the adult streaming platform MyFreeCams. According to her, she rakes in $40,000 per month with her X-rated videos. Some of these freely combine sex and cannabis consumption. While she keeps her two activities separate on Twitter, Haley unveiled her pornographic career on her YouTube channel in January 2015, and mentions her weedtuber status on her camgirl profile. This crossover visibility, crafted behind the screen, proves one can make a good living off a simple webcam.

Of course, all of this raises issues around legality. The wonderful business of weedtubing would never have existed if parts of the United States hadn't legalized marijuana. Its recreational use is authorized in Alaska, Colorado and Washington, and the weedtuber community is concentrated within those three states. In addition, medicinal use is legal in around twenty other states. This is why HaleyIsSoarx mentions that she is a “patient” in all her video descriptions, and that the bongs, joints and her other THC concoctions she absorbs all serve medical ends. Given that police pay close attention to pot smokers on the web and social media, these precautions are far from superfluous.

The wonderful business of weedtubing would never have existed if parts of the United States hadn't legalized marijuana.

Over on the edges of the giant American smoke cloud, in Marijuana Man’s native Canada, the recreational use of marijuana is illegal. On r/trees, it is said that Stephen Payne can inhale with total impunity because he works with police. This theory emerged in February 2013, after the Canadian uploaded a video in which he asserts having set up his two robbers in collaboration with authorities: “These people were let in to do what they were going to do, with police waiting outside at the door to arrest them,” he explains with a smile. “They were basically set up. It’s something I do with my work. I don’t really want to get into great detail because my work is kind of private, but sometimes my private life can, you know, fall into my fantasy life here on the internet.”

The bad guys get caught, police is happy, internet users are entertained, sponsors get promoted, and weedtubers are satiated: It seems that even on the internet, the free consumption of marijuana is nothing but a good thing.

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