04 Apr The cannabis queen of Beverly Hills
Cheryl Shuman claims she survived cancer because of her drug use. Now, she has her own cannabis farm and hosts marijuana parties for Hollywood A-listers. It’s all legal, she says
Cheryl Shuman is talking me through how she kick-starts her day. “I’ll have a cannabis juice smoothie,” she explains. “Kale, cannabis juice, carrot juice, apple. That’s usually my breakfast.
“And for lunch I’ll generally have a grilled chicken breast with a raw cannabis salad – so I’ve got leafy greens along with some raw cannabis leaves. And the dressing will be cannabis-infused. So will the chicken breast. It helps with my digestion.”And I’ll usually have some medicated [with cannabis] pretzels and pecans, which I like to nosh on.”
Added to this, at approximately one-hour intervals, she’ll take a hit on a pen-like device that delivers a lungful of a marijuana vapour rich in THC, the compound that gets you high.
Wow, I say. Shuman is a cannabis advocate, and at some point in the not too distant future, she hopes that a significant number of her fellow Americans will be living like this, and perfectly legally. But surely, if I tried this diet I’d quickly become hopelessly, comically wasted?
“I’d definitely say I have a pretty high tolerance,” says Shuman. “I mean, do I seem stoned to you?”
The answer – remarkably, given the Goliath scale of her cannabinoid intake – is that 54-year-old Shuman appears to be one of the least stoned people I’ve ever met. Blonde and chatty, she manages to be both delicately petite and a looming presence, all at the same time. In a black power suit and chunky silver necklace, she looks like a high-class estate agent. Her power to recall names and statistics is striking, and she doesn’t appear to have the munchies. She never uses the word “dude”. She never breaks into fits of giggles. She is the very antithesis of the blissed-out hippy, the brooding hip-hop aficionado or the bong-ripping student of marijuana cliché.
This, though, all makes sense. Because Shuman’s mission is to upend what it means to be a stoner. At a time when cannabis regulation is loosening across the United States, she wants to rid weed of stigma and drag it into polite society – in part by rebranding it as a luxury product, as delectable as any fine wine.
Her critics have called her a fraud, a snake-oil saleswoman and a drug addict. But she says her ultimate ambition is to become the “Martha Stewart of marijuana”. Her plans include everything from a cannabis lip balm to pot-friendly retirement homes. And given the interest being shown in the industry by some of the world’s canniest businessmen – Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor who made $1 billion from Facebook, is the latest to plunge in – who knows? Perhaps Shuman really could realise her ambition to become the queen of the cannabis world.
To witness her in action, I’ve travelled to Beverly Hills to see Shuman host one of her invitation-only cannabis dinner parties – events at which it’s not only the soufflés that get baked. Shuman will supply a collection of wealthy guests with cannabis in a dizzying variety of forms. Attendees regularly include celebrities, Hollywood agents and other high-flying professionals, she says. One of her recent cannabis dinners counted two A-list actresses as guests, she adds. (She tells me the names, but then says I can’t write about them.)
Her collective – the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club – is a brand name for the high-grade weed produced on her own farm. One hundred core members contribute to the farm’s upkeep, and it has supplied cannabis to about 2,000 registered patients through the dinner parties and other events. (Cannabis is legal only for medical use in California.)
She likes to say she’s redefining “high society” and according to Shuman, her “couture cannabis” business is booming.
“The luxury market, the affluent market, it hadn’t been tapped,” she explains.
Shuman typically holds one pot-themed dinner party a week, but can do as many as ten in a month. Any fees that guests pay for cannabis can only cover costs, since making a profit from the drug would be illegal under Californian law. They can, however, be asked to donate to charity, and have been known to give $5,000 apiece, she says.
The parties also produce publicity – and this is where Shuman makes her money.
She says she has 25 full-time PR clients, all of them cannabis-related businesses, who pay her retainers of as much as $20,000 a month. They range from manufacturers of smoking paraphernalia, to a tech company working on a dating app that promises to connect pot lovers.
This evening’s party will take place at a sprawling mock-Tuscan mansion on a smart secluded street off Sunset Boulevard. Most of the guests are yet to arrive, but a camera crew is following the preparations being made by Shuman and her cook, a very nice, extremely mellow chap called Colin, who is 6ft 4in and has the kind of ridiculously handsome features that belong on the cover of a Mills & Boon novel. Colin has been smoking pot since he was nine years old, he tells me, and right now he appears to be unabashedly stoned. He concentrates hard as he tells the TV host how he’s going to broil a hunk of wild salmon, after dousing it with olive oil, garlic, lemon and – of course – cannabis. On the counter top are half a dozen tubs full of weed. If anybody’s peckish there is a dish of cannabis-infused pretzels.
I’m starving – but I have to drive home and I daren’t eat anything.
Shuman offers the TV host who is interviewing her a “medicated candy-glazed pecan” – a nut spiked with yet more marijuana.
“You don’t feel the effect for 45 minutes,” she warns him. Shuman tilts herself towards the lens. Years ago she was a star saleswoman on QVC, the shopping channel, and she can still turn it on for the cameras. “But, you know, here’s an interesting fact: nobody, in the history of the world, has ever overdosed on cannabis,” she says.
The TV guy smiles, and reaches for another pecan.
Out of view of the camera stands Urban Smedeby, a Swedish investment banker who has come to see Shuman because he has $5 million – £3.3 million – to invest in the cannabis industry. He is one of the few people here who isn’t at least a little stoned. “Everybody is getting more and more wasted,” he whispers. “This is not my usual environment.
That the pot business in America is in a state of flux is no secret. In 2012, two states – Colorado and Washington – legalised recreational marijuana use for the first time.
My own interactions with pot aficionados hint at the heady pace of change. Take, for instance, the first time I met Rick Cusick, associate publisher of High Times magazine, a bible for America’s cannabis users for 40 years. It was in 2013, in an agreeably down-at-heel bar in Denver, and Cusick’s luxuriant white beard lent him more than a passing resemblance to Gandalf. He told me about how High Times was holding a massive cannabis-themed rave the next day. Snoop Dogg was to be given a lifetime achievement award.
Cusick went on to explain how he’d be judging the Cannabis Cup, a competition to grow the finest weed. “People laugh at marijuana culture, but the real connoisseurs have standards of performance that make the Indy 500 look like a kids’ tricycle race,” he said.
In September last year I interviewed him again. This time we talked by telephone, about how High Timesplanned to launch a venture capital fund.
Still though, for all the corporatisation, the pot business is shrouded by a veil of sketchiness. Medical cannabis was legalised in California in 1996. But Frank Marino, another investment banker attending Shuman’s dinner party, whom I meet by the poolside gazebo, says the industry’s illegal heritage is still evident.
“How do I put this? Anybody who has been in the marijuana business for a few years was basically OK with operating illicitly, criminally – right? A master grower today was a dope dealer a few years ago,” he says.
Marino sees the transition now under way as akin to the fall of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet bloc. “Cannabis is already a $30-$50 billion [£20-£30 billion] industry, and it’s going from illicit to legal now. The industry is in its nascent stage. It’s replete with opportunities.”
If that Soviet analogy really does hold, then Shuman wants to be an oligarch. She has plans for numerous pot-related businesses. Stiletto Stoners will be a marijuana-themed clothing line and accessories including glamorous gold-plated vapourisers, for inhaling the drug without burning it.
Shaman Therapeutics will specialise in herbal remedies, and she also wants to start a chain of cannabis-friendly holiday resorts.
“This is the only way, right now, that the American dream is still possible. It’s the only way,” she says of the cannabis industry.
“Our economy is in the crapper. People have lost their jobs, their homes. They’ve lost hope. Cannabis is a plant that not only heals a multitude of illnesses – it can also heal our economy. It can provide jobs, a whole new industry. This is the birth of that whole new industry. And the people who are in at the ground floor now are going to be billionaires. They’re going to be on the covers of magazines. It’s already happening. It’s already a $47 billion industry – bigger than the NFL, bigger than corn, wheat and soy beans combined.”
In fact, she has her sights set well beyond the US. “In Israel, I’m known as the Mother Teresa of marijuana,” she tells me.
First, though, pot needs to become respectable. And to enable that, Shuman reckons a couple of things have to happen. First, she believes that celebrities “coming out” as cannabis users (a process she likens to somebody revealing that they are gay) will foster societal acceptance.
Second, she says the movement needs a leader – a modern equivalent of Pauline Sabin, who spearheaded the campaign to overturn prohibition in the Thirties.
She has, she says, a candidate in mind: “I know media; I know celebrities; I’ve got a huge pair of balls – I’ll do it!”
Now, let’s be clear – the precise scale and success of Shuman’s business empire I’ve found tricky to pin down. She owns a pot farm – but for legal reasons it must operate on a non-profit basis. Most of her other ventures appear to be in the planning stages. But certainly, she’s made a mark. “Shuman’s ability to generate publicity means that she cannot be excluded from activism conversations,” said The New York Times recently. The question many onlookers ask, however, is whether Shuman is more interested in beckoning forth a new era of enlightened cannabis use, or in selling herself. Some see her as a harbinger of crass commercialism – an anathema to the old-school hippy types who see weed as a gift to be shared.
Others will view her as a reckless champion of a dangerous drug. Smoking extra-strong varieties of cannabis could be the cause of a quarter of all new cases of psychotic mental conditions such as schizophrenia, a six-year study recently concluded. Researchers found that about 60,000 people in Britain are currently living with conditions involving hallucinations and paranoid episodes brought on by the use of high-potency skunk.
Faced with such claims, Shuman can launch a volley of her own statistics: pot is less dangerous than alcohol, a recent study found, she notes. And a number of studies have suggested that some cannabis compounds may be useful to treat psychosis.
The one thing that isn’t in question is Shuman’s chutzpah. She was born in poverty and raised on a tobacco farm in Buena Vista, a rural hamlet in Appalachian Ohio. “We didn’t have running water and electricity until I was almost 14. We worked hard … It makes me grateful for everything I have,” she says.
As a young woman, she started out by publishing a newsletter about collecting money-saving coupons, before getting a TV gig as the “Coupon Queen”. At 23, she was a single mother when she headed to Los Angeles to try to find her daughter’s father. She spent three weeks living in her car before landing a job in a spectacles store in the suburb of Encino.
It was at this point, Shuman says, that her life took its first extraordinary turn. One day, Michael Jackson, who lived not far away, pitched up in her store in disguise. She offered to bring a selection of glasses to his house, for him to try in private. The Prince of Pop took her up on the offer, she says, and before long she had started another business – Starry Eyes Optical Services – which would supply eyewear for films such as Terminator 2, When Harry Met Sally and Pretty Woman. Before long she was appearing on QVC, as the “Optician to the Stars”.
In 1995, however, her life took what she says was a darker turn. She sued Steven Seagal, the action star, for alleged sexual harassment. She also alleged that Seagal used a notoriously dirty Hollywood private eye to try to intimidate her. (Her lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.)
In the wake of the Seagal scandal, her business collapsed. Fearing some sort of retribution, she says she went underground for several years. By now she had two daughters by two men, and for lengthy spells each child went to stay with their father.
She was, she says, on end-of-life care (she had even snipped out a magazine coupon to get a discount on a coffin), when a friend offered to supply her with cannabis. “The worst that can happen is that you’ll die with a smile on your face,” she says she was told. Shuman began taking doses of cannabis oil, the first batches smuggled into the hospital. The impact, she claims, was remarkable.
“Within 30 days, I was off my 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.”
She adds: “It helped to treat many symptoms, from nausea to anxiety, and shrank the tumours that I had.”
Those are big claims, and since Shuman was not part of any medical trial they can’t be verified. But if she is going to be a force for good, odds are it will be in the field of medical marijuana.
On the roof terrace of the dinner party mansion, I meet Jacquelyn Sponseller, who is 26, looks like a young Salma Hayek and is said to be one of the most accomplished growers of premium-quality weed on the US Pacific seaboard. “I’m just going to kill two birds,” she says when we sit down to talk. She packs a small glass pipe with a nugget of pungent cannabis bud. “Interview and medicate …”
Sponseller is thinking of adopting Shuman as a mentor, and in many ways Sponseller is the perfect poster girl for Shuman’s mission of making pot acceptable. I’m just not sure that Shuman, with her emphasis on celebrities and Beverly Hills connections, fully realises this yet.
Sponseller was diagnosed with severe epilepsy at the age of 19. “I was very, very sick. I’ve had hundreds of seizures. I’ve had more than 30 recorded concussions – that’s like an NFL football player. Pretty bad,” she says.
She’d been an aspiring law student, but the seizures made studying impossible. The cocktail of conventional drugs she was prescribed left her “like a complete zombie”, she says.
They also wrecked her liver – so much so, she’s been told she’ll need a transplant.
Then there was the psychological impact: “It’s not fun – you can’t wake up [because of the sedative effect of the drugs]. Before long you get depressed because you’re not yourself. You do question the purpose of living. And what got me through was medical cannabis.”
When I meet her, Sponseller is a week shy of being six months seizure-free – the longest seizure-free spell she’s had since the age of 19. She puts the improvement down to medicating with marijuana – both by smoking it and taking a pill form. She has stopped taking all her previous conventional medicines.
Again, she has not been part of a proper medical trial, and it is impossible to know for sure whether cannabis has really benefited her. But put that to pot advocates and they will counter that proper research on cannabis has been thwarted in America because for more than 40 years, it has been listed under Schedule I of the US Controlled Substances Act. That means it is regarded as a dangerous drug that has “no currently accepted medical use”, alongside the likes of heroin and LSD. (Cocaine is classed in the more relaxed Schedule II category.)
As Sponseller describes the weirdness of this situation, her thoughts turn to Shuman. She’s happy that Shuman is out there, making a case for greater acceptance. “Cheryl’s a strong woman. She has a beautiful aura. And she’s making herself heard,” says Sponseller, clutching her pipe.
That she certainly is.