It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in San Francisco's Dolores Park and kids on gyroscopic single-wheeled skateboards seemed to float uphill. I was sitting next to the "Fuck the techies" graffiti, waiting to score some weed. But my eyes weren't on the park — they were on the skies. Because I was about to get a very special drone delivery.
Like a lot of you, I saw a tantalising video from a mysterious San Francisco company called Trees a couple of weeks ago. In it, an extremely delighted-looking person sits in Dolores Park while a Phantom drone delivers a lovely-looking box of cannabis items to him.
How, I wondered, could I be just like that person?
I immediately went to the Trees website and started chatting with their rep. I asked if they delivered to my neighbourhood, and was told that they didn't do it quite yet — they're still setting up their 333 exemption to FAA regulations on drones that prevent delivery for profit. But Marshall Hayner, Trees' CEO, promised that if I showed up at Dolores Park around 3 PM on Saturday I'd "see some drones." He refused to reveal more than that.
So of course I hiked over to Dolores a few days later, not entirely sure what to expect — but hoping against hope that it would all end with me smoking some sweet, sweet cannabis in the middle of a park while drones swooped around me like parrots.
I was prepared for a lot of weird things to happen, but I wasn't ready for the Bitcoin.
When Hayner and his colleagues showed up, drone in hand, it became immediately clear that this wasn't really about drones, or even cannabis really. It was about Bitcoin. Jackson Palmer, creator of the notorious Dogecoin, is working with Hayner on Trees. So is engineer Morgan Rockwell, inventor of the BitSwitch, a device that allows you to use Bitcoin to pay at vending machines and coin-operated devices like washing machines.
All three of them have been involved in Bitcoin startups for a while — but now they're a little bit jaded. Said Jackson, whose Dogecoin attracted international attention, "There was a [Bitcoin] bubble and it's over."
Added Hayner, "Yeah there are a few seed rounds, but nobody is really putting money into it anymore."
What do frustrated Bitcoin entrepreneurs do when the bubble bursts? They try to find a really good reason to use Bitcoin — one that isn't tied up in vapour products beloved by VCs. And that's where cannabis comes in. It's the perfect product for a currency that, as Rockwell put it, "skips around the bank." In the US, cannabis is legal in only a few states (including California, where I have a cannabis card, so this entire transaction was legal). But this creates a problem for any business that wants to deal with banks, which are centralised on a national level.
"Cannabis and Bitcoin support each other," Hayner said simply.
So how does this whole operation work? Well, it definitely starts with some seriously good cannabis, which Hayner has access to from years of running a collective that's can sell it legally. But then there's the question of how to do delivery in a way that stands out from all the other weed delivery places. That's where drones come in. And finally, there's the key ingredient: Bitcoin. Money of the future.
The drones will take money using the BitSwitch.
It can host a local version of the block chain, the secure online ledger system that forms the backbone of Bitcoin, and instantly check Bitcoin payments against it. So you can literally poke a button in your app, send a few Satoshis (the smaller unit of Bitcoins) to Trees, and the BitSwitch processes your payment instantly.
Ideally, you've got that BitSwitch on your drone — and once your payment goes through, it drops the goods right into your lap. I say ideally because of course that assumes a lot of things — like Trees actually getting 333 exemption through their partner company Aerovision, which does drone photography at festivals and concerts. And, more pressingly last Saturday afternoon, assuming that Rockwell can actually get the drivers working on his laptop so that the whole system can run at all.
In the end, we spent a lot of time watching Rockwell fiddle with his software, while Hayner drove the drone for a while. If everything had gone according to plan, I would have gotten a box like this, above. Those purple jewel cases were packed with delicious, delicious buds. Top notch stuff.
But the showstopper was actually the Bitcoin, not the bud. And Hayner's futuristic plans. "The ten year vision is an app for every part of this industry," he said, puffing on a vape pen full of cannabis oil. "You've got apps for the grower to monitor nutrient levels, and it ties into everything." Soon you have apps for harvesting, shipping, selling, and finally, of course Bitcoin point-of-sale devices in your delivery drones.
"In the future all these apps can pull together a network, little by little," Hayner said, gesturing vaguely at the drone, the box of pot he'd just given me, and perhaps at the park itself. It wasn't clear. But the future never is.