WORDS: Cody Liska | PHOTOS: Taylor Boyd
Originally published in the October 2017 issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding. Subscribe to the magazine here!
IN TOKYO, THERE'S A CROSS-SECTION OF ROADS THAT, AS YOU LOOK DOWN AT THE PASSING VEHICLES, RESEMBLE A STARFISH. RIGHT THERE, IN THE LARGEST CITY IN THE WORLD, JASON MCALISTER, KALE GRAY, AND THEIR BUDDY JOSH DIRKSEN STARED OUT OF A HOTEL WINDOW, TRANSFIXED BY THE PSYCHEDELIC LIKENESS OF THOSE MOVING LIGHTS TO A FIVE-POINTED SEA CREATURE. THAT WAS IN 2001, WHEN THEY WERE DEEP IN THE SNOWBOARD INDUSTRY.
Today, Jason, Kale, Keith Legum and Gary Bracelin own a marijuana retail and grow operation in Bend, Oregon. And the name comes from a snowboard trip to Japan, 16 years ago. "We've all known each other and been friends for 20 and, in some cases, 30 years," Gary says. "I remember watching McAlister as a little grom coming up, and Keith Legum had Fishpaw back in the '90s, and Kale the same way, the snowboard industry." Jason's history with snowboarding dates back to OG parts in movies from Fall Line Films, Standard Films and Kingpin Productions. "I spent ten years snowboarding for Salomon, traveling the world and having a blast," Jason says. Kale's history with the snowboard industry goes deep as well, mainly in the marketing and branding sector, including his time as Jason's team manager at Salomon.
Much of the Tokyo Starfish staff comes from a snowboard background, previously holding positions with brands like DC and Homeschool. Although the guys at Tokyo Starfish have moved on from their snowboard jobs, crossover was inevitable. A Jamie Lynn painting hanging on a wall in the original Tokyo Starfish location is a reminder. "Jake Price donated that to us," Kale says. In the new location, a black Winterstick swallowtail hangs from a wooden wall. "We keep the vibe of our backgrounds because it represents who we are and where we came from," Kale says. "We're also going to display some of the original SnoPlanks boards for a couple of months. [It'll be] a rotation of shred craft and art."
The inside of Tokyo Starfish looks more like a rustic boutique than a pot shop. "A lot of [dispensaries] are very clinical or have a very Burning Man vibe to them," Kale says. "We wanted something where you come in and feel like it's a welcoming place." Coming from a branding background, they knew their name needed to match that vibe--they wanted to steer clear of clichés. So, everyone put a nix on words like "green," leaf," and "cannabis" because the shop, they thought, should be judged on its own merits not whether or not it fit into the paradigm of popular weed culture. Gary acknowledges that, sure, a lot of snowboarders pass the dutchie, but today cannabis usage is more ubiquitous across different walks of life than ever. "I think it's broader in lifestyle than people may realize," he says. "I think our culture, the action sport's culture, doesn't view it as a big deal [because] we're used to being outlaws and rebels. That's the thing that's kind of cool about the cannabis industry right now--it reminds me of the outlaw snowboard years. Banks won't allow us, we're restricted on where we can advertise and what events we can sponsor. Your business plan has a life expectancy of 24 hours. It's ever changing and merging."
There was a cautionary thought in the beginning between the four of them that opening a cannabis shop might have a negative impact on their social lives because of the stigma that surrounds the product. "All of us have families and kids--our kids are in school and on sports teams--and when we first started doing this I was expecting a handful of parents and people we knew to say, ‘we are not hanging out with you anymore. My kid is not coming to your house. I don't agree with what you guys are doing,'" Jason says. "I have not had one person come to me with any negative feedback about opening up a marijuana store. It's actually been the complete opposite. Most people are like, 'Oh my God, what's it like? Can I come in? Can I check it out? What about CBD?'"
What about CBD? "We have people come in who have seizures, and they're finding the right combination of CBD, and it's taking 130 seizures a month down to a handful," Jason says. "The majority of our customers still want the psychedelic effects and the relaxation and getting high, but there is a serious amount of people that come through for real medical purposes." Gary adds: "That's what's really fulfilling--parents coming in and saying, 'I have an autistic kid; I have a kid who suffers seizures; I have a kid with epilepsy.' Or the patients themselves--whether it be cancer, epilepsy, whatever--and we talk to them and learn what helps and works for them, and we see it change those peoples' lives." Between the four of them--Jason, Kale, Keith and Gary--a collective knowledge and varying skill sets remain the foundation of the brand. "We all have our own role [at Tokyo Starfish]," Gary says. "Jason is the detail guy. He's in charge of operations, he keeps us all in line. I oversee buying and distribution, Kale heads up marketing and oversees our systems, and Legum builds out all of the facilities."
This whole Tokyo Starfish venture started about five ago when Keith and Gary were at a school fundraiser. They were leaning against a wall, bullshitting, when Gary suggested they start a cannabis business. Keith agreed. It wasn't long before Jason and Kale got involved, because of how far back they all go, back to snowboarding and the friendships they've cultivated over the years. All of it is a constant reminder that the snowboard industry is never too far away. "One day, during the Dirksen Derby, Jamie Lynn stopped by the shop," Gary says. "He'd been on some skate mission in Southern California. He was on his way home and drove up through Nevada, and his motorcycle broke down along the way, and he had to sleep in the ditch for a couple days--it was your total Jack Kerouac adventure. So, we took care of him, gave him some new clothes and sustenance for the road and got him on his way."