One million medical marijuana patients now exist in America, activists estimate, and another 16 million or so smoke pot recreationally, federal statistics show. And while growing or selling pot can still land you in federal prison, hosting a cannabis web site appears to be quite legal and lucrative. Leading dispensary listing web site WeedMaps.com grossed $2.7 million in the first three months of 2011, but there's at least a dozen competitors hoping to grab market share.
The fastest, best-dressed web site in the running is Leafly.com, a one-year-old strain guide and review site with an app for the iPhone, and soon, for the Android. In June, Leafly.com tallied about 180,000 unique visitors and is growing at a clip of about 30 percent per month without a marketing budget — probably because it's the bomb.
Three professional Orange County coders created Leafly after becoming dissatisfied with existing online strain resources, said site co-founder Scott, who asked Legalization Nation to withhold his last name. "It's far exceeded what we expected," he said. "We're definitely very happy with the response and traffic that we get."
A computer science major in college, Scott and friends are 30, 32, and 36, all with high-paying day jobs in web development. They code for mainstream, branded sites that attract millions of users per month. In addition to mainstream paychecks, they have wives, and kids, and they're reluctant to come out of the closet professionally.
But Scott admits that Leafly has been their most successful independent venture to date. "This has been the first one that's really gotten traction."
A long-time cannabis fan, Scott said Leafly began after a doctor recommended cannabis to him in 2009. He then visited local dispensaries and found the variety of strains mind-boggling. A true geek, he started a personal Excel spreadsheet to track what he was trying.
Scott also turned to the Internet for more weed information. He discovered that the web sites he found were often slow, ugly, and broken. "There's tons of them and new ones every day," he noted. "They all have a certain look and feel."
And one of the chief problems with that look is its ability to get you fired from your job. "We work in tech; we do all sorts of web stuff," he said. "Everybody we know likes to smoke, but they don't like that kind of 'stoner' look of all the sites they go to."
Inevitably, Scott and crew decided to design something faster, more focused, and mature. "We wanted it to be safe for work," he explained. "You can be looking at it at work and it's not obvious to someone who walked by what it is."
The three drove their wives crazy for a month as they developed the web site on weekends in the garage, hand-rolling Leafly's code from scratch. "It was a labor of love," Scott said.
It's also wicked fast. "Speed is one of the key factors that we look at," Scott said. "We all work at top-tier web sites, so we really have that ingrained."
The group seeded the site with profile pages for fifty top strains like OG Kush, White Widow, and Trainwreck. Leafly displays strains in a simple periodic table format, from Afghani Bullrider to Yumboldt. Click on the any square — for example, "Cd" for Chemdawg — and Leafly loads up the strain's profile.
"Chemdawg provides a very relaxing and cerebral high. A popular medical strain that is usually available throughout California collectives," the description reads. "Chemdawg is the rumored parent of OG Kush and Sour Diesel."
Leafly lists Chemdawg as primarily "euphoric." It helps relieve "stress" and can cause "dry mouth." Further down the profile, the site lists nearby dispensaries carrying the strain, and their various prices. It also publishes user comments.
Visitors don't need to log in or sign up to browse. And new users can sign up without an e-mail address, and can review anonymously. The anonymity could have led to spam and dick jokes, but, Scott said, "We're actually super impressed with some of the reviews. Some will just do one-liners and some stupid shit, but most of them are really good. They say things about the taste and smell. People love weed."
"I suffer from PTSD & a host of othorpediac [sic] injuries including a spinal fusion and I have to say this is one of the best strains for what ails me I have smoked in the last 2 years," said one reviewer of Maui Waui.
The site now has 9,500 individual reviews. Five reviews qualify a new strain profile for publication, and Leafly currently publishes five-hundred-plus strains, sorted alphabetically by indica, sativa, and hybrid. "It's a big set of data and there are patterns that start to emerge," Scott said.
Indicas truly help with insomnia, the data shows. "It definitely does start to match up, even though it could have been completely random," Scott said.
This summer, Leafly is updating its mobile apps to accept reviews and pictures. The company is also working with testing labs Steep Hill of Oakland and Full Spectrum of Boulder, Colorado, to integrate analytical testing results into Leafly.
Scott also is starting what will be a long conversation with his teenage daughter. "We told her what we were doing and why," he said. "Basically, our approach is treating it essentially like a conversation about alcohol, though [weed is] safer and legal in certain cases. Basically, 'Try it when she's older, if that's what she wants to do — but not before then.'"
Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated Leafly's monthly traffic figures.