Bess Byers was walking around Capitol Hill last summer when she saw the perfect Instagram opportunity. It was the weekend of Capitol Hill Block Party, and in between listening to bands and taking photos, she saw a parked Seattle Police Department cruiser with no cops in sight. She jumped onto the hood of the car, lit up a joint, and started puffing.
"There had been a bunch of reports around that time about how police departments disproportionately arrest black people for cannabis," she remembered recently. "I've had friends who are African American get hassled or even set up by the police, and I wanted to raise awareness about that. It if takes me smoking weed on a cop car to draw attention to this issue, fine. I'm trying to use my platform and my privilege to speak out about the issues I'm passionate about."
She later posted the photo to her Instagram account, @imcannabess. Accompanying it was a caption about the failed war on drugs and the over-policing of minority communities. It got thousands of likes—just like most of her posts do.
Cannabess, as she is known, has more than 85,000 followers, although her account is only two years old. Lots of people post pictures of themselves smoking weed on Instagram, but Byers is one of the few who have managed to turn smoking weed and posting on Instagram into a career.
On Instagram, she looks part fashion model and part dragon, with smoke billowing from her mouth as she gets high in photogenic locales. There is Cannabess smoking weed in the woods, in the snow, in lingerie, in a pumpkin patch, with her late cat (named, naturally, Miss Kush), on top of mountains, and under elevated freeways. In her most popular photo, which got more than 20,000 likes, Byers poses with a pile of weed the size of a Smart car.
The moniker Cannabess came, fittingly enough, from an online connection. It was a Tinder date who thought of it. After she told the guy her name was Bess, he asked if people call her "Cannabess."
"They don't," she told him. "But they're about to."
Byers, a 31-year-old Tri-Cities native, has a marketing company called Blaise Creative. She uses her Instagram account both to promote the cannabis brands she partners with and to recruit new clients.
One recent morning, I joined her on a visit to House of Cultivar, a cannabis company based in Sodo. She can often be found at weed farms like this, shooting plants and networking with growers and other people in the industry. Byers does marketing, branding, and digital property management for a variety of weed brands (read: she runs their Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook accounts). During a very fragrant tour of the facility—from the lab where strains are developed to the rooms where massive, sticky buds are harvested, dried, and packaged—Byers told a story about her family.
She'd recently given her grandmother a CBD extract to help with her health issues.
"My 89-year-old grandma was having some breathing problems," Byers said. "I was like, 'Grandma, cannabis is a bronchodilator. Why don't you try some weed?' I gave her a high-CBD, low-THC vape pen, but my mom ended up giving her the wrong strain, and they both got really stoned. My mom was like, 'Bess, we wanted the sleepy weed.' And I was like, 'Mom, they call it sleepy weed because you get so stoned you fall asleep.'"
Byers says she doesn't smoke all that much considering her job ("I can't be stoned during the day unless I'm going to crank out photo edits"), but it's possible her memory has taken a hit: She told me the story about her grandmother twice.
Back at her Green Lake apartment—which is well stocked with houseplants, crystals, and an ever-expanding collection of weed products—Byers told me that her Instagram success has been part savvy marketing and part luck. One early photo of hers was reposted by High Times, the weed magazine founded 40 years before weed was legal in any state. Another was reposted by Tommy Chong of the Cheech & Chong dynasty.
But despite these endorsements from old-school, black-market weed icons, Byers represents the new generation of legal weed smokers. Instead of taking bong hits and overdosing on Doritos and video games, she gets high and exercises. She would easily blend in with the rosé drinkers and self-care moms who have become a valuable demographic in the legal weed industry.
As cannabis has gone mainstream, it's increasingly marketed as a wellness product—something holistic and feminine, an of-the-earth solution to life's ills that even Gwyneth Paltrow would recommend. A survey of more than 1,200 women by BDS Analytics found that women are the most likely demographic to use cannabis for "self-care."
Byers is one of these women. She recommends cannabis suppositories for menstrual cramps and cannabis topicals for skin care. Certainly it doesn't hurt her business that she is also an attractive young woman; she has long, dark hair and bright white teeth that belie the amount of time she spends with smoke in her mouth. But it's important to Byers that she isn't just viewed as a weed model.
"I don't want to be perceived as just a hot woman in the industry," she said. "I've seen women taking naked bongs rips and that kind of stuff, but I've been careful about trying to not sexualize myself. At the same time, I don't think there's anything wrong with feminine beauty. And part of it is just playing the Instagram game. The algorithm boosts pics with faces in them."
While the bulk of Byers's income comes from her marketing company and not through Instagram, her social-media presence does help her build her business, and sometimes she also gets paid to post photos of products directly. Byers says that it's standard to charge $5 to $7 per thousand followers for a sponsored post. So, with 85,000 followers, she can make $500 to $600 for a single image with someone's product in it.
That's good money for getting high and taking pics, but Byers says she keeps her sponsored content to a minimum. "If all my posts were sponsored, it wouldn't be credible. People would see me as an ad channel," she said. "I only support great brands; I like to show them off. And I only work with brands that represent my morals and values."
Her own morals and values fall far to the right of the typical Seattle stoner. She identifies as a libertarian who believes in small government; she believes in low (or no) taxes; she personally favors less, not more, gun control; and, at times, she espouses views that veer into bizarre conspiracy- theory territory. Last year, she says, she was twice suspended from Twitter after tweeting about Pizzagate. She also suspects there was more than one shooter in Las Vegas and thinks 9/11 may have been an inside job.
"I don't trust the government and I don't trust mainstream media," she told me when I asked her about these political views. "I'm just very skeptical of people in power. House of Cards isn't just a TV show."
Considering her politics, perhaps it's no surprise that Byers was raised in a conservative household. Her family wasn't entirely down with her getting into the weed industry, but they've since come around. Her dad even agreed to take part in a video with her called "Parents & Kids Smoke Weed Together for the First Time" made by Seattle-based Cut, the creative team behind the mega-viral hit "Grandmas Smoking Weed for the First Time." The video that Byers and her dad were in has been viewed more than eight million times. In it, she teaches him to blow smoke rings.
After high school in the Tri-Cities, Byers went to Washington State University, where she studied public relations and Mandarin. Once she graduated, she moved to China for a year and worked at an advertising agency. It was there, she says, that her anti-government ethos developed. "In China, you don't talk bad about the government online because all of your digital correspondence is monitored," she said. She began to perceive similarities between state-sponsored nationalist propaganda in China and in the United States.
After China, she moved to Southern California, did freelance work as a photographer, and started a nonprofit called A Generation Empowered, with the mission of educating millennials about the national debt and other fiscal issues through digital media. One of her videos, about the military-industrial complex, got 1.2 million views.
Byers still posts about the military-industrial complex. It's part of her personal brand, which she describes as "Pacific-Northwest-outdoorsy meets California-high-fashion." ("Meets Idaho-libertarian," I would add.)
"I've got 85,000 followers on Instagram, and I want to advocate for them," Byers told me. "Like, why can't we have recreational home grows in Washington? And medical patients can't legally own a firearm in Washington State, which I think is crazy. God forbid you've got some kid down the street who knows grandpa has a medical grow. Grandpa should be able to defend himself in case that kid comes in and robs him. I'm not advocating for getting baked and going to the gun range, but I think people should be able to defend themselves."
Her followers don't seem to mind. A recent photo shows her table from overhead, the scene composed just so. Beside a candle and a stack of coffee-table books, there's a picture-perfect joint and a pile of beautiful green buds atop a copy of the novel 1984.
"Rainy Seattle Saturdays call for a good joint and a great book!" the caption reads. "1984 by George Orwell is one of my favorites. I recently had an industry female call me a 'right wing conspiracy theorist,' as if questioning the government is a BAD thing... Maybe my beliefs are unconventional, but I have the facts to back them and am proud to think outside the box. So while some people might call me names, most people call me woke." That post got more than 2,600 likes.
Toward the end of my day with Byers, a friend of hers, also in the cannabis marketing industry, came over for a video shoot. They were working on the inaugural video for a forthcoming YouTube series, which Byers hopes will be good for growing her audience and building her brand.
I watched as she did her makeup, clipped extensions in her hair, loaded a bong, and posed for the camera. She looked, for all appearances, like a typical pot-loving gal, except perhaps for her T-shirt, which was black with a bald eagle perched atop the letters "USA" and embroidered with cannabis leaves.
"Hey, guys!" she said to the camera, like every YouTube star to come before and after her. Then she took a bong hit, let out a massive billow of smoke, and started answering questions from her fans. It was just another day at the office for Cannabess.