Weed Wars

Andy Kozma is beaming. That's because the 30-year-old University of Miami graduate who has spent his career selling vitamins and starting hair salons is standing in front of his most successful entrepreneurial venture to date: a row of six-foot-tall marijuana plants in a warehouse in Riviera Beach.

"It's really amazing, the product," he says, his slight German accent making him seem formal despite his T-shirt and shorts. "I just loved the idea of it. Fake weed — this is fun!"

Kozma is the owner of Artanica, a local silk plant business that otherwise specializes in designing and selling silk floral arrangements, which it sells to offices, health care companies, and churches across the country. But he is also the manufacturer of the nation's most realistic artificial marijuana plants, which feature hand-painted buds and sell for between $20 and $150. And he seems to have hit it big.

In April, an order from the Showtime series Weeds kept Kozma's small staff on 24-hour shifts for two weeks. Artanica is currently filling another big Hollywood order, this one top secret. News of the company's unusual product has made headlines nationwide, and now Kozma is struggling to keep up with demand.

"It's probably the next best thing to reality," says Joe White, the man who commissioned Artanica's fake weed for his company, New Image Plants, which has the exclusive right to sell the pot plants. "Hollywood chose our products over anybody that could make anything in Hollywood."

White also runs Change the Climate, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit group that's been running ad campaigns promoting the reform of marijuana laws since 2001. He says that his fake pot plants are part of the same mission.

"If you have a vision of these wonderful and beautiful attractive marijuana plants with these large buds in hotel lobbies and people's apartments, and in stores like Urban Outfitters and high-end attractive interior-design efforts, it would begin to take the fear out of being associated with marijuana," White says.

Artanica's reputation of having the most realistic weed has also attracted law enforcement agencies interested in using the plants for training purposes, several of which have placed large orders. And though the fake marijuana is still only a small portion of Kozma's fake flower business, he and White have big plans.

"I'd like to make it bigger, to come up with contemporary designs...so we can really use it in offices," Kozma says. "I'd love to get them on campuses. And we're coming out with a whole Christmas line."

And why not? "Everybody who's seen it, including cops, wants it," Kozma grins.

Well, maybe not everybody.

New Times brought a sample plant to the fall kick-off meeting of the FAU chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) recently. A crowd of 70 self-proclaimed marijuana enthusiasts passed the foot-tall fake pot plant around. Some sniffed at it and shook their heads, while others giggled uncontrollably. Dan Alexander, the chapter president, asked what his members thought of the plant's accuracy, and they broke into howls.

"It's horrible!" several people yelled.

"I wouldn't smoke it — it looks like a ficus!" called another.

"It's all out of proportion," said a tall, skinny student, fingering the silk leaves gingerly. "I know, because I grow it in my backyard and roll my own. The leaves should be a little thinner. And they're too red."

"I wouldn't even know what part to smoke, it's so unrealistic," said Lindsey Flammer, a senior at UCF who was scandalized by what she says is a grossly oversized bud. "Don't they look at pictures when they make it?"

But the most damning assessment came from none other than the founder and national executive director of NORML, Keith Stroup, the guest of honor at the FAU meeting.

"It doesn't look like a pot plant to me," Stroup said. "I can't imagine anyone using this to advance marijuana reform. You'll never see them being sold on NORML's website."

It turns out that Artanica's fake weed has taken root in the fault line of the marijuana reform movement. Years ago, White and Stroup went separate ways on how to change attitudes about weed. For Stroup and NORML, it's a matter of encouraging pot smokers to light up and be counted. White, on the other hand, prefers a subtler approach that points out the absurdity of pot laws, rather than trumpeting the use of the substance itself.

When the two disagreed over an ad campaign almost ten years ago, White founded Change the Climate, and relations between the two groups has been prickly ever since.

No wonder, then, that Stroup doesn't think much of White's new project, which he first laid eyes on at a recent Boston Freedom Rally last year.

"All of a sudden I see this tent with some of these six-foot-tall plants," Stroup says. "I thought, 'Joe, what the hell is this.' They looked like something a high school kid was doing."

At Artanica's headquarters, Kozma explains why it's so difficult to produce a realistic replica of an illegal substance. He introduces Lani Early, a sweet-faced middle-aged woman who helped design Artanica's artificial weed. She says that creating fake pot was one of the most difficult projects of her career.

"Of course, we never saw the real thing! We used a lot of pictures," she says, "So it was a lot of trial and error."

Early and her co-designers, all of them quiet parental types who seem to be complete strangers to illicit drug use, had spent their careers designing floral arrangements of decidedly mundane flowers using pre-fabricated silk buds, blossoms and leaves from China. When they were asked to create the marijuana prototype two years ago, they were a little taken aback.

"I thought, 'who in the world would want this?" Early says.

Not only had Early and her colleagues never seen any real marijuana, they had never designed any plants from scratch.

"We were trying to make something out of something that didn't exist," Early says. "Everything else we buy is pre-made."

But the team of designers persisted, hunting for various leaves and buds of other silk plants that they could jerry-rig into convincing ganja. After a few weeks of attempts, they finally had their recipe. Now, despite her doubts about making a replica of pot, Early is glad to be a part of it.

"It's amazing that there's a market for this," Early says. "I'm thrilled and amazed."

Understandably, Kozma doesn't want to give away exactly which ready-made Chinese leaves and buds constitute his fake pot. But in the Artanica warehouse, when he pulls a box down off the shelf to pull out a fistful of delicate, jagged-edged leaves, the label on the side reads: "Japanese maple."

"See this plant?" Kozma says, opening another box full of long reed-like fronds. "We make the pot buds out of these. But they're a completely different plant. They take them apart entirely, paint them, and glue them together again in a different shape. You can't get that kind of detail from a machine."

On the floor in the back of the warehouse, next to a long table covered with clotted glue, is a pile of wooden boughs, on their way to becoming marijuana stems.

"Maple boughs," says Kozma. "It's gathered for us by woodcutters in Ocala."

"It comes in straight, and needs forks," says Vladimir, Artanica's tree-builder. A Cuban immigrant who says he used to fly fighter jets, Vladimir now glues the leaves and hand-painted buds to the maple boughs waiting in their moss-covered baskets.

Kozma insists that all this attention to detail has paid off.

"Sometimes I think I have to put a big sign on the product: DO NOT SMOKE," he says.

But White and Kozma do acknowledge that their pot isn't perfect. A horticultural association in California returned an order, for example, complaining that it wasn't realistic enough.

"It's not an exact replica," says White. "It is very, very difficult to replicate nature." He and Kozma promise that they're working on it.

In the meantime, for another opinion, New Times consulted the DEA's Fort Lauderdale office.

"Would I use that as a training tool?" said the DEA agent on duty. "Not really." Pointing to a photograph of a marijuana leaf in a thick reference book, he showed how Artanica's pot seemed to have extra leaf sections. "If I used this for training purposes, the first thing I'd do would be to cut off the tip of the bud, and snip off these. But that reddish tint..."

FAU's Dan Alexander, meanwhile, is amused that some law enforcement agencies are ordering the not-so-faithful renderings of cannibis.

"This is the stuff police use to teach themselves? I think it's kind of funny," says the NORML chapter president. "They're really throwing themselves off."

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Julia Reischel