Josh Kesselman remembers the moment he fell in love with rolling papers. He was 5 years old, walking around his native Manhattan with his father, who smoked rolled cigarettes. The old man took a leaf of rice paper from a small booklet, lit it, and tossed it in the air.
"That beautiful piece of paper vanished," says Kesselman, now 47 and the founder of Raw, one of the most popular rolling paper brands in the U.S. "It was like seeing an angel disappear."
Kesselman has been chasing that magic his whole adult life. About 15 years ago, after an early career in retail that included a brief arrest, a motorcycle breakdown, and a spiritual awakening on a Canadian fishing trip, Kesselman took a chance on a Spanish factory to make "vegan" rolling papers. His product is now sold in every U.S. state across thousands of convenience stores, smoke shops, and cannabis dispensaries. His Phoenix company employs 2,000 workers, with offices in the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
What makes Raw's all-natural papers special is that they are made out of minimally processed organic hemp fibers that don't contain chemical whiteners, like most other papers. Kesselman's papers are light brown in color and considered vegan because they don't contain dye (some dye is made with lactose) and the gum line is a plant-based adhesive (some papers still use animal-based gum).
Raw was originally made for connoisseurs who wanted paper that wouldn't alter the flavor of whatever was being smoked--tobacco, legal herbs, or marijuana. Today, the company has a broad but cult-like following, with hip-hop star Wiz Khalifa even dedicating a song to the brand, aptly titled "Raw."
"Everyone wants to smoke the best," says Kesselman. "It's like how people don't want to eat Wonder Bread anymore--they want to eat all-natural, ancient grains."
Kesselman wouldn't disclose Raw's revenue, but according to Flowhub, which tracks purchases at legal cannabis dispensaries, the company has about 30 percent of the market in at least six states, including California, Colorado, and Oregon. In second place, with about 16 percent, is Zig-Zag, owned by the public company Turning Point.
At Medicine Man, one of Colorado's oldest dispensaries, Sally Vander Veer, co-founder and president of the dispensary chain, says customers clearly prefer it. "Raw is our best-selling paper," she says.
Arm-Long Joints, Cows, and Salmon
After graduating from the University of Florida in 1993, Kesselman started a small smoke shop named Knuckleheads, which imported specialty rolling papers from Europe and sold pipes, bongs, and smoking accessories. He scrapped together $500 to rent the storefront in Gainesville and slept in a shed behind his friend's house to make ends meet. But in 1996, he says, he had the misfortune of selling a bong to a young woman whose father worked for the U.S. government. Days later, the feds raided the shop and arrested Kesselman. He was forced to shut down the business, charged with a felony for selling drug paraphernalia, and placed under house arrest for a few months.
Later that year, he moved to Arizona and---undeterred--decided to start over. He launched HBI, a smoke-shop supply distribution company (though this time, he didn't sell bongs). He doubled down on rolling papers. By 1997, the business was clocking in new accounts each week.
Around that time, he was introduced to the owner of an old rolling paper factory in Spain's Alcoy region, who was looking for an exclusive customer to helped create and sell new products. Kesselman signed on, and began manufacturing two new paper brands: Juicy Jays, which were flavored papers, and Elements, which resembled the rice papers his dad used.
Kesselman then decided to make an even bigger bet, on vegan rolling papers. The move was a highly personal one for him, based on his own lifestyle. As he tells it, back in 1993, when he was riding his motorcycle in Florida, he broke down next to a cow pasture. He started speaking to the cows in jest, and a baby cow and its mother starting mooing. That night at dinner, Kesselman ordered a burger and blood pooled on the plate. He quit eating meat. (He continued eating fish.)
A month later, while on a fishing trip in Canada, he caught a coho salmon. As he pulled it out of the water, its red scales shimmered in the sun. "I could see God in that f---ing fish," he says. As he was about to kill it, "she looks at me with acceptance, thinking, 'OK. I'm going to die now,'" he says.
Kesselman waded into the Fraser River and let the fish go. After that, he decided, everything he consumed would be vegan, including rolling papers.
In 2004, Kesselman searched for a supplier who could sell him natural and unbleached fiber, which would be considered vegan. He could only find one, and there was a catch: He had to place an order for at least $1 million. "I hedged my whole business," Kesselman says, and scraped up enough to place the initial order. "My best friend told me I was an idiot to put 'vegan' on the package. But it worked out."
Stick to Shoes
Raw became the first vegan rolling papers on the market, almost instantly winning a loyal following. To this day, the brand's popularity owes a lot to Kesselman's over-the-top public personality.
You can watch Kesselman on Instagram ride in private jets or hotbox his "vegan" Ferrari--the seats are microfiber instead of leather--with arm-size joints. (He also documents his more serious work in Ethiopia, where he has donated about $2 million to build clean water wells.) Although Raw isn't specifically marketed for cannabis, after scrolling through his social media pages, you get the wink and nod.
Kesselman says he plans to continue the ride, uninterrupted, for years to come. While research firms like BDS Analytics predict that new cannabis users are trending toward vapes and edibles, Raw is not going smokeless.
"My grandfather had this Yiddish expression that translated to 'shoemaker, stick to shoes,'" Kesselman remembers. "I'm the best in the world when it comes to rolling papers. I know what my job is and it's very simple: supply you with the best rolling paper ever made."