As New York comes into the legal industry swinging, few brands represent the swagger and hustle of the city’s legacy cannabis culture quite like Happy Munkey. As seen by those lucky enough to attend their massive five year anniversary party at Hudson River Park last Saturday, Happy Munkey has established itself as a social hub for the work hard, play hard cannabis culture of their hometown. As founder Vladimir Bautista puts it, “We don’t do it for the clout, we do it for the culture. Your vibe attracts your tribe.”
If the contemporary, streetwise style of Happy Munkey doesn’t tip you off to the brand’s New York roots, a few moments on the phone with Bautista ought to do the trick. Born and raised in Harlem to Dominican parents, Bautista’s voice rings with the confidence and cadence of a tried and true New Yorker who’d never dream of living anywhere else. So it follows that Bautista is convinced that his city will be the center of the action going forward. “I’m a firm believer that what happens in New York in the next two to five years will impact what happens in the rest of the country,” he says. “Hopefully we can use our knowledge, influence, and expertise to make sure that it changes it in the right direction.”
Happy Munkey may have New York City in its DNA, but their inspiration comes from beyond the five boroughs. “About six years ago, my partner Ramon [Reyes] went to Amsterdam and spent some time in one of the cafes there,” says Bautista. “He met people from all over the world through the sharing culture of cannabis and hospitality, and he knew we had the resources to do something like that in New York City.”
Though he had been a legacy operator for over twenty years, Bautista wasn’t quite sure he saw the vision. “I was like, a cannabis lounge? That sounds crazy.” But he trusted Reyes enough to try, and in 2017 they had their first event in their Times Square lounge space. “We knew then that we were onto something bigger than ourselves.”
With their monthly events, Happy Munkey quickly developed a reputation as “the Studio 54 of cannabis,” the place to be for some of the city’s highest profile cannabis aficionados. “The magic about the events was having a group of people come together that usually wouldn’t be in the same room,” Bautista says. “You’d have a celebrity, a basketball player, a football player, a billionaire legacy guy, a grower, a doctor, a lawyer, a 60 year old, 22 year old— we just really bring all these demographics together.”
Eager to spread the good vibes further, the Happy Munkey team attended to what they saw as a dearth in good cannabis media with a weekly podcast—broadcast every Monday at 4:20—and a web series called Munkey TV. The podcast, hosted by Bautista and Reyes, united the cannabis mainstream with the legacy culture. One week they might feature a CEO, and a formerly incarcerated social equity advocate the next. What they call the “Cannabis nexus of Corporate and Culture” was perhaps best encapsulated on Munkey TV’s video “Farewell to Prohibition,” when they celebrated NY’s first post-prohibition 420 by lighting up at the New York Stock Exchange.
With the end of prohibition, Happy Munkey wasn’t just celebrating the freedom to smoke freely on the streets of the Big Apple. After a long battle to make sure legacy operators didn’t get left behind, the state had agreed to give out their first 150 licenses to those with a prior cannabis conviction. As Mayor Eric Adams told CBS, “We unfairly targeted Black and brown communities during the marijuana heavy-handed arrests … and they should be front in line.”
But it was by no means a given that this sentiment would be expressed in the law. One of the early bills proposed in the state senate would have severely limited the possibilities for legacy operators. “[The bill] had very little social equity, no consumption, no home grow, and they were also trying to auction off the licenses—which in the financial capital of the world means billionaires only,” says Bautista. “We couldn’t stand by and watch that.” The socially conscious community that frequented the Happy Munkey events, including Steve DeAngelo of Last Prisoner Project and Black Lives Matter activist Hawk Newsome, circled the wagons to insist on their seat at the table, launching viral petitions and sending advocates to Albany to push for the state to pass the more socially conscious bill.
After their efforts paid off politically, the Happy Munkey team was delighted to apply for one of the coveted social equity retail licenses. With an eye on the glittering horizon, they took the opportunity of their five year anniversary party to launch the rebrand that would allow them to keep climbing up the industry ladder. “We plan on starting with our flagship location in New York, but we’re working on a product line, and we plan on being on shelves throughout the country,” says Bautista.
When I ask him for a hint as to possible strains, he tells me to expect something high energy. “I like the old school hazes, the sours,” he says. “New York is a really upbeat city, so we need to make sure that we have things that keep us functioning at the rate that New York moves.” Such a pace might be overwhelming for some, but Bautista takes it all in stride. “You can’t be couch locked in New York and be able to have seven jobs, like it takes to sustain yourself here.” he says. “We’re the city that never sleeps.”
Channeling all that energy into the rebrand seems a surefire way to realize his ambition to get Happy Munkey onto the industry’s center stage. “It’s an evolution,” he says, pointing out that one small step for Happy Munkey may prove to be a leap for cannabis kind. “People don’t want the whole bland Best Buy experience. People want to feel like they’re part of the culture.”