Early on, Josh Kesselman sensed a void in the rolling-paper market. The former smoke-shop owner and collector of papers realized there wasn’t a truly natural option for consumers. In 2005, Kesselmam founded Raw, an all-natural “vegan” rolling paper. Under his guidance, Raw has become one of the most recognized and trusted rolling-paper brands in the world. In this exclusive interview, Kesselman discusses the secret to his success as a rolling-paper kingpin, the importance of innovation in entrepreneurship and the incredible charity work that has become his passion.
Most people know Raw Papers—it’s my favorite rolling paper. It’s a major part of a lot of people’s lives.
Take us back to before you started the company. How did you get involved in the industry?
Okay, I’ve got to give you the supershort version because you won’t give me hours to sit here and talk. And I would do it! For me, it all began as a kid here in New York City and my dad doing a magic trick with his rolling paper. That was the only magic trick he knew, and that [made] me fall in love with rolling papers—like a true infatuation. I became a collector of them. That’s all I really wanted to get into was rolling paper. I loved them. I had the biggest collection, I think, in the world at the time. It was a hobby. It was my passion.
So when I was in college, I scrounged up enough money to open up a tiny little head shop in Gainesville, FL, where I began trading with the other collectors to bring in cool papers from Europe, a lot of the old, cool shit. That brought me into the actual industry, where I’m importing papers into America and selling them. And then the actual idea for Raw, I was at my store and I brought in whatever anybody asked for. A dude asked me to bring in this natural cigarette, and at the time this was a big deal. We’re talking, like, ’93. He was like, “Oh my God, you’ve got to get these, they’re amazing! You got to bring them in!” So I say, “Of course.” I brought them in for him, and he comes in, opens it up and gives me a smoke. And he pulls it out, and I already know paper. I know a lot about paper at this point, and I’m expecting them to be like a natural brown [color]. I’m expecting it to be this beautiful thing because he’s been telling me, “It’s so natural!” And he pulls it out, and it just looks like a regular fucking Marlboro. And I was so disappointed. So right then was when I realized that all paper was essentially white. Why was that? Why are we still making this shit? So that led me down the road to Raw.
You’re talking about bleach, right? Rolling papers are bleached with actual bleach?
Some papers are bleached with actual bleach. A lot of times what you’re seeing when you see a white paper, you’re seeing chalk, like the chalk dust from when you were in school. The biggest paper companies out there add chalk to their papers because it gives you what we call a bogus white ash, so that as the paper burns down you see white, and you think, “Oh my God, it’s such good quality!” You don’t realize you’re literally smoking chalk dust.
Now, you know that that’s going to impact the flavor and other attributes, and if you’re a purist like me the last thing you want to be doing is smoking chalk dust. They do it even on their brown papers. They literally take their old paper, and maybe it’s a tiny bit different, but it still has the chalk, and then they add this brown dye. It’s called ammonia caramel, ammonia brown dye. They add that to make it browner! They don’t expect you to be able to taste the chalk. They don’t expect you to realize, and you do realize it because you taste it.
So, basically, you had the head shop and you realized there was a lack of a natural paper on the market and that led to Raw Papers?
Essentially, I smoke. I smoke a lot. I always have. And you know what it’s like when you smoke socially. You sit around with your friends, and you come up with brilliant fucking ideas, and Raw was one of those ideas. I didn’t know if I’d ever have the wherewithal to actually pull it off, but I dreamed of it starting in ’93.
I can remember the first time I saw a pack of Raw papers, sort of being a little skeptical, as I am of any new product, but then trying it and realizing, okay, this is something different and new, and this is a game changer. This was even before the whole clear-paper craze…
I was always against that. I had a few friends that went that route, though. But now you’ve got all these celebs, Wiz Khalifa and 2 Chainz…
Yeah, all my buddies.
They’re all on Raw. I remember Curren$y in particular. He was one of the first rappers to say, “Hey, I smoke this instead of blunts.” He was almost shaming his friends that were smoking blunts.
Yeah, because when you smoke a blunt you can’t taste your terps, man. You have no chance of getting any flavor, nothing.
Well, and you’re killing yourself.
Yeah, and you’re killing yourself, literally.
I had people tell me, “Oh, I quit smoking cigarettes,” and they’re smoking a blunt as they’re telling me that. I’m like, “You know that’s unfiltered tobacco, right?”
Oh, not just that. Remember, blunts are not meant to be inhaled. Like cigars are not supposed to be inhaled…
Right, that’s why people get that dizzy feeling. But, you know, the idea with blunts was, it makes the bag last longer. We can spread it out.
I have a theory. You know, I know blunt culture really fucking well. I’m part of blunt culture. It began when we were all smoking really crappy stuff. There was nothing else out there but really crappy shit. When you’re smoking absolute garbage, a blunt might be a great way to go, you know?
Right, but when you want the flavor of the material…
Yeah, we’re going the other way here. You’ve seen my latest launches, like the Raw Black. This is all about getting it to the point where you can taste even more. So I mean, if you’re smoking something that tastes like shit, a blunt is a great way to go because it’s going to mask that flavor and taste. But if you’re smoking something that’s amazing, you want to really enjoy it. You don’t want to eat a steak with a fucking condom on your tongue. You know what I mean?
Right, right. But speaking of steak, you’re a vegan, right?
You have been for years. And you have a vegan Ferrari?
Yes, I really do. Everyone fucks with me about that.
That is pretty intense. Like there’s no leather?
No animal products in the glue, no leather in the car. It was a real pain in the ass. But it’s beautiful.
So, obviously, that’s a sign of the success of your entrepreneurship, which I know you’re passionate about. But you’re even more passionate about philanthropy, right?
This dipshit sitting right here has likely saved probably 25,000 lives by now. Imagine that. This fucking dude who smokes more than most anyone who’s reading this has literally, one way or another, saved about 25,000 other human beings. That’s fucked-up that I could pull that shit off.
How is that possible?
There’s just such great need in places like Ethiopia and Uganda and the Congo, and feeding programs that I’ve done in the Philippines. But my biggest numbers do come out of Ethiopia, because I’ve got an amazing ground crew there. I don’t know how to describe it. I call it entrepreneurial philanthropy, where we run it as almost like a division of the business, where we’re literally going for these numbers. We call it a CPL—cost per life—which is a terrible thing. I hope you’ll never have to calculate it in your life. As you’re evaluating which projects to do, you’re deciding what the cost per life is, and you’re going for your maximum cost per life without looking at religion or preferences or anything. We just don’t go into areas where they’re going to kill me, because then it’s all over anyway.
Right. You’re talking about the most impoverished parts of the world.
Yeah, you’re looking at the poorest of the poor. I was in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, in April with the Sisters of Mother Teresa at a compound where I just put in this beautiful fucking water system. They hadn’t had fresh water, good clean water there ever, probably. We put in this amazing system for the Sisters. This is a place where it’s so poor and so rough that I am not allowed to spend the night…
You’re literally digging the first wells that ever existed in these places. They can maybe sometimes access water, but the water they get is so low quality that it’s not potable by any means.
So kids are dying from that water.
Yeah, dysentery, any kind of waterborne illness you can imagine.
People are carrying water for miles.
They’ll spend their entire day from the morning until night going to get water, bringing it back to the house, from the age of 4. I’ve got these videos of these little girls being trained to carry water, and they’re tripping on the rocks and falling, and they’re 4 years old. I’ve got a daughter myself. Yeah, it’s fucking heartbreaking. Right there, I was like, okay. That became a project of love where I was like, “We are stopping this right here.” And we did.
Right. Why don’t more entrepreneurs do this sort of thing? What’s stopping people?
It’s fear and a lack of love. Giving away money… I’ve given away, I don’t know, maybe two million bucks by now. I’m not sure, but something ridiculous like that. For some dude to give away that kind of fucking money, it’s scary as fuck. I could use that money to buy a bunch of stupid shit, or maybe I’ll need that money later! And you get really scared. However, I just keep reminding myself it’s not that many more days until I’m dead and buried in the fucking ground, and I want it to be legendary in terms of “That motherfucker did so much goddamn good. He didn’t just take, he gave, too, man.”
Well, you certainly are. But you live big, too.
Yeah, of course!
I mean, I follow you on Instagram. You’re traveling first class and visiting with all these celebs and everything, and having a great life.
I’m trying to do both, right? I’m trying to live both lives at the same time.
I think that’s incredible. And it’s all possible thanks to your work in the rolling-paper industry.
One thing I’ve noticed about you is you really see what people want in a product. Or what they do with it, and you adapt it to their needs.
That’s the goal. I work for you, and I don’t pretend I don’t. You know what I mean? My job is to make things better for you, one way or another. How can I improve it?
So you’re just constantly thinking of ways to improve people’s sessions.
Yes. Literally, that’s what I do. That’s really a good way to put it.
Right. Well, tell me a little more about Raw Papers. A lot of people feel like a paper’s a paper. What makes Raw different?
Okay. We won’t go too deep into paper science. The most important thing is something called joules, where you’re trying to match the joules stored in the paper to your material. And as materials change in the world, I had to make new paper in order to match the new, incredibly high-end strains that are so moist and so perfect and beautiful that we now have. I had to make a paper for that. You’re trying to do two things. One is you need to have enough stored energy—not too much, not too little—to match what you’re smoking. And you also have to design it to burn in a way that’s going to be consistent and not run. You want to do this naturally. It can be done with chemicals. You can put phosphates in, and lots of people do. Of course, I don’t. No fucking way.
If I can thin out the paper and give you just enough joules, just enough stored energy in order to cause your material to burn properly and transfer its energy into you, then I’ve done my job exactly right. If I make the paper too thick, you’re not going to experience the joy of your material as well. You’re not going to taste it as good. If I thin out the paper too much, the paper will not have enough energy left in itself to burn your material. It just won’t. So right now, like on the Raw Black, that’s as thin as realistically anyone wants to go. It’s completely possible with modern machines to go much thinner. We could probably cut that thinness even in half, but if you go to smoke that, you’re going to hate it, because it’s not going to have energy for your material.
You’re trying to do it naturally. Raw is just made out of plants. So if you decide [to only make a paper out of plants], how can you control the burn? How can you make it better without adding crazy chemicals? Well, you adjust the watermark. That’s the imprint on the paper that gets done with a steam wheel, in order to collect the burn to go the way you want it to. You also develop it with different sizes, different shapes. Then you work on other things. What about the people who can’t fold? We make cones for them. Then we go on and on like this to try to make it where, in the end, everybody can experience the best rolling paper in the world.
When you talk about animal materials in papers, maybe people don’t really understand, but a lot of these glues are animal-based, right?
Some rolling companies have, at least in the past, used animal-based glues. The part that I hated back when I was doing this, especially in the ’90s, is they would claim natural glue when the glue was made from—
Horse hooves and things like that.
Yeah, all that kind of [stuff]. And yes, technically that’s natural. It’s just not what we think of when we think of natural. You know?
So, yeah, with Raw, the gum is just made out of tree sap, essentially. Ta-da! You know, people are like, “What’s your secret?” Bunch of plants and some tree sap! It’s really that simple.
What is your advice to entrepreneurs?
My advice to them is to truly make the best of whatever it is that [they do]. I was raised by my grandparents. I was raised [with] the build-a-better-mousetrap theory, where you get rewarded for making a better mousetrap. And your goal is always to make the best that has ever been made. That’s the first step. Now, I know, nowadays you have to go market it and do all this other kind of stuff. Great, cool. That’s step two. Step one is first make the greatest
Right. Improve something. And then if that’s a success, improve the world…
You know, there’s this general cynicism, I think, that people have, that every foundation is a tax shelter. Anytime anyone has that giving impulse, their motivation just isn’t pure. But I mean, obviously with you, the motivation’s pure—
Well, no. I say it’s not pure. You want to know why? Because part of the reason I do this is because it makes me feel so fucking good. It’s hard to feel bad about yourself when you have that many lives under your belt. You know what I mean?
You’re directly saving lives and it makes you feel better to help people.
Yeah, every single time we do a project. And every time I’m over there and you see the projects and you’re touching the people that you fucking helped. Dude. I’ve got to tell you, honestly, there is no greater high in the world, and I’ve done a lot of fucking drugs in my life, man. There’s nothing greater than that feeling.
Incredible. Well, it makes me feel better for all of the Raw papers that I have consumed over the years. But how can the average person participate and help out?
Because of all the bullshit that’s going on out there, because there’s so much crap and lies and fraud and everything else you could imagine, we don’t take money from anybody. We really don’t. I’ll get friends to sometimes chip in, or sometimes if I have to sue some dude, I’ll make the lawsuit settlement be like, “Okay, you have to pay 50 grand to Wine to Water.” [Laughs] You’re going to save a bunch of lives in Ethiopia with me, whether you like it or not, as the settlement. I do things like that, but we don’t actually take money from outsiders.
What I really want people to do more than anything is to simply do the same thing. I want them to emulate this. I want them to become the greatest success in the fucking world at whatever it is they’re doing and then give back. So whatever you’re doing, I just want you to do it incredibly well, make yourself a massive fucking success because the world needs you to and then give back.
This feature was published in the April, 2019 issue of High Times magazine. Subscribe right here.