This Millennial Entrepreneur Hopes Americans Are Ready to Wear Cannabis Cologne

Trying to smoke out the fragrance industry

Until recently, Killian Wells hated the smell of pot. "When people smoked around me, it smelled like skunk," he said, "or worse—like skunk and B.O."

But then Wells, a recent transplant from New York to Los Angeles, visited a cannabis dispensary. Having diagnosed him with anxiety, Wells' doctor handed him a prescription for medicinal marijuana. So Wells found himself with his head over rows and rows of glass apothecary jars, inhaling the aroma of Sativa and Indica and scores of hybrids.

"I had no idea there was a good side to marijuana smell," he said. "I felt like so much could be done with the many little nuances of the aroma profiles."

What could be done, Wells decided, was make a fragrance.

To his surprise, for all of the cannabis-related products that had flooded the market, a cologne or perfume was not among them. So Wells created his own—three of them, actually. The unisex scents are part of a collection called Reefer Madness, and they join the other unusual offerings of Wells' company, Xyrena (pronounced "Zuh-Rehna"). Each of the 1.7-fluid-ounce fragrances retails for $74.

Reefer Madness differs from other cannabis products out there in that it doesn't contain actual marijuana—that would prohibit Wells from shipping his fragrances across state lines. That said, the juice smells a lot like the sacred herb.

OG Kush, for example, takes its name and aroma profile directly from the famous West Coast strain. It opens with a "signature sour lemon and pine aroma and drives down to an earthly cedar fragrance with a hint of burnt rubber." To create OG Kush, Wells used synthetic oils but also added in natural oils such as caryophyllene and limonene, which are found in cannabis. In fact, the quest of authenticity led Wells to embrace aromas that he'd initially recoiled from. Blue Dream, another of the Reefer Madness concoctions, boasts a "sweet blueberry aroma with just a hint of skunk."

Killian Wells

"I like to think of myself as the Andy Warhol of fragrance," Wells says. "I'm taking a fresh perspective and approach to a very stale industry that hasn't had any innovation for years. And you're not going to see any innovation from the major players because they're going to appease their shareholders. Startups are able to push the envelope, and that's what I'm trying to do."

To a degree, he's already succeeded. Prior to developing his cannabis fragrance line, Wells shook things up with a scent called $cam. $cam was the world's first fragrance-free fragrance. Meaning, it smelled like … nothing. Or, to be more precise, it smelled like nothing more than the wearer would smell like without wearing it. The price? $500.

(To fragrance aficionados who point out that the scent Helvetica was the first fragrance-free fragrance, Wells counters that Helvetica was actually just water, whereas $cam contains stabilizers and perfumer's alcohol and, hence, can be legally sold as a perfume.)

Wells concedes that $cam was really "more of an experimental art concept," but its creation—as with the Reefer Madness Collection—is instrumental in Wells' broader mission to expose what he believes to be the deceit of the mainstream fragrance industry, which sells bottles containing mostly distilled water and alcohol for significant sums of money.

To further his point, Wells hired actor Jake Mateo to strip down to his underwear for a commercial that's a not-so-subtle parody of Calvin Klein ads. "This sexist marketing has been heavily used by the mainstream fragrance industry since the 1940s—Yo, it's a scam!," Mateo says, grabbing his basket, Marky Mark-style.

"The fragrance industry is stale—it just has no innovation," Wells said. "It's stuffy and pretentious for no reason. Mainstream fragrances aren't necessarily bad. But for the most part I find them watered down and for no reason. They're mass-produced."

By contrast, Xyrena's scents, and the Reefer Madness line in particular, would certainly fall into the boutique category. Wells has no retail-store distribution as yet. He sells direct to consumers via the web. (He declined to cite any sales figures other than to say, "My sales are increasing every month.")

The larger question here, of course, is one of scale: How many American consumers will want to smell like a pot plant?

"People will love the smell of cannabis, especially before it combusts, because you can smell the natural terpenes," said Olivia Mannix, founder and CEO of cannabis-focused marketing firm Cannabrand. Mannix added that the Reefer Madness name, a reference to the 1936 film that demonized marijuana, is a canny retro touch. "It's a chance to reflect on old-school propaganda and how laws and ways are changing," she said. "I actually think this is a clever idea."

Others are slightly less sanguine. "Personally, I can't understand why someone would want to smell like marijuana," said Raymond Matts, a fragrance-industry veteran of three decades who's developed scents for the likes of Clinique and Tommy Hilfiger and today sells scents under his own name. Matts also knows a thing or two about the issue of smelling like marijuana. He's currently working on a new room spray that will render people nose blind to lingering pot smoke.

Blockbuster inspired Xyrena's logo.

Matts does believe that Wells' cannabis fragrances at least have a "novelty" value. (In fact, Xyrena plays the novelty card across the board, borrowing from 1980s and '90s pop culture for its packaging and logos.) Matts also concedes that even the skunky smell of weed does have its place in the perfumer's tool chest.

"It's not that I wouldn't use that type of odor in a fragrance, but it would be hidden," he said. "There are some things we use in fragrance that are pretty ugly." (Civet, for example, is a synthetic animalic that smells like cat urine, but it's an ingredient in Chanel No. 5 and Oud 27 by Le Labo.)

Even if Xyrena's Reefer Madness collection doesn't appear at Sephora, it's unlikely to stop Wells, who is not only an entrepreneur and marketer, but also a songwriter and producer. (He's created a music video for Blue Dream, which you can watch here.) So far as perfume goes, he admits he's just "an armchair chemist" and in fact has many ideas he'd like to bring to market.

Such as? "I'm making the world's first black-light reactive drink mixer tablet," he said. "That took two or three years to develop."