By Ken Stone
A week after his rented “super yacht” vanished from its slip behind Comic-Con, Brad McLaughlin is still confused and angry. And loaded for bear.
McLaughlin is CEO of the marijuana trading site BudTrader.com — the 11-month-old Craigslist of the medical cannabis industry.
His plan for a weekend of promotional parties aboard the 125-foot yacht Liquidity was sunk when someone — still a mystery — ordered the boat removed. Thursday and Friday, the boat renting for $3,000 an hour was there. Saturday morning, it was gone.About $100,000 was down the drain as well, he estimates.
“We flew too close to the sun and these guys slapped me like the fly that I am,” the Encinitas entrepreneur said Thursday. “I got bullied and just punked.”
Touted as the “Greatest PR Stunt of the Century,” the BudTrader parties promised to attract “Hip Hop Stars, former NFL and NBA athletes… major cannabis investors and cannabis friendly celebrities.” Comic-Con celebs could “rub elbows with A-List VIPs and ‘the world famous BudTrader Babes.’”
But when a Miramar-based BudTrader sponsor showed up around 9 or 10 a.m. Saturday to set up at the exclusive Fifth Avenue Landing marina right behind the San Diego Convention Center, he was shocked to see the slip empty — with a pile of items dumped on the dock.
Absent was an explanation.
Who took the boat? Why wasn’t anyone notified? What led to this?
McLaughlin, 33, says he began calling the marina management team, the landing’s security service, the captain of the yacht and the San Diego company he rented the yacht from.
“Everybody has gone zero-dark-thirty radio silence, and no one has responded,” he said. “We tried to call the Port Authority. We couldn’t get an answer from them.”
Brianne Page, a spokeswoman for the Port of San Diego, said Tuesday: “Harbor Police did not receive any calls or complaints regarding The Liquidity, have any interaction with the vessel; nor did it handle the removal of the boat or any property from the boat.”
But McLaughlin is confident he knows the culprit: folks aboard a neighboring Turner Broadcasting System yacht.
“You had people from TBS pointing and laughing and congratulating each other that they got rid of the BudTrader guys,” McLaughlin says. “My guys all told me the same story, and we’re standing by it — TBS executives laughing, having a good time. But they got us kicked out.”
TBS didn’t respond to a request for comment. Neither did officials of the Internet Movie Database (IMDb), who had a neighboring yacht, or Fifth Avenue Landing marina manager Neil Wilson. San Diego Marine Services at the Kona Kai Marina — which rented BudTrader the two-deck, three-level boat — didn’t respond to email or voice mail.
McLaughlin earlier was warned to take down his three BudTrader banners. He removed two. (“The whole point of us being there was to get exposure to our brand” and “so our guests can easily find our yacht.”) He cut the music. (The party ended at midnight.)
“Nobody from Comic-Con complained about us,” he said. “None of the fans or spectators complained about us.”
He doesn’t think the noise was an issue. He thinks it was envy.
“We heard they spent a million [dollars] to have their [TBS] yacht there,” he said. “And the celebrities and the stars on their yacht couldn’t wait to get on our boat.”
Moreover: “They tried to tell us if celebrities from other yachts want to come on our boat, we would tell them no. And I’m like: Nah, if some supercelebrity wants to come on our boat, I’m not going to tell them no.”He called The Liquidity a “fun yacht. We had an outdoor photo booth. Pictures get printed up right there. We had a popcorn machine; we had a T-shirt cannon. We were putting on a show. We put on a spectacle.”
The party was no “Animal House,” though. Marijuana smoking was confined to an adjacent tent.
“It wasn’t crazy at all,” McLaughlin stressed. “I’ve seen wilder private-school parties. That’s the part that’s got me scratching my head. Like we were giving out free popcorn and shit. C’mon.”
He didn’t even get beer out of the donated kegs — lacking the equipment needed to tap the IPA.
“I don’t even drink,” McLaughlin said.
He’s also upset at the “aggressive” way his staff was treated by dock security.
“The Amazon [with TB yacht] security guys looked like Delta Force guys, like Secret Service guys,” he said. “And we’re just computer scientists. This is above our pay grade.”
McLaughlin says his losses may approach $100,000, which includes yacht and slip rental, and cancellation fees for caterers, DJs and promo models. His company’s nine other employees were paid overtime Saturday and Sunday to handle the fallout.
“Friday was boring, but there was enough people talking about us,” he said. “Celebrities wanted to see how a weed website managed to get into Comic-Con’s private yacht area.”
(He says a BudTrader employee with sailing connections had heard that someone, perhaps Netflix, had canceled reservations for the coveted dock space. So McLaughlin, on a whim, reserved the slip. He says he couldn’t answer some “nautical” questions and didn’t know what kind of boat he should book, suggesting a “30-foot catamaran,” houseboat or “party barge” at first. The marina manager told him it was a “super-yacht parking lot.”)
Now McLaughlin is plotting his revenge.
He plans to file a police report on still-missing items aboard the yacht.And Thursday night, he sent email saying: “BudTrader.com has engaged a TOP Beverly Hills law firm to punish all our enemies, known and unknown. We will not rest until we have recovered all damages associated with our early and illegal ejection from Fifth Avenue Landing and Comic-Con. We will not be stopped; we are one.”
He said he hired Blair & Ramirez LLP — led by attorneys Matthew P. Blair and Oscar Ramirez. Their website says they specialize in “large and complex personal injury, wrongful death, employment law and class action cases.”
In April, Ramirez won a major civil case in Los Angeles federal court against Cigna Health Insurance, invalidating the 40,000-employee company’s nationwide arbitration agreement.
The party boat fiasco led to some positive outcomes, however — website traffic and registered users are at all-time high, McLaughlin says. And a major investor BudTrader sought has signed on.
“What happened on Saturday was the call to action for him to finalize everything and come on board with us officially,” McLaughlin says. “His rationale was like: You were able to piss off Turner Broadcasting, MTV, Viacom, IMDb and Amazon in two days. The fact that you have the guts to go get that slip and get the yacht and try to pull off the ultimate P.T. Barnum publicity stunt was impressive enough to me.”
One thing he’s not worried about is a White House war on the $6.5 billion U.S. cannabis industry.
“[Attorney General] Jeff Sessions can’t do anything,” McLaughlin said. “There’s too much tax revenue. … We’re not going backwards. If anything, we’re going forward.”
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