The World Congress Weed Expo last year in New York City. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
This piece was published in partnership with the Influence.
“It took me getting into the weed business to actually put on a suit,” laughs Duncan Cameron at the Denver grow he oversees. As chief production officer at Colorado dispensary Good Chemistry, Cameron has given tours of the company’s 20,000 square-foot grow to businesspeople and politicians in the era of legal cannabis. Often, his role requires him to dress up. Today, he sports a Good Chemistry t-shirt.
Good Chemistry exemplifies its products’ recently elevated image. Stepping into the shop’s Denver location, customers are greeted by a long, white-marble counter supported by what looks awfully like cocobolo wood. The dispensary is located just steps away from the Colorado State Capitol, underscoring the brave new world of legal marijuana: mainstream, easily accessible and chic.
But a cultural conflict rumbles within a nascent industry that was once a countercultural, underground operation. As fancy dispensaries and stylish products proliferate, many in the industry are calling to “rebrand cannabis” and “shed the stoner stigma.”
Those calls rub some people the wrong way. “Some of us take a little bit of an insult to it,” says Russ Belville, a cannabis activist who hosts a show on cannabisradio.com. “[It’s] as if who and what we are is somehow a negative.”
Indeed, the whole anti-stoner schtick can get companies in trouble. In 2014, the Denver-based cannabis ad agency Cannabrand and its co-founders Olivia Mannix and Jennifer DeFalco scored a profile in the New York Times examining pot’s rebranding.
“We’re weeding out the stoners,” Mannix told the Times.
The backlash was immediate, with advocates criticizing the company’s stance as offensive and divisive. Mindful, a dispensary group, cut ties with Cannabrand, saying the comments “conflict with our company values.”
“We understand that these comments were hurtful and insulting to the industry and to the many that have fought so hard for years in the name of patient rights and safe access,” Meg Sanders, CEO of Mindful, said in a statement at the time.
“We never meant to put down anyone when we were talking about that,” Jennifer DeFalco, co-founder of Cannabrand, now tells the Influence. “We were strictly talking about the image of cannabis in advertising.”
But DeFalco emphasizes that they stand by their original comments: “We still feel very firmly about the fact that the industry needs to change its image in order to be taken seriously…. Lawmakers are looking at the industry, and if it’s still associated with that negative, stigmatized [stereotype], it’s going to be a lot harder for policies to change.”
“There’s no doubt that capitalism has moved the ball forward as far as marijuana legalization goes.” —Russ Belville, cannabis activist
DeFalco is one of many who think rebranding will be instrumental in the political movement to end pot prohibition.
“We believe brands will shape the future of the industry,” says Brendan Kennedy, CEO of Privateer, which owns Tilray, Leafly and Marley Natural. “Business is just another form of political activism.”
Privateer has come under criticism for appropriating Bob Marley and Jamaican culture, despite its partnership with the Marley estate. Kennedy is quick to defend his company’s Marley Natural brand. “Over the last 20 to 30 years, a lot of bootleg product producers have appropriated his image really unfairly,” he says. “I would see all these trinket-y, bric-a-brac products that were using his image in an unlicensed manner. Those products brought down his legacy and insulted his legacy.”
“I think we’ve created a brand in a way that embraces [Bob Marley’s] core message,” Kennedy adds. “[We] respect his social justice values and his values towards nature.”
Belville, who has been a vocal critic of Marley Natural, calls Kennedy’s comments “interesting spin.”
“Let’s keep in mind they’re benefiting Rita Marley—they’re not benefiting growers in Jamaica,” says Belville. “It may be too soon to tell, but maybe they will take some of these profits and reinvest in Jamaica.”
Check out our documentary about the ambitious weed legalization project in Uruguay.
“[Activists] continually express support for what we’re doing,” Kennedy says. “They ask us for money all the time…. Activists reach out to us for help because we can do things to end prohibition that they can’t. And that’s the end-game.”
Indeed, Privateer has put money into legalization campaigns and advocacy groups. The company partners with global nonprofits and supports several clinical trials on medical cannabis in Canada and Australia.
And while activists may be critical of business interests, they certainly don’t deny the industry’s role in the legalization movement.
“There’s no doubt that capitalism has moved the ball forward as far as marijuana legalization goes,” says Belville. “Governments want the tax revenue; entrepreneurs want to be a part of the ‘green rush.'”
Businesspeople and activists are both committed to ending prohibition—but their motivations are fundamentally different.
“Responsible legislation equals responsible business,” says Derek Peterson, CEO of TerraTech, a cannabis agriculture company. “We have to be involved in legalization efforts because they open up markets for us.”
But businesspeople couch their calls for legalization in terms of returns, while activists speak of the issue in terms of civil rights.
“Even if we weren’t making any money, locking up people for marijuana is not something we should do,” Belville says. “It’s a social justice issue for me.”
“I’ve seen [stoners] show up late to the meeting, totally undressed, and they don’t have a business card. That drives me crazy.” —David Paleschuck, VP of licensing and brand partnerships for Dope magazine
Cannabis “suits” may talk about their contributions to the movement, but it only makes sense for them to donate when the legislation benefits them. Remember the almost $25 million spent on attempting to create a marijuana monopoly in Ohio last year?
Unsurprisingly, support from businesses for grassroots initiatives and legislation that favor home-grow—allowing consumers to bypass the industry—is decidedly weaker.
“We received a token amount from marijuana businesses. Less than $5,000,” says Adam Eidinger, the activist who spearheaded Washington DC’s successful Initiative 71.
The ballot measure allows adults over 21 to possess, grow and give away cannabis—but sales remained banned. “We got so little [from businesses], because they did not see the business opportunity here if you aren’t able to sell marijuana,” says Eidinger.
Pot smokers near the State Capitol in Denver, Colorado on April 20, 2015. (Photo By Helen H. Richardson/ The Denver Post)
David Paleschuck, VP of licensing and brand partnerships for Dope magazine, says he’s seen the worst of both worlds in his time in the industry.
“I’ve seen [stoners] show up late to the meeting, totally undressed, and they don’t have a business card,” he says. “That drives me crazy.”
On the flip side: “I’ve been in meetings where some dude with a Wharton MBA comes in with a suit and has millions in the bank…. I roll my eyes at those guys because, what do you know about cannabis? What do you know about this game?'”
Indeed, Colorado has seen its fair share of un-savvy investors. “Those folks really don’t know what they’re getting into,” says Duncan Cameron. “You have to understand the culture.” Even though the industry is legal at the state level, marijuana’s Schedule I status makes the business still somewhat of a “street game.”
“I try to avoid [both] those types of people,” says Paleschuck. “It’s in the middle where you can relate to people on a business and personal level…. I think that’s the best place to be.”
Despite the fact that businesses seem to only support legalization efforts that benefit the bottom line, bigger companies in the industry can benefit small growers. Many independent farmers from California’s Emerald Triangle are partnering with bigger companies and investors, according to Hezekiah Allen, executive director of the Emerald Growers Association. The group represents more than 500 small, independent cannabis growers, who tend to be distrustful of big money in general, not just in the cannabis space.
“Our membership is interested in partnerships,” says Allen. “Money is not a problem so much as the consolidation of the industry…. Putting profits ahead of consumers, employees and natural resources is a problem.”
The question is, will new cannabis brands be owned by the investor class, or by the producers themselves? Currently, growing experience is undervalued by Wall Street types.
“There’s this idea, ‘Get out of the way stoners, the businesspeople are here,'” says Allen. “I bet there are people who would be surprised by the level of education and the level of sophistication that goes into running a cannabis business.”
He calls for a very different attitude: “Don’t come and take this. Come and work with us.”
Some businesspeople in the industry agree that a middle way makes most sense. “The people coming in and saying, ‘We got to get these stoners out of here,’ or ‘I can’t stand big business,’ are shortsighted. The better way is a win-win approach,” Peterson offers. “There’s a significant lack of appreciation for those that paved the way, and that’s frustrating.”
According to Peterson, cannabis doesn’t need to be rebranded as much as it needs to be branded, period. “Does it always need to be chic? No. Can it look hippy dippy? Absolutely.”
And that’s something that independent cannabis growers can get behind. Despite their distrust of big business, farmers are excited about branding. “Brands are going to change everything. Our growers can’t wait to tell consumers all about their farms and all about their struggle,” Allen says.
Check out our documentary about the fortunes to be made in the legal weed game.
Almost everyone interviewed for this article spoke of cannabis going the way of the wine industry. “It’s an independent model where there’s thousands of estates and thousands of brands [and] diversity of products in the marketplace,” says Allen.
But that will depend on how regulations are written. California has created a horizontally-integrated model for its medical marijuana program, which limits the size of grows and the number of licenses a company can hold, thus favoring smaller producers. States that go for vertical integration, however—requiring the same company to cultivate, process and sell the product—will tilt the playing field in favor of fewer, bigger producers.
How that balance will play out remains to be seen. And so does the overall role of Big Business in the industry.
According to Zack Hutson, Privateer’s VP of corporate affairs, Marley Natural does plan to support Jamaican farmers.
“As soon as the [regulatory] system gets up in running,” he says, “we intend to explore the best way to bring our brand to the market in a way that respects Jamaican culture and contributes positively to Jamaica’s ganja growers.”