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Mention marijuana advertising to anyone who was alive in the 1970s, and you
might draw out of them a famous Cheech and Chong jingle.
“No stems, no seeds that you don’t need,” goes the ditty, “Acapulco Gold is” —
cue sound of someone toking on a joint — “badass weed!”
It was a joke at the time, but cannabis cultivators and dispensary owners across
California are in a rush to polish their brands and come up with a campaign as
effective as that one. Who, after all, hasn’t heard of Acapulco Gold?
But with California voters expected to legalize recreational pot on election
day, some critics and health experts aren’t amused. They say Proposition 64’s
lax rules on marketing, and the inevitable competition for customers, can only
drive more drug use — yielding a bigger windfall for the state under its 15
percent pot tax, but also more damaging side effects.
“As marijuana becomes a commercial product like cigarettes, soft drinks, junk
food and alcohol, consumption is going to go up and the associated health risks
are going to go up,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor with the Center for
Tobacco Control Research at UCSF.
Glantz co-wrote a study released last month advocating for stiffer regulations
and an accompanying cigarette-like public health campaign. Ideally, he said, a
combined recreational and medicinal industry would be run by the state,
eliminating pot profiteering, with tax revenue used on prominent ads and
warnings discouraging use.
Proponents of Prop. 64 call Glantz’s proposals misguided in that they treat
marijuana like a dangerous drug and ignore its medicinal benefits. Banning
marketing, they say, would defeat the purpose of legalization, which requires a
retail system to defeat the black market.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, while campaigning for the measure Monday in San
Francisco, said California has had de facto legalization since 1996, when voters
approved medical marijuana use, and Prop. 64 would simply take it out of the
If “a husband and wife want to vape something instead of having that second shot
of Jack Daniel’s,” Newsom said, “I don’t know that that’s particularly
Prop. 64 would use tax revenue for marijuana research and keep pot out of the
hands of children, but says nothing about discouraging general use of the drug.
In any event, Glantz’s idea appears to be going up in smoke as Tommy Chong, of
the famed comedy duo, rapper Snoop Dogg and country music star Willie Nelson
promote their own marijuana lines, and a variety of promoters seek to take
advantage of celebrity cred to get into the bud biz.
California pot growers and dispensaries that may soon add recreational weed to
their offerings are brainstorming ideas for logos, slogans and image overhauls.
“The revolution has just begun,” Steve DeAngelo, the co-founder of Oakland’s
Harborside dispensary, declared when he introduced a flag logo and rebranding
campaign on the company’s 10th anniversary in October.
Harborside, the biggest dispensary in the country, dropped “Health Center” from
its name and intends to transform itself into an integrated conglomerate growing
and selling pot products all over the state.
“More cannabis companies are branding, more dollars are being spent on branding,
and new companies are emerging every day, so there is huge creative energy in
the industry,” DeAngelo said. “In the next few years, we are going to see more
brands. It’s going to be this period of wild experimentation.”
The reefer revolution scares Glantz, who foresees a California ganja boom with
parallels to the tech explosion, where entrepreneurs start businesses, build
them and sell them to multinational corporations and Big Tobacco, which excel in
mass marketing and can benefit most from it.
A report he co-wrote in 2014 documents how Philip Morris, British American
Tobacco and R.J. Reynolds have contemplated getting into the weed market since
at least 1970.
“These corporations are going to want to maximize profits,” Glantz said, “which
means maximizing consumption.”
Brian May, a spokesman for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, told The
Chronicle, “We have no plans to sell marijuana-based products.” R.J. Reynolds
has repeatedly said the same thing.
Richard Miadich, legal counsel for the Yes on Prop. 64 campaign, said the
concerns about Big Tobacco are unfounded given the measure’s protections against
monopolistic behavior, including limiting crop size to 22,000 square feet for
the first five years. He noted that any corporation seeking to run a store or
farm would have to apply with the state for a separate license to operate it.
California is one of nine states voting Nov. 8 on ballot measures to loosen
restrictions on marijuana, and one of five states — joining Arizona, Maine,
Massachusetts and Nevada — that may permit recreational use of the drug for
people 21 and older.
Prop. 64 places some limits on marketing, with most of the rules seeking to
protect those under 21, including a ban on symbols, language, music or cartoon
characters known to appeal to young people. Billboards would be allowed, though
they cannot be within 1,000 feet of a day care, school, playground or youth
Pot is illegal under federal law, meaning California residents probably won’t
see television and radio ads for the drug in the near future. But things may
change, and Prop. 64 opponents have criticized the measure for leaving the door
open for such ads — which are permitted on television and radio broadcasts, as
well as online and in print, as long as the typical audience is at least 71.6
Similar restrictions are in place in the four states where adult use of
marijuana is already legal, and they haven’t discouraged many forms of hearty
In Colorado and Washington, growers, makers of edible products and operators of
pot stores are rolling out scores of products, slick websites, elaborate logos,
packaging and catchy sales pitches.
“It’s supercompetitive,” said Olivia Mannix, who in 2014 co-founded Denver’s
Cannabrand, which calls itself the world’s first marijuana marketing agency.
“There are so many brands now, so if you want to be competitive and have a
chance of making it, you sure better have marketing.”
Vashon Velvet, a artisanal grower on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, reaches
customers through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The slogan on the elegant
packaging reads, “For the pursuit of Happiness.” The plants go by names like
Platinum Blueberry, Laughing Buddha and, yes, Acapulco Gold.
A brief health warning on packages states that the marijuana inside “has
intoxicating effects and may be habit forming.”
California’s Prop. 64 goes further than Washington’s rules, requiring a warning
on every package that people should use marijuana with “extreme caution.” The
warning says pot is a “controlled substance,” that it should be kept away from
children, that it “may be harmful” for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and
that it will impair driving.
There are indications that the drug is becoming more popular in Washington and
Colorado after each legalized it in 2012. Federal government surveys of Colorado
residents completed in 2013 and 2014 found that 14.9 percent of people reported
using pot in the past month — up from 10.4 percent two years earlier.
Critics blame commercialization, but the increases follow longer upward trends,
making it difficult to say how the pot laws — and marketing — factored in.
The scent of sinsemilla is already quite familiar in San Francisco, but the
city’s herbal healers are just now wrapping their heads around the dictates of
“Brands are a big thing,” said Erich Pearson, who founded SparcSF, the San
Francisco Patient and Resource Center, on Mission Street in 2010, and now sells
a specialty brand named Marigold. “When you are marketing, you need to have
something to talk about.”
Pearson said his past marketing has consisted only of word-of-mouth referrals
and people finding him through Google. But he said he is negotiating a contract
with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to advertise on buses,
and he envisions opening a new farm in Sonoma County.
“It’s sun-grown cultivation with a conscience,” Pearson said, apparently trying
out a slogan. “We have a farm-to-table approach in that we cultivate about half
of what we sell and offer tours of the farm and subscriptions, like a wine
For supporters of legal pot, marketing is a necessary component of an evolving
industry that can, if properly regulated, educate consumers about what they are
“By legalizing it, you are regulating it, and what does regulation do?” asked
Mannix of Cannabrand. “Regulation allows people to learn about what it is, what
works and what it does for their body.”
David Michael, a partner at Purple Line Media, a San Rafael marketing agency
that specializes in marijuana, said consumers want trustworthy products — not
pot brownies cooked up in someone’s home kitchen or rag weed from
“The people we are working with are the people who are trying to legitimize
their cannabis brands, to come out of the shadows, as they say,” Michael said.
“I say let the best brand win.”
Article by Peter Fimrite