Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of Rolling Stone editors or publishers.
There is a scene in the movie Moscow on the Hudson starring Robin Williams that reminds me of my first experience in a cannabis retail store. In the movie, Williams plays a character who is new to New York, having emigrated from Russia during the communist reign. Used to seeing only one brand option for food, he is rendered speechless looking at the grocery store shelves, awash in options shiny with branding.
For those of us who grew up during cannabis prohibition, this is an experience we know well. I still remember the first time I visited a medical dispensary. It was Oakland, CA, in 2002. As someone who had been consuming cannabis since the 1990s, this visit to an actual cannabis store was one I will never forget. I walked up to an actual counter and before me were a variety of flowers, edibles and other products in their pre-regulatory glory. There were “Reefer’s Peanut Butter Cups” from a company called Tainted, and flower was labeled by the strain. I knew then that this was a whole new world — one that was titillating yet vulnerable to the perils of commercialization.
Now, almost 20 years later, legalized cannabis has given rise to hundreds, if not thousands of brands, each looking for that authenticity and way to stand out. Many brands think it is novelty that will set them apart. But, take it from a canna-elder, this is not capitalism as usual. So, instead of putting on my futurist hat to predict the next hot trends, I am going to give some perspective and weight to the notion that we should look back to move forward. Here are five ways that cannabis brands can honor the past.
1. Let the flower do the talking.
There was a time when we had one method of determining the quality of our bud: our senses. Our sellers didn’t bring branded, labeled cannabis — they brought us buds in baggies. We immediately examined the product with our eyes and noses, not by THC content, not by celebrity endorsement, but by what our bodies told us about what we were about to consume. So, stop talking about the potency and celebrity, and start talking about the flavor, taste and cultivation method.
2. Take it seriously.
Cannabis is fun. When used properly, cannabis is a good time. But for many, it is an important tool for maintaining health. Those who grow, manufacture and sell cannabis are in what could be considered by many to be a “wellness” industry when it comes to cannabis for medical purposes. Take it seriously. Ask yourself if the products you are making are going to benefit your consumer. If the answer is “no” or even “I don’t know,” stop and return to the drawing board.
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3. Understand that growers are people.
When I used to buy cannabis on the illegal market, the seller was usually semi-anonymous, and the grower, completely so. I never knew who was growing my cannabis, or where or how. But now, we have that information. We know that many who grow our cannabis are farmers and that they take the craft of cannabis cultivation as seriously as any other artisan would their craft. They have families and fears. Think about the grower when you decide who to buy from, who to display on your dispensary shelves, and, how small, organic farming is about more than just cannabis.
4. Focus on education as many consumers are just getting their footing.
Look, there are those of us who viewed legalization as the end of a very long period of personal illegal activity. But, there are many people out there who are either just turning 21, or who did not want to use under prohibition. These folks are figuring it out. Because cannabis is such a unique market, developing a healthy understanding of it early on is imperative. It is up to the industry to take this role as ambassador to cannabis seriously by focusing less on THC and more on the whole plant by educating consumers.
5. Realize it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Prohibition can create a feast or famine mentality — that consumption must happen swiftly and intensely because access might suddenly disappear. Legalization regimes cannot follow this pattern. Consumers need consistency to develop loyalty. Cannabis brands should focus on the long game. What will consumers want when the novelty wears off?
American capitalism is set up to take this industry the route of all flash and no substance. But that’s not what the cannabis industry needs. Brands should aim to educate consumers on their products rather than be in conflict with the commercialized way we interact with commerce. If we avoid the temptation to Coca-Cola our way into the cannabis future, not only will we be honoring the industry, we will be honoring those who shepherded us during its evolution.
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