Cannabis is the fastest growing industry in the nation, a trend that doesn't seem to be declining. With such rapid growth comes inevitable backlash - backlash against prohibition but also against those who worked to end it.
The image of people associated with cannabis use has largely been negative and the making of corporate media. As the laws continue to change and social media technology continues to evolve, more people are discovering online that so many other people were and are using cannabis and that use - for whatever reason - spans age, gender, color and socioeconomic lines. Consumers get that already.
As new players enter the market for the first time, many of them are uninterested in cannabis use themselves, and they consistently argue that the public image of marijuana isn't classy enough, that it needs a facelift to appeal to a broader community. The dream of obscene profiteering has brought a lot of new people into the cannabis world, for better or worse. And, with every new company to receive investment comes an article about how they are trying to "class up cannabis" or "rebrand reefer."
Cannabis provides something for everyone - be it medicine, intoxication, jobs and/or eco-friendly goods. That fact has propelled grassroots not-for-profit legislative change, which has opened the door for more calculated lobbying and profiteering.
The activists fighting for their children, openly talking about their lives with chronic and fatal disease, small business owners, gardeners, doctors, those serving jail sentences to protest prohibition - they are the real face of cannabis, do they need a facelift?
The boom and bust of start-ups in cannabis is easily comparable to the growing tech industry; in Silicon Valley, everyone wants to be the next Google or Facebook, in Denver everyone wants to be the next Marlboro or Coors. The financial potential is huge and with it comes a lot of arrogant money. The primary difference between risky cannabis start-ups and risky tech start-ups, however, is that financing and management are compounded by ever-changing regulations.
Credit activists who fought prohibition for decades
In marijuana, the "industry" isn't a typical industry, it is still halfway an activist movement that doesn't operate for profit. Many of the victims of prohibition policy have fought for their right to possess and use only to see the laws turn in favor of profiteers from outside the existing industry who say they should no longer represent cannabis use. While normalizing and mainstreaming is important, at what point does "classing up the joint" turn into insulting the very people who made legal profiteering possible?
Because most investors still feel it is too risky to invest in businesses dealing with the actual plant, a federally illegal Schedule I Controlled Substance, money has instead flowed towards "ancillary" businesses such as packaging, software, machinery, media and marketing. A lot of professionals in these fields, particularly marketing, have come with little interest in the product or the people who use it but a desire to dominate the market financially, and they have had a lot to say about it in the media - most notably Denver's Cannabrand.
"[Dispensaries] are still like underground abortion clinics," Olivia Mannix of Denver-based Cannabrand told the New York Times in 2014. Cannabrand is a start-up that bills itself as the "world's first cannabis marketing agency."
It's hardly true that these people are pioneers. The pioneers came decades before them.
In addition to comparing Denver's medical and adult use dispensaries to abortion clinics, Mannix and her partner Jennifer DeFalco drew further ire from much of the industry and activist movement by saying they were "weeding out the stoners" in favor of portraying cannabis consumption as something more respectable types would engage in.
So who exactly is using cannabis? Do they need to be 'weeded out?'
According to the Colorado Department of Health, nearly half the state's adults have tried cannabis. Seventeen percent of males and 10 percent of females say they are regular users. The more likely someone has attended a college or university, the more likely they are to say they have tried it. Adults with higher incomes are more likely to have used marijuana. Use spans age, socioeconomic and gender status, with slightly higher use rates among the LGBTQIA community.
The most likely group to admit their use is still young white males, but perhaps that is because they face the least severe consequences for admitting to it. As the laws make it safer for more people to 'come out of the cannabis closet,' expect the demographics to equalize.
Perhaps the problem never lied with the people who use cannabis. If new players got to know the existing industry before deciding they know what is best for profits and people, they would find that cannabis is already a very mature and sophisticated industry in a lot of ways, but that in a free-market economy (which best describes California's current market over legal states) the public is the great equalizer.
Whether or not the product has been legal, people have been and will continue to buy it. When the laws permit responsible and reasonable manufacturing, sales and production, the best products are determined by consumers.
Really, cannabis sells itself and always has
There is no media or business expert who can somehow improve on the natural marketing of the plant itself - its looks, its smells and its effects. It doesn't necessarily need a rebrand so much as better public awareness about the facts. Part of what people love about cannabis and the cannabis movement is that it is the great equalizer. Seemingly opposite people with very different views can come together over a love of cannabis.
The "stoner lifestyle" is often what attracts people to it - laughing, eating, relaxing - a general appreciation for humor and culture that comes with cannabis use.
And, are these companies making significant investments in legislative change? Too often they are insulting the very people who have propelled legalization in order to appeal to those who want nothing to do with it (aka the minority). Perhaps all those rebranding efforts would be better spent investing in more freedom.
Angela Bacca is a Portland, Oregon-based writer, journalist, photographer and medical cannabis patient. She has been published in a wide variety of print and digital publications. Her last piece for Civilized, The War On Drugs Is A War On People Like Me, was published in March 2016.