As California voters consider a ballot measure this fall to legalize pot sales for anyone older than 21, the marijuana movement is taking on a glossier, some say more corporate, sheen.
Marijuana is increasingly being marketed with claims of better highs and shorter lows. One dispensary even sells a variety it promises won't get you stoned.
Dozens of customers line up to look at the marijuana neatly displayed behind a glass counter at the Harborside Health Center, a pot dispensary in Oakland, Calif.
There are several cannabis varietals to choose from. Although it's difficult to tell the difference between Blue Dreams, Super Diesel and Original Purple, what is clear is that this isn't your grandma's marijuana.
No Longer Word Of Mouth
Weed aficionados say the pot bred in 2010 is far more powerful than the skunk weed baby boomers might remember from their college dorms. Still, marijuana users, like wine connoisseurs, contend that different strains of cannabis -– however strong -– have their own unique taste, aroma and euphoric experience.
Steve DeAngelo, executive director of Harborside, reads from the CannaBible, a gorgeous book with luscious, arty photos of cannabis varietals. The descriptions read like something out of a Robert Parker wine review.
One talks of a varietal that is "lush and spicy ... reminiscent of Cali mist yet fatter and more body. The high is up and giggly and long lived as well. I was baked for four hours after smoking some."
Until recently, cannabis reviews have largely been based on folk wisdom -– people over the centuries getting stoned and comparing notes. But now these products -– and promises of marathon highs and cure-alls -– are showing up in advertisements in glossy magazines and in promotional booths at trade shows.
Fears Of Corporate Involvement
Marijuana advocates say the more aggressive effort to brand and market cannabis strains is a sign their movement is gaining legitimacy. But, they say, if California becomes the first state to legalize and tax pot, the day is not far off when multinational companies and their Madison Avenue advertisers will compete for market share.
"I see a lot of people positioning themselves to be the next Seagram's," says Frank Lucido, a family physician in Berkeley and a vocal advocate in the medical community for cannabis. "Just as before Prohibition fell, a lot of people selling alcohol illegally were trying to get the market share that they either already had or would get."
Indeed, those in the industry say marketers will see an opportunity in segmenting pot consumers: lower-grade, industrial-produced cannabis, a Budweiser if you will, for some; and a more artisanal, boutique-y brand for the locavores and foodies.
Not everyone is happy with the newfound attention.
Harborside's DeAngelo says efforts to brand and market cannabis products defile the movement's reputation.
"It would not be a good idea for us to put cannabis in the hands of companies that are going to spend 20 times as much money creating a market on promoting the product as they do on actually producing that product," he says.
DeAngelo prefers allowing only nonprofit organizations, like Harborside, to sell cannabis. That said, he is well aware of the power of old-time marketing tactics. His advertisements recently began featuring something like a Good Housekeeping seal for medical marijuana.
Quality Of Pot
There are no state consumer protections for those who shop at marijuana dispensaries, and even the same strain of cannabis varies from batch to batch. So the dispensary recently began sending samples of its inventory to Steep Hill, a chemistry lab down the street in Oakland that was founded by two former pot growers.
The lab's president, Dave Lampach, says Steep Hill tests marijuana from all over California for potency, mold and even pesticides.
"It's important to know what's in the products you're consuming," Lampach says.
But the testing has led to other euphoric revelations. THC -– the main psychoactive substance in pot -– has always been the golden ring for breeders. The lab recently found that a potentially beneficial compound called CBD has almost been bred out of the marijuana sold in California. Marijuana researchers say CBD may relieve pain and stimulate appetite but leaves the user largely un-buzzed.
Pot advocates hope this "diet pot" also has another side-effect -– helping to calm critics heading into a tough legalization campaign this fall.