STEVE INSKEEP, host:
Now that marijuana is in the open in some places, so is marijuana marketing. Dispensaries across California sell medical marijuana. Pot sellers promote their product as providing better highs and shorter lows. One dispensary even sells a variety that it promises will not get you stoned. The advertising is the latest focus in our series, The New Marijuana. Sarah Varney reports from member station KQED.
SARAH VARNEY: The doors have just opened for the day at Harborside Health Center, a pot dispensary in Oakland, and dozens of customers line up to look at the marijuana neatly displayed behind a glass counter.
Unidentified Man #1: Actually, can you give me, like, four different kinds of Kush that I can pick from?
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.
Unidentified Man #1: What's the best ones that you've got?
Unidentified Man #2: The best Kush I have today is the pineapple Kush.
VARNEY: There are dozens of cannabis varietals to choose from. And while I couldn't tell the difference between Blue Dreams, Super Diesel and something called Original Purple - which is on sale today - what is clear is that this isn't your grandma's marijuana.
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.
Mr. STEVE DEANGELO (Executive Director, Harborside Health Center): Have you ever seen the CannaBible?
VARNEY: Steve DeAngelo, executive director of Harborside, opens a gorgeous book with luscious, arty photos of cannabis varietals. The descriptions read like something out of a Robert Parker wine review.
Mr. DEANGELO: Lush and spicy, she is reminiscent of Kali Mist, yet fatter and with a little more body. The high is up and giggly and long-lived as well. I was baked for four hours after smoking some.
VARNEY: Up until recently, these 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.
Marijuana advocates say more aggressive efforts 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.
Dr. FRANK LUCIDO (Family Physician): Well, I see a lot of people positioning themselves to try to be the next Seagram's.
VARNEY: Frank Lucido is a family physician in Berkeley and a vocal advocate in the medical community for cannabis.
Dr. LUCIDO: You know, just as before Prohibition fell, a lot of people that were selling, you know, alcohol illegally were trying to get the market share that they either already had or would get.
VARNEY: 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 Executive Director DeAngelo says efforts to brand and market cannabis products defile the movement's reputation.
Mr. DEANGELO: It would not be a good idea for us to put cannabis into 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.
VARNEY: 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. And his advertisements recently began featuring something like a Good Housekeeping seal for medical marijuana.
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 a chemistry lab down the street in Oakland. The lab was founded by two former pot growers.
Mr. DAVE LAMPACH (President, Steep Hill): You would put a sample into the machine in a sterile bag, and then you would just turn it on.
(Soundbite of machine)
VARNEY: The lab's president, Dave Lampach, says Steep Hill tests marijuana from all over California for potency, mold, even pesticides.
Mr. LAMPACH: Well, it's important to know what's in the products you're consuming.
VARNEY: But the testing has led to other euphoric revelations. THC - the main psychoactive substance in pot has always been the golden ring for breeders. But the lab recently found that a potentially beneficial compound called CBD had 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 calm critics heading into a tough legalization campaign this fall.
For NPR News, I'm Sarah Varney.