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Cannabis has been part of human culture for millennia, and is still an important part of the day-to-day life of millions of people worldwide. However, in much of the world, a century-old stigma has established a harsh legal and social climate for the recreational and medical use of the substance. The current legal status of marijuana is extremely complex; in most countries it is illegal to grow, sell and carry the plant and consumption can carry the confusing label of ‘illegal but decriminalised’. Despite these barriers, in recent years a handful of countries have taken decisive steps to become marijuana-friendly territories. Cannabis legalisation advocates have pushed this agenda for decades, but it seems like it has gained institutional acceptance only in recent years. This new scenario has led to the establishment of a booming marijuana industry and its transition from street dealer, laissez faire black market to a regulated white collar business.
The most visible case of this phenomenon is the legalisation of marijuana for recreational use in the states of Colorado and Washington in the United States of America. Despite being illegal at the federal level, the legal marijuana sales in states that have moved for legalisation of medical or recreational use amounted to nearly USD 6 billion in 2015 and they are expected to reach USD 6.7 billion in 2016, according to ArcView Market Research. Despite many other nations like the Netherlands, Spain and Uruguay decriminalising the plant and implementing complex systems to produce and distribute it, it is the USA that has made evident the economic benefits in implementing a marijuana-friendly framework. The noticeable benefits reaped in tax money by marijuana-friendly states have certainly helped in tilting public opinion in favour of legalisation of the substance. With an election coming in November 2016, the states of Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, and Nevada will put recreational marijuana to the vote.
However, there are still big hurdles to overcome on the path to establishing the cannabis business as a solid industry. For one, marijuana needs to be rebranded from a harmful vice to a commodity. The plant has been stigmatised for over a century, being linked to violence and mental illness, and being widely regarded as an entry drug to harder substances. In order to reap the benefits of this new billion dollar industry, many interest groups are working to rebrand marijuana as a consumer product. One among many corporate players preparing the field actively for the end of prohibition is the company Privateer Holdings, which is building a global portfolio of brands that seek to legitimise marijuana. Privateer Holdings wants to elevate the standards of the marijuana business and it is doing so in a variety of ways. The company’s founders look like typical venture capitalists, they are highly educated and sharply dressed; they only use the term cannabis to refer to the substance and they have launched what is probably the holy grail of marijuana brands: ‘Marley Natural’, the official Bob Marley cannabis.
Marley Natural is not the only endorsed marijuana brand entering the market in the USA. Other high-end, celebrity-endorsed products include ‘Leafs’ by rapper Snoop Dogg and ‘Willie Weed’ by country musician Willie Nelson. These endorsements by legendary pot smokers and advocates could spark an increased interest and desire both in the established market and with entry-level consumers. Another driving force in the industry is Flow Kana, a marijuana curation and delivery service that brings marijuana directly from farms to the consumer. Flow Kana understands the needs of newcomers; they provide a quiz that asks customers how they want to feel (e.g. euphoric, creative or relaxed) and what symptoms they want to alleviate (e.g. anxiety or pain) in order to direct them to the appropriate marijuana strain. Speaking a language that is close to the personal experiences of non-smokers can facilitate first purchase and build a dedicated customer base.
The marijuana paraphernalia industry is also undergoing a slow but steady transformation, from marketing products that rely on a stereotypical ‘stoner’ aesthetic to something more sophisticated. With the emergence of high tech vaporisors (some of which contain carcinogen filtration); intricate handmade glass bongs that resemble art sculptures; and even golden rolling papers, attempts are made by industry players to move beyond the language and aesthetics commonly associated with cannabis use, which may play its part in de-stigmatising recreational marijuana use in the eyes of the mainstream population. Along with celebrity endorsements, shifts in language, standardised customer service practices and product specialisation, we may be standing at the cusp of a more widespread acceptance and legitimisation of marijuana in the eyes of non-smokers. This, however, is easier said than done, and there are many obstacles on the path to the emergence of a legitimate, legal and ‘housebroken’ marijuana industry. Apart from transcending ‘stoner’ culture through marketing, standardisation of agricultural and business practices to assure quality products delivered through quality services is also needed. Developing public health campaigns and ensuring public and private institutional support is another crucial factor. Future legitimisation of the marijuana industry will lay the ground for the emergence of new billion-dollar companies, but for now, the trailblazers will still find it difficult to get basic banking services. However, when new (legal) cannabis billionaires start appearing on magazine covers, the old stigmas the plant has carried will seem like yesteryear. The path to this marijuana-friendly future is not clear, especially at an institutional level, and looking beyond a few select countries and states, it is hard to tell whether or not marijuana legalisation will find widespread international support in the near future. With that in mind, it seems like innovation at all levels of the value chain mixed with a vehement respect for the history of marijuana is the right formula for success in this new wild frontier.
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