Micah Johnson: Colorado, Washington Medical Marijuana Businesses Face Marketing Conundrum

By Micah Johnson

When the smoke finally cleared in Colorado following the raucous events of April 20, the giant elephant in the corner could no longer go unaddressed: Cannabis is evolving, and quickly.

The overwhelming sequence of High Times Cup events, parties, concerts, celebrity appearances and festivals brought 4/20 roaring to life, highlighting just how far cannabis has come. Yet the gunshots that rang out at the Capitol – while a disturbing sign of the times that could have occurred at any large gathering anywhere in the country – offered a sobering reminder of the stereotypes that still threaten marijuana’s acceptance. The last thing the cannabis movement needed was a shooting at a 4/20 event.

This begs the question: Is the world ready for recreational cannabis? And is marketing to the “420 crowd” a sure-fire invitation to criminal activity and backlash from the public?

The answers seem somewhat elusive at this point.

High Times certainly changed the game by bringing investment, tourism and economic benefits to Denver. There were more than 25 events over just one weekend, with even more in the days leading up to it. A news helicopter circled in constant rotation between the Capitol and the High Times Cup. Big names and big money accompanied the circus. Over 100,000 people came from out of town, bringing their money with them. It was like a miniature South by Southwest – Denver’s own hedonistic little convention, with cannabis taking the main stage.

As more money and increasing influential individuals promote legal cannabis, dispensary operators gain a pretty big incentive to defy the feds and switch from medical marijuana centers (MMC’s) to retail stores in 2014. But if these centers venture into the recreational realm, will the hard-won imagery produced through medical marijuana be thrown to the wayside and the old stereotypes rear their ugly heads? Is it worth the money to branch out from the medical marijuana market and dip your toes in the recreational side? Should early adapters play it safe with transitional marketing elements in case the federal hammer comes down, or should they start openly catering to the “stoner” crowd?

Again, the answers are somewhat elusive.

It’s hard to dispute that cannabis is becoming more mainstream, as evidenced by the crowds in downtown Denver last month and the increasing number of states passing marijuana-related laws. We’ve come a long way. For years now, the industry has been preaching of its healing qualities and racing to transform the traditional perception towards cannabis users.

The image of medical marijuana created by many industry events – bikini-clad women holding bongs, gangstas and hippies – served as media magnets, much to the dismay of passionate professionals. This has changed significantly in just the pass year or so, and you’re much more likely to see suits rather than tie-dye at industry events. So strong has that medical marijuana mindset taken hold that many MMC owners believe cannabis should only be used medicinally – even in the wake of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington State.

Nonetheless, recreational retail stores will take off in these states, much like the MMJ industry before them.

With this as the backdrop, I think that branding and marketing should not change considerably. In both Colorado and Washington – or any other MMJ state that legalizes cannabis for adult use – new MMCs should not paint themselves into a corner with either overly medicinal or overly recreational themes. Instead, they should walk the line.

Images of hospital staff should be few or absent altogether. Dispensaries can still promote the ailments that can be eased by cannabis, but the focus should be on presentation, branding and quality assurance.  Most importantly, patients and recreational clientele should both be treated to cannabis worthy of connoisseurs, thanks to cannabinoid testing and careful phenotype breeding. These are the new standards of excellence and culture – none of the traditional stereotypes should be perpetuated, except in passing.

There are other considerations that go into recreational marketing as well. First, municipalities may not allow non-medicinal literature in retail stores. Business groups may take sides. Then there’s the FCC, local advertising norms and limitations on what can be depicted in print and beyond.

But ultimately the shift must make sense to one’s current or desired clientele. For some, the medicinal image is reassuring; for others, such rebranding was disorienting from the start. Either way, true MMC’s will no longer have to strike a happy medium between demographics. No more mixing hip-hop with messages about chemotherapy.

The most important caveat is that communities and states must not rush into recreational cannabis. Without years of changing perspectives and stereotypes through medical marijuana, legalization initiatives in 2012 may not have stood a chance. April 20 proved that the newly accepted reputation of cannabis hangs by a thread, even now. If the retail industry can survive five years without federal intervention, then perhaps more relaxed and thematic stores will pop up. Planet Hollywood and Rainforest Cafe-like motifs may be the future.

But for now the transition needs to be an evolution of current medicinal standards. It may still be decades before cannabis vendors can completely – and confidently – let their hair down.

Micah Johnson is president and co-founder of Cannapages.com, a Colorado-based medical marijuana directory and tech agency.