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Legal Pot Has a Branding Problem

Step away from the Doritos, people!


Hey pot smokers, can we talk for a second? I know I’m not one of you—haven’t been for a while—but I’m generally on your side. I think it’s idiotic that, in most states in the country, cops still spend time busting people for weed when they could be chasing down rapists and armed robbers. Fifteen years ago, when my hometown held a referendum to legalize medical marijuana, I happily voted yes. Last year, when Washington and Colorado okayed ordinary possession, I was even more happy, because it meant healthy people no longer had to go through the charade of getting some phony-baloney diagnosis of flat feet or tennis elbow in order to get a cannabis prescription. People want to smoke; the government should butt out.

But now that pot is getting to be all grown up, I think it’s time we take a hard look at its aesthetics.

You know what I’m talking about: The patchouli, the incense, the dorky pot-leaf logos on the ugly rasta hats. This is a product that, if everything goes the right way, will soon be as respectable as cigars or port. Decriminalization advocates work hard to convince hidebound state legislators to see it, accurately, as a basic indulgence favored by millions of hard-working taxpayers. According to polls, four in ten Americans have smoked the stuff, which guarantees that the average smoker looks more like a the chair of your PTA than Shaggy from Scooby-Doo. So why must the most public of its devotees hold on to the look, feel, and sound of a dorm-room homage to an imaginary version of the 1960s? You can do better than this.

Pot culture’s latest offense against good taste came this past weekend during Seattle’s HempFest. The city police department, patrolling the first festival since Washington’s 2012 marijuana referendum, took a commendably friendly approach, leaving it at reminding people not to drive under the influence. You could imagine them doing the same thing at a wine festival or a barbecue battle. With one difference: For HempFest, the police public-safety materials came affixed to bags of Doritos and bearing a message whose list of do’s and don’ts included “do listen to ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ at a reasonable volume.”

Imagine if the Munich police handed out beer nuts during Oktoberfest, or, odder still, if those nuts came with flyers encouraging revelers to listen to AC/DC’s “Have a Drink on Me.” And while no one can blame you for what the cops do as they try to look cool, they can surely blame you for what came next: The Dorito bags vanished in 10 minutes. Come on, people! We’ve reached a point in this country where supermarkets post charts listing the most appropriate ways to pair beer with food. Can you at least switch to a more up-market variety of chip? (And don’t get me started about HempFest’s name: The stuff is legal out there! I’m sure hemp’s industrial twine-making powers are formidable, but I think it’s safe to stop talking about them.)

Now, the logic of the marketplace would suggest that someone will eventually try to turn a profit by appealing to the more refined aspirations of the marijuana-buying public. Joe Sixpack’s cold one didn’t turn into a complex, hoppy microbrew by accident—there were all kinds of marketers, cheerleaders, aesthetes and snobs who helped it on its way. But so far, if there is a weed world analogue to Wine Advocate or Cigar Aficionado, it’s lying low. Here’s the second paragraph of the review of the most recent “medical strain of the month” as determined by the venerable pot periodical High Times: “‘That’s the Kush, man, for sure,’ my friend’s younger sister, just home from her first year at college, told me between puffs. ‘It’s so damn Kushy!’” Robert Parker it ain’t.

Then again, it’s hard to sound like a sophisticated, grown-up cultural arbiter when the products you’re reviewing are given names like XXX Diesel, Skunkberry, or Green Crack, to pick just three strains mentioned in the groundbreaking marijuana-dispensary reviews that appear in the Denver alternative-weekly Westword. It’s simple marketing, folks: Back when pot was underground and persecuted, it was one thing to smoke—or name albums after—something dubbed “the chronic.” Now that we’re supposedly all adult and enlightened about things, is it really such a good idea to call your highest-quality product by a term that’s usually followed by words like “pain,” “condition,” or “toxicity?” I suppose you could also highlight a cigarette’s excellence by labeling it “the emphysematic,” but it might not move much product.

It may be that the realities of the legal, regulated marketplace may push pot aesthetics in a better direction whether fans want it or not. California may have launched one of the best-known early medical-marijuana efforts, but thanks in considerable part to government red tape, its storefronts are decidedly sober. In the District of Columbia, the government just approved a 118-page set of medical-marijuana regulations that constrain everything from store signage (you can’t even mention pot in a shop-window advertisement) to store names (city hall can reject any proposed title). As a result, D.C.’s newly open dispensaries feature names, and decors, that evoke chiropratic practices more than head shops: It’s unlikely persnickety local bureaucrats would be okay with a name like that of the Denver dispensary Sweet Leaf.

The problem with the regulated version of legal marijuana facilities, though, is that pseudo-clinical “wellness” aesthetics are almost as irritating as pseudo-hippie campus ones. So if we can’t rely on regulators to do the job, capitalists might help: Earlier this year, a former Microsoft executive announced plans to create the first nationwide marijuana brand, likening his would-be empire to a Starbucks for pot. If he follows the coffee titan’s model, that’ll mean a uniform approach to everything from furniture to music—all of it designed to appeal to the widest range of customers. It doesn’t take a branding expert to suspect that will mean modern sofas and soft lighting are in and Marley posters and hemp jewelry are out.

All of this, of course, puts the ordinary marijuana smoker in an odd position. You can either count on big law or big business to grab control of pot culture’s sights and sounds, or you can accept that pot-smoking must always be accompanied by Doritos and Phish, or at least by propaganda for dubious nutritional supplements. Unless someone out there comes up with a third option—something that says “fun” and “relaxation” without also saying, like, “guy who hangs out at a Laser Floyd show.” How ‘bout someone light up and brainstorm about that for a while.