Governor Andrew Cuomo, in the first State of the State address of his third term in office, pledged to legalize cannabis in New York within a hundred days.
While the timetable is aggressive – usually, cannabis legalization has followed a lengthy review and planning process – it’s another sign of the widespread acceptance of cannabis use that has taken hold in recent years.
For a wide variety of reasons – changing demographics, recognition of its relative harmlessness, or simply the slow, plodding passage of time – societal attitudes toward what used to be called a “gateway drug” have drastically changed, and, like same-sex marriage before it, the law is slowly catching up.
And the opportunity created is borderline unprecedented: the ushering into the open of one of the biggest black-market industries on Earth.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect, however, has nothing to do with recreational use; as businesses are increasingly focused on cannabis’s potential in the wellness industry, the zonked-out stoner on the couch may be giving way to fit, active, urbanite professionals, more Whole Foods than 7-11 parking lot.
That’s because CBD, the non-psychoactive component in cannabis (as opposed to THC, which produces that legendary high), has a growing reputation in the management of both pain and anxiety. The shift away from cannabis as a purely recreational substance to a regular component in a fit and active lifestyle, however, will require changing the conversation about how society sees cannabis, and consequently, how cannabis exists in the market.
The fact remains that the entire discussion about the legalization of cannabis focuses – and to a degree rightly so – on recreational use and the sociological impact of criminalization since 1937 (when it was effectively first outlawed at the federal level), which includes everything from mass incarceration to petty harassment of minority communities.
Indeed, the first steps toward legalization in New York focused on reducing criminal penalties and removing use and possession as offenses warranting arrest. The result of that relaxing attitude is, predictably, an even more casual attitude towards recreational use, an effectively penalty-less offense in one of the most liberal cities in America. Nonetheless, cannabis’s image is still clouded by what’s perpetuated by shows like Broad City: acting like an idiot for funsies.
Now, that’s not an image that’s going away anytime soon. Cheech & Chongmay not be the most potent cultural symbol anymore, but the public perception about what cannabis is and does is likely to remain overwhelmingly dominated by glassy-eyed stoners who can’t maintain a conversation.
But there’s a huge opportunity in bringing other uses to the fore, getting ahead of the legalization discussions that are happening across the United States with a bigger, broader picture of what cannabis is and can be: polished, professional, adult, intelligent, and part of a comprehensive fitness and wellness lifestyle that extends far beyond the smoke-filled basement and the smell of a carpet stained with bong water.
This is, first and foremost, a PR issue, not a marketing one. Marketing can do and say whatever it wants; the trick isn’t going to be getting your product in front of consumers, but getting the right message out there, in earned media, that marijuana isn’t what you might think it is, moving the conversation away from THC and even medicinal marijuana and towards its role in a fit, healthy lifestyle.
Cannabis has a vital role to play in day-to-day life with an expansive range of applications, from helping manage symptoms of premenstrual syndrome to easing the sore muscles of exercise junkies to alleviating the effects of a host of sleeping, stress, and anxiety disorders. The applications go beyond palliative care and pain management for cancer patients: this is marijuana as a big part of a functional, successful, independent lifestyle for everyday young adults building careers. That’s an entirely new space for it to inhabit, and to do it effectively will ultimately require a fundamental cultural shift away from a single, dominant narrative about the substance.
It’s uncertain, unsteady ground, but it’s an exciting business investment opportunity that’s unprecedented, save perhaps for the personal computer revolution: an entirely new industry springing up, seemingly out of nowhere, with the hype of limitless potential. Bringing that to fruition is going to absolutely require new kinds of positioning: expert, clean-cut, adult, credentialed. The recent embrace of people like former House Speaker John Boehner, who pivoted last year very strongly towards advocating for the marijuana market, is indicative of the way forward: a marijuana industry in a suit and tie. It’s a change that’s coming, no matter what we do; the question is going to be who gets to control the conversation, and the business that takes command of it is the business that’s going to attract investors hungry to participate in what is going to be one of the biggest investment frenzies the market has seen in decades.
Now is the time to find your experts. Now’s the time to carve out your niche. The snowball is already rolling down the hill, and it’s vital to stake your claim to your corner before someone else does. I keep thinking about the runaway success of JUUL e-cigarettes; they didn’t bring anything to the market that wasn’t already there, but they took ownership over e-cigs, not simply as an alternative to smoking, but as a hip lifestyle choice, something the tobacco industry hasn’t been able to do since the forced retirement of Joe Camel twenty-two years ago. Smoking, in short, got to be coolagain. That’s a huge cultural movement, and one JUUL capitalized on – not only with marketing, but with a PR blitz focusing on health, youth prevention, and technology. They understood the potential of their burgeoning industry. Commanding cannabis will require the same foresight.
Eric Yaverbaum, President of Ericho Communications.