Marijuana Industry Sets Its Sights On The Mainstream

11/24/2014 07:31 am ET | Updated Nov 24, 2014
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Marijuana is growing up. As Colorado and Washington’s recreational marijuana industries blossom and new markets in Oregon and Alaska begin to take shape, so-called ganjapreneurs are looking for ways to take cannabis mainstream. Before long, they hope, marijuana products will be as widely available as alcohol -- and just as socially acceptable.

“Ideally, I would like to see the 21-to-35 year-old taking a four-pack of these to a barbecue,” Joe Hodas, chief marketing director for the marijuana product manufacturer Dixie, said earlier this year of the company's new watermelon cream-flavored "elixir," Dixie One. The drink contains five milligrams of THC -- just enough to produce a subtle buzz.

“This is a full experience in a bottle, much like beer," Hodas said. "Sometimes they’ll want a beer, sometimes they’ll want two or three beers. This sort of affords you that calibration."

Since starting in 2010, Colorado-based Dixie has developed a wide array of marijuana products, from THC-infused chocolates to concentrated cannabis for e-cigarettes. Many of its offerings are aimed at experienced marijuana users with high tolerances -- the company's top seller is a line of elixirs containing 75 milligrams of THC. Lower-dose products are proving increasingly popular, however.

“It’s been selling really surprisingly well,” Hodas told The Huffington Post recently of Dixie One. “In some of our stores, it had been outselling our 75 mg elixir. We were going to be happy if it sold decently well, but it was outselling in some cases. That said to us, we were correct, there is a market for that consumer.”

Encouraged by the success of Dixie One, the company is focusing on casual cannabis consumers. This week, Dixie released another low-dose product, a mint that releases THC directly into the bloodstream as it dissolves in the mouth.

“I think the low-dose consumer is an expansion demographic for us,” Hodas said. “It’s my belief that the core marijuana user is a small circle, and in a much larger surrounding circle is the casual user and a much larger market.”

At the moment, the recreational cannabis industry is limited to Colorado, Washington, Alaska and Oregon. Marijuana advocates and business owners say it's only a matter of time before more states follow, bringing cannabis products like Dixie One to store shelves and backyard barbecues across America. More than 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, and this month voters in Washington, D.C., approved a referendum to legalize recreational use in the nation's capital.

Already, Colorado and Washington state illustrate how cannabis is shedding its stoner image and entering mainstream culture. Marijuana products have been featured prominently in gourmet dinners and in cooking seminars in both states. The drug has become a fashionable substance to offer as a celebratory toast at weddings. Yoga enthusiasts can seek zen at marijuana-fueled classes.

Earlier this year, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra held a “Classically Cannabis” fundraiser, where well-heeled attendees sipped drinks, shook hands and smoked pot from joints, vaporizers and glass pipes, while a brass quintet played Debussy, Bach, Wagner and Puccini.

"Cannabis is being elevated into the pantheon of refined and urbane inebriants, no different than boutique rye or fine wine," said Matt Gray, the publisher of a new gourmet marijuana cookbook.

A number of worrying episodes have accompanied the legal high, however. In March, a 19-year-old college student leapt to his death from a hotel balcony in Denver after eating marijuana-infused cookies. In April, police said a Denver man shot his wife to death after he said he had eaten marijuana candy and prescription pills.

Hospital officials in Colorado have said that they have been treating a growing number of adults and children who have consumed marijuana products, whose potency can be hard to judge.

State laws in Colorado and Washington already require a “serving” of THC in an edible marijuana product to be limited to 10 milligrams -- about the amount in a medium-sized joint. (The rules in Alaska and Oregon have not yet been set.) Some products, such as candy bars, may contain multiple servings, however, and package labels do not always include serving size or dosage information.

To address these issues, Colorado and Washington officials, and representatives of the cannabis industry, are finalizing new regulations that will require clearer labeling and childproof packaging. And, much like the alcohol industry encourages consumers to "drink responsibly," the makers of marijuana products are taking steps to educate customers and encourage responsible consumption.

“I think the idea of being proactive with our messaging -- being safe and responsible with our messaging -- we’re trying to do that now early on, versus being told to do that after the fact,” Hodas said.

“We are concerned about the uneducated consumer who may have a bad experience with edibles, because that means they may not use our products in the future," Hodas added. "So educating that consumer and making sure they know how to use them is of great importance to Dixie and the rest of the industry."

To that end, Dixie, like most marijuana product companies, has detailed information its website about how to enjoy its products. Marijuana Policy Project launched an educational campaign, aptly named ”Consume Responsibly,” with advice about preventing and responding to over-consumption or accidental consumption, as well as other detailed information about cannabis products, their effects and the laws that govern their possession, sale and use.

Recognizing that Colorado's marijuana laws are luring tourists to the state, the inaugural billboard for the campaign in Denver encouraged moderation and patience. “Don’t let a candy bar ruin your vacation," the sign read. "With edibles, start low and go slow.”

"We are aiming to boost the industry's image by removing negative stereotypes and stigmas, while promoting education surrounding the many uses of cannabis,” said Olivia Mannix, co-founder of Cannabrand, an ad agency representing marijuana-related businesses. “We feel that the public image of cannabis ultimately influences policy makers and is crucial for widespread legalization.”

Still, getting the message -- and brands -- in front of the public has been a challenge for marijuana companies. State laws ban advertisements on television or billboards that directly market marijuana products. Google, Facebook and Twitter refuse to accept marijuana advertising on their websites.

While marijuana businesses may have dreams of mass market sales and global domination, for the moment, they seem to be taking the "go slow" approach.

“The eyes of the world are on us right now, and how we handle that spotlight will go a long way in shaping public opinion about legal marijuana,” Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, told HuffPost. “Our businesses and our people are committed to building an industry we can be proud of. That means no shortcuts and none of the leeway that plenty of other industries out there get."

Her appeal to the marijuana industry is simple: “The future of this industry depends on the present -- don’t screw it up.”

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this story suggested that the "Consume Responsibly" campaign was launched by the industry, but it was launched by advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project. The story has been adjusted to reflect that. We regret the error.

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