To reggae star Bob Marley, smoking cannabis was a sacrament. Today, the cannabis startup Marley Natural is selling four strains of sun-grown, chemical-free cannabis in the  hopes that the Marley name will help end prohibition.

Marley Natural is owned by Privateer Holdings in Seattle (Peter Thiel's Founders Fund is an investor) and the Marley family agreed to a 30-year licensing agreement for the use of the family name.

Brendan Kennedy, the CEO and cofounder of Privateer, wants to help cannabis break free from its restrictive counterculture image. While many products in the cannabis industry are marketed towards "stoners," Marley Natural is one of the many brands that targets mainstream customers with its minimalist packaging designs.

"What we found is that cannabis is a mainstream product consumed by mainstream people and the end of prohibition is inevitable; that's our fundamental thesis," Kennedy says. "Brands will shape the future of the industry and that's what we're focused on."

Based in New York, where only medical marijuana is legal for a restricted number of patients, Marley Natural launched its cannabis line in California. Sourced from half a dozen farmers in Humbolt Country and the Emerald Triangle region, the four strains are all sun-grown without fertilizers or pesticides. Soon, the company will expand cannabis sales to Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Nevada. Eventually, the brand will go global and start selling cannabis in Canada, where Privateer has a medical marijuana growing company, Jamaica, and other countries. Marley Natural also sells hemp seed-based body lotions and smoking accessories made out of black walnut and glass.  

Thanks to a solid foundation of state-by-state legalization, Marley Natural believes the industry now needs the right brands to help it achieve nationwide legalization. Kennedy says the perception of marijuana has been distorted by misinformation from the government but bad branding, like tie dye, pot leaves, women in bikinis and bootleg images of Bob Marley plastered on bongs, has also done its share of damage to the image of product. Kennedy says the industry needs a handful of brands that inspire trust to fuel total legalization.

"We try to talk about cannabis in a mainstream way that people can relate to and so people can see products and brands of companies that don't scare them," Kennedy says. "People can point to companies like ours and products like ours, with professional employees like ours and say, 'Well, if this is what the end of prohibition looks like, that's not scary and I can relate to that.'" 

For a cannabis company, licensing Bob Marley's name is the jackpot. There is no other global icon that is more synonymous with a product than Marley and marijuana. Kennedy says that the licensing deal saved about ten years of brand building. So, how did Privateer land this deal of a lifetime? Kennedy says the Marley family reached out to him.

In February 2013, Privateer was featured in an article in The Economist. A few days later he got an email from an executive at entertainment and sports agency Creative Artists Agency, with whom the Marley family had signed a merchandising deal. After many phone calls and in-person meetings, the Marleys took a tour of the company's Canadian facility, which features a 60,000 square-foot grow in British Columbia and produces almost 10,000 pounds of medical pot annually. Then, in 2014, they announced the creation of Marley Natural, the first global cannabis company. 

While Marley Natural receives criticism for not being based in Jamaica, and for using Bob Marley to turn profits for a capitalist enterprise, Kennedy says that Privateer and all three of its subsidiaries, Tilray, cannabis strain review and news site Leafly, and Marley Natural is engaged in an activist act.

"I am an activist, I just choose business as a different form, a different means of political activism," he says.

Published on: Feb 8, 2016