Spend enough time with a chief executive of a marijuana company, and you'll eventually find out where he or she stands on the debate about stoner culture.
For some, the word "stoner" is a threat to federal legalization because the word evokes stereotypes of lazy kids getting high under black lights in their mom's basement. Other entrepreneurs, however, maintain a soft spot for the weed counterculture and its greatest achievement: persisting for decades under the threat of imprisonment to help sway public opinion and change state laws.
The marijuana law reformers' handiwork--while certainly assisted by lobbyists, billionaires, and friendly politicians--is best represented by how many states now have legal cannabis markets: 29 states and Washington, D.C. At this point, a full-blown, federally regulated industry is in sight. The legal market brought in almost $7 billion in sales last year and the black market is estimated to be about $50 billion, numbers that have attracted Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs and mainstream business types. But as opportunists flood the industry, a divide has been created: the stoners and the anti-stoners. (
Emily Paxhia, co-founder of Poseidon Asset Management, a marijuana investment fund, pushed back onstage at last month's South By Southwest conference in Austin at the some sentiments her co-panelists espoused. They associated stoners with a lack of sophistication and, well, other stereotypes associated with excessive marijuana use.
"In order to push legalization forward, there is a feeling that the industry needs to break up with stoner culture," says Paxhia. "I don't think we can turn our backs on the cohort of people who advocated for legalization."
Brendan Kennedy, who runs private equity firm Privateer Holdings, which raised over $100 million from the likes of Peter Thiel, doesn't like the word stoner, either. Kennedy, who is not a pot consumer himself, says the industry wouldn't be where it is today without the foundation activists built.But he believes marijuana is much bigger than the subculture that has nurtured the movement. (That said, Privateer did pay $5 million to license Bob Marley's name for its Marley Natural brand, so he does see a big opportunity in selling products within the stereotypical weed culture.) To Kennedy, marijuana isn't solely reserved for the underground anymore.
"We're at a point where cannabis is no longer a counterculture product, and patients and consumers aren't countercultural people," Kennedy says. "This is a mainstream product consumed by mainstream people around the world."
It's true; demographics of marijuana consumers are changing. According to BDS Analytics, while young men are still the largest segment of customers in legal dispensaries, 47 percent of all customers in Colorado and 45 percent of all customers in California dispensaries over the last six months were women. The number of adults over 50 years old using marijuana has increased almost 60 percent.
Nancy Whiteman, the co-founder of edibles manufacturer Wana Brands, says the market is becoming older and more "general market" and she makes her products for that market."I call it the white-wine crowd," she told Inc.
Mike Ray, founder of THC producer and pre-rolled joint maker Bloom Farms in California, is also deliberately branding his products to the mainstream with Whole Foods-like packaging. Bloom also hosts yoga classes in San Francisco where people vape THC beforehand.
"I like stoners. I can't say bad things about them. But the image turns off the mainstream consumer," says Ray. "We're trying to break down that wall to show people they can integrate cannabis with their real life and it doesn't have to be part of the High Times Cannabis Cup."
But what is defined as stoner culture depends on who is promoting it, says Aaron Lammer, the founder of Longform.org and a new podcast called--you guessed it--Stoner. Lammer says he thinks it's a dubious business strategy when he sees companies putting distance between their products and stoner culture. Lammer thinks users should own the word "stoner" with pride--and that the word is going through some growing pains of sorts.
He says "nerd" used to have a negative connotation--but now it refers to an educated, technology-focused person who builds things. Lammer says stoner will, eventually, come to signify "free-thinker."
Lammer says when he market-tested his show with those in the marijuana industry, people liked the content, but many people told him to give it a different name. Lammer says marijuana entrepreneurs said the word "stoner" represents everything the industry is working to overcome.
"To me, it's the same weed. People with cannabis branding firms haven't changed what weed is," says Lammer. "I see a value in keeping stoner culture's continuity across generations. I understand there is a push to bring in different types of people, but the value of the word stoner suggests a sense of community and suggests there is an overall thread connecting the culture."
Chris Barone, the founder of The Clear, a super-purified and potent THC concentrate manufacturer, fuses science with a marijuana connoisseurs' knowledge of the plant and its culture. He sees a divide resulting from as the result of two types who have flocked to the industry: those who want to make money but don't understand stoner culture and thus rely on conventional marketing strategies, and those who do understand the culture and make products for stoners.
"Stoner culture, for whatever reason, is real. It exists, and branding and marketing exercises will not change it," says Barone. "I think it's judgmental and obnoxious to try to change the culture."
Barone says he understands and respects the fact that companies want to brand products for a mainstream customer base, but he focuses The Clear on making the best possible product for the connoisseur. What Barone would like to see is more respect towards users--no matter how they identify themselves.
"Everyone needs to remember: the industry wouldn't exist and people wouldn't have jobs if people didn't smoke weed," says Barone.