LOS ANGELES — Michelle Janikian, who writes about marijuana for publications like Herb, Playboy and Rolling Stone, says after she tells someone what she does for a living, she usually spends the rest of the conversation “trying to act so friendly and mainstream” so they don’t think she’s stoned.
Stoner stereotypes die hard.
But with a multibillion-dollar industry beginning to flower — marijuana is now legal in some form in 30 states — cannabis advocates are pushing to dispel the idea that people who toke up still live on the couches in their parents’ basements and spend their waking hours eating Cheetos and playing video games.
MedMen, an upscale chain of dispensaries that brands itself as the Apple store of pot shops, rolled out a $2 million ad campaign that might be called the “anti-stoner offensive.”
Photos of 17 people — including a white-haired grandmother, a schoolteacher, a business executive, a former pro football player and a nurse — are being splashed across billboards, buses and the web by the company that has dispensaries in Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York. Each photo has the word “stoner” crossed out and in its place a description of their job.
People can find their biographies on the website www.forgetstoner.com, where they can also learn why they use weed. Reasons range from treatment of medical conditions like migraines and anxiety to simply enjoying the high.
“What we’re saying is the very definition of a stereotype is defining a person by one bad mention,” says Daniel Yi, MedMen’s senior vice president of communications. “They’re also a grandmother. They’re also a father, a son, a brother.”
Judd Weiss, CEO and founder of cannabis company Lit.Club, believes the industry needs to do still more. He suggests marketing products in a way that makes them look more than just respectable, but as the herbal equivalent of a fine bourbon or scotch.
“Very much like the Tesla, we want to be seen as luxury quality but affordable,” he said.
Still there is pushback from some who believe realities about pot are being glossed over by slick marketing.
“It is not a controversial claim to say that marijuana could be addictive for some people, that it could produce mental illness, that it’s tied to impaired driving, that it makes you not motivated, that you’re more likely to drop out of school if you’re a kid using,” said Kevin Sabet, president of the group Smart Approaches to Marijuana and a former drug policy adviser to presidents Clinton, Obama and George W. Bush.
Sabet accuses the cannabis industry of enticing children with edibles and cookies in an attempt to become another “Big Tobacco,” although he also acknowledges there is evidence that marijuana has some medicinal value.
It was edibles that brought Cindy Paul of Billings, Montana, to a Portland pot shop a few weeks ago to sample marijuana for the first time in 25 years.
“I do think it has medicinal qualities,” she said, adding, “I’m not using it for that. I’m using it to have a good time. I don’t think it’s any different than having a beer.”
To bring more people like Paul into the fold, branding expert Robert Miner says the marijuana industry needs to use movies and TV shows to change negative perceptions.
Those lovable stoners Cheech and Chong were fine back in the day when it came to rebuffing the idea that anybody who smoked pot was headed for Reefer Madness. But the mainstreaming of marijuana, he said, demands a new message.