Canndescent drew inspiration from such luxury brands as Tiffany’s, Hermes and Apple in designing a line of cannabis products whose elegant packaging wouldn’t look out of place on the shelves of Neiman Marcus.
But the California cultivator might not be able to emblazon its name or Chanel-influenced flower logo on T-shirts, hats or other items if the state’s legislature approves a bill that would ban the use of branded merchandise to promote pot products.
The measure is one of several initiatives moving through the California legislature that are intended to keep cannabis out of the hands of children, after the state’s voters overwhelmingly opted last fall to legalize adult recreational use. These bills would impose restrictions on the marketing, labeling and even the shape of pot products, in hopes of reducing its allure for those under 21.
“This is all about making sure, in the context of the legalization of marijuana, that you don’t end up inadvertently leading so many of our young people into drug abuse,” says the bill’s author, California state Sen. Ben Allen, a Democrat representing Hollywood. “This is about protecting kids.”
A final vote on the branded merchandise ban is expected before the legislature recesses on Sept. 15. If approved, sources within the cannabis industry say it is likely to face a legal challenge as a measure that’s both overbroad and places an unfair restriction of free speech rights.
“There is an aggressive effort to combat misinformation of the cannabis industry, and a lot of those messages are promoted through merchandise,” says Alexa M. Steinberg, a Los Angeles attorney who represents several cannabis businesses and whose Legally Blunt podcast gets into the weeds on the industry’s legal issues.
California isn’t the first to state to attempt to shield children, who pediatricians and child advocates warn are particularly susceptible to advertising come-ons, from being bombarded with marketing messages as pot moves from the back alley onto main street.
Colorado restricts advertising that has “a high likelihood” of targeting the under-18 crowd. Washington state prohibits cannabis firms from giving away branded merchandise – though branded paraphernalia, such as pipes, bongs or storage containers, can be sold. Massachusetts and New Jersey similarly bar dispensaries from producing or selling cannabis-branded merchandise.
California already has done much to safeguard kids. It bans marijuana advertising within 1,000 feet of schools, day care centers or playgrounds, and it prohibits the sorts of ploys the tobacco industry used to get kids to light up, such as the use of cartoon characters in advertising, or packaging that could be easily mistaken for candy.
Allen’s bill is designed to cut off the walking billboards – T-shirts, hats and other swag that provide an indirect avenue for reaching children and teens. It won support from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the California Teachers Association, the California Police Chiefs Association and the child advocacy group Common Sense Kids Action.
Dr. Jacques Corriveau, a California pediatrician who testified Aug. 23 on behalf of the ban, says he worries that such merchandise will do more than eliminate the social stigma attached to marijuana use – it’ll signal a new normal.
“They want to be doing what all the cool kids are doing – that is what they respond to,” says Corriveau, chairman of the government affairs committee of American Academy of Pediatrics, California. “I think the danger is to have ever-present branding around them really creates the impression that, ‘This is normal, I should be doing it.'”
Rand Martin, a lobbyist representing Caliva, a San Jose company that cultivates, tests and sells cannabis, said the measure – however well intentioned – applies an inconsistent standard.
“You can tell Caliva you can’t sell branded merchandise, but that’s not going to stop a kid from going to the local surf shop and buying a T-shirt that says, ‘Trust me I’m stoned,'” Martin says.
Teens need look no further than the nation’s largest retailer, Walmart, which sells a T-shirt with marijuana leaves bent in the shape of the familiar McDonald’s arches, bearing the slogan, “I’m smokin’ it.”
Executives like Canndescent’s chief executive, Adrian Sedlin, say they have no interest in pitching their products to minors.
But Sedlin argues the cannabis industry is held to different, higher standard than other regulated substances, like alcohol, when it comes to merchandising. Restrictions on broadcast, radio, print and digital advertising make it difficult to communicate pot’s benefits compared with other products intended for adult use.
“Regulators should understand what they’re creating is an industry that will be making money, that will be looking to reach the public,” Sedlin says. “Invariably what that means, if the traditional channels are not allowed, [is] new ones will pop up.”