Cannabis Culture Is Fast Becoming Corporate Culture
As often happens in fledgling, innovative industries, a fear has gripped the cannabis industry, especially amongst the early players (the “OG’s,” if you will). This fear can be summed up as follows: Success means big money; big money means institutional players; institutional players means “suits”; and the “suits” will ruin the industry we have worked so hard to champion and nurture over the last 50+ years.
“Ruin the industry” is code for the fear that institutional players will set up shop, extract all of the value and profit from this beautiful plant and leave the heart and soul of the trade -- the mom and pop shops, the early brands and the social justice pioneers -- smoking in their wake.
…they’re kinda right.
The suits are coming!
Let me start by laying bare my credentials. Although I am a lifelong proponent and supporter of the cannabis cause, I am a relatively fresh transplant to the industry. I only recently hung up my business casual attire after working for Anheuser-Busch InBev, a behemoth by any standards. AB InBev often employed a scorched-earth policy to marginalize (and eventually copy and kill) small craft breweries. I have watched this story play out more than once. Promising to elevate the overall category, big companies like AB InBev routinely employ every competitive advantage afforded by their size and scale to destroy smaller players and with them, some say, the gregarious and brotherly beer culture that people hold so dear.
First question: is that bad? From a profit perspective, absolutely not. On the contrary, the approach has proven to be quite effective. And let’s be clear, AB InBev is a publicly-traded company with a fiduciary duty to its shareholders. It's managed by private equity experts who have built a genuine empire out of a small brewery in Brazil. What do we expect?
But, is it bad? In other words, is it bad that their size and money afford them the power to practice anti-competitive behavior? Is it bad to destroy the passion for beer and replace it with a passion for profit? Yeah, that’s probably bad.
Cannabis will, without question, follow a business trajectory similar to the beer industry during the next decade. Growers will mirror brewers, distributors are distributors, and retailers are retailers.
Create > Distribute > Sell to People
It’s the only model we have, and it has worked efficiently for a long time. Money will also necessarily flow into the system as regulations loosen up and entrepreneurs see more and more opportunity.
So, given the inevitable growth and capitalization of the industry, a more important question than whether such growth is bad might be this: can the cannabis culture we’ve come to know and love be saved? Can we preserve the flavor of an industry that has been shaped entirely by opposition to the norm and by doing something you believe is good and right, even though it’s illegal -- a flavor that is often characterized by pioneers like Steve DeAngelo, Snoop, friendly stoners, hippies and several music genres?
Yes, but not forever, and not without accepting that every passion eventually becomes nostalgia. The cannabis counterculture will inevitably diminish because we are all on a journey of democratization. As the science of cannabis evolves and efficient access improves, the stigma will depart, taking with it the aroma of the people that fought that stigma in the first place.
MedMen is arguably the most influential cannabis company in the United States at the moment. Have you seen their new campaign? It’s all about removing the “stoner” stigma and democratizing the plant. There are nurses, and moms, and old dudes. More eyeballs will see that marketing campaign than any other cannabis effort this year -- a campaign that is all about removing the negative associations most Americans have been taught about cannabis.
Again, I ask: Is that bad? I can certainly understand why some OG’s would feel put-out. The industry that they championed and enabled, often by fighting grotesque, institutionalized racism, is no longer “theirs.” But cannabis culture is busting wide open and becoming inclusive of all kinds of people. That should be celebrated, not lamented.
Newbies like myself owe a great debt to the pioneers of this industry. We should certainly celebrate the culture that built our current opportunity. First, we can give credit where credit is due -- let's not pretend like we were here first. We are standing on the shoulders of others; keep that in mind. Dispensary owners who weathered the storm from black market to medical to recreational deserve loads of props.
Secondly, we can educate ourselves about how this wonderful opportunity came to be. Our current situation is a direct result of decades of fighting misinformation campaigns and big, strong government entities that were squarely focused on prosecuting a subset of people for a silly reason. A good place to start is by reading Steve DeAngelo’s book, The Cannabis Manifesto: A New Paradigm for Wellness. You’ll get an idea of the struggles and, regardless of your political leanings, you’ll likely come away with a renewed respect for those OG’s.
As Heraclitus said, likely while taking a cannabis break, change is the only constant in life. As long as we maintain perspective and gratitude, we can make something great out of every change.