Mention marijuana advertising to anyone who was alive in the 1970s, and you might draw out of them a famous Cheech and Chong jingle.
“No stems, no seeds that you don’t need,” goes the ditty, “Acapulco Gold is” — cue sound of someone toking on a joint — “badass weed!”
It was a joke at the time, but cannabis cultivators and dispensary owners across California are in a rush to polish their brands and come up with a campaign as effective as that one. Who, after all, hasn’t heard of Acapulco Gold?
But with California voters expected to legalize recreational pot on election day, some critics and health experts aren’t amused. They say Proposition 64’s lax rules on marketing, and the inevitable competition for customers, can only drive more drug use — yielding a bigger windfall for the state under its 15 percent pot tax, but also more damaging side effects.
“As marijuana becomes a commercial product like cigarettes, soft drinks, junk food and alcohol, consumption is going to go up and the associated health risks are going to go up,” said Stanton Glantz, a professor with the Center for Tobacco Control Research at UCSF.
Glantz co-wrote a study released last month advocating for stiffer regulations and an accompanying cigarette-like public health campaign. Ideally, he said, a combined recreational and medicinal industry would be run by the state, eliminating pot profiteering, with tax revenue used on prominent ads and warnings discouraging use.
Proponents of Prop. 64 call Glantz’s proposals misguided in that they treat marijuana like a dangerous drug and ignore its medicinal benefits. Banning marketing, they say, would defeat the purpose of legalization, which requires a retail system to defeat the black market.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, while campaigning for the measure Monday in San Francisco, said California has had de facto legalization since 1996, when voters approved medical marijuana use, and Prop. 64 would simply take it out of the shadows.
If “a husband and wife want to vape something instead of having that second shot of Jack Daniel’s,” Newsom said, “I don’t know that that’s particularly unhealthy.”
Prop. 64 would use tax revenue for marijuana research and keep pot out of the hands of children, but says nothing about discouraging general use of the drug.
In any event, Glantz’s idea appears to be going up in smoke as Tommy Chong, of the famed comedy duo, rapper Snoop Dogg and country music star Willie Nelson promote their own marijuana lines, and a variety of promoters seek to take advantage of celebrity cred to get into the bud biz.
California pot growers and dispensaries that may soon add recreational weed to their offerings are brainstorming ideas for logos, slogans and image overhauls.
“The revolution has just begun,” Steve DeAngelo, the co-founder of Oakland’s Harborside dispensary, declared when he introduced a flag logo and rebranding campaign on the company’s 10th anniversary in October.
Harborside, the biggest dispensary in the country, dropped “Health Center” from its name and intends to transform itself into an integrated conglomerate growing and selling pot products all over the state.
“More cannabis companies are branding, more dollars are being spent on branding, and new companies are emerging every day, so there is huge creative energy in the industry,” DeAngelo said. “In the next few years, we are going to see more brands. It’s going to be this period of wild experimentation.”
The reefer revolution scares Glantz, who foresees a California ganja boom with parallels to the tech explosion, where entrepreneurs start businesses, build them and sell them to multinational corporations and Big Tobacco, which excel in mass marketing and can benefit most from it.
A report he co-wrote in 2014 documents how Philip Morris, British American Tobacco and R.J. Reynolds have contemplated getting into the weed market since at least 1970.
“These corporations are going to want to maximize profits,” Glantz said, “which means maximizing consumption.”
Brian May, a spokesman for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, told The Chronicle, “We have no plans to sell marijuana-based products.” R.J. Reynolds has repeatedly said the same thing.
Richard Miadich, legal counsel for the Yes on Prop. 64 campaign, said the concerns about Big Tobacco are unfounded given the measure’s protections against monopolistic behavior, including limiting crop size to 22,000 square feet for the first five years. He noted that any corporation seeking to run a store or farm would have to apply with the state for a separate license to operate it.
California is one of nine states voting Nov. 8 on ballot measures to loosen restrictions on marijuana, and one of five states — joining Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada — that may permit recreational use of the drug for people 21 and older.
Prop. 64 places some limits on marketing, with most of the rules seeking to protect those under 21, including a ban on symbols, language, music or cartoon characters known to appeal to young people. Billboards would be allowed, though they cannot be within 1,000 feet of a day care, school, playground or youth center.
Pot is illegal under federal law, meaning California residents probably won’t see television and radio ads for the drug in the near future. But things may change, and Prop. 64 opponents have criticized the measure for leaving the door open for such ads — which are permitted on television and radio broadcasts, as well as online and in print, as long as the typical audience is at least 71.6 percent adult.
Similar restrictions are in place in the four states where adult use of marijuana is already legal, and they haven’t discouraged many forms of hearty merchandising.
In Colorado and Washington, growers, makers of edible products and operators of pot stores are rolling out scores of products, slick websites, elaborate logos, packaging and catchy sales pitches.
“It’s supercompetitive,” said Olivia Mannix, who in 2014 co-founded Denver’s Cannabrand, which calls itself the world’s first marijuana marketing agency. “There are so many brands now, so if you want to be competitive and have a chance of making it, you sure better have marketing.”
Vashon Velvet, a artisanal grower on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, reaches customers through Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The slogan on the elegant packaging reads, “For the pursuit of Happiness.” The plants go by names like Platinum Blueberry, Laughing Buddha and, yes, Acapulco Gold.
A brief health warning on packages states that the marijuana inside “has intoxicating effects and may be habit forming.”
California’s Prop. 64 goes further than Washington’s rules, requiring a warning on every package that people should use marijuana with “extreme caution.” The warning says pot is a “controlled substance,” that it should be kept away from children, that it “may be harmful” for pregnant and breastfeeding women, and that it will impair driving.
There are indications that the drug is becoming more popular in Washington and Colorado after each legalized it in 2012. Federal government surveys of Colorado residents completed in 2013 and 2014 found that 14.9 percent of people reported using pot in the past month — up from 10.4 percent two years earlier.
Critics blame commercialization, but the increases follow longer upward trends, making it difficult to say how the pot laws — and marketing — factored in.
The scent of sinsemilla is already quite familiar in San Francisco, but the city’s herbal healers are just now wrapping their heads around the dictates of cannabis commerce.
“Brands are a big thing,” said Erich Pearson, who founded SparcSF, the San Francisco Patient and Resource Center, on Mission Street in 2010, and now sells a specialty brand named Marigold. “When you are marketing, you need to have something to talk about.”
Pearson said his past marketing has consisted only of word-of-mouth referrals and people finding him through Google. But he said he is negotiating a contract with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to advertise on buses, and he envisions opening a new farm in Sonoma County.
“It’s sun-grown cultivation with a conscience,” Pearson said, apparently trying out a slogan. “We have a farm-to-table approach in that we cultivate about half of what we sell and offer tours of the farm and subscriptions, like a wine club.”
For supporters of legal pot, marketing is a necessary component of an evolving industry that can, if properly regulated, educate consumers about what they are buying.
“By legalizing it, you are regulating it, and what does regulation do?” asked Mannix of Cannabrand. “Regulation allows people to learn about what it is, what works and what it does for their body.”
David Michael, a partner at Purple Line Media, a San Rafael marketing agency that specializes in marijuana, said consumers want trustworthy products — not pot brownies cooked up in someone’s home kitchen or rag weed from pesticide-ridden soil.
“The people we are working with are the people who are trying to legitimize their cannabis brands, to come out of the shadows, as they say,” Michael said. “I say let the best brand win.”