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From Willie to Whoopi, Big Names Are Getting Behind the Booming Business of Legal Weed

Retail cannabis sales are expected to reach $24 billion by 2021.

Retail cannabis sales in 2017 reached $10 billion. By 2021, that amount is expected to hit $24 billion. Meanwhile, adult use is now legal in nine states while 30 states have established medical weed programs. And polls find more than 60% of the U.S. population supports legalization.

However, there’s an even more significant indicator of success: celebrities have moved into the marijuana marketplace.

As cannabis’ popularity has increased, so has the number of celeb-branded pot products available in legal weed states. Some of them come from performers whose careers are already synonymous with marijuana: Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, Tommy Chong and Bob Marley’s family among them. Such rappers as Wiz Khalifa, Ghostface Killah and Master P have also dabbled in the weed business. So have retired pro athletes including former NBA star Cliff Robinson and ex-NFL star Ricky Williams who each launched product lines. Meanwhile, mainstream stars Whoopi Goldberg, Montel Williams and Melissa Etheridge have leveraged their celeb status to get involved in medicinal marijuana-based projects.

It’s easy to see why big names are getting in on the big business of legal weed. According to George Jage, CEO of Dope Magazine, a popular marijuana industry publication, “the future of cannabis is going to be about brands.” And what’s better branding than featuring a name that cannabis consumers already know and trust on your label?

“The advantage of having a celebrity cannabis brand, especially like Snoop Dogg’s, is the immediate recognition of our product from a wide variety of demographics, including international tourists, consumers looking for unique and interesting gifts,” says Tiffany Chin, co-founder of Leafs by Snoop, which sells a variety of flower, edibles and concentrates in the U.S. and Canada. “That’s why I believe we’ll see more participation from mainstream celebrities and brands as the industry grows.”

The good news for artists who have long been known as marijuana ambassadors, like Snoop and Nelson, is that selling their own cannabis is a natural next step. They bring a certain amount of authority into a marketplace that is still relatively new and expanding. Their name on a vape pen or pack of pre-rolled joints will mean something to the cannabis community.

“People will follow you because they trust you,” says Cypress Hill’s B-Real, who recently opened up a dispensary called Dr. Greenthumb in Sylmar. “You’re already someone they know, a brand they trust. The flip side, though, is you can’t please everyone no matter how good your product might be. People will scrutinize and troll and stain your name if they don’t like what you sell them.”

That’s why celebrities “coming into this business should know it’s not something to be taken lightly, It has an impact on your life and reputation,” says Elizabeth Hogan, a spokeswoman for Nelson’s company, Willie’s Reserve. She says the operative philosophy behind all of Willie’s Reserve flowers, vape oils and infused-chocolate bars is to let users feel like they get “a little taste of what it’s like to smoke with Willie.”

To that end, Hogan adds, Nelson plays the role of “chief tasting officer,” personally trying as much of Willie’s Reserve’s products as he can to judge their quality before they go out for public consumption.

Just because a cannabis company has a famous name attached, though, there’s no guarantee its products will appeal to either longtime users or those simply experimenting because they live in a legal adult use state.

According to figures compiled by Headset, a firm that specializes in marijuana market analytics, Willie’s Reserve is the only celebrity brand that managed to get more than a single percentage point of overall market share in the small handful of states where adult use is legal. In addition, 2018 year-to-date numbers compiled by the research firm BDS Analytics show that total legal sales in California, Colorado and Oregon are roughly $2.6 billion. Meanwhile, celebrity brands accounted for a mere 0.4% of that.

B-Real and Kenji Fujishima and Rojo Desantis of Dr. Green Thumb's
CREDIT: Eitan Miskevich

“When it comes to celeb-focused brands, what we’ve seen to date hasn’t had much efficacy,” says Aviv Hadar, co-founder and CEO of Oregrown Industries, a vertically integrated company that operates its own farm as well as several dispensaries in Oregon. “The cannabis space is fraught with people who know what they want. You can’t just come in and say, ‘I’m Willie Nelson. Here’s my weed and it’s great.’ If it’s not great, people won’t buy it. They think, ‘We don’t need a celebrity coming in to tell us what’s good.’ ”

Hadar is convinced the major mistake some celebrity brands make is not working more closely with the growers, who have a better handle on what types of marijuana consumers are looking for, because they’re literally and figuratively dealing with the roots of the business. (That’s why he plans on expanding his company in order to offer a brand-consulting business.) Part of the problem might also be the celebrities trying to create their own cannabis company.

According to Jage, consumers are more interested in how a flower, oil or edible is going to make them feel than in which famous name is selling it. That’s why he expects to see more celebs associated with health and wellness, including Dr. Oz or Andrew Weil, jump into the market by pushing CBD products (the non-psychoactive part of the cannabis plant).

“Boomers want something that can help alleviate some of their aches and pains.”
George Jage

“Someone like that resonates with baby boomer audiences because they’re trusted health advisers,” says Jage. “I’m not saying there’s no value to brands with [entertainment] celebrities, but they’re just going to appeal to a certain demographic. That’s not where the market opportunity lies. Boomers want something that can help alleviate some of their aches and pains. They see [cannabis] as a way to feel better.”

That’s something Al Harrington is counting on. Playing in the NBA for 16 seasons left his body badly banged up, and he found relief from the pain courtesy of cannabis. With that in mind, he invested his own money to create Viola Brands. The company features a wide variety of oils and flowers that Harrington believes are capable “of changing lives” in the same way that cannabis improved his. That’s why he recommends that any entertainer or athlete wanting to build a marijuana brand do it for the right reason. And it’s definitely not money.

“We’ve got a platform,” he says. “And at the end of the day, the best stories we can tell people are our real life stories. I used to have chronic back pain and could work maybe two days a week. Thanks to cannabis, I’m working seven days and lead an active lifestyle so my goal is to educate people with Viola.”

That commitment to something bigger than the bottom line will most likely be the key for any celebrity-branded products.

Hogan says: “Celebrities who authentically want to make [cannabis] part of who they are and a cause that people want to buy into will have more success.”

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