New Wine in Old Skins: Cannabis Branding and French Wine Appellations

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore. Today he explores the potential for an appellation system for “craft marijuana,” which hopes to protect and promote cannabis grown by local farmers in places like the Emerald Triangle in California. Could American pot recreate an appellation system like France has for its wines? Read on and see!

As cannabis legalization sweeps across the United States, producing $8.5 billion in sales in 2017 and a projected $40-50 billion by the end of 2019, growers and distributors in the nation’s 36 states and territories where cannabis is to some degree legal are clamoring for ways to position their products above the rest.[1] Because the vast majority of legal cannabis in the U.S. is grown in controlled, indoor environments, competition among cannabis producers and sellers for optimal “bag appeal” largely has centered on mass producing strains with high THC and CBD percentages and non-flower products, such as concentrates, edibles, and tablets, that mitigate the health hazards of consumption.

Screenshot 2018-12-04 at 8.29.39 AMThis push for mass-produced, potent, and innocuous cannabis products has both stimulated and shaped the burgeoning American market, allowing large corporations, such as Scotts Miracle-Gro Company (the nation’s leading supplier of hydroponic growing equipment) and Harvest Inc. (the second largest cannabis producer in the U.S., with over 200,000 square feet of indoor grow space), to claim the lion’s share of the nation’s legal cannabis sales. In addition to this tendency toward monopoly, the rise of “Big Marijuana” also has created a market replete with inaccurate labeling and products promoted with impossible-to-prove claims of genetic purity and potency.[2] As Amanda Chicago Lewis put it in a recent article in RollingStone, “it’s basically impossible to know for sure who is responsible for the stuff that’s getting you high…strains are often mislabeled, and the indica/sativa/hybrid distinctions are increasingly proving to be meaningless.”[3]

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From Hippies to High Yield Insights: The Evolution of an Industry

Mike Luce is not the first person to lament how increasingly banal marijuana becomes once the industry goes mainstream. Keith Stroup, who founded the nation’s oldest legalization lobbying firm, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), in 1970, told Rolling Stone in 1977 that the decade’s booming paraphernalia industry was developing just like anything else. “It’s a growth industry,” Stroup said, “that’s gonna be treated like tennis shoes must have been. I don’t say this out of any particular glee—I just think it’s a result of ‘the great free-enterprise system.’”

Screenshot 2018-11-28 14.47.09Luce, who founded High Yield Insights, one of the nation’s first cannabis marketing research firms, this past May, feels similarly as recreational legalization expands. “From a great distance,” Luce said, the “classic marketing research” High Yield does for its clients—which includes everything from crafting tailored patient and consumer insight reports, to consulting medical and recreational businesses on strategy, growth, planning and innovation—is “very similar” to work he did previously, when he spent over 15 years researching audiences for a packaged food company. The only difference now, however, is that while these practices are commonplace for companies that sell soda, soap or tires, they simply haven’t existed in the cannabis industry before.

That’s changing, Luce said, as legalization spreads and more companies are entering the cannabis space. For groups that want to produce everything from high-end edibles to designer labels, High Yield offers “a way to introduce basic business information to a new and expanding field,” Luce said. In short, programs like Luce’s are helping cannabis become a legitimate business again.

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