With legalization on the horizon, Emerald Triangle growers are squaring off against "Big Marijuana."
Josh HarkinsonApr. 18, 2016 6:00 AM
A mock-up of an ad that will appear this week on Bay Area newspapers, billboards, and buses
On Monday, just in time for 4/20, residents of San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley will witness the nation's first multichannel marketing campaign for an actual brand of pot—a campaign that should be instantly recognizable to any bearded, Blue Bottle-drinking hipster: "Craft farmers, small-batch, sustainable," say ads that will appear in newspapers and social media and on billboards and buses. "That's cannabis the California way."
The ads are paid for by Flow Kana, a collaborative of small, organic marijuana farmers from Northern California's rugged and remote Emerald Triangle region. The campaign features scenic shots of the region's mist-shrouded hills, home to many of the state's original hippie growers and their descendants. It's one of several marketing efforts recently launched to promote small farmers in the face of the increasing corporatization and vertical integration of California pot.
California will vote on a legalization initiative in November, but unlike other states that permit the sale of recreational marijuana, it already has a world-famous cannabis industry. The pot trade by far dwarfs all other sectors of the economy in the Emerald Triangle's Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties. In fact, voters there have historically opposed legalization for fear that it would expose them to competition from venture-backed corporate farms—fears that have resurfaced with this year's legalization initiative.
Except this time many Emerald Triangle farmers see an opening. Months of vigorous lobbying by their trade organization, the California Growers Association, has tailored this year's leading legalization initiative to their interests. The Adult Use of Marijuana Act will initially restrict the size of legal pot farms to one acre and prevent any single entity from simultaneously cultivating, manufacturing, and retailing marijuana. It's the opposite of the approach taken in other legal-pot states, which typically control the market by limiting licenses to large, vertically integrated growers. "It was critical to us that we be horizontally integrated and have the opportunity for lots and lots of small licenses," says California Growers director Hezekiah Allen. "And that's what we got."
Up to a point. After the first five years, the law's size limitations would expire, potentially opening the door to massive dispensary chains supplied by their own 100-acre Central Valley farms—what Allen describes as his "doomsday scenario." If that were to happen, Allen believes that most of the Emerald Triangle's 25,000 or so growers would simply return to selling cannabis on the black market, shipping it to buyers in states where it's still illegal and fetches higher prices. With the spread of legalization to other states, Emerald Triangle growers might eventually go the way of Appalachian moonshiners, rendered irrelevant by a regulated marketplace.
Hence Flow Kana's advertising campaign, which is aimed at convincing consumers to pay a premium for sustainably grown artisanal marijuana. "I think that evolution will take time, just like it did with cacao and coffee products," says Flow Kana founder Michael Steinmetz Mishkin. Yet the evolution isn't happening as fast as he'd like: "If we don't get this company to be massively big over the next two years," he adds, "then we won't be able to compete with the bigger forces that come in. So we are going all out."
A Flow Kana bus advertisement
Flow Kana is spending about $200,000 on the marketing effort, which also includes a series of videos and a sponsorship deal with San Francisco's Earth Day Film Festival. Other similar efforts are also underway. Cooperatives such as Humboldt Sun Growers Guild and Emerald Family Farms sell responsibly grown, "mom and pop" marijuana under their own brands in medical-pot dispensaries, though their advertising efforts to date have mostly been limited to stoner magazines.
In response to increasing concerns about marijuana's environmental costs, many California pot dispensaries offer their own lines of (informally) organic, sun-grown pot. Yet few will say exactly where it came from. That used to suit farmers, who feared any exposure could lead to their arrest, but the practice is now being seen as anti-competitive. Growers complain that an increasing amount of dispensary marijuana is grown in-house as a cost-cutting measure. "They want to control the market," says Chrystal Ortiz, the operations manager of Humboldt Sun Growers. "From a financial standpoint, it's not in their best interest to allow a brand because then we can set a price."
By bringing yeoman growers out of the shadows, the new pot brands aim to empower them. "Right now in the black market, if you grow organic and under the sun with love and care, or you grow it in the basement, you get treated in the same way," Mishkin says. "The idea with this campaign is to really showcase who we are, and in so doing create a value for customers that will trickle down for the benefit of the planet."
The concept is in many ways a return to the Emerald Triangle's hippie roots, albeit with a modern marketing sensibility. "It's not like we have to go out and recreate these systems," Mishkin says. "We just have to leverage the people who have been doing it."
The passage of a $15-an-hour minimum wage in New York and California may have come as a shock to the Council of State Chambers, the umbrella group for America's notoriously anti-worker state chambers of commerce. But in a recent video briefing by LuntzGlobal, a Republican polling firm, the group got an even bigger shock: 80 percent of C-suite business executives surveyed by Luntz supported raising the minimum wage.
"A few helpful hints" for those who "want to give folks more benefits or more leave or more income."
That's not all: 73 percent of those execs supported more paid sick leave for workers—and 82 percent supported mandatory, paid paternity leave. Among state chamber members, support for mandatory paid paternity leave was even higher, at 89 percent.
"What do these results have in common?" he asked. "Well, quite frankly, they are all empathetic. If you ask about them in isolation, of course we want to take care of people who are caring for a loved one. Of course we want to give folks more benefits or more leave or more income."
But the people who actually run state chambers of commerce don't feel this way—at least not always. So Merritt went on to give "a few helpful hints on how to actually, um, combat these [feelings of empathy] in your state." Check it out:
David Erlich never thought of himself as a kingmaker. He chairs the Alameda County Republican Party, a lonely redoubt of conservatism situated on the east side of San Francisco Bay amid ultra-lefty Berkeley and Oakland. Served by Barbara Lee, arguably the nation's most liberal member of Congress, the district's 400,000 registered voters include fewer than 30,000 Republicans. "We have not been relevant," Erlich concedes, putting it lightly.
Erlich gleefully rips a Rubio sign from the wall and throws it in the trash. "I guess this one we can take down. Thank God."
But that's about to change. With Republicans fiercely divided between Donald Trump and Ted Cruz so late into primary season, the race for the GOP's presidential nomination will—for the first time in at least a half century—likely hinge on the June 7 vote in deep-blue California. "It's exciting," says Erlich, an electrician and enthusiastic Trump supporter. "We can probably make it cool to be Republican again."
California's GOP primary, like its Republicans, is deeply idiosyncratic: Open only to registered party members, the balloting does not take into account the GOP's uneven support across the state. Each district confers exactly three delegates in a winner-take-all election, regardless of how many Republicans actually live there. So the district that represents 166,000 Republicans in conservative Orange County, for example, is worth as many delegates as the one representing San Francisco or Marin or Berkeley—which have fewer than 150,000 Republicans combined. This means the Republicans whose votes matter most are the ones living in the most liberal districts—like Erlich's.
David Erlich is GOP chair in an ultra-liberal California county. Josh Harkinson
Teamsters block a Bauer's IT shuttle in San Francisco.
Citing a history of disregard for traffic laws and acrimonious labor disputes, San Francisco's Municipal Transportation Agency has declined to grant tech shuttle operator Bauer's IT a permit to use public bus stops under the city's controversial Commuter Shuttle Program. Bauer's IT is one of San Francisco's largest tech bus operators, accounting for 10 percent of the city's commuter shuttle pickups. Bauer's IT clients include major Bay Area tech companies such as Twitter, Yelp, Salesforce, and Cisco.
Does this mean the Twitterati will be tweeting from BART like the rest of us? Not exactly.
According to a "notice of permit denial" sent from the SFMTA to Bauer's yesterday, the company repeatedly broke the law by sending large buses down "weight-restricted streets" and stopping at locations not designated for private buses. It also failed to inform the city of ongoing labor disputes with the International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, whose complaints of illegal union busting practices at the company are being heard by the National Labor Relations Board. The Commuter Shuttle Program requires participating companies to maintain "labor harmony."
In 2013, tech shuttles, a.k.a. "Google buses," became potent symbols of inequality and gentrification in the Bay Area after it emerged that the posh private vehicles were illegally using public bus stops to pick up workers. The following year, the city launched a pilot program that allowed the companies to use the stops legally for a nominal fee. That program becomes permanent next month, but requires participating companies to reapply for permits. Bauer's IT could not be reached for comment.
"The SFMTA is enforcing what the City and County of San Francisco is famous for: Recognizing employees' right to be represented and right to and fair wages and benefits," said Rome Aloise, the director of Teamsters Joint Council 7, which represents drivers in Northern California. "Bauer's seems to be just disregarding all of that."
Does this mean the Twitterati will be tweeting from BART like the rest of us? Not exactly. Bauer's IT has 15 days to file an appeal, and can then continue to use its stops until the city makes a final decision.