MedMen advertising

In early January 2018, licensed cannabis retailers opened their doors for recreational sales in California and not surprisingly business boomed. Dispensaries previously selling cannabis for medical use only  have expanded to include recreational sales and are reporting record breaking profits. A veritable crop of new players have entered,  and there is even a new bill in front of the California Senate that would allow marijuana companies to deliver their products to your door - think Uber Eats but for cannabis.

As an Australian living and working in Los Angeles from 2014 to 2018, it was fascinating to witness Californians’ relationship, consumption and broader cultural attitudes toward cannabis. In comparison to more conservative Australian sensibilities, recreational marijuana use was far from frowned upon and in some cases seen as a more sophisticated and even “healthier” alternative to drinking, or at least to being drunk.

It was not uncommon for people to step outside for a casual joint at Friday Happy Hour, work functions, or Sunday football. Equally, many people openly shared the details of their personal habits, drove a vehicle after smoking, and shared tips for getting a medical card. From the workplace to weddings, there appeared to be a very relaxed attitude toward casual cannabis use and this was all before Proposition 64 had passed.

The legalisation of cannabis in California and other US States is being closely observed by many and the jury is still out on its benefits. As a non-smoker and resident of Los Angeles during the transition from illegal to legal use, I was interested in whether this shift was changing existing consumption and/or encouraging non-users to take up cannabis use. So I sat down with a number of peers who openly smoked.

MedMen do not run pot shops [but] manage class-leading retail stores that happen to sell marijuana and marijuana products.”

Anecdotally, it seemed that regular cannabis users, i.e. those who smoked most days and owned a medical card before legalisation, generally reported no change in their behaviour. One such smoker explained , “I have a medical card and have been going to my local dispensary for more than three years. A new neighborhood retail shop has also opened up down the road but to me it's overpriced. You’re being charged more for designer branding rather than better quality and that’s not important to me.”

Most casual to regular male smokers echoed a similar sentiment.

Females, both casual and regular users, shared a very different story.

If anything, the designer branding was a major drawcard for millennial women and with many cannabis retailers investing in high end graphic designers to package their products, it’s not surprising. Plus, there’s the marketing. Reality TV star Stassi Shroeder, a self-confessed “weed newbie” regularly posts Instagram stories of her favorite branded weed pens to her 1.3 million fans, often commenting on the aesthetic of the pen and packaging as much as the quality of the product.

Another trend since the legalization has been in the products themselves. Dispensaries have diversified their offering from different strains of cannabis and pre-rolled joints to include a host of new items.

Leafly, one of the most comprehensive online stores, offer topicals such as oral sprays, transdermal patches, lipsticks and body butters as well as an extensive range of edibles including pop tarts, gourmet gelatos, and even cannabidiol (CBD) infused frozen beef dinners.

A quick scroll to the bottom of their e-commerce platform and you’ll also find a line of “CBD pet treats and tinctures formulated exclusively for cats and dogs”. As curious as a stoned cat, I asked around to see if anyone was branching out and trying any of these new formulations. Again, it appeared it was the females newer to the market that were most open to “experimenting” with different strains and formats to see what worked best for them.  

The final observation between pre and post-legalization are the dispensaries themselves. Even as an outsider, the changes in the buildings’ friendliness and accessibility was obvious. Gone were the dilapidated buildings with blacked out windows that dotted the shadier parts of the Venice Beach boardwalk. Almost overnight, a host or premium retail spaces seemed to crop up across the city from Beverly Hills to West Hollywood to LAX Airport.

One of the largest retail players has to be MedMen that label themselves as “redefining cannabis” specifically asserting, “we do not run pot shops, we manage class-leading retail stores that happen to sell marijuana and marijuana products.”

The organization’s aim to reposition themselves as a retail giant is clear from their careers page, with opportunities including Vice President of Creative Marketing, Retail Architect Designer, Data Analysts and Digital Content Specialists. As a non-Californian resident, I was unable to venture into my local MedMen but one peer described the experience akin to “walking into an Apple store that sells cannabis products. You’re greeted by a concierge, everything is presented immaculately under glass display cabinets, the staff is warm, clean-cut  and approachable, they even got gift bags.”

Another stated the new dispensaries overcame her reservations of having to jump through hoops to get a medical ID or go to dodgier parts of town to purchase her own supply: “The accessibility and invitingness of the spaces make me feel safer both in terms of buying and smoking. It’s definitely increased my usage and yes, I’m spending more on average than before.”

Only time will tell if the legalization of recreational marijuana use will benefit the physical and mental health of Californian residents. The State’s financial health, however, seems to be thriving.

*With apologies to The Mamas & the Papas (“Creeque Alley”, 1967)