Last week, I wrote about how Saturday Night Live’s “New Marijuana Policy” skit brought to the forefront the normalization of marijuana. Days after the sketch aired, news broke that the family of legendary reggae singer Bob Marley had joined with private equity firm Privateer Holdings to create and market Marley Natural brand marijuana, revealing another aspect of legalization for which we’re ill-prepared: commercialization.
It’s not that I object to good old-fashioned capitalism. But let’s be honest: that’s a big part of what the legalization movement is about. And the problem there is that big global companies peddling pot—like the tobacco and liquor companies before them—make big profits only if they have a solid base of heavy, unhealthy users, and if they succeed in attracting young people, who have many more years of using (read: buying their product) ahead of them. In fact, studies show that the alcohol and tobacco industries traditionally get 80 percent of their profits from people with a problem, and though industries always claim they’re not marketing to kids, their constant attempts to block any sort of controls—on advertising and labels, and even shape and color—tell another story.
If you were thinking that Marley Natural was going to be a different sort of company—more like a small-business, mom-and-pop (or, rather, mom-and-kids) operation than a global Big Tobacco-type corporation—think again. NBC calls it a “true corporate brand” that “will look like a modern consumer product, cleanly packaged and marketed with the help of the same agency that branded New Balance and Starbucks Coffee.” Huh.
I was surprised when I read this, because I always thought of Bob Marley as an anti-establishment, peace love and happiness type. Already dead by the time I reached my musical coming-of-age, Marley was still popular, a refreshing, non-packaged alternative to the teased-hair rock icons that abounded at the time. It wasn’t that I was unaware of the part pot played in his persona; it just didn’t seem to be the only part. He seemed more defined by the overall lifestyle, rather than by one aspect of it.
I thought the same was true of his family, too. Bob’s son Ziggy Marley, a beloved musician in his own right, exuded the same sense of peace—and anti-establishment sentiment—as his father. True, he professed a love for “the herb” as well, but the way the various facets of his persona all fell together can be seen, ironically enough, through Ziggy’s creation of a comic called “Marijuanaman.” According to this article by the Los Angeles Times Hero Complex team, “Marijuanaman begins a mission to save our planet’s weed from destruction by the evil corporation Pharma-Con and its minions, among them robo-biker assassin Cash Money.” (Notably, I’m not seeing any mention of Ziggy in the coverage about the Marley family supporting this venture.)
Once Marley Natural hits the market, the impression young people have of Bob Marley will never be the same—and that’s unfortunate. The whole enterprise seems opportunistic, feels like a contradiction, and smacks of exploitation. In the end, though, the issue with Marley Natural has less to do with whether it betrays or pays tribute to Bob Marley’s legacy, and more to do with how prepared we are for legalization on a grand scale. There’s still so much we don’t know about how to prevent marketing and sales to kids, and how to prevent addiction in general. And there are no standard “nutrition facts” equivalent for pot products, letting consumers know exactly what they’re buying. That’s why we should wait to see how legalization plays out in the four states where it’s already legal before we all jump on the bandwagon.
Marley fans may have dreamt of a cottage industry of small-scale growers, collectives and dispensaries, but that vision will likely have little resemblance to reality if ventures like Marley Natural are any indication. Let’s not pretend the legalization movement is something it’s not.
Karen L. Sodomick
Vice President and Director, Marketing and Communications
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