On Jan. 1 this year, the sale of recreational marijuana became legal in California.
Since then, there has been general confusion as regulators and businesses grapple with developing rules and regulations to deal with a product that is still considered a Schedule 1 drug at the federal level, possession of which can result in a prison term.
But the vague legal nature of weed has not hindered companies from trying to tap into what has been called the “green rush,” a reference to the lucrative payoff for those companies and individuals early to the marketplace.
“The legal cannabis market is about $1 billion in sales per year in California, but that is expected to jump to $8 billion by 2020,” said Zack Crafton, CEO and co-founder of Big Moon Sky, California’s first permitted statewide cannabis delivery company.
Beyond keeping up with a staggering increase in demand, early cannabis companies such as Crafton’s are seeking to recast the image of weed from an illegal drug in the shadows into a luxury product that shares characteristics with high-end wines.
“We sell luxury agricultural products to our clients that are looking for exceptional quality, convenience and outstanding customer service,” Crafton said. “Our clients can go to our website, choose from a range of our curated cannabis collections, pay with a credit card and then have it delivered straight to their door.”
Speaking with Crafton, it is clear that he and his team have taken a page directly out of the luxury-wine sales handbook. Terms such as “luxury agricultural product” and “curated collections” are similar to what one might hear at a higher-end tasting room. And not without good reason — Crafton and much of his team have come directly from the wine industry.
“I worked at Naked Wines here in Napa, which eventually became the biggest online-only wine retailer in the world,” he said. “After the company was sold to Majestic Wine, my two partners and I decided to take what we’d learned in the world of wine and apply it to the cannabis market.”
Wine and weed
Similarities between pot and wine include that they are farmed products that are intoxicants. Weed, like wine grapes, can display characteristics of where and how it was grown (i.e., terroir) and comes in a variety of styles, intensities and flavors. The products are also both highly regulated and subject to restricted use — over 21 years of age, not to be used before operating a car or heavy machinery, recommended not to be used in combination with other intoxicants and subject to abuse. There is also a general belief that both wine and weed have health benefits.
“There are plenty of similarities between wine and cannabis, but in terms of health claims, whereas there is some evidence that wine might be healthy at some level, cannabis is actually used regularly for medical purposes,” Crafton said.
Although there are many similarities between the worlds of wine and cannabis, there are also important differences. Due to federal restrictions, sales of cannabis are typically in cash, and the transportation of the product cannot be by FedEx, UPS or other such carriers. Another difference is that cannabis has no calories.
Crafton and his team have overcome the cash-only requirement of cannabis transactions by partnering with a bank that allows customers to order directly through their website using credit cards. They also have drivers to deliver products directly to a customer’s front door.
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“We want to make it easy, friendly and seamless for our customers to enjoy a range of product options when and how they want,” Crafton said. “Because we’ve taken cash out of the system, that makes the process safer and much more convenient. We deliver statewide, and like ordering an Uber ride, clients get texts to alert them when the delivery is arriving so that they can be there to sign for the package.”
Finding a common language
According to Crafton, there is confusion as to the range of cannabis products available and the language used to describe them.
“At the moment, we (Big Moon Sky and the broader cannabis industry) are spending a lot of effort to create a language that helps customers understand the differences that exist out there with products,” Crafton said. “I mean, when you tell someone that you are having a Chardonnay they know how that compares to a Cabernet Sauvignon. But the language of cannabis is currently less clear. We’d like to change that, but it will take time.”
Cannabis, which was historically most often smoked to get the effect of the two key components — tetrahydrocannabinol (THC, the psychoactive element) and cannabidiol (CBD, the non-psychoactive) are now mixed in various concentrations (doses) and incorporated into foods, drinks, drops, oils and lotions. Whereas the THC is the part that provides the “high,” the CBD is considered the element that relaxes the body. Both have medical uses such as THC’s use as an anti-nauseant and appetite stimulant and CBD’s use to treat inflammation and depression.
“We have a range of products — from infused chocolates and coffee to drops and smokeables,” Crafton said. “Our various collections focus on the different effects and range of benefits.”
Collections range from those focused on “relaxation” and “snooze” to those that claim “euphoria” and “inspiration.”
The future of cannabis sales will look a lot like wine sales.
In the future I will explore the similarities and differences of growing weed vs. growing wine grapes (spoiler, at the moment growing pot is more lucrative than growing grapes), but here we’ve focused on one company’s efforts to sell cannabis products throughout California. The most surprising aspect of Big Moon Sky is what seems a blurring of the lines between wine and weed. When Crafton spoke of “luxury” or showed me his products in slick packaging and stacks of “tasting notes” I understood why he wants to locate his main office within the Napa Valley.
“There are real differences, but there are also just so many similarities between the two products (wine and cannabis),” he said. “Consequently we hire a lot of folks from the wine industry because they’ve been trained in dealing with luxury, curated products and often have a good understanding of delivering the highest-quality customer experience.”
Will the future of the Napa Valley see it sharing its agricultural heritage of growing grapes and making wine with a newly branded cannabis industry?
Time will tell. But given the big dollars at stake and that people are already beginning to talk about wine, weed, spirits, beer and cider in the same breath — all now referred to as the “relaxant market” — I would be surprised if we didn’t see increased pressure from many sides to open up the local market to include more options for cannabis growers, producers and distributors. I also imagine that many in the wine industry will be leading the charge.
“We are seeing a lot of interest from many wineries that want to understand how they might become involved in what many see as the future,” Crafton said. “Our distribution center is not here in Napa but in the Central Valley. However, my hope is that we can find our place within the Napa Valley at some point — it’s a beautiful location and community, and we share a lot in common.”