As the cannabis legalization movement gains momentum, the market is finding space for luxury products, including edibles, flower, vaporizers and much more. To discuss this new sector of the market, podcast host Ricardo Baca welcomed journalist Katie Shapiro – a luxury cannabis columnist for Forbes – as his special guest on the latest episode of ‘Cannabis & Main.’ Season 2 of Cannabis & Main is brought to you by Fluent Cannabis.
Ricardo: Hello, hello, and welcome to Cannabis and Main, a Civilized podcast where we extract one element from today’s cannabis scape and go deep. I’m your host Ricardo Baca, founder of Grasslands, a journalism-minded agency, and it’s so great to be with you all today. Thanks for tuning in. You can learn more about this show alongside the marijuana news and cannabis lifestyle coverage you crave from Civilized, found on the world wide web at civilized.life.
Now this week, we’re going to dive deep into cannabis and the emerging luxury market with a guest whose job it is to cover the luxurious side of modern cannabis, and whose work has shined a light on this 2.0 phase of marijuana products and devices. Let’s be real: there’s an upside and a downside to marijuana’s emerging luxury market. Starting with the good news, Cannabis products are upping their games, offering healthier options, increasing the quality of their ingredients, and paying closer attention to the potential dangers of the marijuana industry’s early days.
From substandard vape technology to edibles that ignored nutrition in favor of sugar and fats and artificial colors. A lot of these marijuana brands are giving cannabis consumers another option, oftentimes at a marked up price to competitors and while dispensary shelves have always had different tiers of marijuana flower, including the top shelf you occasionally splurged on, now they offer different tiers of concentrates and edibles and topicals and more, catering to an evolving adult use market that demands those kinds of options in the same way we shop for groceries or anything else.
The downside of this new trend includes the occasional charlatan masquerading as “elite products.” The beautifully marketed CBD gummies selling for $50 in your hotel mini bar, the cannabis technologies that can’t back up their impossible claims and the many inevitable skin care products that will hit shelves at Sephora or Nordstrom or urban outfitters in the years ahead, peddling $200 face creams infused with cannabinoids, terpenes, and other plant compounds.
Matt Mazzucca (recording): Focusing on a retail experience and really kind of create the dialogue about what’s going on in Beverly Hills, some functional jewelry, diamonds that will also function as a roach clip joint holder. A Venetian glass blower who used to make bongs when he was in college now is making bongs at Barneys.
Ricardo Baca: Cannabis and the emerging luxury market? Let’s talk about it right here on Cannabis and Main.
Katie Shapiro is a journalist who covers luxury cannabis for Forbes and pens the ‘High Country’ column for the Aspen Times. So Katie, tell me this, when did weed get so fancy?
Katie Shapiro: Well, it’s actually interesting timing that we’re having this conversation because Barneys New York officially opened the High End in their Beverly Hills flagship location.
Ricardo: The High End. I saw the news. I didn’t read the story. Tell me more.
Katie: So it’s in partnership with Beboe, which is an LA-based luxury cannabis brand. I would say they’re definitely kind of the trailblazer leading the charge in this space partnering with Barneys to open this boutique cannabis experience within the store. They’re not selling cannabis products within the store. It’s just accessories, but they are working with a delivery service.
Ricardo: Oh, man. If anything says “emerging luxury cannabis market”, it’s weed paraphernalia in Barneys.
Katie: Yeah, exactly. In one of the first ever interviews I did, the reporter asked me, “Do you think it could be a reality in ten years that Barneys would carry cannabis?”
Ricardo: What was your answer then?
Katie: Yeah. She said ten years and here we are, it’s five.
Ricardo: Wow. You know, this is happening at a lightning pace, right?
Katie: Basically since California went recreationally legal. I think that was the tipping point.
Ricardo: That’s a good point because if we look at when California went, at least recreationally legal. We’re talking November 2016. There were nine state ballot initiatives. Everybody knew that it was some form of tipping point before the election. Then after the election, we saw eight of those nine pass, which was huge. Of course, the biggest one was California, and it does make sense because it’s one thing for adult use cannabis to pass in Colorado and Washington, which are not really fancy places. We’re known more for outdoors and our mountains and plaid flannel shirts. California is a fancy place, though. So it does make sense that suddenly when this is available to anybody 21 and over, not through this semi-legal, non-regulated medical market, that the fanciness, the elegance, that elevated nature would follow.
Ricardo: Before we dig too deep, I want to give a little bit of backstory because you and I have some history, my friend.
Katie: We do.
Ricardo: Kind of walk us through it. When does this start? It goes back to, what, 2013?
Katie: Well, I think we met before that, just through living and working in media in Denver. In 2013, we started the film project ‘Rolling Papers.’
Ricardo: Yeah, and you were a producer on the documentary, which was about me and my team at The Denver Post.
Katie: Exactly. I remember we were shooting one night at the satellite bar on Colfax, and I think …
Ricardo: Some of that footage made the film.
Katie: Yeah, exactly. I think we were having a conversation after that day of shooting and if I remember correctly, I think I just asked if you had anybody covering style for this new cannabis website. You didn’t at the time, and we just kind of took it from there.
Ricardo: Yeah, well, and then you ended up writing the style column, which kind of expanded and flourished and really, that’s the beginning of this conversation for you. I mean, not the very beginning because you were consuming cannabis a little bit before then, but in terms of being this thought leader and guiding the national conversation about what cannabis style is in a modern and legal era, that’s kind of the beginning of it for you.
Katie: Sure. Yeah, and I don’t even really know where the idea came from or when or how it popped into my mind. I had freelanced for years before that, and obviously as a long time cannabis enthusiast, was very excited when you were the one to take over the beat for the Denver Post and starting The Cannabist. Obviously I wanted to be a part of it beyond and what we were doing with the film. At that time, yeah, I mean cannabis style wasn’t a term that was used as it is today.
Ricardo: It wasn’t at all.
Katie: Even then in that first year, it wasn’t easy to find topics to cover. It was often a stretch, but I think you and I both knew that it was the start of being able to have that conversation and the way it was going to kind of spread throughout our culture.
Ricardo: Without a doubt. It infiltrated every aspect, so much so that you were writing about fashion. You were writing about culture. You were writing about gifts. Your gift guide is now a thing of legend.
Katie: Thanks, yeah. One of my favorite things to write throughout the year. Yeah, it’s been five years of doing cannabis gift guides and in those early days, we were among the very few that were putting out content like that. Now it’s just crazy to see not only are the major media outlets doing cannabis focused gift guides tied to holidays throughout the year, but there’s also just a rush of cannabis media. Obviously Civilized, who we’re talking through today. You know, the explosion of cannabis culture and even cannabis lifestyle and fashion magazines that there are today is really exciting.
Ricardo: I know. I remember when you came to me and you’re like… Oh, New York Fashion Week. Who was the designer? Do you remember?
Katie: I think it was Jeremy Scott. Yes.
Katie: And Miley Cyrus was involved somehow.
Ricardo: Everything was surprising, especially for me, who’s not somebody who really is attuned to high style or fashion. It’s just never been my jam, but you’d come to me and you’d be like, “Oh, I want to write a gift guide that includes this new candle that Jonathan Adler made.” I’m like, “I know the name Jonathan Adler. He’s making a weed candle?” Sure enough, there’s one in my office right now, and it’s beautiful.
Katie: Amazing. In those early days, too, it was a very few handful of mainstream big name designers that might have an accessory or two with a pot leaf on it.
Ricardo: A tasteful pot leaf, though. Not the gaudy …
Katie: Sometimes. I mean, sometimes it’s tasteful. Sometimes it’s not. I think where we are today, people are stamping pot leaves on everything. That’s not always the image that is needed to convey cannabis culture or consumption of it.
Ricardo: Well, I think that’s what makes your writing and your criticism stand out as well. It’s your eye, and you’re able to look at these individuals who are producing this art or these pieces of merchandise and you are able to tell which ones were legit and which ones were not.
Ricardo: My wife has a similar eye. She has a very good eye, and you guys have similar style, too.
Katie: Yeah, she’s definitely got good style.
Ricardo: Well, let’s talk about the kind of beginnings of this. So in the early days of regulated cannabis, you had products out there. They were just doing their best to get a chocolate bar or a gummy or a cookie on the market, and it wasn’t always the best product. I think especially like…let’s stick to edibles for now. When we’re talking about edibles, that market seems like it’s transformed radically, even in the last two years, let alone the last five.
Katie: Absolutely. You know, I think the biggest learning in Colorado, which you are obviously very familiar with and the big investigative report that you did on the edibles market that’s in the film, but I think in that first year, it was just a test. It was an experiment and there was no regulation. There was no dosage control. Like you said, people were just rushing to get their products out there, and there wasn’t a lot of thought, consciousness of quality or ingredients, that there is today.
Ricardo: So when did you see that start to turn? Was it really California voting yes on Prop 64 in 2016? Or did it start to happen before then in this regulated marketplace?
Katie: Yeah, I would say definitely in Colorado, and we’ve talked about Coda Signature as kind of the leader in the cannabis chocolate space. They have a former pastry chef that worked at Thomas Keller in New York. You know, she came to Colorado and started creating these confections that are all handmade with organically sourced ingredients. I think that that was kind of the tone that was set through that company. In Colorado, there’s definitely some impressive edible brands. Sweet Grass Kitchen is another great one that’s been around for a long time.
Yeah, I mean, I think now as it spreads in California with especially kind of the focus on quality ingredients—that’s just kind of the most important thing, I think.
Ricardo: I’ll always remember when a friend told me about hearing about Coda for the first time. They said, “There’s an edible on the market that has hand painted truffles.” I was like, “Okay? I’ve never heard of anything like that before in this marketplace.” That was a game changing moment.
Katie: Right. Yeah, and I think to match with just the quality of the ingredients, but paying attention to how they look and the way that they can be brought into the social experience. I mean, I think that’s a big part of it, too, is that cannabis being brought into dinner parties or other social events, you know, you want something to present if you’re hosting a party or going to a party and gifting it to somebody, you want things that are beautiful and worthy of gifting.
Ricardo: Well, I want to hear about more products, especially in the edibles market, that you think match this aesthetic that we’re talking about. I’ll get it started because you mentioned Beboe earlier.
Ricardo: In association with Barneys. I have no idea how I came across them, but we have ten of their pastilles in the refrigerator drawer. We’re rationing them. I never want them to be gone… They’re so delicate. I love the packaging, the branding. Their Instagram is so good. So of course, Beboe is up there too. They make sense. What are the other brands that you think are doing a good job on the product side?
Katie: Oh, God. I mean, there’s honestly at this point, too, there’s so many. I think Beboe obviously emerged as the leader in this space, but in the chocolate side of things, there’s Défoncé Chocolatier in California, also.
Ricardo: Yeah, those triangles.
Ricardo: I love them. It’s just kind of a pain in the butt to break apart.
Katie: Yeah, exactly.
Ricardo: All right. Katie.
Ricardo: We’re talking about luxury cannabis products. I’m going to bust one out, and I want your thoughts on it. Real time. I’m sure you’ve seen it before.
Katie: Oh, wow.
Ricardo: Double barrel.
Ricardo: You got the brass knuckles. You got the double …
Katie: I’ve never seen one IRL.
Ricardo: Oh, you haven’t?
Ricardo: You want to try it on?
Katie: Yeah, definitely.
Ricardo: If we’re talking about luxury cannabis, I think this kind of belongs in the conversation.
Ricardo: What do you think of it? What are your initial thoughts, especially since this is the first IRL run-in with the double barrel?
Katie: So I’d say rose gold definitely sets a tone.
Ricardo: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Katie: That’s something you mentioned Beboe and the tin and the packaging and their signature color is rose gold.
Katie: PAX 3 edition in rose gold. I’ve seen a couple different pipes in rose gold. I think that that is kind of like a statement-making color.
Ricardo: It is.
Katie: That kind of draws that kind of attention. Yeah, I mean, this is beautiful.
Ricardo: Do you like the weight of it?
Katie: Yeah. It’s heavy. Wow.
Ricardo: But now that we’re transitioning into more of the technology side, what are those other brands? You mentioned PAX. Would you classify PAX as a luxury cannabis brand?
Katie: I would. For their PAX 3’s, they retail I think around $300.
Ricardo: Right. It’s not a cheap vape.
Katie: No. Not at all. The PAX Era, which is their pod compatible vaporizer device, that’s $30. I think their brand overall kind of exudes luxury, but at the same time, it’s known for its technology that’s all packed into these devices. I think it’s an interesting question because being expensive doesn’t always mean luxury or vice versa.
Ricardo: Without question. Yeah, I mean even PAX’s attention to design and aesthetics. I think that automatically elevates it above the fold, especially because it’s just so clear that they worship at the altar of Steve Jobs and it’s like, “Oh, yeah. You’ve made us a device that we want to carry around in our pocket.”
Katie: Exactly. To their credit, they’ve been doing it longer than most. They originally started in 2007, which is kind of crazy when you think about it.
Ricardo: So you brought up something earlier that I think really belongs in this conversation and that is packaging. I was in California for some client work in December, and I stopped by Harborside, of course. I was in NorCal. I’ve been in the Oakland store many times, but this is my first time in the San Jose store. Popped in, might have dropped $300, which you know, not ideal, but the reason why I dropped $300 was honestly because of the branding. It was blowing away anything we were seeing in Colorado shops.
Ricardo: We know packaging is one of the biggest headaches for any licensed company. They’re constantly changing it because of regulations, and here are businesses, including dosist and Kiva specifically. They were changing their packaging only for the holidays, especially being a marketer now and in advertising, I had to get them and bring them back and show them to my staff, share them with my clients, and say, “Holidays 2019, if you’re not doing something holiday-centric, you’re doing it wrong. Look what they’re doing in Cali.”
What’s your thoughts about packaging and how that impacts the experience? Because especially we live in the era of unboxing things on YouTube.
Katie: Exactly. I think it’s everything. I mean, especially in the cannabis space where there’s people that are either skeptical of it, you know, still carry a bit of the stigma against it. Or they’re new to even trying it. I think it just makes it relatable and puts it on a level of something with prestige. The best example of packaging is Canndescent, another California brand, but they do these gorgeous holiday limited edition hand numbered gift sets.
Ricardo: Oh, wow.
Katie: I think this past holiday was the second year they did it. They’re in these bright orange boxes wrapped in ribbon and they are known for having, I think, five signature strains that are all named for the type of effect. So it’s calm, create, cruise, and two others.
Ricardo: That start with C’s, probably.
Katie: Yeah, exactly. You know, I think the way that they present it and also the way that they’re kind of naming, which is becoming a more and more popular way of communicating that to the consumer. But yeah, I mean, until Canndescent, I hadn’t seen any other brand do a gift set or even packaging to that level. Lowell Herb Company is another California brand.
Ricardo: That’s some cool packaging.
Katie: Yeah. They do these really cool reclaimed wood gift boxes with almost Mason jar-esque jars for their flower. Then they also do really cool pre-roll packs. Yeah, it’s …
Ricardo: That’s the one I’ve seen.
Ricardo: The pre-roll packs with the matches and the strike.
Ricardo: I thought that was very smart.
Katie: It’s interesting that Colorado hasn’t kind of jumped on board with kind of presenting it in a more elevated way.
Ricardo: Let’s talk about flower, you know. For the most part, flower is this wholesale white label product you get from a jar, and you don’t know where it was grown or how it was grown. More increasingly, in every market that I know of, we’re starting to see branded flower brands. Those flower brands are oftentimes selling on the wholesale marketplace for double what the white label stuff going in the jar is going for. Do you think there’s a difference between the branded flower that’s selling for considerably more than the non-branded flower that’s going into the jars?
Katie: I think in certain cases, yes. I’m not as familiar with the flower in California or other states as I am obviously here in Colorado. I feel like organizations like the Cannabis Certification Council, which is a non-profit that tries to certify different cultivators as officially organic. You’re going to Whole Foods and making sure you’re buying all organic everything, but you can be smoking flower that’s laced with God knows what chemicals. I’m not sure in terms of the Certification Council of what work they’re doing in other states, but I feel like that’ll be kind of the model that’s going to be set moving forward in kind of the flower world.
Ricardo: And it’s applicable to edibles. It’s applicable to concentrates, of course. It’s just such a necessary conversation to be having. I think the grocery store analogy is perfect. It really is meaningful and it’s about time that people start asking questions and becoming more informed about what they are actually ingesting.
Katie: Yeah. I think their tagline is just a simple, “What’s in my weed?” You know, that’s all you should really be asking. I think, too, as a consumer and going into these dispensaries, whether you’re a regular or if it’s the first time, I think that’s definitely a question people can ask. If they don’t tell you, then that’s a red flag.
Ricardo: Right. I’m just thankful that the labeling is becoming more clear, consumers are becoming more informed, the most responsible vendors are being transparent. This is the direction this is moving, and if you’re not moving in that direction with your business or your consumption patterns, then get on the bus.
Ricardo: This is cannabis and the emerging luxury market, and I’m so psyched to host my friend and colleague Katie Shapiro. Katie, thanks for joining us.
Katie: Thanks for having me.
Ricardo: This is Cannabis and Main. I’m your host Ricardo Baca. Thanks for joining us, and we will talk to you next week.
Banner Image: Getty Image / The Cannabiz Agency