Mickey Hart, Chelsea Handler, Willie Nelson among celebrities rolling out marijuana brands

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In a crowded field of celebrities lending their names to marijuana brands, Grateful Dead drummer and Sonoma County local Mickey Hart wants his new line of prerolled joints to “transport your mind.”

Comedian Chelsea Handler aims to help women manage stress, ditch the sleeping pills and overcome memories of bad highs through a line of vape and low-dose edible products made at NorCal Cannabis’ Santa Rosa manufacturing plant.

Americana music legend Willie Nelson’s “my stash is your stash” philosophy is being sold in California under the brand name Willie’s Reserve, a line of products made from marijuana grown by small farmers with Flow Kana’s Mendocino and Humboldt county network.

It’s a full-throttle race for brand recognition in California’s cannabis industry. Faced with steep legalization costs and strict advertising regulations, cannabis companies and famous people are pairing up to make a profit.

“The fact that they’re coming to Sonoma and Northern California businesses really speaks for the high regard there is for Northern California cannabis culture,” said Jigar Patel, NorCal Cannabis president.

Legal cannabis business sales hit $10.3 billion across the country last year and could reach $25.7 billion by 2025, according to Washington, D.C.-based cannabis research firm New Frontier Data.

The traditional stoner-type consumer only comprises an estimated 14% of legal pot consumers, indicating the majority of people buying marijuana have not yet developed preferences or expertise that influences purchase decisions, according to the firm’s research.

The cannabis industry is emerging after decades “almost absent any branding that has shaped the rest of the consumer economy,” said John Kagia, New Frontier Data’s chief knowledge officer.

As a result, companies are now branching away from branding focused on experienced consumers who know the difference between strains like Berry White, Mendo Breath, Blue Dream and Sour Diesel. Instead, companies are describing the effect, such as Santa Barbara -based Canndescent’s line of smokable oil cartridges named after desired bodily effects: calm, cruise, create, connect and charge.

“Celebrity endorsements have become a natural spoke within that marketing strategy,” Kagia said.

And that’s partly what brought Handler into the sector, according to her social media posts and public statements about her venture with NorCal Cannabis, announced in April at the Hall of Flowers trade show at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

Handler told an audience at the fairgrounds in Santa Rosa that she used to “smoke weed and get too stoned and get paranoid,” which caused her to think cannabis didn’t work for her. But she found low-dose cannabis edibles through the medical market helped her immensely with stress, and she’s been an outspoken pot proponent since. She’s described her goal as making it possible for people who wouldn’t normally try cannabis to benefit from its uses.

“People don’t have to be so scared to dip their toes in the water again,” Handler said. “It’s changed my life, it’s changed so many of my friends’ lives. It cut my drinking in half.”

Others like Hart are building on an established connection to cannabis culture.

Hart’s joints are packed with the legendary cannabis strain Chemdog, named after a loyal fan who discovered the strain in 1991 outside a Dead show on Shakedown Street in Indiana, germinated the seeds and popularized it.

Last month, Hart debuted his first line of ⅓-gram joints under the name “Mind Your Head” at Northern California dispensaries, a venture with Sonora- based Left Coast Ventures. Hart, who was on tour, said on Twitter that his joints are “perfect for a creative adventure.”

California law prohibits cannabis companies from using toys and movie or cartoon characters — basically anything appealing to children — in advertisements. Technology juggernauts such as Google and Facebook don’t allow advertising for cannabis products and even limit the visibility of related companies like law firms focused on the industry.

And with steep costs to run a legal cannabis business in California, “most of the cannabis brands are working with small margins,” said Santa Rosa graphic designer Zack Darling, whose cannabis-focused digital creative agency The Hybrid Creative was purchased last year by Southern California cannabis supply company Kush Bottles Inc.

“In cannabis branding and marketing, the digital channels and avenues of marketing and promotion are more limited and highly restricted compared to other markets,” Darling said. “So what brands have discovered is there’s great value in influencer marketing.”

Cannabis marketers “have had to get crafty and intuitive” in the ways they publicize products, he said. Personal and company profiles on Instagram have emerged as one of the best venues for cannabis marketing, he said.

At NorCal Cannabis, Patel said his company grew out of the cannabis cultures of Sonoma County and the Bay Area, and his company aims to both reflect that connection and appeal to new consumers. Handler’s mission to create cannabis products catering to women — who may have been turned off by super-potent strains promoted in what’s been a male-dominant industry — fits with the company’s vision, Patel said.

“Not all celebrity brands work, but when you have someone like Chelsea, who is a big advocate, it does resonate with people,” Patel said. “We want to help erase the stigma.”

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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