California's newest drug dealers: like an Apple Store, but with weed

To rebrand legal recreational cannabis, you have to "get rid of stoner culture," says MedMen's head of marketing.

'We're trying to get rid of stoner culture,' MedMen marketer says. 'This is relatable for everyone'

MedMen's West Hollywood dispensary was consciously modelled on the Apple Store. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

The dispensary in West Hollywood looks more like an Apple Store than a place to buy drugs. No tinted windows. No burglar bars. No beefy security guards.

Instead, one of the half-dozen or so "bud-tenders" in identical company T-shirts scrolls on an iPad, trying to help David Julius choose just the right strain. This is the new face of legal weed.

"I think it's exciting to be in a world where this is becoming more normal," Julius says with a smile.

The MedMen dispensary on Santa Monica Boulevard is a case-study in the effort to normalize a drug that is still classified by the federal government as illegal on par with cocaine or heroin. 
The new face of legal cannabis in California is upscale and hi-tech. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

BJ Carretta, MedMen's head of marketing, points to the row of iPads nestled into the wooden display tables.

"So you can see the way this is all laid out. It's very inviting for people," Carretta says.

"We also have these little bud pods," he says, opening the sliding door of a small glass container holding some cannabis flowers. He takes a sniff. "You could open it and get a smell of the actual product," he says. 

Companies are offering more and more edible products with the aim of putting cannabis in things people already know and love. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

Customers can watch the workers prepare orders as though it were a high-end restaurant. And an array of edible cannabis products in a row of fridges is more reminiscent of a Whole Foods store than a traditional dispensary.

Forget pot brownies; MedMen sells everything from cannabis-infused granola to pet treats with THC. The theory: if you put cannabis into products customers know and love, they might not be scared to try them. 

"It's an environment that they're comfortable in, to get rid of that stigma," Carretta says. "It's education, education, education."

Even in cannabis-friendly California, marketing marijuana isn't straightforward. Companies are restricted from advertising on traditional media. Hence the focus on the in-store customer experience.

And just because cannabis is legal doesn't mean it's easy to find. The final decision to allow recreational sales rests with each city, and as of Jan. 1, the majority of California's almost 500 cities hadn't given their consent, said Alexa Halloran, an attorney specializing in cannabis law. Los Angeles County is a perfect example

Only two cities out of 88 in Los Angeles County have permitted recreational marijuana sales (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"Currently, 86 of the 88 cities in L.A. (County) do not allow recreational sales," Halloran says. "The only cities that currently allow are West Hollywood and Los Angeles."

And even Los Angeles will only begin accepting applications Jan. 3, which means customers in this city of almost four million won't be able to buy cannabis recreationally for weeks. But they could eventually have the power to help reshape the economy.

In 10 years, the legal cannabis market is forecast to have grown to $50 billion. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

The U.S. market for legal medicinal and recreational marijuana was already $6 billion last year. Now that the biggest state in the country has fully legalized, in 10 years that market is forecast to grow to $50 billion.

"I think a lot of eyes nationally will be on this," Carretta says. "A lot of other states probably will be paying close attention to what happens."

The fastest-growing demographic is, perhaps counterintuitively, older customers who might have been too nervous to buy illegal drugs and have money to afford the higher prices of legal cannabis.

According to Carretta, a lot of MedMen's marketing focus is on a specific subset: women who are choosing to smoke a joint instead of pour a glass. 

Women are one of the fastest-growing and most highly sought-after demographics. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"So that's a big target of ours," Carretta says. "We're trying to get rid of stoner culture. This is relatable for everyone."

Trish Gardner, 68, is a recent cannabis convert. But there are still so many unknowns, she says. For instance, how much can you smoke and then be OK to drive?

Trish Gardner, 68, browses among the cannabis products. She worries that legalization may mean more driving under the influence. (Kim Brunhuber/CBC)

"The whole being under the influence is going to be an issue that's not really been addressed," Gardner says.

She believes legalizing cannabis may result in more research and, eventually, more answers. As for the rest, shiny stores and innovative treats are nice, but for her, the potential benefits of legalization come down to this: "I hope the price goes down."


Kim Brunhuber

Los Angeles correspondent

Kim Brunhuber is a CBC News Senior Reporter based in Los Angeles. He has travelled the world from Sierra Leone to Afghanistan as a videojournalist, shooting and editing pieces for TV, radio and online. Originally from Montreal, he speaks French and Spanish, and is also a published novelist.