For a certain generation of stoner, Howard Marks and his story-packed autobiography Mr Nice were as well known as Bob Marley or the Take Me To Your Dealer T-shirt. Marks, who died in 2016, was a Welsh drug smuggler of some renown, a man who went from Oxford University to criminal fame and fortune to the same Indiana prison that had housed Timothy McVeigh.
Today, Mr Nice – the nickname Marks picked up after he bought a passport from the convicted criminal Donald Nice while on the run in the 1970s – is also the name of a new “cannabis lifestyle” shop in Soho, central London. It is a brand registered by Howard and assigned to a company owned by his four children, which licensed Kingsley Capital Partners, and is currently being rolled out by Equinox International.
The Soho store is a tasteful affair, presented as a wellness-focused boutique rather than an international drug kingpin’s lair. Mr Nice-branded “Bio Hanftee” (organic hemp tea made in Austria) sits alongside CBD oil, copies of Marks' memoir, and CBD bath bombs that cost £10. A glass cabinet displays what one employee initially describes as “paraphernalia”, before reaching for another term – “accessories” – that’s less old school drug trade and more Mr Nice the 21st-century cannabis lifestyle brand.
In the basement, there’s Nice Apparel, a clothing collection comprising “choice streetwear basics”, including a redesign of a favourite short-sleeved shirt of Howard’s and some very tidy little yellow swimming trunks. Many of the garments come with concealed pockets to hide your bag of skunk or CBD oil.
“We used to talk about how high we got, now we talk about how well we are,” laughs James Suckling, who worked on the shop's branding. He comes from the world of sportswear and is aware of the tension, in some people's eyes, between Marks' anti-establishment views and selling legal products in a climate of wellness. But according to a booklet that lays out the Mr Nice philosophy, the brand is not "about slapping a celebrity face on a brand and producing a second rate product". Instead it aims to continue "some of the good work Howard did in his community". There is even a plan to work with prisoners locked up on drug charges.
For all the talk of philosophies, Suckling admits that Howard Marks the person probably doesn’t mean much to kids these days. But this melding of personality and weed is almost comically common in the industry, even by the standards of a consumer culture driven by the proverbial celebrity spokesperson. But is it working?
Presently, the figures available suggest that the celebrity weed endorsement is far from a sure thing. Analyses of the legal weed industry suggest that it’s not yet the goldmine some are trumpeting. Companies making cannabis products are being valued very highly, but the profits have yet to turn up.
Headset, a firm that specialises in the marijuana market, compiled statistics which found that country legend and noted stoner Willie Nelson’s product, Willie’s Reserve, was the only celebrity brand to get more than a single percentage point of overall market share in the US states in which cannabis use has been legalised. BDS Analytics, a research firm, found that celebrity brands accounted for only 0.4 percent of legal weed sales totalling roughly $2.6 billion in California, Colorado and Oregon in 2018. Americans spend roughly $40 billion on marijuana, both illegal and legal, and it's a figure that will surely rise as legalisation spreads. But the array of companies that has sprung up to make money on legal weed seem to need help. Last June, hundreds of cannabis industry insiders convened in California to “discuss why none of them seemed to be making money”.
That’s why, in a world where PR is king, help is being sought from celebrities, whose endorsements might help a brand stand out in an already crowded market. Faced with dozens of confusing options for, say, a CBD vape cartridge, why not go for the one endorsed by that guy you saw in a movie once?
“The branding of marijuana is basically the California gold rush for marketing,” says David Foote, a branding consultant who tells me that on a recent trip to Los Angeles, cab drivers said he was the third or fourth person working in weed marketing they’d driven that day. (One pitched Foote his own strain of weed, which he said cured cancer.)
At this early point in its life, legal weed and cannabis products can, Foote says, “take any form and steal from any other category: high end chocolates, pharmaceuticals, wine, gum, coffee. Basically, since weed became legal, suddenly there is no historical brand equity for anyone.” What this means is that, as Foote says, “anyone can have a stake in the game.” Now that weed is the new gold rush, its history is more or less meaningless. Any celebrity can try and make their brand relevant to weed, even if they’ve never smoked a joint in their life. Right now, it is a “mudslide of a market,” Foote adds.
There are celebrities that fit into the history and culture of weed, and then there are those that only make sense in the current climate, in which weed is an emerging product to profit from. This is not to say that the celebrities that have a connection to weed aren’t trying to do the same thing as the new arrivals, and make lots of money. The deceased Bob Marley was already doing well promoting ice cream, coffee, and headphones – he came in fifth on Forbes’ “Highest-Paid Dead Celebrities of 2018” list, the first being Michael Jackson – when Marley Natural, a Silicon Valley-backed marijuana start-up selling weed products backed by the singer’s estate, was launched.
Like Mr Nice, the brand seems to have more to do with modern ideas about wellness than it does with the radical ethos of the man being used to flog the product, although this does not mean brands will ignore their legacy. Also like Mr Nice, a private equity firm backs it – in this case Privateer Holdings, which is in turn backed by Peter Thiel, the billionaire venture capitalist who is prepping for the apocalypse by buying up large tracts of land in New Zealand.
Marley, like other cannabis product pioneers Snoop Dogg, Post Malone, Wiz Khalifa and Tommy Chong, makes sense as a famous face selling weed-related products. The walls of a million students have played host to the famous poster of the Jamaican icon smoking a joint. But legalised weed is now a booming market with a wide array of companies and entrepreneurs desperate to stand out, and there are only so many longtime 420-friendly celebs out there. And so, celebrity endorsements have moved from the usual cannabis-toking suspects to a crew of interested parties that includes people who were once vehemently anti-drugs, such as KISS singer Gene Simmons and Republican John Boehner, who is now working with Acreage Holdings to exploit the burgeoning legal weed market.
At the end of February, another celebrity with no history or association with cannabis got into the legal weed product game: America’s most famous "homemaker", Martha Stewart. The 77-year-old, who already hosts a television cooking show with Snoop Dogg, has followed in his footsteps and signed a deal with Canada’s second largest cannabis industry company, Canopy Growth, to promote CBD products for pets. This followed the news that Whoopi Goldberg is helping to sell cannabis-infused products that claim to ease menstrual pain.
It’s true that Stewart does have some street level bona fides – from 2004 to 2005, she did time in jail following an insider trading scandal, supposedly becoming known as “M Diddy” at the Federal Prison Camp in Alderson – but she’s more likely to be associated with chocolate brownies than the hash kind. Her deal with Canopy is doubly intriguing because while weed is legal in Canada, the country’s Cannabis Act prohibits the promotion of cannabis or CBD specific products – even, it seems, if that promotion is aimed at pets.
“We’re excited to be working with Martha, and it’s important to be clear that the current line of products we’re working on together are focused on the benefits of CBD for animal health,” a Canopy spokesperson said. “It was a no-brainer for us to team up and work together on these products as we know she is equally passionate about animals.”
Despite not being able to advertise its products in the usual way, I’ve been told that the deals with Stewart and Snoop Dogg are worth millions to them personally, although Canopy stresses that the partnerships are "working relationships" and not endorsements. The company circumvents advertising legislation by advertising its stock on business networks and social media, the latter of which is practically ungovernable, meaning the endorsements become public whether the Canadian government likes it or not. It is illegal to advertise cannabis products, whether THC or CBD. Technically, nothing has changed since the legalisation of cannabis in October. However CBD products are still erroneously promoted, because some sellers believe it’s OK to do so because CBD does not cause intoxication.
Another Canadian, Brian O’Dea, has had a ringside seat as cannabis has turned from criminal commodity to celebrity merry-go-round. From 1972 to the late 1980s, he was one of world’s most successful and accomplished drug smugglers, pulling off weed deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars until the law caught up with him. He spent much of the 1990s in prison.
O’Dea tells me he could never have imagined a time in which weed would be sold legally and celebrities would be called in to add a touch of stardust to the whole operation. After all, a lot of people died dealing weed and a lot of people – including friends of his – are still in prison because of it. Until recently, the Newfoundlander was part of a partnership with Ghostface Killah and Killah Priest, marketing concentrated marijuana called Wu Goo, and he has an insider’s insight into how weed endorsements work.
“They didn’t have to do anything other than occasionally show up at pot shops,” O’Dea says of the rappers, both of whom he likes. “We’d get an order for five grand’s worth of Wu Goo or something, and Ghost would happen to be in town and do the delivery and they’d go fucking crazy.”
“Anyone can grow pot,” O’Dea continues. “So, what it comes down to is differentiation, and that comes through branding and marketing of the brand.” That’s where celebrity endorsements come in. Even then, O’Dea believes that a celebrity endorsement might get a user to try a product, but after the second or third time, if they don’t actually like it, they’re not going to stick with it. Price is inevitably a factor: people will buy the Cheech & Chong bong, he says, but only if it’s basically the same price as the unbranded bong.
What O’Dea and some others think is that legal weed products could end up being influenced less by celebrities and more by a process known as “premiumisation,” in which a brand appeals to its potential customers by emphasising its superior quality. In weed culture, something like this already exists, with different strains of weed, skunk and hash dismissed, fetishised and analysed by smoker connoisseurs. And the quest for a "premium" cannabis experience is already driving a whole high-end market for rich people who want to get high without the stink of the unwashed masses.
"Cannabis might be the first industry since spirits that will achieve huge growth through sudden premiumisation—because all we've had forever is [the cannabis equivalent of] a black market moonshine," says Michael Winawer, a brand strategist at O.I in London.
“The explosion of high-end tequila is a parallel," he adds, referencing Patrón, Espolón and George Clooney’s Casamigos, which was purchased in 2017 by Diageo in a deal worth up to $1 billion.
“The place within celebrity I see as interesting is with hip-hop and potency," says Foote. “So much of rap culture is and already was about how much you smoke and how good the weed is. Snoop Dogg invented the word ‘chronic’ because he didn’t know what hydroponic was.” If rappers can attach themselves to potent weed strains, then they might have a product that makes sense, whereas celebrities looking to cash in on the latest trend might simply be ignored.
“Music and marijuana is potent one-two punch for branding," says Foote. “Martha Stewart’s fucked.”
According to O'Dea, the one brand shown by the figures Headset compiled to have been positively influenced by celebrity involvement – Willie's Reserve – has a potency problem. Recent experimentation with some of Willie’s pre-rolled joints left O’Dea unaffected. “It’s not Willie,” he reasons. “It’s the representatives of Willie. He would've licensed his name to different suppliers in different states. There’s different growers in different states that have a distribution deal for Willie.”
Foote believes the positive Headset figures for Willie's Reserve come from old hippies and music fans: "He had a helluva career and I am a huge fan personally, but that’s the type of gimmicky shit that 65-plus-year-old white dudes love.”
When it comes to getting customers hooked on legal weed products, Winawer is skeptical about how much impact a famous face can actually have.
“Celebs may have little to do with that overall shift," he says. "They might consolidate particular kinds of loyalty among the people who would already be users, or else grab the attention of the complete newbies. But they’re quite blunt instruments when it comes to the specificity of each strain – that precise fit between plant and individual experience that is emerging."
Nevertheless, each week brings a new celebrity endorsement and a new private equity firm to the legal cannabis table. Kim Kardashian recently threw herself a CBD-themed baby shower and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop brand has collaborated with MedMen, the Apple store of cannabis products, based in Los Angeles.
This “gentrification of vice,” as Foote calls it, with all its attendant celebrity attention, looks particularly troubling when you consider that vast numbers of people are still incarcerated on marijuana charges. O’Dea, a Canopy shareholder, was unimpressed by the responses he got from CEO Bruce Linton to requests for the company to help people locked up on minor weed-related offences. As a result, one of the Newfoundlander’s upcoming projects will be employing former prisoners in California to grow weed.
Back in Soho, the people behind Mr Nice – including Howard’s daughter Amber Marks – are looking to perform a complicated dance: make money, but stay true to a more socially righteous vision. Out in the wider world, the sharks have set their sights on weed and its many variants. Celebrities are part of the plan, but anyone who has seen English footballer Wayne Rooney trying to advertise wine knows that sometimes, celebrities and drugs don't mix.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.