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Branding marijuana: How one company wants to refine a multibillion-dollar industry

How much THC is in this marijuana? Aquarius Cannabis wants to make it easier to know.
How much THC is in this marijuana? Aquarius Cannabis wants to make it easier to know.
Dustin Bradford / MCT via Getty Images

The spread of marijuana legalization and medical marijuana laws in the US are enabling the rapid development of a new multibillion-dollar industry. Now, a company wants to make sure this burgeoning industry meets a certain set of standards.

California-based Aquarius Cannabis, which launched on October 15, is a company that wants to establish "the first truly national, consumer-facing marijuana brand." The idea is to develop standards that pot farmers can follow to build consistent, safe products — and get the "Aquarius Cannabis" label on their goods.

The approach is similar to what Driscoll's does in the berry market. Driscoll's contracts with growers who produce strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries of a certain quality, and then the company markets and sells the berries under its own brand. When customers buy Driscoll's strawberries, the idea is that they should know what to expect.

"If you're a medical patient who's seeking to solve chronic pain in your knee, you need different buds than someone who's trying to have a cerebral, out-of-body experience," said Michael Davis Lawyer, CEO of Aquarius Cannabis. "They're very different products, but there's no consistent labeling."

Aquarius's standards and packaging could, for example, let customers know the chemical breakdown of any given product. They could let a medical patient spot a product with more CBD, a non-psychoactive compound in marijuana that can relieve pain and seizures. And a recreational user could more easily look for a product high in THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis.

Aquarius expects to contract with clients in Washington state and Oregon and start production by the end of the year, but the company hopes to eventually expand to clients in California, the biggest marijuana market in the country, and other states. And if the industry's growth is any indication, Aquarius will be the first of many companies of its kind to come into the field.

Loose standards led to problems in Colorado

marijuana candy

Candy bars laced with medical marijuana in California. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images News)

Perhaps the best evidence that loose and varied standards can lead to problems comes from the marijuana industry — specifically, pot-infused edibles.

In Colorado, edibles producers and vendors have drawn a lot of public scrutiny due to their branding and packaging. The products often imitate children's candies and cereals. The amount of THC in an edible is often spread inconsistently, so one bite of a candy bar could have more or less THC than the bite after. The labels don't typically warn consumers that ingested marijuana can take a couple of hours to kick in. This can make it particularly hard for people used to joints, which produce their effects in minutes, to regulate their high.

All of these issues culminated in an op-ed in June by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who reported feeling like she was dead during the experience. "It took all night before it began to wear off, distressingly slowly," Dowd wrote. "The next day, a medical consultant at an edibles plant where I was conducting an interview mentioned that candy bars like that are supposed to be cut into 16 pieces for novices; but that recommendation hadn't been on the label."

Lawyer said Aquarius will focus exclusively on marijuana plant cultivation at first, but the issues with edibles are similar to the problems his company will deal with.

"I think it's a great example of a problem that stems from the problem we're trying to address," Lawyer said. "We believe consistency starts at the flower. Consistency in edibles and consistency in concentrates — it's impossible to get that ever without having a consistent supply of flowers with a consistent chemical profile."

To accomplish this, Aquarius will consult with farmers and test their products to ensure they meet the company's standards for marijuana plants. Farmers who meet the standards will then be able to market themselves with the Aquarius label, which Lawyer hopes over time will grow to be a brand that consumers and other businesses can trust.

Many people within the marijuana industry have been calling for better standards for some time now. Claire Kaufmann, who runs a blog, Rebranding Cannabis, focused on these issues and works as a marketing adviser in the pot industry, said good, clear labeling is one of the first things she looks at to judge a marijuana product's quality. But it's also something she sees as far too rare.

"It's kind of the wild west," Kaufmann said. "That's concerning to me as a mother."

With professionalization comes commercialization

tobacco farmer

A farmer drives through a tobacco field. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images News)

Lawyer compared his company's role in the marijuana industry to what Driscoll's did for the berry industry and what Philip Morris did for tobacco. Both worked with farmers to build standards for their respective brands.

"It's a similar model," Lawyer said. "They went to farmers who were growing a commodity tobacco crop and said, 'If you grow these seeds and grow them this way, we'll ensure that you have a market for these products at a price that's higher than what you're getting today.'"

But the comparison to the tobacco industry is exactly what opponents — and even some supporters — of legalization don't want to see in the marijuana industry.

As the pot industry grows, critics worry big businesses will attempt to market their products to some of the heaviest and most abusive drug users. A study of Colorado's legal pot market found the top 29.9 percent of heaviest marijuana users in the state make up 87.1 percent of demand for the drug, making those heaviest users the best potential customers.

Colorado marijuana demand

The commercialization concerns haven't become a huge issue in Colorado yet, perhaps because the industry is still fairly small and hasn't reached mass production. But if marijuana edibles are any indication, pot businesses will definitely take to products that are of questionable quality even as public attention turns against them.

"We're seeing the expected level of marketing irresponsibility from the vendors, but they don't have much to sell at the moment," Mark Kleiman, a drug policy expert at UCLA, said in September. "When they've got something to sell, we'll see how aggressive they get."

But marijuana, even in edible or more concentrated forms, poses considerably fewer health risks than tobacco. The concern, then, isn't whether the marijuana industry will become as dangerous as the tobacco industry, but how to minimize the risks of any legal drug industry.

To that end, professional standards from companies like Aquarius could make the typical marijuana product safer. But their arrival also indicates that the industry is getting ready to transform into something much bigger.

To learn more about marijuana legalization, read Vox's card stack and breakdown of the states that could legalize pot in 2014.

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