Stewart is poised to conquer cannabis as the next frontier of domestic comfort. In February, she announced that she had become an adviser to the Canadian cannabis giant Canopy Growth, and now she is developing her own range of products, starting with a line of dog treats made with cannabidiol, or CBD. (Don’t worry, CBD doesn’t get Fido—or people—high; neither Stewart nor Canopy will say yet whether anything in her line will.)
Stewart’s announcement landed her among a small but growing group of celebrities who have seen dollar signs in the nascent market for legal weed in North America. Long a product sold primarily by historically disenfranchised young men risking prison sentences, weed is now the province of A-list actors and Super Bowl champions. Drake wants to sell you weed grown locally in his native Toronto. Football stars like Rob Gronkowski and Ricky Williams offer cannabinoid products to ease your aches and pains. As the legal weed market floods with corporations vying to be the Coca-Cola of cannabis, companies are betting that celebrities might be a shortcut to mainstream success.
Before Stewart’s announcement in February, the major celebrities who had signed up to start weed brands were mostly the ones you’d expect: Willie Nelson, Tommy Chong, Damian Marley, and several rappers following in Snoop’s footsteps, including Wiz Khalifa and Ghostface Killah. Those celebrities come from subcultures where the penchant for smoke was never controversial. The real money, though, is likely to be made in selling to broader audiences, whose attention is trickier for weed brands to capture. “The industry is fairly strict when it comes to advertising regulations,” Sinclair said. “Promotion is very difficult, and credibility building and brand building are also very difficult.”
To make an end run around paid advertising, the weed industry has to find ways to get anxious retailers to carry their products. They need enough novelty to drum up excitement in the press—in other words, they need someone like Martha Stewart. “We didn’t expect the amount of traction that that announcement generated,” Sinclair recalled. “It was as much press and as much reach and as many stories as we generated on the day that cannabis got legalized in Canada, and we were the business that made the first legal sale ever.”
The power of celebrities like Stewart isn’t just in their counterintuitive willingness to be associated with weed, but in their position within commerce in general. Stewart “can make one phone call and get a meeting with any major American retailer,” Sinclair said. Without a beloved mainstream name attached, a company might go years before landing in the same store. “We’re essentially borrowing credibility,” Sinclair told me.
Mayzlin points to the beginning of internet commerce as a lesson on how a new market goes from a Wild West with many competitors and little name recognition to an intensely consolidated industry. Amazon didn’t come to dominate American retail with slick ads alone. It performed its function with the most ruthless efficiency, which is what shoppers wanted.
Still, Mayzlin sees one distinct upside to cannabis’s celebrity strategy: access to massive social-media followings. “In the past, you had to pay the celebrity, but then you also paid for media, like a TV ad,” she says. “Here, you already have the media.” That’s doubly important for cannabis brands, which can’t advertise themselves like a new type of soda can.
Even Canopy readily admits that working with celebrities is quite different from developing, advertising, and selling products on its own. Drake is the Toronto Raptors’ official global hype man, and when the team recently made a run at the NBA title, the excitement threw Canopy’s development meetings with him into havoc. “We knew the priority was making sure the basketball thing is taken care of,” Sinclair told me. “If there was a big game and we had a meeting scheduled with Drake and his team the next morning, we were like, ‘Okay, let’s move this to the afternoon.’” Still, the hassle is worth it to let the millions of people who have listened to Drake rap about weed know exactly where to buy their own.