The Global Media Weekly for executives and entrepreneurs

How cannabis is firing up US media

For generations of stoners, cannabis media meant one thing: High Times, the US magazine started in the 1970s, initially as a one-off pastiche of Playboy, but with horticultural, rather than horny, subjects. It did surprisingly well, and High Times turned into something of a cultural force, mixing in its early years writing from the likes of Wiliam Burroughs and interviews with Susan Sontag, with tips on how to smuggle the then very much illegal product on which it focused.

High Times these days has lost most of its cultural cache, but the cannabis-focused media it pioneered has blossomed in the past decade as recreational cannabis use has become legitimized across the US.

Washington and Colorado were the first states to legalize cannabis use in 2012, and a further 17 have followed suit, while 12 states have additionally decriminalised it. The US cannabis market was estimated to be worth close to $11bn in 2021 and expected to grow at around 15% each year, with recreational use making up an increasingly large share, though medicinal use remains the biggest part of the market.

There are a plethora of blogs and small sites offering reviews of various strains of marjuana, as well as more modern hybrid sites such as Leafly, which provides a platform for user reviews and e-commerce, but also features a range of articles focused on the broader social impact of weed. 

There are also glossy weed magazines such as Broccoli, arguably filling a similar role to High Times, as well as similarly high-end magazines like Honeysuckle that don’t focus only on cannabis, but place it at the core of their cultural coverage.

At the same time, established media brands are starting to pay more attention. Bloomberg, Politico and Business Insider all have correspondents covering the industry. And, while the New York Times is yet to appoint a weed correspondent, local papers are getting in on the act. New Jersey only voted to legalise recreational cannabis use in 2021, but local news site has had a dedicated premium site, NJ Cannabis Daily, since before the pandemic. 

The rapid growth of the cannabis industry, and the paucity of information about how to deal with new industry structures and issues such as regulation, has also opened up a huge gap for business publications to fill the void. There are parallels with green energy and cryptocurrency, subject areas where new media publications are also breaking virgin ground. 

These cannabis B2B outlets include the likes of Marjuana Business Daily, set up in 2011 as the first steps towards legalisation became clear, and Cannabis Business Daily, which is part of a broader group of publications focused on less hip sectors such as Pest Control and Greenhouse Management. Both publish print magazines, advertising and big events in a pretty traditional B2B model.

In January this year, Emerald Holding Inc, the largest US-based trade show organiser, acquired MJBiz, claimed to be the leading event producer and content platform in the cannabis industry, for an initial $120m. In terms of the developing B2B market, it was a big deal:

  • Founded in 2011, MJBiz produces MJBizCon, the oldest and leading B2B cannabis trade show in America, the Emerald Conference and related media brands including MJBizDaily, Hemp Industry Daily and MJBiz Magazine.
  • In 2021, MJBiz’s revenues were approximately $27m, which were near pre-pandemic levels.
  • MJBizCon is a leading trade show having featured more than 1,200 exhibiting companies and 27,000 attendees, including over 18,000 paid registrations, at the October 2021 event, rivaling pre-pandemic levels. 
  • The MJBiz platform delivered 38% compound annual revenue growth in the three years prior to the pandemic (2017-2019). In addition to operating the leading cannabis industry trade show, the MJBiz brand claims to be the leading source for actionable business intelligence in the cannabis industry.

Another publication focused on the professional side of the cannabis market is Cannabis Wire, which is aimed at the full range of people both in and near the industry who need to keep pace with what’s going on. Founder Nushin Rashidian says launching into a relatively untapped market has offered up different challenges to those experienced by media startups trying to reinvent approaches to covering well worn topics:  “It’s a much slower process. I don’t think that it was as apparent when we first launched, why something like us needed to exist.” 

The need may not have initially been obvious, but grant funding received in 2014 enabled Rashidian and her co-founder to get up and running just as the industry was taking off. Now, with legal cannabis established and developing as a market, people “get it” she says. 

Cannabis Wire’s development over the past half decade has taken place as the broader industry has shifted increasingly towards subscriptions, and after initially running primarily on grant money from a variety of sources, the publication launched a paywall in 2019. 

As more states have legalised recreational cannabis use, and the industry has grown, it has opened up new audiences for a site like Cannabis Wire, which is aimed not just at those in the industry itself, but anyone who “​​in some way their professional life depends on knowing what’s going on in terms of cannabis policy, regulation, or research” says Rashidan. “They’re our core subscribers.”

The now fashionable focus on readership revenue doesn’t mean Cannabis Wire has ruled out taking advertising or sponsorship at some point, and the increasingly legitimate nature of cannabis, combined with the rapid growth of the market, has opened up a new range of potential advertising clients beyond those only or primarily working in cannabis, such as accounting or law firms that work with the industry. But, as with any attempt to cover a market with a range of complex questions about responsibility and customer care (such as pharmaceuticals or alcohol) it’s important to consider who to work with. 

“We really want to be deliberate and intentional about how we do this,” says Rashidian. “We’re not interested in doing anything to kind of tarnish our reputation as journalists in the interest of making some money.”

cIn many ways, the media market that has grown up around the US cannabis industry, and the challenges faced by outlets such as Cannabis Wire, are similar to those in other almost entirely new markets, such as electric vehicles or cryptocurrency. However, the fact that cannabis is both a hugely influential cultural product and one that is subject to yet more regulation and legal wrangling, means that – in many ways – the opportunities are even broader for those hoping to serve this new audience. 

Much of the world is watching the US experience with increasing legalisation (especially across Europe) of medical use of cannabis, even if the attitudes of state medical authorities sometimes seem ambivalent. Way to go.