Publishing company branches out and dives into CBD market
Cannabis Now, one of the country’s leading marijuana lifestyle magazines, has made the jump from media brand to brick-and-mortar retailer, bringing to life the company’s slogan, “The future of cannabis is happening now.”
The company opened its first retail location in May in Los Angeles and is in the process of raising capital to build shops in major cities across the United States.
But the Cannabis Now store on the corner of Third Street and La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles doesn’t sell cannabis — at least not in the conventional sense. The 3,800-square-foot shop sells a wide range of CBD products, as well as cannabis accessories, apparel and various artistic merchandise, making it a hybrid of a high-end head shop and a health-and-wellness market.
“We’ve searched the world and we’re pretty sure that we are the largest CBD-focused retail environment on the planet right now,” says Eugenio Garcia, the company’s 38-year-old founder and CEO.
Although Cannabis Now made its mark catering to the cannabis enthusiast, first as a regional medical marijuana publication, then as a nationally distributed glossy competing with the likes of High Times, Skunk and Weed World, Garcia is banking on the explosive demand for health and wellness products to carry the brand into the future.
ORIGIN AND EVOLUTION
Garcia and the small, original Cannabis Now team began publishing the magazine as a Montana medical marijuana journal in 2009. But after just two issues, the legal environment in Montana changed to essentially outlaw the dispensary model.
“The business of cannabis in Montana was pretty much wiped out, and all of our advertising went with it,” Garcia says. “So we decided to jump into the national arena from a consumer point of view.”
At that time, the only nationally distributed cannabis magazine based in the United States was High Times, the longstanding counterculture icon that hadn’t faced a true competitor since its 1974 launch.
In addition to Garcia, three key members of the original Cannabis Now team — Todd Heath, Anna Pitman and Chris Fanuzzi — are still involved in the company. Fanuzzi was the magazine’s first investor, while Heath, Pitman and senior editor Ellen Holland now lead the company’s publishing division, which also includes Hemp magazine, a quarterly sister publication of Cannabis Now.
Over the years, Cannabis Now has produced dozens of eye-catching magazine covers, most of which feature exquisite flowers, interesting farms or other representations of the cannabis plant, but some of publisher Eugenio Garcia’s favorite issues are the ones with people on the cover.
He says one that stands out to featured the former — and current — presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016. Garcia says the Sanders cover was controversial at the time because the U.S. senator from Vermont is a polarizing figure who was in the middle of a presidential run.
Other memorable celebrities to grace the cover were chef Cat Cora, an advocate for cannabis normalization, and rapper Wiz Khalifa.
Khalifa might be a stereotypical celebrity stoner, “but when you actually talk to him about the plant and about his vision, it comes from a very organic and passionate and positive place, and to be able to show that was really nice,” Garcia says.
When asked about his favorite interviews the magazine has published, Garcia favors those with some of the elder statesmen of the cannabis movement, including country music legend Willie Nelson, Israeli scientist Raphael Mechoulam and medical marijuana trail blazer Dennis Peron, who died in 2018 after devoting much of his life to cannabis activism.
“Getting somebody who’s hot and up-and-coming is exciting,” Garcia says, “but being able to capture a moment in time and a conversation with these legacy individuals or somebody who might not be here in the near future is, to tell you the truth, a special aspect of what we’re doing here.”
— Garrett Rudolph
“We’ve been lucky to have a tremendous editorial team and a tremendous designer,” Garcia says. “Those three, with the support of our production and sales team, really allowed us to be on the forefront of smart, educational entertainment. Having a good team isn’t any sort of secret, but without the team, you can’t get anything done, no matter how good your ideas are.”
Cannabis Now began in what Garcia calls “probably the worst time to get into the magazine business.” Newsstand sales, across all genres of print publishing, were in free fall. Investors and advertisers alike were shifting their dollars to digital counterparts. And readers were being pulled in a thousand directions as everything in print, on television and over the internet competed for their attention. But in the decade since its launch, even as smartphones have become ubiquitous, Garcia has noticed a slow shift back toward traditional print media.
“We have been trained to absorb media by looking at our phones and that has become the new normal,” he says. “But what is also happening is people are starting to unplug. They’re coming back to books. They’re coming back to magazines. And they are coming back to alternative forms of media that do not include their smartphone as a lifestyle choice, so that they’re not staring at a screen all day.”
Having watched the cannabis industry develop over the past decade-plus, Garcia says there have been three distinct paradigm shifts in the social and political landscapes revolving around cannabis, starting with the legalization of medical marijuana and the slow realization by the general public of the potential medical benefits of cannabis. The second shift, Garcia says, began in 2012 with Colorado and Washington legalizing cannabis for recreational use, which set up the third major change, the recent transformation of cannabis into a global industry backed by institutional investors, venture capitalists and multi-national conglomerates.
The past five years have seen tremendous commercial, industrial and financial growth in cannabis, Garcia says.
To serve this evolving global market, Cannabis Now has expanded beyond print media and is now comprised of five divisions: publishing, video, licensing, entertainment and retail.
“You really can’t call Cannabis Now a media company,” he says. “You can’t call us a retail company, you can’t call us an agency, because we’re multi-dimensional and we are catering to an undefined industry.”
From its inception, Garcia says, Cannabis Now magazine has been a tool to “help us understand the pulse and the rhythm of the (cannabis) industry from which to then grow new opportunities.”
One of those opportunities came to light with the passage of the 2018 Farm Bill, which removed hemp from the Controlled Substances Act and boosted the already fast-growing CBD industry into overdrive.
California’s recreational marijuana industry continues to fall short of expectations, but Cannabis Now, as a CBD retailer, was able to bypass many of the obstacles that have plagued other cannabis stores, including the track-and-trace requirements, arduous tax rates and highly restrictive licensing processes. And with CBD rapidly becoming Americans’ go-to product to alleviate dozens of ailments — chronic pain, insomnia, anxiety, skin irritations and arthritis, among others — Cannabis Now is cashing in on the craze.
Garcia believes that people in the near future will be using cannabinoid-based products more for health and wellness, rather than so-called recreation or intoxication. Although THC reigns supreme right now in the cannabis space, despite the recent surge of hemp-derived products, Garcia expects that trend to flip-flop in the coming years with CBD and other cannabinoids gaining more prominence. He draws an analogy between cannabis and alcohol, saying CBD is more like wine, while THC is more like tequila.
“Having a glass of wine with your pasta in order to bring up the flavors is much different than lining up three shots of tequila,” Garcia says. “Not that either one is bad, but there are more people who would rather have a glass of wine than take shots of tequila.”
And with such a lack of information about CBD available to consumers, the Cannabis Now store aims to be both a retail space and an educational hub, where people can talk to knowledgeable staff and learn about the products, the manufacturers and “the benefits of holistic health and wellness.”
Garcia plans to open 10 to 12 more Cannabis Now stores in high-profile markets within the next two years, as well as developing an e-commerce platform that will support the brick-and-mortar locations.
“Right now, we are looking very aggressively at Miami, Boston, New York and San Antonio,” he says. Other cities in the mix include San Francisco, Denver, Seattle and Chicago, but it’s not just about being in the biggest cities or about the legal environment as it pertains to cannabis. For Garcia, it’s about opening stores in the epicenters of metropolitan commerce.
The idea, he says, is to find out where there’s an Apple Store and open up right next door.
In terms of its design, the Cannabis Now shop takes cues from Cannabis Now magazine: more mainstream than counterculture, more artistry than tired cannabis clichés.
But the brand’s reputation — as well as the current state of the cannabis industry in Los Angeles, with hundreds of legal weed shops competing with an even greater number of illegal retailers — has led some shoppers to expect Cannabis Now to be a marijuana store.
“Every day we do get people that come in and say, ‘Where are the joints?’” Garcia says.
Even those moments, the CEO says, are an opportunity for education — and the price of admission for operating on the cutting edge of a rapidly evolving business.
“Entrepreneurs and business owners need to really understand that this is a fluid environment,” Garcia says. “This is a tremendous industry, and on a global scale the people coming into this industry need to look at this as an international business opportunity that is not just THC-focused; it’s THC, it’s CBD, it’s food, it’s clothing, it’s health and wellness, it’s entertainment. There are all these different dimensions to it and whether you’re coming in as an investor or as an entrepreneur, it’s important to be prepared to pivot and react to the changing environment.”