Cannabis is having a moment. Legalized for recreational use in 10 states (and counting), the once contraband substance has entered the sunny mainstream. Visit Portland, Ore., or Los Angeles, and you’ll find dispensaries that cater to a wide range of tastes and aesthetics, featuring inviting brands with products that purport to do everything from boosting energy, to quelling anxiety, to helping with sleep.
This is a fairly recent phenomenon, says Anja Charbonneau, editor-in-chief of Broccoli, a triannual women-centric print magazine dedicated to cannabis culture. When the publication launched in 2017, “there were maybe five companies I could think of that seemed consumer friendly and design forward,” she says. “Now there are so many.”
The nascent industry has also spurred a surprising revival of print media. Because cannabis is illegal at the federal level, the industry is largely barred from advertising on Facebook or Google, leaving an opening for niche magazines to make money through advertising. Today, there is a small but growing group of paper publications that cover cannabis.
The former design director of the successful lifestyle publication Kinfolk and a long-time casual cannabis user, Charbonneau was early to both the resurgence of independent print publications and consumer-friendly cannabis. Broccoli has seen its readership steadily climb; its upcoming Spring issue will have a circulation of 30,000. Free for its first year, the magazine now has a cover price, which Charbonneau hopes will provide a financial buffer should demand from advertisers ever soften.
In an interview, Charbonneau explains why she’s tentatively optimistic about print media, her plans for Broccoli, and her hopes for the cannabis industry as a whole.
Q. How do you describe Broccoli, and how has the magazine evolved since it launched in 2017?
A. It’s pretty much the same as when we started. We wanted to make a magazine that touches on all the creative sides of cannabis — art, culture, fashion — and tells stories that are about cannabis or cannabis adjacent.
We have shifted from saying it’s a magazine for women. Our team is still all women, and we work with mostly women or non-binary contributors, but anybody can like [the magazine]. Sometimes the people who need to see these perspectives the most are the ones who fall outside that realm. I like when we have male readers, because then I know they are consuming content made by interesting women! And so we’ve tried to be more open about saying who the magazine is for.
Q. What are some stories you’ve run that you’re really proud of or excited about?
A. The most popular story from our fourth issue was about what we know and don’t know about cannabis and reproductive health. There are a lot of women who are turning to cannabis for all the mysterious things that happen when you have a uterus. The article was followed by four mini personal essays written by women who use weed for health reasons. There was a funny one from a mom whose doctor recommended she try weed during her pregnancy. She was super Christian and very scandalized by it. [The doctor] said, “Do you want to keep this baby?” Because she had such bad nausea. People really responded to the personal stories, but I’m glad we balanced it with, “Where are we scientifically?” One of the interesting things about weed is that we don’t have a lot of science around it. [Editor’s note: Cannabis is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug, which makes it difficult for researchers to study.]
For the third issue, the most popular story was a profile on these amazing nail artists, these two sisters called Lady Fancy Nails. A photographer pitched it to us. It featured close up shots of this amazing nail art, which had a 420 theme. People loved the nails.
Q. What trends are you watching in the cannabis space?
A. I am interested in initiatives that are focused on equitable lawmaking at the start of the legal innovation process. Every time a new state legalizes, it’s an opportunity for the rules to be set up in a fair way, so people without the same resources as the rich white guys can still gain access to the industry and get licensed. It’s something that people care about a lot, but no one’s really gotten it right yet. There is so much problem-solving to be done on the legalization side. I definitely don’t want to talk about CBD anymore.
Q. Most licensing programs reject anyone with a criminal record, which means communities of color that have disproportionately suffered from the war on drugs are, in many cases, excluded from participating in the industry now that cannabis is legal. How do you think about social justice issues in terms of the magazine?
A. We tell stories, and share people’s stories. It’s helpful for us to make sure we are telling stories that touch on these subjects. It’s easier to find people now because the industry is growing so fast. We can say, “OK, who is doing really great work in Oakland? Let’s put them in the magazine.” They’re online so it’s easy to find them.
We have a really interesting woman in our spring issue. Her name is Nina Parks, and she is part of Supernova Women, which is a group of women of color based in Oakland who are working really hard to bring awareness to equity issues. They have a radio show, they’re at City Hall. Their lives are that story; they’ve been affected by the war on drugs. They’ve dealt with having a business, having that business taken away because when everything shifts with legalization you kind of need to start over. So we interviewed her about: “How do you deal with the amount of change that’s happening all the time? How do you keep going? What can people do to help?’ Her interview is great because she isn’t afraid to admit that sometimes, it’s super hard. Sometimes you need to take a minute and then get back to it. She is really fascinating to follow – she’s my source for what’s happening in California, and what issues I should be paying attention to. She’s been in it longer than me.
Financially speaking, we’re doing what we can to support initiatives and non-profits who are working to help people harmed by the war on drugs or other social inequities. As a small startup without traditional financial backing, our give-back fundraisers are smaller efforts than what a big company might be able to do, but we hope that other brands will see that even small companies can find ways to help.
Q. The media industry is struggling, particularly print. What made you decide, ‘I think I’ll start a cannabis print publication’?
A. Kinfolk sparked an indie print revolution — we saw a lot of titles coming to life during that time. There is so much talk about digital exhaustion, and the decline of digital media when it comes to advertising. I hope what we are doing in print can redirect a little energy back to the real-life stuff. It’s an interesting challenge that we’re in; We are making a print magazine at a time when digital doesn’t seem to be doing well, but print is kind of an experiment.
If you think of the tangibleness of using something like cannabis, it’s very personal; it’s very much something you do in your own time, which is disconnected from the digital space. It felt like they mirrored each other: a print experience and a cannabis experience. Also given the weird secrecy that surrounds being a cannabis user, it felt like maybe people would be more likely to read about it in print, rather than something they click that is tracked online.
Q. How were you able to make the publication work financially?
A. We don’t have big financial backing, and we don’t have investors. I had savings to work with in the beginning, but it was the type of timeline where if we didn’t break even with the third issue, we wouldn’t be able to continue. One of the weird things about Broccoli was that we made the magazine free for the first year. Rather than charging the readers we took on sponsors. If you’re a cannabis brand, you can’t advertise on Facebook. You can try on Instagram, but you might get your account deleted. We went with an advertising model and distributed the magazine pretty broadly from the start.
Now that we have a cover price, we are starting to work with more traditional distributors. You’ll be able to find our upcoming Spring issue in Barnes & Nobles, and Chapters in Canada. It will be so much easier for people to find it.
Q. So Facebook and Google can’t siphon off all your advertising dollars, as it’s done for virtually every other vertical.
A. Totally. We’re at a really unique point of time. When the day arrives that cannabis becomes federally legal and people can sell online, it will be a totally different situation.
Q. Does that worry you?
A. I can’t worry (laughing). I can think about maybe the next six months. That’s it. The industry changes so rapidly that it’s a waste of time to plan for the future, in a way.
Q. Are you profitable?
I mean, not really — [the revenue] is sustaining the company, but we are still so young that everything goes back in. But by the third issue, we were sustainable.
A. I know you don’t want to talk about CBD but — what’s the deal with CBD? Does it work?
I think it depends on what you are trying to achieve, and where the CBD is coming from. We are in a funny spot right now where we need more research, but people can safely experiment with different cannabis products in a way you can’t with pharmaceuticals. It’s important that people listen to their bodies. As a consumer, I’m wary when I see brands lean heavily on the words, “studies show.” Sometimes I get my Instagram trigger fingers out, and I’m like, “What studies?!” There is plenty you can say about what we know weed does and how people experience it without relying on ambiguous studies. It’s like piecing together a puzzle: we have a general idea of what the picture might be based on the little research that we do have. So approach it all with an open mind, and be ready to experiment. There are plenty of options. If one thing doesn’t work, you can always try something else.