Nature hikes, sound baths are redefining cannabis marketing
It’s a Sunday afternoon in late June, and I’m lying down on a mat with my eyes closed with a couple dozen strangers, trying to relax. In the center of the room, a man with long, graying hair wearing shorts and a t-shirt is playing thunderous gongs and chiming Tibetan singing bowls. The goal is to enter a deep meditative state, and as he plays, the reverberations travel through my body, the sounds pan from one ear to the other, and the different tones create a multidimensional sensation. The effect is indeed hypnotizing, and after several minutes I find myself beginning to drift off. I’m not the only one. At one point, loud snoring breaks out from across the room.
This is a “sound bath,” and it’s not part of a meditation retreat but rather a new series of cannabis health and wellness events being put on by the vape-pen company hmbldt (which, despite its name, is based in Los Angeles). Launched about seven months ago, the company’s “dose pens” are sleek, pre-filled vaporizers that come in five formulas intended to target specific concerns such as pain, anxiety, and trouble sleeping. This event is an extension of the company’s emphasis on cannabis as medicine and an alternative to prescription drugs.
“We want to create environments for people who may not have considered cannabis before to show them it’s not harmful or scary at all,” said Ryan Hamilton, hmbldt’s marketing manager — partnerships, a few days before Sunday’s event. “Our product is one part of living a more healthy lifestyle in general.”
Cannabis activists have long-touted the plant’s medicinal benefits, but now a new generation of users — and potential users — is being introduced thanks to legalization. No longer just medicine for cancer patients or veterans with PTSD, cannabis is being framed by companies like hmbldt as an accessory to a healthy, active lifestyle. Hmbldt’s website shows a young couple doing yoga on the beach and a guy waxing his surfboard.
On the outside, the company may look like it’s targeting a young audience, but Hamilton said they’re also appealing to people who have either tried cannabis in the past but don’t currently partake or haven’t tried it and are interested in doing so, such as senior citizens and veterans.
Hmbldt COO Jeremy Green said what sets their dose pens apart is the precise dosing — the pens vibrate after inhaling for three seconds to let you know you’ve had one 2.25 milligram dose. The heating mechanism is also unique, he said: It vaporizes the cannabis extraction at a temperature much lower than those in e-cigs or other vaporizers, which allows the user to get the full benefit of the active ingredients. The company says it triple-tests its product during the extraction process, and uses only biodynamically and organically grown pot from Humboldt County (hence the name).
The combination of precise, targeted dosing, beautiful packaging, and clean formulas has helped the company attract plenty of attention from the cannabis world and the mainstream. Last year, TIME Magazine voted hmbldt’s dose pen one of the top inventions of the year, and Fast Company named it a finalist in its 2017 World Changing Ideas Awards. The Los Angeles Times and Bloomberg have also taken note. So far, the pens are available in 200 dispensaries in California (mostly in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and San Diego) and via dozens of delivery services. They cost $100 each for 200 guaranteed doses.
Sunday’s event was an opportunity to introduce journalists, folks from the cannabis industry, and others to the product and the event series. It was held in a small building on a hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay on one side and the old-growth redwood forest of Muir Woods on the other.
Shortly after I arrived at around 11 a.m., hmbldt account manager Rebekah Vega was inside showing the pens to some of the attendees. I tried Relief and Passion, hmbldt’s highest-THC pen, which is intended to “increase sensuality and heighten sexual experience.” I only took one dose of each, so it was hard to measure much effect, but I certainly wasn’t feeling sensual. Maybe slightly relaxed.
Aviv Raphael — who, with his sister Nurit, runs the delivery service Ona.Life, which carries the pens — described them as “cannabis made simple.” “It’s great for people who are getting back into cannabis,” he said. “There’s nothing to be afraid of — it comes with handlebars and training wheels.”
As part of the effort to debunk the fear and stigma around cannabis, the day’s activities began with a hour-long hike with local guides Debra Schwartz and Alexandra Kenin. The goal was to “connect with Mother Nature before [participants] meditate to reflect on how plants impact their lives,” said Brittnie Green, events producer for hmbldt, who is also married to COO Jeremy Green.
Before we began, Schwartz explained to the group of about 17 people how the indigenous Miwok tribe believed everything are people. In that spirit, we were encouraged to “to meet our family,” Schwartz said. “We’re going to talk to the plants. We’re going to learn the stories of the plants and the trees and the land. When you reach into nature, it reaches back.”
As we walked down a steep paved driveway, Schwartz stopped to point out various plants: Pearly Everlasting, which smelled like waffles, Bay Laurel trees (“this is what I call trail perfume,” she said), and something called Sticky Monkey flower.
“We could be birds hovering above Muir Woods right now,” she said as we walked along a narrow dirt path along the steep hillside.
At one point we stopped to breath in the scent of some Bay Laurel trees. “This smell — you don’t want to miss it,” she said. I sniffed and sniffed but didn’t smell anything, and suddenly I felt extremely lightheaded. I couldn’t tell if it was the vape pens finally kicking in or just all the oxygen from breathing. I chalked it up to the latter and felt fine the rest of the day.
As we walked, I spoke to Brandi Stansbury, who does retail marketing for San Jose dispensary Caliva and said she likes the microdosing aspect of the vape pens. “I personally have one and I love it,” she said. “Aesthetics-wise, it’s on-brand with our own product array.” Stansbury explained that she used to work in wine and spirits but much prefers the cannabis industry. “Alcohol is meant to fire people up, and this is all about calming.”
And we were about to get super calm. Back at the building, several more guests were trying out the pens and eating bagged lunches while waiting for the sound bath to begin. I grabbed an apple and a mat on the floor next to 66-year-old IT consultant Greg Solomon and his wife, of Concord, Calif., who said he found out about the event through his chiropractor. Solomon was no stranger to meditation and said he had tried “crystal bowl healing” in Sedona, Ariz. He also said he developed his own line of “chakra meditation garments,” which have pockets for crystals that are “specific to each chakra.” He hadn’t yet tried the vape pens but regularly smokes cannabis. He said he doesn’t use it for medical benefits, but rather “just for a sense of awareness or Zen or state of connectedness.”
On the other end of the spectrum, 70-year-old Mary of Mill Valley (who didn’t want to use her last name to protect her privacy) said she hadn’t “puffed” in 50 years. She also learned of the sound bath through a mutual contact and said she didn’t even know it was a cannabis-branded event. She added that she may not have come had she known it was. Still, she decided to try the most mild THC formula, the Calm pen. “It’s amazing that people can benefit from this,” she said. “It’s not under the table and it’s not harmful.”
Mary said she never takes prescription drugs, only herbs and supplements, and would consider buying the hmbldt pen. “I would definitely think about it knowing the professionalism, the presentation of it. It won an award from TIME Magazine. That’s saying something.”
Hmbldt certainly seems to be helping legitimize cannabis to new users. Hamilton said the company plans to organize two events per month, each one centered around a different health and wellness topic. The next scheduled event was a panel in Malibu about sexual health. Other events might include yoga, boxing, or “mindset training,” Hamilton said.
Sunday’s hike and sound bath wasn’t just about connecting cannabis to health and wellness, but also creating an experience.
Nancy Harvey of Greenbrae, Calif., who works for Octavia Wellness, a delivery service targeting seniors, said she hadn’t been to other cannabis events before, and liked that outreach for such events as this one is getting more diverse. “This is interesting because it feels like your lifestyle,” she said. “Being a part of this takes the stigma out.”
Kathleen Richards is a Bay Area-based journalist, and former managing editor for Seattle’s The Stranger.