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Bob Marley weed launches in a cloud of controversy

Marley Natural marijuana goes on sale today in the US, and some in Jamaica aren't happy about it

Marley Natural, the New York marijuana startup funded with Silicon Valley money, has come out with a line of weed strains branded in the name of late reggae icon and vehement anti-capitalist Bob Marley. The four types of cannabis will be available in some California dispensaries today, before expanding to the four other US states where marijuana has been decriminalized. The company has also launched a line of natural beauty products and smoking accessories that will be sold nationwide.

Today's announcement marks the first product launch from Marley Natural, which was created in 2014 with funding from Privateer Holdings, a Seattle-based private equity firm that invests in marijuana businesses. Privateer has secured a 30-year licensing deal with the Marley family to develop weed strains and hemp-based products, and emerged as a prominent player in the growing marijuana industry after closing a $75 million funding round last year. (Peter Thiel's Founders Fund, an early Facebook backer, is among its investors.) Marley Natural positions itself as a "global marijuana brand" that embodies the reggae star's Rastafarian virtues, but the startup has faced criticism for profiting off of Jamaican culture while doing little for the island itself.

"help people understand the herb the way Bob did."

The marijuana line announced today includes four strains of cannabis flower and oil — Marley Green, Red, Gold, and Black — each grown to elicit different effects in smokers. Marley Green is described as a hybrid strain that's "appropriate for anytime use," while those looking for a "more physical, full-body experience" are encouraged to try the indica-heavy Marley Black. The weed is available today at three partner dispensaries in California for $50 an eighth (3.5 grams), with the cannabis oil (for use in vaporizers) priced at $40 per 500 mg. All four strains are locally grown in California and pesticide-free, and can be smoked with a Marley Natural pipe made of "sustainably grown" American black walnut. According to the company, that's the only way Bob would have it.

"We're not only natural in how we source our products and how they're made; it's important for us to demonstrate to people that the herb can be a natural part of life, which was the way Bob viewed it," says Zack Hutson, Marley Natural spokesman. "So that's what we're hoping to do really with this brand — help people understand the herb the way Bob did."

With today's launch, Marley Natural joins a growing field of celebrity-branded marijuana products, as investors look to capitalize on a burgeoning market. According to a recent estimate from ArcView Market Research, the legal cannabis industry generated $5.4 billion in sales last year in the US, and that figure is projected to reach $21.8 billion by 2020. Willie Nelson, Snoop Dogg, and Wiz Khalifa have all started or lent their names to various weed-related ventures, but few stars are as universally synonymous with the drug as Marley, who spoke and sang at length of its spiritual and healing powers. Marley Natural believes its products will help spread that message, even in traditional retailers selling its hemp seed body care products.

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"That allows us to have a conversation about the benefits of hemp seed oil as a moisturizer, things like that," Hutson says. "And that again gives us a platform to share Bob's message about the herb with the world."

But Marley also railed against the evils of capitalism and imperialism, which makes the Privateer partnership a rather uncomfortable union for some. Mike Alleyne, a professor in the recording industry department at Middle Tennessee State University and author of an encyclopedia on reggae, says it's inevitable that a marijuana brand would seek to profit off the Marley legacy, noting that it's already been used to promote coffee, ice cream, and headphones. Forbes ranked the singer fourth on its list of highest-earning dead celebrities in 2015.

But Alleyne says Privateer's name and pirate ship logo — designed by the same firm behind the Starbucks logo — may carry negative connotations in Jamaica, which was under British rule for more than 300 years.

"it's not a good conceptual foundation for this enterprise."

"Given Marley's anti-capitalist, anti-establishment identity, the idea of having a company that evokes the name of centuries-old pirates, and a very negative tradition of imperialist assault... sends a lot of the wrong messages," says Alleyne, who has written about the commodification of the Marley name. "I'm not sure if anyone involved in the whole process is thinking about it, but it's not a good conceptual foundation for this enterprise."

The company has also faced criticism for appropriating Rastafarian culture without direct benefit to Jamaica. Marley Natural says it spent considerable time with Jamaican ganja growers and the Marley family to replicate the kinds of cannabis strains that the singer preferred, and it has launched a philanthropic program to spur the growth of sustainable business on the island. Although the company says it hopes to expand to Jamaica and other international markets next year, the idea of an American company turning Marley into the "Marlboro Man of Marijuana" doesn't sit well with some on the island, including former bandmates.

"The Marley Natural deal must be publicly opposed," Bunny Wailer told The Jamaica Gleaner in 2014, saying Marley wasn't as committed to legalization as other members of the Wailers, including himself and Peter Tosh. "Only a Jamaican company incorporating local stakeholders, the Rastafarian community, local ganja farmers, medical scientists and investors should be allowed to market Brand Jamaica ganja first-hand," the musician added.

"People are concerned that it's exploitative in nature."

Jamaica has loosened restrictions on marijuana in recent months, with support from those who say a regulated weed industry could boost economic growth and medical research. The country decriminalized small amounts of marijuana last year, and now allows Rastafarians to use the drug for religious purposes. But lawmakers have yet to establish a regulatory framework for medical marijuana, leaving the nascent industry in a state of limbo.

Delano Seiveright, director of Jamaica's Cannabis Commercial and Medicinal Research Taskforce and an advocate for marijuana reform, says Marley Natural could help raise broader awareness around cannabis reform, though many are still skeptical of its aims.

"People are concerned that it's exploitative in nature," he says. "They feel it's too much about making money, and not enough about helping the people of Jamaica and the Rastafari."


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