How Barbari’s Herbal Spliff Broke The Rules
Learn how to create a category-busting weed product.
The Broccoli Report: September 18, 2020.
Time to read: 8 minutes, 42 seconds. 1755 words.
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For now, let's dive in with today's interview.
So, inspiration strikes, and you've got it–a brilliant idea for a cannabis product. You put in the hours to develop it, and it's amazing. Now, all you have to do is get it to market—and create a market for it.
Turns out, that's not so easy. In 2016, Barbari co-founders Meryl Montgomery and Valarie Sakota decided to build a company around a new kind of low-dose spliff, mixing cannabis with other smokable herbs like sage, raspberry leaf, jasmine blossom, and peppermint. By incorporating herbs, they could offer consumers a new kind of buildable high.
In the regulated THC market, this category-busting product needed twice as many required signatures and approvals and a far longer timeline until making it to dispensary shelves. And at the same time, Barbari had to stay alive as a company and build a brand that could lay the groundwork for a product that didn’t yet exist. Here, they talk about the multi-year process behind launching the Barbari THC Herbal Spliff.
LY: At what point did you realize introducing the weed and herbal spliff to Oregon’s legal cannabis scene would be no simple feat?
M & V: When we read the Oregon cannabis laws [laughs]. The THC Spliff was the original idea, but it was 2016, the laws were so vague, and it was a product concept that no one was thinking about. We had to navigate whether we’d be considered an “adulterated product,” so we started by approaching the Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) for a clearer definition of what “adulteration” entailed. We realized how long this process was going to take, and that the THC Spliff would probably not be our inaugural product.
LY: Your first pivot as a company happened so early on. What did the first iteration of Barbari look like?
M & V: The idea was a curated cannabis lifestyle shop. We had a custom pipe from Stonedware, some other smoking accessories—we wanted to create a lifestyle vibe without having any weed products yet. The site went up in October 2017, and as we continued to work on the THC Spliff, we focused on the consumer education that needed to be done on herbal smoking blends. We launched the original line of herbal blends, which got us one step closer to creating herbal spliffs. In 2018, we participated in The Initiative’s 3-month accelerator program, which was big for us. The program allowed us to fully flesh out a strategy to get the THC spliff to market, and helped us figure out brand licensing as an alternative to becoming a licensed producer.
LY: While sorting out the details for your THC line, you focused on launching CBD versions of your spliffs and loose herbal blends that contained no weed at all. But by association, you were still a weed brand from day one. What challenges did that connection create?
M & V: When we first launched the website in 2017, we were using PayPal as our online payment processor. Our herbal blends still look like weed, and within a day, they shut us down. We were very careful to avoid speaking about weed directly, but PayPal, Stripe, and Squarespace all shut us down and froze our money. They wouldn’t give us any kind of appeal option for over a month. We had to find really sketchy solutions for companies who were deemed “red-flag” like us, and the rates were coming in at 12-15% in fees for every transaction processed. Over time, we’ve gotten that down to about 4.5%, which is amazing, but it’s still twice as expensive as what non-cannabis merchants are paying.
Some brands skate by unnoticed on conventional platforms like Stripe and PayPal, and honestly, more power to them. Get it where you can, but have a contingency plan, withdraw your money as soon as possible, and put it somewhere less at risk of being frozen.
LY: Were there times when it seemed like launching the THC Spliff would be impossible?
M & V: We are in the spirit of, “if this road is blocked, then let’s find another road.” We knew we were going to make it happen, and The Initiative gave us the confidence to problem-solve. It was not easy, and it took four years. First, we had to nail down definitions within laws and within definitions of our product category. We had to understand all the regulatory steps that it’d take to bring a THC product to market, and how much that was going to cost. There were phone calls after missed phone calls, and email after email after email. We even tracked down OLCC reps at industry events, but their go-to line was “please email firstname.lastname@example.org” or whatever, and that’s it. Eventually, we got through. It started with an email to the general info address at the state’s regulatory agency. We were able to amend the rules to make room for us by adding a subcategory to the category of “processed flower—infused pre-roll”. Apparently this kind of amendment has only been made once before in Oregon.
LY: Do the non-cannabis herbs affect how you have to test the product? Oregon’s testing restrictions for cannabis are so strict.
M & V: Yes. When any infused pre-roll is tested, the entire finished product is ground up for analysis— crutch, paper, and all —and a total percentage of THC is created by a math equation of weight and cannabinoids. By contrast, a regular joint is just tested by the potency of the flower within and not the cone it comes in. Some companies will infuse the crutches or the paper to increase potency, because this testing process can skew the THC percentage results to seem lower than they actually are. We’re a low-dose infused pre-roll, which is unlike any joint on the market. We don’t want customers to get higher than they intended, but people are accustomed to judging a product’s potency based on the THC percentage on the label. In addition to the work we need to do educating people on herbal blends, we have to educate consumers on how to gauge potency of smokable products by milligrams (which is the only accurate representation of infused preroll potency) rather than percentages.
LY: Damn, so just because the THC Spliff is available, it doesn’t mean the work is done.
M & V: We’re still actively working on this testing issue. We have to find marketing solutions and ways to work towards policy change, like finding someone that cares enough about this issue to do something about it. We joined the Oregon Cannabis Association (OCA), which is enabling us to have another touchpoint and a little bit of brawn to get this agenda item on the list of priorities for the next rulemaking session. It’s all about coordinating efforts with the OLCC and the Oregon Health Authority (who mandates testing requirements), and making it happen during an active legislation session when rules are able to be changed.
LY: The OCA works with lobbyists at the state capital, right?
M & V: Yes, but there’s still no singular way to make things happen. We’ve learned that you have to come at the problem from a few different angles because no one’s going to fight for your issue better than you will. We still have to convince the OCA to consider it a priority as well. Our job is nowhere close to done.
LY: What’s the feedback on the THC Spliff been like so far?
M & V: At first, people don’t understand the idea of diluting weed with other herbs. It’s not a joint, it’s a totally different experience, and people are starting to get those nuances. Most people are pretty impressed that it breaks the traditional form of a smokeable, and once they try it, they love experiencing a different kind of high.
LY: What advice would you give to someone with a great idea for a product that doesn’t fit into traditional cannabis categories? What would you say to emerging entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
Have the endurance and the flexibility to know you aren’t always going to immediately execute your original idea. When we hit roadblocks to launching the THC Spliff, we put out the Herbal Blends and built momentum. The second time we thought we’d release the THC Spliff and it didn’t work out, we launched the CBD Hemp Spliff, which allowed us to perfect the form factor and product messaging. The THC Spliff is now less foreign to our consumers, and we’ve created brand familiarity.
Make time for face time. Getting to know people in your community, in any capacity, can be a huge asset. You never know who you may need to call when you have a problem to solve.
Don’t look too far ahead. We set goals, including lofty ones, but we take things one day at a time. We accept the losses when they come and look at them as opportunities. It’s about working towards goals day by day, week by week. In cannabis and beyond, everything can change so quickly. Save yourself from stress and know that your plans will change 7000 times.
Fluff up those feathers a bit and play bigger than you think you are. Fuck imposter syndrome. Know that you have value.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. Photos by General Qu.
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