A recent brouhaha between Starbucks Coffee and marijuana legalization advocates raises an important question for the broader business community: Can major national companies be successful absent the patronage of marijuana consumers and others who support marijuana policy reform?
Not too long ago, it was absolutely necessary for businesses to maintain an appearance of opposition to marijuana use and legalization. But the times they are a-changin', and it is beginning to seem like many major companies are striving to maintain an appearance of NOT opposing marijuana use and legalization.
Late last month, Safer Alternative For Enjoyable Recreation (SAFER) -- the organization I run -- called for a nationwide boycott of Starbucks Coffee after it and other companies appeared on the "sponsor" page of the Colorado Drug Investigators Association (CDIA), a shady group of law enforcement officials lobbying to wipe out the state's voter-approved medical marijuana system and keep marijuana as illegal as possible. With a board of directors composed almost exclusively of narcotics agents, along with a website and merchandise decorated in a skull motif with images of the grim reaper, military helicopters, and the slogan "Death on Drugs," it's safe to say these guys are not so much concerned with public safety as they are with fighting -- and maintaining -- an endless war against marijuana and other drugs. After all, it provides them with job security, and marijuana enforcement is their bread and butter.
Word of the boycott spread quickly across the web, and with a boost from some traditional media coverage (including some in Starbucks's hometown of Seattle) resulted in thousands of Americans contacting CEO Howard Schultz to let him know they would not be giving their business to his company until it did some explaining. Not long after, Starbucks issued a formal statement in which it distanced itself from the CDIA and assured the Starbucks faithful it does not support such anti-marijuana crusaders. Another business listed as a "sponsor" on CDIA's website was The North Face, one of the leading producers of hiking and mountain sports equipment and apparel. After receiving messages from people swearing off their products, the company took action to ensure everyone knows they are not actually a sponsor of the CDIA and do not support the group's mission. In light of all the bad publicity and these major companies disputing any tie to the CDIA, the organization removed its Web site entirely. Apparently they do not have quite the level of support from the business community that they were suggesting.
As the Seattle Weekly reported, there's more to this story than meets the eye:
Starbucks was just one of many local and national companies whose logo was on CDIA's website. (Also included: The North Face and Enterprise-Rent-a-Car.)...
But what Starbucks, or any of those other brands, did for CDIA isn't really clear. According to Starbucks HQ, no money was involved. So most likely...the "sponsorship" CDIA bragged about probably came down to a couple free lattes handed out at one or two stores.
Either way, it's nothing but a minor brew-ha-ha. But more evidence that we've now entered an (amazing) alternate dimension, where speaking out against pot actually gets you more bad PR than speaking out for it.
In the past, businesses faced with anti-marijuana publicity would either remain silent or speak out to assure the public they are opposed to marijuana use and its legalization. Yet the major companies mentioned above did not stay silent; instead, they took action to ensure the public knows they are NOT opposed.
In some sense, this was the case with Subway and several other companies that opted to stick with Michael Phelps after his bong hit heard 'round the world. In fact, Subway even seemed to work the situation into its marketing, incorporating the tag-line, "Be yourself," into the Phelps commercials and launching a new Web site -- "SubwayFreshBuzz.com". As for the one business that dropped him, the Kellogg Company, it found itself on the wrong end of a highly publicized nationwide boycott that drew more customers' attention than its tainted peanut butter recall.
Indeed, it seems like more and more big businesses are beginning to realize the importance of staying on the good side of those who support marijuana reform. And rightly so. The latest polls are finding that a majority of Americans support treating marijuana like alcohol, and support is even greater on both highly populated U.S. coasts.
Moreover, this particular community happens to be one of the most vocal out there. When President Barack Obama solicited questions from the public for an on-line forum, the three most popular among the 3.5 million votes were related to marijuana legalization. And just last week, marijuana-related questions topped the list of those asked of the President for his on-line "CitizenTube" address.
Nevertheless, many companies are still towing the anti-marijuana line. YouTube is under fire for censoring those marijuana questions from the President's address, and Chase Bank just sparked the ire of drug policy reform advocates when it completely cheated a national student-based organization out of a grant it legitimately won in the company's on-line grant contest. Of course there are also the professional sports leagues and Olympic organizations that punish players for using marijuana (including last year's National League Cy Young Award Winner, last year's Super Bowl MVP, and of course the greatest Olympian in history).
But the fight rages on, and those vocal marijuana reform supporters do not seem to be tiring. Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) has called for a boycott of Chase Bank that has already convinced thousands of people to swear off using it, and organizations like the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) are pushing hard to ensure the blogosphere is aware of YouTube's censorship.
Sooner or later, these companies will come to realize that they must respect the fact that marijuana consumers and supporters of reform are everywhere. And if they expect to keep their business, maintain their market-shares, and ensure healthy bottom lines, they must end their anti-marijuana madness.
After all, it's not just those prime-time athletes who enjoy marijuana, but in many cases the fans... and the bank account holders... and the on-line video watchers... and the mountain climbers... and, of course, the coffee drinkers.