Good Business and the Downtown State of Pot

(Note: This post references the Bangor Daily News article “Medical marijuana users rent downtown Bangor space to take their medicine”, Dec. 16, 2014)

Standing against the windows of my Orono office on this grey December afternoon, I can almost hear the grumbles: Declining community values! Shady secrets! Liberals, hippies, roustabouts! It’s a hotbed of unsavory elements!

It’s common diatribe when businesses of a counterculture nature (read: “head shops,” strip clubs, loud nightclubs, etc.) move in or expand. As is frequently the case, though, the cold hard logistics of the matter are more reasonable when you separate fact from emotion. (As an aside, “separating fact from emotion” is a skill the entire world struggles with, not simply our burgeoning metropolitan Bangor region. I would never call you out, dear Bangor. Not for this.)

Chris Ruhlin, the owner of Herbal Tea & Tobacco (often referred to as “4:20” because of the neon sign hung prominently in the storefront), is a good business man. He was smart enough to see the writing on the wall and open a smoke shop in Bangor’s downtown before recent medical marijuana legislation… before the days when it was kind-of-alright to socially admit that you “partook”.

Except it’s still not completely OK to admit it, even if it’s legal for you to do it medically. Social and professional stigmas linger. Enter Ruhlin’s VIP marijuana smoking room, a rental area in which a local group dubbed the 13 Owls Club (comprised of medical marijuana patients from the area’s professional community) can medicate with peers in an accepting environment.

Ruhlin didn’t just set aside a room for people to get stoned in a sanctioned environment. He saw a business opportunity, and a good one, maybe the best type there is: a market need paired with an opportunity to actually relieve customers’ pain, both physical and existential.

I’m not a medical marijuana patient, but I imagine in this day of evolving legislation surrounding a natural substance that’s heretofore been stigmatized, vilified, and illegal, it’s tough to come out as a legit patient. A quote from the cited article sums it up well: “They feel like criminals. Even the lawyers lament on it, saying, ‘I can’t get past this feeling we’re doing something wrong.’”

Should they feel like smoking medical marijuana is wrong, even if the state has deemed it legal? That’s a discussion that won’t be satisfied for a long, long time, and we’re here to talk business — so stop talking principles already. Sheesh.

The point is, it’s a testament to Ruhlin’s business acumen that he foresaw the need and acted on it in a very natural way. He noticed that medical marijuana patients in the area’s professional sector were medicating in shame. He noticed a community (in this case, the Club) developing in response to that shared pain. And he gathered his assets and presented a product that addresses this particular pain. He provided a space for the community (for now, the 13 Owls Club) to call their own. That the community in question happens to be Ruhlin’s target market is gravy.

In business, this is called Product Development: the business develops a new product for its existing market. In this case, the existing market is marijuana smokers. (Is it time to admit yet that tobacco smokers are not the target market for bongs and vaporizers?)

Of course, you can segment the market down further into “recreational users,” “medicinal users,” etc., but let’s not split hairs/joints/etc.

An aspect of Ruhlin’s business strategy is its use of exclusivity and community, two features that prove popular with consumers. Not just anyone can use the space. At least for now, you have to be a member of the 13 Owls Club. Membership comes with a financial cost (thus there’s a financial barrier to entry and not just anyone can take part) and the space can only be rented out if six or more people will attend (creating a qualified social environment).

It’s an interesting concept that reminds me of the Tarratine Club of Bangor lore — an exclusive men’s club for Bangor’s professional community. The difference, of course, rests in that hot-button issue: marijuana legality. And because of this, I expect voices to be raised. I can almost hear them from the distance already. Aiming my ear out further across the plains, I hear the faint coo of larger, more distant cities: “It’s OK. It’s all growing pains, Bangor. It’s all growing pains.”

Matthew Chabe

About Matthew Chabe

Matt Chabe is a principal at The Galleon Agency, an integrated marketing agency based in Bangor, Maine that helps businesses around the nation maximize growth. He is the chair of Bangor SCORE, a seven-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, and drives way too fast for his own good. Matt graduated from University of Maine with a BA in marketing and a minor in psychology.