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Ben Cohen: Ice Cream Icon Turns to Cannabis

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Ben Cohen: Ice Cream Icon Turns to Cannabis

PHOTO Ben Cohen

Ben Cohen: Ice Cream Icon Turns to Cannabis

Ben Cohen—of Ben & Jerry’s fame—launched a new low-THC cannabis brand to help fight injustice. Of course he did.

Twenty-four hours before interviewing Ben & Jerry’s co-founder Ben Cohen about his new Ben’s Best Blnz (B3) cannabis brand, the chances of it happening seemed grim. Cohen had just been arrested by Homeland Security in Washington, DC, while protesting the detainment of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and no one in his press office seemed to know if he was safe or if the US Justice Department had him shackled in the basement next to a UFO. When we finally connected, Cohen looked as if he’d just been released from Guantanamo Bay. Scratches covered his face, and there was a gash on his nose. “Uncle Sam’s cronies must’ve roughed him up to teach him to keep his mouth shut,” said the voice in my head.  Fortunately, that wasn’t the case at all. 

“I got into my first bar fight,” Cohen says, laughing. “You should see the other guy.” Actually, he tells me that he fell down a flight of stairs in his home. 

Cohen is funny, insightful and passionate about crushing injustice—the basis for his new cannabis line, colloquially referred to as B3. The 72-year-old is a true baron of industry. In many ways, he’s da freakin’ man—the ice cream man, that is. In 1978, he launched what’s arguably the most recognizable frozen dessert brand in the country, a cool venture that not so shabbily continues to generate nearly half a billion dollars in annual revenue. But how does a guy who’s made a fortune giving brain freezes to the great American sweet tooth decide to get into the cannabis business? After all, weed’s still illegal at the federal level, making it a risky investment, even for someone like Cohen. The market is volatile; the IRS continues to shake down weed operations with Section 280E and, well, he’d probably fare better selling lemonade on any given street in the nation than pot. So why the fudge would he entertain it at all? 

Much like many people of his generation, Cohen found cannabis in college. He’s an old-school advocate, a real take-it-to-the-streets kind of guy who’s almost assuredly preached to his peers over a Joni Mitchell record a time or two about why prohibition is wrong and how the government—and the national economy—could reap the rewards of full steam legalization. Getting into cannabis was, in a way, a natural transition for him, albeit one, he jokes, that may have been a little backwards. “Some people say I should have done it in reverse order, first create the demand [by selling weed] and then fill the demand with ice cream,” he says, smiling conspiratorially. 

The eureka moment for Cohen’s organic cannabis brand struck during a boat trip with a friend. “We were sitting around the campfire smoking a J and saying that the problem with today’s pot is that it’s just too fucking strong,” he says. The two agreed that not every cannabis consumer wants to get obliterated in a single hit. That’s when Cohen, who waxes nostalgic about the good old days when a person needed to smoke half a joint to catch a buzz, recognized the cannabis market had overlooked a vital customer—the moderates, those cannabis consumers akin to drinkers who opt for light beer. “We were like somebody should come out with something called Mediocre Marijuana,” he said. “There’s a lot of people like us who don’t want to get so high.” 

After that trip, Cohen couldn’t get the idea out of his mind. It was a calling, perhaps of a forthcoming cannabis brand that could become an American staple just like his ice cream. That was an idea worth pursuing. “I felt like, well, I’m just going to have to do it,” he says. If there was a man with enough business savvy to carve out a cannabis brand that has all the markers of quality and safety as any other American product, it was Cohen. 

The visual identity of Ben’s Best Blnz (B3) was developed by Eddie Opara and Jack Collins of Pentagram. PHOTO Ben’s Best Blnz

Selling low-THC pot, however, would surely present some challenges. Market data shows customers often seek out the most THC content they can find at the dispensary. Cohen’s own research on the subject is consistent with those statistics. “Ask any dispensary owner and they’ll tell you I can’t sell stuff below 15 percent THC, and most of the stuff I’m selling is 20-30 percent,” he says. However, Cohen is confident that a lot more people want to moderate their pot consumption just like he and his friends. But creating that kind of comfortable potency, “something that would allow you to take a bunch of tokes,” was no easy task. Cohen’s growers started at 15 percent, which was too strong, according to Cohen, eventually getting the potency down to around 8 percent before the buzz fit the concept. Yet, it’s the batch that was closer to 4 percent THC that received the highest praise.

“I handed that out to my friends, and everybody liked that the best,” Cohen says.

Unlike his ice cream, B3 isn’t about lining Cohen’s already deep pockets. The cannabis brand was established to bring justice to those most affected by the War on Drugs—a blatantly racist issue that really sticks in Cohen’s craw. To free it, Cohen organized B3 as a Vermont-registered nonprofit with 100% of the profits benefiting minority-owned cannabis operations. The company is run by a Board of Trustees, the caretakers of the organization, and Cohen, who serves as the uncompensated CEO.  “Black people have been shut out of a lot of economic opportunity on a consistent basis for the last couple hundred years,” Cohen says. “I happen to be in a position where I don’t need the money, so I’m not keeping any of it.” 

Part of the proceeds will also benefit organizations dedicated to helping release cannabis prisoners. Now, while this business model is a breath of fresh air for drug reform advocates, it might not make a heck of a lot of sense to the average, God-fearing American. To some, releasing people convicted of cannabis crimes, presumed miscreants who broke the law, is to razz anarchy. Yet, more than contributing to social correction in America, part of B3, it could be argued, is to educate the masses on why it’s important to care about the release of non-violent cannabis offenders. 

“There’s currently people in jail for doing what we’re doing legally today,” Cohen says. “It’s a little hard to be happy-go-lucky, getting high, knowing that there’s other people in jail for doing the same thing.” Cohen says those offenders should be exonerated now that state governments are finally coming to understand the perils of prohibition. 

All told, B3 is about righting the wrongs of the War on Drugs and forging ahead as a more progressive nation. But more support is needed from corporate America to correct the bigger picture, which is challenging since mixing business and politics doesn’t always garner the kind of public support that keeps stockholders happy. Anheuser-Busch, for example, was recently the subject of tremendous backlash after its Bud Light brand openly supported trans people. The public went nuts. If there was a lesson in the hubbub, it was that it’s seemingly better for a company to stay quiet so as not to upset the status quo. Companies are now more frightened than ever to take a stand for or against any controversial issue for fear they will lose market share. They’d rather try to please everybody than offend one, an approach that’s simply impossible, Cohen says. “No matter what you do, even companies that aren’t taking any political stance, they’ll run into backlash and criticisms and boycotts from people who don’t like their marketing tactics, people who think they’re viewing women as sex objects and people who think they have the wrong religious beliefs.” 

Companies are much better off pushing back aggressively against injustices. “My experience is that it’s always been very safe to mix business and politics,” Cohen says emphatically, pointing to his ice cream brand as Exhibit A. 

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield
i scream, you scream “If businesses don’t address injustices, the injustices are going to continue,” Cohen says, here with longtime ice cream business partner and Ben & Jerry’s co-owner, Jerry Greenfield (left). PHOTO Arnold Carbone

Ben & Jerry’s actively takes controversial political stances on issues ranging from drug reform to reparations for stolen Native American land, and much like the Bud Light fiasco, they’re sometimes greeted with outrage. Yet, in taking this approach, one that assumes responsibility for the change they’d like to see, the company’s customer base is only growing stronger. “Businesses are an incredibly powerful element in our society,” Cohen says. “If businesses don’t address injustices, the injustices are going to continue. There’s always going to be some people who don’t agree with it and are vocal in their criticism. Our experience at Ben & Jerry’s is that the more active we’ve been on social and political issues, the more ice cream we’ve sold.” It’s all about appealing to your people. “A brand doesn’t have a very big share of the market,” Cohen says, adding that Ben & Jerry’s, as popular as it is, covers roughly only three-to-five percent of the US ice cream market. 

Therefore, it’s not necessary for a business to appeal to everybody to enjoy longevity and success. 

“When you relate to your customers based on shared values, that’s the deepest connection you can make,” Cohen says. “Usually, customers are buying products from corporations despite the values of those corporations. So, when they find a corporation whose values they agree with, they love it.”

Selling cannabis, however, is different from ice cream and beer. Politics are built into the equation, and it’s a large part of the fight. Most of the customers are here for it, too. But it’s high taxes and a general lack of support for the LGBTQ community that the pot patrons find offensive. That’s what continues to breathe life into a huge illegal market and it’s one, quite honestly, that’s made it tougher for smaller operations to survive. Not even a quarter of the legal cannabis companies in the US turn a profit. They’re constantly losing market share to the underground distributors while also being forced to pay upwards of 70 percent of their legal earnings to the soul suckers at the IRS. Many illicit operators can’t even afford to move into the legitimate market. Cohen believes chiseling away at the illegal operations begins with state regulators. “They need to craft their regulation in a way that welcomes legacy growers into the legal market,” he says.  

Getting cannabis consumers to frequent legal dispensaries relies on the industry’s willingness to educate the consumer on why legal is better. As Cohen points out, the extra expense affords the consumer the same quality and safety they’ve appreciated for years when venturing into their local supermarket for a pint of Cherry Garcia. In the legal system, regardless of whether it’s ice cream or cannabis, there are regulatory controls that legal operations must follow. You wouldn’t buy ice cream from someone on the street, so why would weed be any different? 

The apprehension toward the legal market, Cohen presumes, is mostly an expression of the old-school consumer. These people have spent decades calling for the plant’s legalization, but they don’t want to buy into what that really means in the throes of capitalism. The dispensary may not be for them, but for those novices just starting to explore cannabis, the retail sector is the most logical place to go. 

Although Cohen is seemingly living the American Dream, he argues that too many people are victims of a society that wants to control what that means for everyone else. Sure, a large chunk of the population supports cannabis reform, but not everyone’s all in. For those, Cohen has a message, and it’s one that the whole of the nation should embrace as the infection of our divisiveness spreads: “Let people do what they want to do, as long as it doesn’t hurt you or anyone else. It’s a lot less harmful than alcohol; it’s a lot less harmful than beer; it’s a lot less harmful than guns, which apparently anybody in the country is allowed to have.”

No brain freeze here.

This story was originally published in issue 49 of the print edition of Cannabis Now. Read it now on the Cannabis Now iTunes app.

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