Sexy pot ads provokedebate over medical marijuana goals
By Peter Hecht
By Peter Hecht The Sacramento Bee
Last modified: 2011-11-28T06:29:39Z
Published: Monday, Nov.28, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
In2009, as Los Angeles' booming medical marijuana economy inspired an emeraldcity of weed, Vanessa Sahagun found a business opportunity as "ChachaVavoom," maven of the 420 Nurses.
Chachaand her "nurses" became a pot culture phenomenon. They savored bonghits on YouTube, modeled skimpy outfits to promote marijuana dispensaries – andstirred young men at medical pot shows teeming with sexual imagery.
"Iwas proud I was opening up a market creating 'green jobs' for theseladies," said Sahagun, 25.
Butnow, the sexual marketing of medical marijuana – with racy promotions thatoften trump the beer industry's swimsuit models – is at the center of anuncomfortable debate in the medicinal cannabis community.
Fifteenyears after Californiavoters legalized use of medical marijuana amid images of ailing AIDSand cancer patients,pot dispensaries featuring "bikini bud tenders" suggest a differentmessage: pot as a recreational pleasure.
"I'veoften said how offensive it is that we have naked girls with cannabis leaves ormini-mini-mini-skirts," said Lanette Davies, a Sacramento dispensaryoperator who condemns others in the industry for marketing sex. "That hasnothing to do with medication."
Davies,whose family runs the Canna Care dispensary, said some in the industry"believe there is more money" marketing to recreational marijuanausers. "That's not what people voted in. That's not why we're supposed tobe here," she said.
RyanLanders, a Sacramento AIDS patient who leads a medical marijuana policy groupcalled "the Compassionate Coalition," said trade shows featuring"Hot Kush Girl" contests and spicy ads "make my job a hell of alot harder to convince people what we're doing is true and real."
Mostmedical marijuana dispensaries refrain from suggestive advertising – and someeven feature multiple sclerosis patients or car accident victims who usecannabis for chronic pain.
Butthe California Organic Collective dispensary in Los Angeles' San FernandoValley touts bikini-clad counter attendants in ads that depict a buxom nurseholding a red, nipple-shaped stethoscope to her breast.
TheReserve dispensary in SacramentoCounty employed a model in a metal-studded brassiere and Old Westgun belt to promote a super-potent "Green Ribbon" strain packing 25percent of marijuana's psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC.
"Theyclaim to be offering medicine, yet they're using marketing techniquesreminiscent of some of the lowest standards of the beer industry," said John Lovell, a lobbyistfor the California Narcotics Officers Association.
Atthe "HempCon" medical marijuana trade show this month in San Jose, the event's ownmarketing director took exception when she passed a booth for a magazine calledCali Chronic X. It featured semi nude models posing suggestively with pot andexotic smoking accessories.
"Idon't know why we have to mix marijuana with porn," protested Shawna Webb,a communications professional who uses medical cannabis for pain from aruptured disk.
Webbsaid sex is the wrong image for the industry, particularly as California's fourU.S. attorneys are targeting pot dispensaries for prosecution and threateningtheir landlords with property seizures under federal drug laws.
ButJeffrey Peterson, publisher of Cali Chronic X and a performer known as "the420 comic," said he is making a stand against what he sees as prudishadvocates who deny pot's popularity as a recreational drug.
"Howdare do these people, who think they represent the cannabis culture, single outthe edge of this culture – because we are the cannabis culture," hesaid.
NearPeterson at the San Josetrade show, Leslie Henck, a Bay Area go-go dancer, wore a bikini as thespokesmodel for a company selling joint-rolling machines. "You don't haveto look unhealthy to need medical marijuana," said Henck, 19, who says herrecommendation for pot helped her deal with anxiety.
"SativaGrace," a model for Cali Chronic X, came to the show dressed as a tawdryAlice in Wonderland. Sativa's real name is Andrea Frye. The 21-year-old, whoworks in an adult novelties store, said she is empowering women.
"Hey,I may have sex appeal,"she said, "but I can smoke all day like a guy."
Sahagun,a.k.a. Chacha Vavoom, started 420 Nurses as Los Angeles lit up withneon marijuana leaves from hundreds of new dispensaries. She sold outfits withhot pants sporting green medical marijuana crosses for women seeking potmodeling jobs.
"Wewent out with our cute uniforms, and I noticed a big response," Sahagunsaid. "I knew there was a fire there."
Shesaid her "nurses" earn $10 to $25 an hour working in dispensaries orpassing out business cards for doctors recommending marijuana – or $100 to$1,000 a day for promotional photos and videos.
Atthe "Kush Expo Medical Marijuana Show" in Anaheim this month, the 420Nurses were joined by the Ganja Juice girls and a bikini troupe for an OrangeCounty dispensary sponsoring the Expo's "Hot Kush Girl" contest. Awhooping, largely male throng cheered as 21 women competed for signatureedition bongs and cash prizes.
"Themarijuana industry is male-dominated, and dudes love to look at hotchicks," said Ngaio Bealum, Sacramento publisher of a marijuana lifestylemagazine called West Coast Cannabis.
Bealum,who bills his publication as the "Sunset magazine of weed," said hedoesn't run sexually suggestive ads.
AndBic Pho, marketing director for the Yerba Buena Medical Cannabis Club's six San Jose dispensaries,junked ads with bikini models after deciding they projected a bad image formedical marijuana.
"Ijust didn't feel it was appropriate. So we stopped," he said. Now thedispensaries advertise a damsel, fully clothed, in pirate's attire.
"Wewent with a pirate theme," Pho said, "just something to remember usby."