It can be a trying task to make a name for yourself and your brand in the cannabis industry. Many in the cannabis space today will recognize the name
Company impact really boils down to the people behind it, and while it’s truly unique, cannabis as an industry is also far reaching and in need of a variety of skilled professionals.
Amy Larson first entered the
“Being in this industry, I love the people,” Larson said. “I love the plant. I love — we joke about it — I do love the chaos. It’s chaos every day. It’s not for the faint of heart… It was an intentional decision to move into this industry. And I don’t regret it for a minute.”
A Cannabis Professional is Born
Growing up in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, Larson admitted that she never had a relationship with cannabis until she pursued it professionally. She worked in PR since graduating high school, over time diving further into other industries like marketing, tourism, restaurants and more.
It was a challenging time to traverse these professional spaces, as Larson navigated the birth and rise of the internet and the economic pitfalls of the time.
“I lived through the economic recession of 2008-2009, when Obama said nobody should be traveling or holding business meetings anymore, and it was a big hit to the tourism industry,” Larson said. “And several years later, when Colorado’s adult-use market opened up in January of 2014, it was actually that tourism experience that really was my entry into the cannabis industry.”
Larson was approached by a group that ran consumption tours in Denver, looking for someone with connections with meeting planners, the Convention and Visitors Bureaus, new travel writers and so on. Even at that stage, cannabis companies were looking to get more into traditional media and share their story, she said. Larson was a natural fit.
And it wasn’t that she was ever opposed to cannabis. She had already voted twice to legalize cannabis for medical and adult use in Colorado and always held the position that individuals should have the right to use cannabis if they wanted to.
So, she went for it. About a year after she landed her initial cannabis role, she joined a new agency, COHN, and started in business development, including some work with the cannabis industry. At the time, they were trying to figure out exactly how to handle cannabis.
“How deeply do we dive into this industry? Is it going to be real? How much time do we need to spend? What’s it look like?” Larson posed.
It was then that she took it upon herself to fully dig in, learning more about the plant, the industry and the history of cannabis.
“I saw that, A, we had been lied to for a long time about this plant, and B, these companies could benefit from professionals who knew branding, who knew packaging, who knew messaging, who knew strategic marketing and could take experiences, from retail and real estate to tourism and CPG, and really apply those learnings to cannabis, even in the early years.”
As part of that effort with COHN, Larson built out the cannabis division, COHNNABIS, and ran it for about three years. This is truly where her relationship with cannabis as she knows it today began. Larson recalled that the more conferences she went to, the more she read, the more she talked with friends and folks in the cannabis industry, “It became almost a personal mission, like we need to stop the lies about this. And we need to destigmatize it.”
Larson made the decision in 2018 to focus her career in cannabis.
She currently uses cannabis regularly for sleep and pain relief, to de-stress, “all of those things that I think a lot of people would do if they didn’t still feel so stigmatized by using the plant, because we just haven’t done enough
Unlearning, Self-Educating and Destigmatizing
As a young member of Generation X, Larson grew up with “Just Say No,” the DARE Program, the plentiful messages shedding a scary and negative light on cannabis. While it’s started to shift with later generations, she said that Gen X’ers like herself were often taught and internalized that authority should not be questioned. If the politician said it, it was right.
While that mindset has shifted, Larson believes that especially folks who live in legal cannabis states must not take the experience for granted, not to assume everyone knows and understands cannabis or thinks the same way.
Now living just outside Denver, Larson is also the mother to two teenagers. Interestingly enough, she’s also married to a police officer. And like any other adult topic that comes up throughout adolescence, they’ve had open conversations with their kids about it all, cannabis included.
“We talk to them like they’re adults. We don’t lie to them about it, right? As a mom working in this industry, I know what lies we were told about cannabis. Now, nobody is saying, ‘Let’s go have your 15- and your 17-year-old kids out smoking,’ right? That’s not what we’re saying. But we also don’t need to lie to them about it. Our kids are a lot smarter than we think they are.”
One easy way she practices this is by simply being vocal about her role in the industry, which often opens up the doors for others to talk about it, too. Larson recalled an instance from a few years ago, when her daughter had a few friends over. The moms were there too, standing in the driveway and chatting, and cannabis came up in passing.
One of the moms made a joke, and Larson turned to a newer mom in the friend group and clarified that she worked in cannabis. The new mom said her husband did too, and it was like a huge weight was lifted. Simply broaching the topic openly made it OK.
“Just in general, moms are the worst to each other,” Larson said. “We all know what the struggle is to be a mom. If you’re a stay-at-home mom, you’re lazy. If you work full time, you’re an absent parent. Sheryl Sandberg did us all the biggest disservice with the whole Lean In movement, saying that we could be everything. You can’t be everything.”
TILT and the Importance of Authenticity
Larson said that the same mindset, being open and honest about cannabis, even in places where you might be judged, could even work to benefit the industry. With abundant experience across a number of industries, she herself ended up being a great fit despite not having a prior relationship to cannabis.
In 2021, Larson joined TILT Holdings. She started in its corporate development division, working with brand partners in June, but by December, she had taken over the entire marketing department for TILT, working with multiple different brands, regulations and customers in a number of states.
“It was really TILT’s first step toward taking marketing out of the individual markets and then elevating it up to the corporate level,” Larson said. “So, we really spent the last year to 15 months building out the team identifying needs, laying a lot of foundation work.”
Of course, it’s a lot to juggle, but adapting to different markets and understanding how cannabis operates in different environments is also rewarding for Larson, who said with a laugh, “It’s so much fun.”
She also said that it’s reinforced one of her core beliefs as a marketer: Your brand has to be authentic, especially in cannabis. She referenced Ricky Williams, retired NFL running back and head of the
“He’s owning that brand, and the brand comes through very authentically. Not a lot of celebrity brands can claim that, right? A lot of people just slap their name on a package and then assume it’s going to sell. When your brand is authentic, and it resonates with people, and that’s what makes it happen.”
That’s what Larson and the TILT team have found, on behalf of their own brands and partner brands. It’s what leads to success, she said, adding that brand authenticity lives through every point of your company and every point of the customer interaction.
The last two years were spent pivoting the company strategy, with Larson one of several new leaders starting at the same time. Today, she said TILT is now at a point where it can start to benefit from those moves.
TILT Steps Up With Shinnecock Nation Partnership
Larson has also been working with the Shinnecock Nation to build their brand, as part of TILT’s first-of-its-kind partnership to break ground on the tribally-owned
The partnership was initially announced in 2021, centering the mission to create a fully vertical operation on tribal land, wholly owned by the Shinnecock Nation. Funding and business management services are provided by TILT. It’s a fresh take on social equity that could also act as an alternative to casino businesses for tribal nations as
The Little Beach Harvest dispensary and branded product line draw on the Shinnecock Nation’s centuries-long knowledge of plant medicine. In a
“We have a purpose-driven opportunity to bring Indigenous cannabis onto the same stage as Highsman,
Larson described working with Little Beach Harvest, helping to make the brand come to life in a way that feels both authentic to the Shinnecock but also that feels relevant and welcoming, an introduction of sorts, to other people who live on Long Island or tourists passing through.
She called it a new approach to social equity partnerships, adding that TILT is leaning in as a mentor and partner to the Shinnecock, “where then we are also learning from them more of their sacred history with the plant and how they interact with it from a medical perspective. It’s been a huge kind of cultural education for us as well. It’s been a very mutually beneficial relationship.”
From a social equity perspective, Larson said she’s not sure that we’ve figured out how to do it right.
“We’re turning around also as part of the growth and the propping up of the new industry, handing out some of these social equity licenses first without a lot of that training and foundation and backup, like how are we going to help them succeed? And I think some of that mentorship and partnership is really what is missing.”
She also pointed out how social equity conversations rarely include Indigenous people. Tribes like the Shinnecock are sovereign nations and require separate agreements, so they are often left out of social equity conversations. Larson said it’s highlighted the fact that “some of our fellow MSOs need to kind of put their money where their mouth is.”
“We need to carry some of the burden of making sure social equity succeeds as well, not just putting all the pressure on the state on the social equity licensees and applicants, but we need to have a little blood and sweat in the game, too.”