December 5, 2023

Tricia Oak

Business & Finance Excellency

Cookies dispensary official disputes that its marketing targets minors

The Cookies chain of cannabis dispensaries says its marketing efforts and company name have been misunderstood and distorted by local officials who have criticized the company, saying it targets youth.

The chain, which operates stores in La Mesa and Mission Valley, got approval in June to open a third location in Sorrento Valley.

Before that approval, the San Diego Planning Commission and the Torrey Pines Community Planning Group said Cookies targets underage customers with its name and Sesame Street-style graphics that evoke the Cookie Monster character.

A company official said in an interview last week that the chain absolutely does not target underage, young people, explaining that the Cookies name is focused not on actual cookies but on matching customers with the right cannabis strain for them.

Similar to cookies being made in many varieties, company officials say, cannabis comes in many different strains and users need to find the strain that affects their body in the precise ways they want.

“There is a long legacy with the name Cookies,” said Crystal Millican, vice president of retail for the 13-year-old chain based in northern California. “The whole experience has been tailored to the customer. We try to pair them one-on-one with a budtender as often as we can.”

Local critics contend that the name, the font of the lettering and the light blue coloring used by Cookies are all attempts to market to children.

“I hate the name,” said Planning Commissioner James Whalen, who voted to approve the new dispensary. “I think it’s disingenuous to say it’s not attractive to young people.”

Millican said the company, which operates 40 dispensaries in multiple states, said it is virtually impossible to sell to minors, when California requires full-time security guards to check customers’ identification at all dispensaries.

The minimum age to buy recreational marijuana in California is 21. The minimum age for medical marijuana, which requires a doctor’s prescription, is 18 in this state.

Millican said the company uses a shade of light blue in its graphics and signage because that color has the same calming effect on people as cannabis.

At the Cookies Dispensary in Mission Valley on Thursday Shane Belfield assists a customer with his order.

At the Cookies Dispensary in Mission Valley on Thursday, Shane Belfield assists a customer with his order. It is one of two Cookies dispensary locations in San Diego County.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

“We don’t market to anyone other than our customers and patients,” she said. “We obviously hear the concerns, and we will work to win over any neighborhood association.”

Millican said Cookies is a model company in many ways, including its commitment to restorative justice and progressive drug policy.

The company is launching next year “Cookies University” in Humboldt County, to help prepare people for career paths in the cannabis industry. The program will recruit people who face barriers to entering the industry and those who were harmed by enforcement of previous laws against cannabis, she said.

That fits with a recent proposal by San Diego officials to create a cannabis equity program in the city. That program would use some cannabis tax revenue to help bring low-income people and minorities into the blossoming, legal industry.

Cookies was founded in 2008 by Gilbert Anthony Milam Jr. and Jai “Jigga” Chang. Milam, who also is a Bay Area rapper, goes by the name Berner.

When San Diego officials initially objected to the Cookies name, the company offered to instead use a capital C logo with a plus sign. But San Diego’s cannabis ordinance forbids logos on the outside of the businesses, allowing only letters.

The Planning Commission voted 5-1 in June to approve the new Cookies dispensary in Sorrento Valley, despite the concerns raised by its members. The commissioners said their decisions must be based on zoning compatibility — not subjective opinions about the name of a business.

The first Cookies dispensary approved within the city is on Mission Center Court, a little-traveled cul-de-sac off Mission Center Road.

Commissioner Whalen said he was frustrated that the city gave final approval to that dispensary in 2017 under a different name, noting the name was later changed to Cookies.

Another Cookies is open in La Mesa. Millican said, with a third opening soon, it’s unlikely the company will open more dispensaries in San Diego any time soon.

“We don’t want to overly saturate San Diego County,” she said.