Dr. Bronner’s ‘Cosmic Engagement Officer’ Turns from Soap to Dope
David Bronner has a new line of kind bud — unaffiliated with the company his grandfather founded — and his partner company has billion-dollar aspirations, but he insists Brother David’s is not in it to clean up.
The celebrity cannabis product bandwagon is getting crammed pretty full. At just one Sonoma County trade show last month, SF Evergreen saw new marijuana brands by Post Malone, 2 Chainz, The Game — and, for good measure, comedian Chelsea Handler. They join a long list of celebrities who also have their own cannabis lines, including Cypress Hill, Willie Nelson, Tommy Chong, Whoopi Goldberg, and the estate of the late Bob Marley.
Some of these figures have legitimate marijuana legacies and claims to expertise, while others are simply slapping their names onto some green rush, get-rich-quick scheme. And each new celebrity-branded product that appears on dispensary shelves could eliminate a smaller, hardworking competitor that’s been busting their ass to survive this tumultuous first 18 months of legal cannabis.
But a famous, household name of a different kind just launched his own weed brand. The CEO of Dr. Bronner’s soap debuted his new Brother David’s line of prerolls, eighths, quarters, and grams last month during a guerrilla street theater event in front of SoMa’s Vapor Room.
David Bronner describes himself as the “Cosmic Engagement Officer” of Dr. Bronner’s, the cult soap brand his grandfather founded. At the launch, he dressed in a mock Boy Scout uniform topped off with a red elf cap, made even more conspicuous by his towering height and shaggy, handlebar hippie moustache.
The Brother David’s website says its new line of flower is “celebrating small-scale family growers,” yet it might appear they’re going the big-money corporate route. Brother David’s has partnered with Flow Kana, a massive distributor that raised a $150 million war chest and has been telling investors they’ll soon be a $2.2-billion- a-year company, according to documents obtained by MarketWatch.
Bronner himself is heir to a $120 million-a-year soap empire, so it seems a stretch to call this brand a champion of the little guy. But Bronner is not your typical CEO. He’s pledged $5 million to help legalize MDMA, he’s been arrested for trying to make hemp oil outside the White House, and he sits on the board of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS).
And Bronner swears he’ll give all his cannabis profits to charity.
“Our profits go toward helping the small family farmer ecosystem that’s under threat from big corporate industrial grows,” he says. “Chemical-intensive grows are replacing small family farms.
“We deal in coconut, olive, palm, and mint oils in our soap business,” he adds. “But it’s the same story in every commodity, big corporate industrial plantations coming in and are decimating rural economies and communities in this really horrible, environmentally destructive way.”
David Bronner thinks he can revolutionize cannabis just like his grandfather revolutionized soap.
Courtesy of Brother David’s
“Doctor” Emanuel Heilbronner was not a doctor when he left pre-Nazi Germany. He simply conferred the title on himself. Some might have called him a “mystic,” while others might have used the word “kook.”
“He was a German and Jewish soapmaker, third-generation,” Bronner tells us, noting the Heilbronner family was the largest soapmaker in Germany. “But my granddad was pretty intense politically, an activist who was constantly clashing with his dad and uncles. He was a Zionist, but his dad didn’t want him mixing politics and soap.”
Dropping the ‘Heil’ from his last name because of the Nazi association, the original Dr. Bronner immigrated to the U.S. in 1929.
“His parents, like a lot of bourgeois Jews, stayed until it was too late,” Bronner says. “They thought they were going to ride out the madness.” (The parents were executed in 1942.)
The tragedy gave birth to Dr. Bronner’s “All-One-God-Faith” that is still detailed on his soap bottle labels today, in Frank Chu-style rhetoric and presentation. And the man remained genuinely passionate about his plant-based, biodegradable soaps, which caught on nationally in the 1960s.
“When the counterculture blew up, and a generation rose up to reject the way business as usual was destroying the planet, that’s when my granddad’s soap became the soap of the counterculture,” Bronner explains. “We spread from there to every health-food store in America.”
The label’s insanely tiny font and illogical layout stayed intact because Dr. Bronner didn’t realize how terrible they looked.
“My granddad went blind over the course of the ’60s and ’70s,” he remembers. “He didn’t know just how busy the labels were getting as he put more and more of his ‘full truth’ on the label. The labels became harder and harder to read.”
“Our label was designed by a blind man,” Bronner laughs.
The labels for Brother David’s cannabis flower are far more tastefully and pleasantly designed. That label, the packaging, and the distribution of Brother David’s are all handled by the multifaceted cannabis company Flow Kana, a massively well-funded operation known in the industry for raising — and burning through — astonishing volumes of money in a short period.
Flow Kana is now one of the biggest cannabis companies in the country, after a recent $125 million venture-capital investment that was the largest ever for a U.S. cannabis firm. They tell corporate investors they’ll break even next year and expect to be making $2 billion annually by 2022, staggering numbers for those of us who remember the medical-marijuana era.
“We’ve turned capital into this big boogeyman,” Flow Kana CEO Michael “Mikey” Steinmetz tells SF Weekly. “Historically, it has not done good to this planet. But I firmly believe in what we consider ‘regenerative capitalism,’ using capital to really fund the future of agriculture and really stand up for the small farmer ecosystem.”
All of Flow Kana’s partner farms are certified through the Sun + Earth program, which ensures the farms use sustainable practices and pay all the workers a fair, living wage. Bronner too insists on paying himself no more than five times the salary of his lowest-paid employee.
“All of our major supply chains are served by regenerative and organic [suppliers]. We make sure our farmers are paid fairly,” Steinmetz says, of both Dr. Bronner’s and Brother David’s. “We cap all of our salaries at five times our lowest-paid position, and dedicate all of our profits to the charities and causes we believe in, including ending cannabis prohibition.”
Bronner has donated more than $5 million to various cannabis legalization efforts over the years, so his bona fides are well-established. It may seem odd to have millionaires and billion-dollar middle-man companies presenting themselves as the face of small, independent growers, but people like the Dr. Bronner’s CEO might be transformational in this modern legal cannabis soap opera.