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Whoopi Goldberg's weed products are proof of the 'branding of the bud'

It's a whole new world for those in the legal marijuana business, as Whoopi Goldberg's foray into the industry shows.
Whoopi Goldberg attends the Tribeca Film Festival 2013 portrait studio on April 19, 2013 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty)
Whoopi Goldberg attends the Tribeca Film Festival 2013 portrait studio on April 19, 2013 in New York, N.Y. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty)

Whoopi Goldberg's personalized brand of medicinal marijuana products has been trending on social media and remained a topic du jour on talk shows since it was first announced on Wednesday. The brand's arrival is the culmination of a movement toward changing the narrative on legal weed that has been building for years.

Alicia Darrow, the chief operating manager of the Blum medical marijuana dispensary in Oakland, California, which will be one of the first locations to sell Goldberg's new products, is a 15-year veteran of the business. She told MSNBC she remembers the days when providing sanctioned pot was "very similar to how speakeasy was during Prohibition."

"It was small doors in areas that were very hidden, there was no advertising, there was no signs, no Yellow Pages ads or anything like that would direct you,” she said.

RELATED: US Supreme Court declines to referee state disputes over marijuana

Darrow was drawn into the world of medicinal marijuana first as a patient when she sought treatment in the late '90s for endometriosis. She became hooked by the drug's ability to heal. Now, in a post-Colorado landscape where business is booming and lots of regulations are in place, it feels like a whole new world.

"It's been a real pleasure to watch this industry unfold, because God knows we've been riding a wave of 'How can we help people without getting into trouble?'" Maya Elisabeth, a 10-year-plus proponent of the medicinal marijuana business who has partnered with Goldberg to produce weed-infused items tailored for women, told MSNBC on Friday.

Elisabeth, who said she has had a "long-standing relationship with the cannabis plant" and "bathes in it every single day," has witnessed a startling evolution of thought over the last few years. More and more people are starting to recognize the value of parts of the plant that are not just used for recreational smoking, she said. By reaching out to women with products made to treat menstrual cramps, she and Goldberg (whom Elisabeth calls an "inspiration") are trying to serve a population that hasn't been previously provided with a lot of options for relief.

"It's a very intelligent, calculated and well-planned line," Elisabeth said, while acknowledging that it is part of a gradual "branding of the bud" that has been taking place in recent years.

Of course, with its increasingly high profile and spiking profits, the mainstreaming of marijuana industry brings inevitable risks and potential drawbacks. “There is a lot more competition," said Darrow. "As it’s becoming more mainstream, a lot of big corporate billionaires and people that have a lot more money than the majority of people who have been running this industry in California the last few years [have entered the market].”

Still, Darrow isn't scared of the new kids on the block, because "they really don't know the business."

Meanwhile, people like David M. Cunic, a former physical therapist who now runs medicinal marijuana testing labs in two different states with a third on the way, are doing their best to protect consumers. "Someone is going to always find a way to the cheat the system," he told MSNBC. "This is a modern day gold rush -- that's why they call it a 'green rush.'"

He too has experienced firsthand the changing of corporate America's tune when it comes to the profitability of medicinal marijuana. Cunic, a New Jersey native, says just the word "marijuana" itself was taboo for decades, and he was once laughed out of a potential investor's office in New York, only to have that same person call him up less than two years later to say, "This is a booming sector, this is a booming industry."

From Cunic's perspective, "Whether you're for it or against it, it's a drug that needs to be tested." And just testing the substance has the potential to be a multimillion-dollar business alongside the sellers. Still, not all of the states that allow the sale of medicinal marijuana have strict testing laws, including Cunic's home state.

Even though he's heard physicians praise marijuana as a "modern-day penicillin," Cunic still has to overcome negative stigmas when he tells people what he does for a living, especially in the tri-state area on the East Coast.

"I don’t use the word marijuana at all, I say cannabis," Cunic said. "People say, ‘Oh, cannabis, that’s interesting,' but as soon as you say pot or marijuana, they say, ‘How can you do that?’"

According to Cunic, the prefixed, criminalized concept of the stoner stereotype is hard to shake. "Never underestimate the power of Prohibition," said Elisabeth.

This is why Goldberg's entry into the industry could be a game-changer. "I think it's a great conversation starter," said Cunic, who hopes that the "Sister Act" star's celebrity status will help more Americans understand that the marijuana plant can be used to do everything from make clothing to treating psoriasis and eczema. But that may be why there is so much resistance to legalization in some elite, conservative circles -- the medicinal marijuana industry could cut into the bottom lines of pharmaceutical companies, for instance.

"Of course they don’t want to see an easier, cheaper, more efficient way to make their products that they’re making tons of money on,” said Darrow. But she believes corporate interests are beginning to lose fights they used to win against pot sellers because the tax revenue legal marijuana is generating for local governments is too irresistible.

This partly why sellers like Darrow aren't exactly panicking over the prospect of a President Donald Trump or Ted Cruz curtailing the gains the industry has made in recent years. 

“It’s so far progressed and so many states have already passed these laws and so many regulations are in place -- I don’t know how easy it would be for a president to snap his fingers and change something at the rate that it’s moving forward and how much has happened in the last couple years,” she said. "It is a risk, it could happen, it does worry me -- but not too much.”