A Chicago startup wants to be the go-to online platform for cannabis users and companies.
Kannatopia was founded in 2015 as a social media platform for cannabis users 21 or older. The 1871-based company lets medicinal and recreational users create profiles anonymously or with their real name; post cannabis-related photos, videos, links and other content; make guides and recommendations; and write in a “Kannalog” online journal.
The company launched business pages March 6 for cannabis companies and organizations.
Similar to Facebook’s business profiles, Kannatopia now allows businesses to create free profiles with their contact information, indicate which causes they’re interested in, and post photos, videos, links and other content related to their business or advocacy efforts.
“There’s a good amount of technology in the industry now whether it’s related to seed-to-sale tracking, state integration with systems, inventory tracking systems, loyalty programs [and] things like that . . . . We’re trying to find the features that make sense for everybody,” said Kanntopia co-founder and CEO Kurt Akers.
Kannatopia is accessible in 29 states and Washington, D.C., with legal recreational or medicinal cannabis programs, but Akers said he wants to expand globally. He declined to say how many users are on the site.
Akers’ brother was the inspiration for Kannatopia, particularly its online journal feature. His brother uses cannabis to ease the side effects of epilepsy medications, so he needs a reliable, online cannabis community where he can talk with other users and businesses, Akers said.
The platform plans to make money by selling advertising. Kannatopia is in the process of raising capital, but Akers declined to comment further about that.
Akers and Kannatopia’s co-founder and CTO Val Scarlata are the startup’s only full-time employees. Akers said he’s been active in the cannabis sector for more than six years as an investor, adviser and advocate and is a former co-organizer of the CannaTech Chicago meetup group for cannabis technologists and enthusiasts.
Akers isn’t the only CEO vying for cannabis consumers’ attention. Multiple platforms already connect cannabis users with products and brands, but they vary in features.
The similarly named Cannacopia, a free app which recommends cannabis strains based on user preferences, sorts through more than 7,500 strains so that users can find strains that fit their desired mental mood, physical effects, medical conditions, and tastes, founder and president Mike Weiss said.
Leafly, founded in March 2010, allows users to find and review cannabis products and retailers as well as read cannabis industry news and culture. A spokesperson for Leafly declined to comment directly about Kannatopia, but noted Leafly’s millions of monthly visitors, its international editions in Canada and Germany, and its technology services that “empower cannabis businesses to attract and retain loyal customers.”
Weedmaps connects users to dispensaries and product discounts in their locale.
Richard Park, a consultant for Dispensary33, a Chicago-based medical cannabis dispensary, said he was drawn to Kannatopia because it allows users to communicate with others within their own market and talk about how strains produced in their locale affected them, Park said. Plus, cannabis businesses can hear customer complaints directly and improve their business, he said.
“Weedmaps and Leafly are great for posting online menus and letting people rate stuff, but none of it is in-depth,” Park said. Kannatopia “allows for a more micro than macro look at products. I think it’s going to be useful for specific markets.”
The U.S. regulatory stance on cannabis remains opaque. In January 2018, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans to roll back an Obama-era policy stating that the Justice Department would not meddle in states’ legalized cannabis markets.
Illinois has legalized medicinal cannabis use and decriminalized possession of 10 grams or less of cannabis. During the March 20 Illinois primary, 68.2 percent of Cook County voters approved of a nonbinding referendum which asked whether Illinois should legalize “the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, testing, and sale of marijuana and marijuana products for recreational use by adults 21 and older.”
The U.S. pseudo-legal cannabis environment makes it difficult for major social media platforms like Facebook to determine how to fairly moderate cannabis content.
Facebook policies related to cannabis content “reflect the global nature of our community,” a Facebook spokesperson said. The social networking platform’s advertising policy prohibits ads that “constitute, facilitate, or promote illegal products, services or activities.” Its community standards also prohibit people from selling, buying, or trading cannabis on the platform.
“We understand that different countries and states may have different laws and regulations of certain goods, including cannabis,” the spokesperson wrote. “So, while we do allow cannabis advocacy content, in our efforts to build policies for our global community, we do not allow the promotion of the sale of the drug itself.”
Illinois Women in Cannabis, a nonprofit cannabis education and advocacy organization for professional women interested in the medicinal cannabis industry, has been unable to buy Facebook advertisements for its cannabis-related educational events, founder and president Dina Rollman said. The group doesn’t anticipate running into those restrictions on Kannatopia, whose content policy forbids users from using the site to participate in illegal activities.
Illinois Women in Cannabis created an organization profile shortly after the business profiles went live because it wanted to directly communicate with medicinal cannabis users and extend their geographical reach across the state, Rollman said.
“I really liked the guides page that has recipes and other types of instructional information for people,” Rollman said. “I think its an important, stigma-free place for cannabis patients to share information and provide a supportive community for each other.”