Goldleaf's Charles McElroy on Truth, Design, Advocacy and Creativity in Cannabis

Plus, a new journal about cannabis and sex

Charles McElroy is the founder and creative chief of Goldleaf, a science-forward cannabis education and design company. Specializing in guided notebooks and elegant print design for cannabis patients, growers and enthusiasts, Goldleaf products are available worldwide.

A former volunteer with the Marijuana Policy Project, McElroy created Goldleaf to benefit the evolving recreational and medical cannabis communities. Formerly COO at Noble Denim & Victor Athletics, a sustainable and ethical clothing manufacturer, he holds a B.S. in engineering technology and management from Ohio University with an MBA track at Miami University in business informatics.

We spoke with Charles for our Higher Calling series, where we chat with leaders in the cannabis space.

Charles, tell us...

Your current role in the cannabis industry, and where you're based.

Charles McElroy: I'm the founding partner and chief creative at Goldleaf; a science-forward cannabis education and design company. We are technically based in Ohio—I'm in Cincinnati myself—but our team is spread out all around the country. We have boots on the ground in Pennsylvania, California, Maryland, Texas and Oregon.

Your earliest cannabis memory.

My earliest cannabis memory was at a Pearl Jam concert. It was my first "real" concert—meaning, I went without adults—and I was super excited. I think I was around 14 years old, and my older sister went with me—this would have been the late '90s. We had second-row tickets since I was a long-standing member of Pearl Jam's "Ten Club," and back then, that was one of the only ways to get any tickets, let alone good ones, to a rare Pearl Jam concert! 

After they took stage, perhaps around the second song, I started noticing the smell of cannabis, an aroma that was entirely foreign to me at the time. Because of the seeming "exclusivity" of the near-stage seating, people were very cavalier and generous with their usage. Joints were being passed up and down the rows. I remember the gent next to me giving me a nudge, and showing me a packed glass bowl. At the time, I really didn't understand what I was looking at … a brownish glass piece with a brownish substance. I remember looking at it, being fearful and thinking, "Wow, drugs." My sister leaned over me and said, "We're good, man. No thanks." We went back to the show. 

At the time, my knowledge of cannabis was limited to what the DARE officer had said in my school classroom, and I totally bought it at the time. However, I LOVED music and music culture, so if the general consensus was that cannabis is OK, I had no aversions to someone using it. I didn't try it myself until later in life, but from that day forward I would see it pretty regularly.

A story about the positive impact cannabis has had on your life.

While lots of blissfully positive stories come to mind, I'll mention one that has a very practical angle. Cannabis has allowed me to cease taking the damaging pharmaceutical drugs I was prescribed to combat symptoms from my auto-immune disorder. I was diagnosed at a young age—in my 20s—and was prescribed methotrexate to be self administered via syringe weekly … basically using a bazooka to kill a fly. The side effects of that drug were inarguably worse than the symptoms from the condition, and it had the added insult to injury of making it impossible to get any kind of health insurance because the drug is so damaging.

A regime of microdosing cannabis was my secret sauce, and it kept the inflammation/pain/discomfort at bay, while leaving me highly functional to go about my life. I think finding this connection was the positive, but it also opened my eyes to the limitations of Western medicine and the importance of "being your own advocate" as a patient. I didn't discover the validity of cannabis as medicine overnight; I had been experimenting and noticed a lessening of symptoms. It wasn't until a few years later that I learned about the concept of microdosing and employed it in my own regime.

A favorite flower, edible, product or brand.

Although highly localized, I've gotta say I really love Aster Farms' Day to Night pack. Since I don't live in Cali, I don't have regular access to it, but when I visit, that is one of the first products I seek out. I love that it's a kit with a good mix of cultivars offering a variety of different cannabinoid and terpene concentrations—perfect for dealing with jetlag, getting energized before an event or socializing. The packaging is rad, I love the pre-rolls since they are so easy for a traveler, and of course, the flower is very high quality.

The biggest challenge cannabis marketers face today.

I feel like I could answer this question in a variety of ways, and truth be told, there is a whole mess of challenges for different subsections of the cannabis world. 

One area that seems more dominant right now is the challenge of truth, ethics and communication. Every time there is a "bad actor" in the cannabis/CBD space, it seems like it brings down the legitimacy of every other cannabis business that might be trying to do things responsibly and ethically. While it's wonderful that hemp and CBD are largely legal and accepted, it has caused a new series of challenges with communication and messaging to the consumer. 

For example, our company does a lot of B2B education and design, and we are still approached by entities who want us to show how THC-free products are better than their full-spectrum counterparts. While lots of factors go into a consumer's product selection, speaking in any certainty with this stuff is simply inaccurate and misleading. We never take those commissions, but the problem persists regardless.

Just because CBD products and THC-free CBD products are nationally available at every gas station, doesn't mean they are more effective for a user than something with more THC. These claims continue to frustrate me because they don't paint the whole picture and instead lean on product and wellness trends that simply won't always render the best results for consumers.

One thing you're excited about right now in cannabis branding, partnerships or marketing.

This might seem somewhat off topic, but hang tight and I'll bring it back around. I'm really excited about the progress, and potential, of hemp paper. While the idea of hemp paper is nothing new—in fact, it's ancient—hemp-derived paper has not been widely used in the past 50 years and thus is not as versatile for printers, artists and businesses to utilize. This seems to be changing fast, and I've seen amazing new products from mills in the past year. A nice hemp-looking paper is all well and good, but the future is in products that can REPLACE traditional wood-based paper types—matching their specs to a letter… such as whiteness, opacity and weight. 

I think this will be huge for cannabis brands because it will allow them to invest their marketing dollars and packaging dollars into OTHER cannabis-based products. Imagine if all those disposable product boxes, pre-roll cartons and even plastic tubes were made of hemp. It's certainly possible, or very close, in 2020, and that is a bit of progress that should be embraced by EVERYONE, from cannabis brands and environmentalists to publishers and manufacturers. All that is missing right now is the demand, since mills are now able to create suitable replacements for many wood-based products.

A cannabis trade/social justice organization that you support.

I've been a supporter of Last Prisoner Project (LPP) since I learned about the organization. While based in California, it is a national organization working to free those incarcerated for nonviolent cannabis crimes, including the cases where their crimes are no longer considered crimes. The way the war on drugs has been used to deprive people of life and liberty is astoundingly sad, and it has obviously disproportionately affected individuals of color. LPP is an effort to right those past wrongs by providing legal services and advocates to those individuals and families in need, and their successes are very encouraging.

We partnered with LPP officially at Goldleaf last winter and produced an art print for them (see below). Proceeds of sales from the design are donated to the organization quarterly, and we also support them with regular posts on our feeds discussing current initiatives. With all the energy and action happening right now regarding Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform, LPP's efforts seem even more timely, and it is great to see more and more people supporting their cause.

A recent project you're proud of.

We recently tied the bow on a new journal concept that focuses on using cannabis with sex. It is called The Intimacy Journal, and it was a collaboration with a couple experts on the subject: author and speaker Sophie Saint Thomas and FORIA chief education officer, certified doula and sex educator Kiana Reeves. The journal is one-third educational, one-third log book and one-third erotic mindfulness journal to help the user better understand their body and mind as it relates to intimacy.

At first, I wasn't sure if Goldleaf had much to offer as a designer and communicator with this topic, but after talking in depth with the other collaborators about it, we learned a great deal about the wellness potential of cannabis as it specifically relates with sex, mental health and relationships. I'm very happy with the outcome. We were able to work in many of the important takeaways when guiding someone through this type of experimentation, and I feel like we did it in a mature, respectful and inclusive way.

The journal is certainly evocative, but not illicit. This was one reason why we loved working with FORIA on this. They do a great job of discussing sexual wellness in a safe-for-work manner. I'm hopeful this journal carries that thematic torch, and can be useful for couples and individuals who want to try cannabis with sex to work through different challenges … or for the simple joy and pleasure of it.

Someone else's project you admired recently.

I was really tickled with Gelstalten's new book High on Design. I've followed this company for years, and this was their first foray into the topic of cannabis. If you are not familiar with Gestalten, they are a European book publisher known for blending high art and design with other unique topics to make "coffee table art books." Basically, works that are as much art as the content in their pages. I think they are most known for their architecture subjects, but they also tackle things like fashion, food, travel, etc.

Their High on Design book is eye candy for cannabis enthusiasts, and the editorial content is always blissful to read—it takes a global look at the subject, which is refreshing. Our team got to work with them for a few spreads, of which we were super excited, but their team of designers and writers are the true artisans. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in cannabis—and design!

Someone you admire in cannabis who's doing great things.

I've really admired a gent named Alphonso "Tucky" Blunt Jr. since I learned of his story. He's an Oakland native and grew up during the thick of the war on drugs. Tucky did well in school and held down a full-time job while growing up. He also sold a little flower to make ends meet and was arrested for possession in 2004. He received a very harsh punishment for a first-time, non-violent offender—something unfortunately that was not unique to him—but this made him eligible to qualify for Oakland's Cannabis Equity Program.

Tucky was the first person in the state to receive funding to open his own dispensary, Blunts + Moore, and now is an inspiration to budding entrepreneurs of all colors. This is a happy example of the good that these types of equity programs can do, and a reason why we should all support these organizations in our home states. Illinois, for example, earmarked $31 million of its tax revenue from cannabis to go toward these sorts of programs that help the communities most harmed by the war on drugs.

A movie, TV show, music or food you find most enjoy pairing with cannabis.

Certainly, a guilty pleasure of mine is a top-tier baked good—quality over quantity here, and I often treat myself with fare from farmer's markets and little bake shops. I'm a fan of nearly all baked items, sweet to savory, and love having them in the morning and especially with cannabis (when I have time to slow down). Covid-19 has been especially hard on this habit and the small businesses and bakers affected.

Apart from that, if we're talking about cannabis guilty pleasures, I also enjoy bad action movies! It's one of my preferred ways to decompress in the evenings, and they feel like a warm blanket of juvenile feelings. As a disclaimer, I really love film as an art form and certainly experience "good" movies on the regular, but I must say, when I've had some cannabis and am looking to forget about a long day of stresses, I'll turn to a film that doesn't challenge me and likely has enough plot holes to drive a truck through. The simple joys.

What you'd be doing if you weren't in the cannabis industry?

It's hard to know what other paths I may have taken if I didn't choose this one. I would hope I would still be doing something in the creative/design space, and I would also likely be doing something that has an element of activism. What that would be, specifically, is difficult to say, but I can tell you that I like to fantasize, when I need a distraction, about creating compelling and persuasive content that deals with other social/political issues beyond cannabis.

I'm obsessed with the way our perception and decisions are shaped largely by our individual experiences and small social circles. I like to think of ways to pop those bubbles. Using the skills I've honed in my professional career, I think I would enjoy trying to convince people of things. I really don't want to believe that so many of our neighbors, colleagues and countrymen are so willfully ignorant or purposefully closed to updating their way of thinking. I think it is part of the human experience to learn, grow, change and evolve as new facts or experiences shape us. I could see myself working with some activist groups or other artists for these types of persuasive visual social experiments. 

Tim Nudd
Tim Nudd was editor in chief of the Clio Awards and editor of Muse by Clio from 2018 to 2023.

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