Nidhi Lucky Handa is an advocate for recreational cannabis use that’s untethered to stoner stereotypes. The LA businesswoman is CEO and founder of the cannabis brand Leune—which debuted two vapes and two pre-roll varieties in November 2018 and quickly made headway with its Insta aesthetic and appeal to newish smokers who are also thoughtful about what they consume. After working the Hall of Flowers, Nidhi spoke at length to High Times before breaking away to train Leune’s newest hire.
HT: You’ve worked in industries like luxury brand communications and talent management. Why cannabis, and why now?
NH: Coming into this space was definitely personal. As I got into my 30s, I noticed that I started drinking a little less and leaning more toward cannabis. There’s been this curve over the last few years—understanding dosing and cannabinoids, and then using that information to figure out how to have a more predictable experience.
But when I looked at the industry, I noticed that there weren’t a lot of brands speaking to me or my peer group. On one end of the spectrum, they’re super masculine—even borderline misogynistic—you know, with the girls in bikinis and booty shorts. And on the other end of the spectrum, the brands are super wellness-oriented—which is great and important. But neither of those kinds of brands were speaking to me.
I wanted to know, “where’s the brand where you don’t have to pretend you need help sleeping, or you have anxiety to get high? Where’s the brand where you don’t have to get a lap dance?” I was really interested in why that space was empty.
HT: How’s the brand doing?
NH: We launched Leune with Eaze in November and are distributed statewide with them. And about six or even weeks ago we started getting product into dispensaries. We’re in 20 doors now in California, as well as a few other delivery services. For having launched in November of last year, I’m super eyes-open about how quickly we’re growing!
Our launch included two vape varieties—Cloudberry is an indica-leaning hybrid with a blackberry and lemon flavor, and Desert Gold is a peach-mango flavored sativa-leaning hybrid. We also have two kinds of pre-rolls and two more vapes in development—including a 3:1 THC to CBD blend that I’m really excited about—as well as a couple of other verticals. We’re never going to be “that vape brand,” or “that edibles brand.” I want to be “that cannabis brand.”
HT: What are some of the best and worst parts about being a cannabis entrepreneur at this moment?
NH: I’m a glass half-full person—and obviously, I knew what I was getting into in the space. There haven’t been any giant surprises. Objectively speaking, operating a 100% compliant business inside the changing regulatory environment is tough when these things are all still being ironed out.
That being said, the regs are pretty common sense to me, like “let’s not market close to schools or parks.” I want to make sure that we’re being responsible and not creating more problems for our culture and our society.
Another challenge is education. We have an opportunity to create a new narrative around what this plant is and what consumption looks like—to start breaking some of those old memes of the guy on the sofa, stoned out of his mind, eating pizza. To me, that’s not what a cannabis consumer looks like.
What does it look like to be a high functioning consumer of cannabis who has a job and loves to do all kinds of activities—and uses cannabis to make those activities better? That’s what I’m interested in.
Another challenge is the fact that every day is a massive victory and a massive grenade—like some big piece of news, or some new regulation. You have to constantly be willing to pivot because nothing is set in stone yet. That’s challenging, but it’s also really fun and dynamic.
HT: What do you think the cannabis space will look like in five years?
NH: I don’t think we know what the most popular mode of consumption will be yet. Everything is still so in development. People say that being in the cannabis business is like living in dog years—one year is equivalent to seven in any other industry!
But in a way, I see it as not very different from a lot of consumer verticals in terms of education. I mean, look at the spirits and alcohol industry—post-prohibition, consumers had to be educated. They were taught that there’s a certain type of alcohol to drink with brunch, and there’s a certain type to drink with dinner, or after work if you’ve had a hard day. It created new social norms for how to consume.
Here in California, it’s becoming so normalized. Back in November, people would come up and whisper to me, “I got one of your vape pens off Eaze,” as if they were being really naughty. But now, six months later, people are talking much more freely. I think the destigmatizing process will continue—here and all over the country.
There’s so much conversation about how nascent this industry is, and it’s obviously true in some ways… but people have been consuming this plant forever. Cannabis isn’t new and it’s never gonna go away!
HT: What went into developing your products?
NH: I’m catering to someone like me who’s smoked before but hasn’t quite figured out what they like and don’t like. But also someone who’s health-conscious and mindful about what they buy. All our products are infused with natural, botanical terps, and our growing process with Grupo Flor in Monterey is totally compliant and organic. Small packaging that minimizes waste is also really important.
I was personally bored with what I was seeing in cannabis, which reminded me of the flavors we consumed as kids—like cherry, and those saccharine, over-the-top fruity or floral tastes. I wanted to create something more grown up.
I’m a super foodie and I love to bake, so I was really inspired by those flavors. Taste transports me to different places—I grew up in an Indian family on the East Coast and mango makes me think of summertime. That’s what inspired the mango flavor in Desert Gold—to me, it’s special and nostalgic.
HT: You mentioned your family. What’s their take on you founding a cannabis business?
NH: My parents are the most supportive, awesome humans on the planet. They’ve been extremely excited about this journey for me—even though they’re not recreational users, they’re very forward thinking.
They’re both from Delhi and migrated to the United States after marriage. They come from a culture where, in Ayurveda, cannabis is part of many aspects of healing. It’s not totally a stigmatic thing. They get it. They’re like, “yeah, we saw yoga take over this country. We saw meditation. So now there’s cannabis—okay, cool!”
HT: There’s a lot of talk in the cannabis industry right now about gender inequalities in business leadership. Have you found any particular challenges as a female cannabis CEO?
NH: Back before the launch of Leune, I remember talking to a man about customizing the products, and he said, “alright sweetie, have your boss call me back and we’ll see what we can do.”
But honestly, it’s not very different from anything else I’ve ever done as a woman. I’ve been around the block and have been patronized and objectified before. Is that unique to cannabis? No.
The flip side to that is there’s an amazing group of women in this industry who are screaming their lungs off and taking ownership and leadership. They’re taking it on themselves as a community to really do something different, to not fall into these patterns that have existed in other industries.
Women think differently. We’re empathic multitaskers—our brains are wired differently. And we have a great platform in cannabis.
HT: Any particular challenges to being a person of color working in cannabis?
NH: I’ve lived in this skin my whole life and there are certainly challenges. Ageism comes into play, too… I mean, this is LA. Age, color, and gender are all weirdly combined.
But I really don’t want my identity to be part of the narrative—or imposed on Leune—because this isn’t about me. I’m building something for a community of people—and I want them to see themselves in it.