The passing of Proposition 64 ushers in significant change for the business of cannabis in California. Residents are just beginning to see evidence of legalization – there is now a cannabis smoking section at Levi’s Stadium, the home of the 49ers – and further change will be forthcoming.
While the state and various counties and cities determine how to regulate the sale of now both medicinal and recreational cannabis, cannabis brands are already beginning to openly market products and retail sale outlets. Many people believe that legalization will also lead to significant investment in the cannabis industry and that will spur a boom akin to the dot-com era in California. But, this also means that consumers will have to make educated guesses on which cannabis products are reputable when it comes to potency and claims of medicinal benefit.
The new world order of legalized cannabis for both medicinal and recreational purposes gives one pause – especially after the long and unsuccessful War on Drugs – but it shouldn’t. Cannabis has a long, positive history (that is, until the 20th century) dating back to as early as 2700 B.C. when the Chinese Emperor Shen Nung discovered the healing properties of cannabis that were later chronicled in a collection of “prescriptions” considered to be the world’s oldest pharmacopoeia. Thus, medicinal cannabis was born. Given that solid beginning, what could possibly go wrong for cannabis as an alternative to Western pharmacology?
Well, plenty, and our society has been attempting to figure out the cannabis conundrum ever since. On one hand, numerous studies have taken Shen Nung’s early work several steps further and a growing number of medical professionals are taking cannabis seriously as a treatment to work in concert with pharmaceuticals. On the other hand, cannabis remains classified as a Schedule 1 substance by the U.S. government – alongside heroin and cocaine – greatly limiting medical professionals from broader studies or mainstream prescription. At the same time, medicinal cannabis has been legal in California since 1996 and other states including Washington and Colorado have legalized both medicinal and recreational use.
While the Federal government effectively looks the other way and leaves cannabis legalization to the states, capitalism is stepping in to create a Green Rush via an influx of investment, R&D, and sales/distribution infrastructure reminiscent of the Dot-Com era. While all of this is happening, those wishing to market legitimate medicinal cannabis products that reflect Shen Nung’s original vision are forced to do so delicately.
All of this raises the question: If our government calls it “medical,” isn’t it high time we started treating cannabis like medicine in our marketing efforts?
We certainly think so at McGrath/Power Public Relations. About a year ago, our agency became one of the first established firms in the United States to represent a legitimate medical cannabis provider. Constance Therapeutics’ science-based cannabis extracts have shown to be effective in the treatment of serious conditions. We’ve represented pharma companies over our 30+-year history and have also worked with numerous product companies in consumer goods, technology, food, alcohol and other markets. We accepted Constance Therapeutics’ offer to represent the brand based on one condition: that communications activities would be undertaken as if it was a pharmaceutical company. In other words, treat the medicine like a medicine. It all sounds so simple but we had the past century working against us.
Historical histrionics has left a large bruise on cannabis’ public image – one that anybody marketing cannabis products must take into consideration or have no prayer of overcoming. Let’s begin with the racially tinged ties of the word “marihuana” – a Mexican Spanish substitute for cannabis that ultimately became “marijuana” – to Mexican immigrants. These recreational users arrived in the U.S. during the 1910 Mexican Revolution and were said to be violent as a result of cannabis use. Or how about the 1936 film Reefer Madness in which high school students use cannabis and run afoul of the law through violent and anti-social acts. That propaganda labeled cannabis “a violent narcotic,” “an unspeakable scourge,” and “The Real Public Enemy Number One!” Fast forward to Cheech and Chong and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which spawned the “stoner” image with associated phrases such as “baked,” “faded,” etc.
As communicators know, words are powerful. Words spoken by Wiz Khalifa, Cheech or Spicoli have linked consumption with lazy, apathetic approaches to life. “Weed” conjures up one set of mental images. “Cannabis” relates to others. Even though they are simply different names for products that come from the same plant, the audiences are quite different as are the sensitivities to old-time jargon and related humor. While old habits are hard to break, it is essential as marketers that we avoid stoner jargon. It is also essential to align medicinal cannabis clients with strategic program elements, highlighting benefits that can be validated while also making a positive contribution to the industry.
From all indications, cannabis is here to stay. Understanding where your client/company fits into this burgeoning industry and focusing modern communications approaches on your business goals will go a long way towards treating cannabis like the legitimate product that it is – whether that be medicinal for specific applications or recreational to be consumed responsibly.