The Blunt Truth About Cannabis Marketing

Tameka Kee

For so many decades marijuana has been such a taboo subject, and we are now (finally) starting to see a shift in the conversation at both the local and national level. Almost thirty states have legalized marijuana for medicinal use, and a handful have done so for recreational use as well, with more on the way if the 2018 midterm elections are any indication.

Clearly, marijuana, cannabis, grass, reefer, or whatever you call it is already big business and is only going to get bigger. As a result of these trends, “cannabis marketing” is suddenly a thing.

From a marketer’s perspective, it’s a pretty intriguing — and often difficult — landscape of which to be a part. It’s not just marijuana growers, distributors, and dispensaries that make up this landscape - it’s also edibles, extraction companies, bottling and co-packing facilities, fertilizer companies, lighting system companies, hydroponic nutrient supply companies, business intelligence, and analytical testing laboratories, among many others.

So what’s holding ‘cannabis marketing’ back from becoming a billion-dollar industry of its own? Section 843 of the Controlled Substances Act. Section 843 prohibits “communications facilities” from advertising Schedule I drugs, which makes violating this provision a felony. Each year, the Federal Communications Commission doles out licenses for broadcasters based on how well they serve the public interest. Broadcasters are allowed to publish cannabis ads in states that legalized marijuana. However, since a looming felony is an almost certain violation of the “public interest,” broadcasters steer clear of those ads to ensure they receive their FCC license.

Another important factor to consider is that federal law also prohibits legal cannabis companies from writing off business expenses like advertising and rent, so entrepreneurs and businesses in this industry need to be creative, frugal, and effective with the money they spend on marketing.

Therefore it is this policy which often helps steer cannabis businesses to social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But don’t celebrate just yet - promoting products and brands on these digital platforms isn’t as easy as you might expect either.

Cannabis may be legal in more than half of the country, but it’s still illegal at the Federal level. And although Federal law grants advertising exceptions for “any person authorized by local, State, or Federal law to manufacture, possess, or distribute such items,” tech giants fear being held liable for aiding and abetting the sale of drugs. Facebook’s advertising policies state that it will deny paid posts that “constitute, facilitate, or promote illegal products, services, or activities”—including marijuana.

That means that while a brand in Los Angeles can legally sell marijuana products in California, it is not, according to Facebook’s policies, allowed to advertise these same products on the social network. The prohibition applies even when the ads are only geo-targeted to people in states that have already legalized the drug. Instagram enforces the same federal compliance.

As a result, when a cannabis brand submits an ad or attempts to boost a post, social regulators not only deny the advertisement but, more often than not, flag the account, deny all future paid distributions, and/or shut their accounts down. Due to this, cannabis brands often live in fear that even a slight change to their profile could terminate their Facebook privileges.

The key is to make sure that you follow the guidelines of the platform with whom you’re working so that your account is not suspended or revoked. No consumption. No sales. And whenever possible, keep content original and don’t overly re-post.

All of this has proven fertile ground for newer social media sites and mobile platforms which have cropped up to meet the growing needs of the cannabis industry in this area. MassRoots is one such company which caters to users with content that connects cannabis connoisseurs with edibles, new strains, and nearby dispensaries. Another is social app Duby, which functions like an Instagram for the cannabis savvy.

Even if certain platforms and providers do accept ads, they sometimes prohibit the language you can use.

To overcome many of these hurdles, cannabis businesses are working very hard to educate the customer while not calling it cannabis or marijuana, using code-language like ‘herb’ to get through ads or search engine optimizations dragnets. By taking a more sophisticated approach to their marketing — i.e., portraying an active, natural lifestyle as opposed to simply displaying cannabis product s —  savvy brands in this industry are helping to reshape the public’s perception of cannabis and cannabis users.

The bottom line is that in the cannabis industry, where most of your ads are going to be blocked, you have to focus on organic reach. It’s all about producing valuable content and elevating the narrative around this once taboo plant.