Navigating the Minefield of Marijuana Advertising
How Do You Advertise a Product That Is Against Federal Law?
Marijuana. Cannabis. Weed. Dope. Call it what you will, but there is no denying that the drug is taking a strong legal foothold in the United States.
Even though marijuana use and possession is against Federal law, 36 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the legalization of marijuana for medical purposes (the limitations on and conditions for that medical use vary greatly from state to state). Fifteen states have legalized marijuana completely, including for recreational use. Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota joined that group in November 2020, when voters approved ballot propositions or constitutional amendments on the issue.
While there are still furious debates about the legality of this, and whether or not some states will switch back to medical-only marijuana, or complete prohibition, there is no doubt that while it’s legal in the state, companies are ready to make millions of dollars from it. But that begs the question…how do you advertise something that is against Federal law?
What Are the Choices for Marijuana Advertisers?
As you can imagine, the options available for marijuana advertisers right now are slim to say the least. By far and away the easiest way to advertise, and the cheapest, is through Google. But Google strictly prohibits the advertising of “recreational” drugs, with a prohibited list that includes:
Cocaine, crystal meth, heroin, marijuana, cocaine substitutes, mephedrone, and “legal highs.” Interestingly enough, psilocybin mushrooms are missing from the list, as well as the most pervasive legal drug of all…alcohol. Tobacco is also banned, and that includes rolling papers, pipes, cigars, chewing tobacco and all other related products.
Mainstream advertising is also a tricky prospect. Although billboards, four-sheets, and other outdoor advertising mediums have advertised marijuana products and companies in the past, it’s a rare occurrence. Even if you live in a state where almost all forms of cannabis are legal, like Colorado for example, you will not see an abundance of outdoor ads for the products.
The main reason for this is simple—very few companies want to “poke the bear” that is the Federal Government. It’s one thing to “do your own thing” in your own state, and keep your marijuana products to your own citizens. It’s quite another to buy large chunks of outdoor media, proudly advertising legal highs and the latest in edibles and high-potency strains. So, for the most part, the marijuana companies are keeping everything on the down low.
That’s not to say they are steering clear from any kind of advertising or marketing. While some of the more mainstream, traditional media choices are not in consideration, there are other avenues open to businesses selling legal marijuana. Perhaps the best is social media.
Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and Imgur are all viable options for a legal weed dispensary, or the makers of the products they dispense.
For example, Dixie Brands is a company that was founded in 2009 and has a professional and educational presence on social channels, including an impressive Facebook page, a Twitter feed that has almost 27,000 followers, and an Instagram page.
Unlike traditional advertising, these social pages are incredibly cost effective, and allow the brand to reach out directly to a targeted consumer. This is not a mass-market approach, but a micro-marketing strategy, and rightly so. Despite widespread acceptance in many places, there are an awful lot of people that just don’t want to see ads for cannabis.
By being selective, using geo-targeting, and perhaps a local fly-posting or leafleting campaign, marijuana businesses can get granular with a campaign.
Which Specific Rules and Laws Currently Regulate Marijuana Advertising?
As you can imagine, the rules and laws surrounding the advertising of a Federally-banned drug are in a constant state of flux due to the legality of the product in various states. What’s more, the rules that are put in place by the individual states will also change and be altered over time. Even in states where marijuana is 100 percent legal, regardless of the requirement for a medical note, can have some very strict regulations on advertising cannabis.
This is not entirely unexpected. Tobacco advertising has undergone significant changes over the decades. A once “wholesome” product advertised by doctors, actors, and even children’s television shows (The Flintstones actually advertised cigarettes) was deemed to be a killer, and over time the restrictions grew so tight that tobacco had almost nowhere left to turn. Those ads you saw in Mad Men (it’s toasted) and Seinfeld (featuring Kramer as a 30 ft. tall smoking cowboy) are a thing of the past.
Leafly, a website dedicated to being a valuable information resource on cannabis products, has a complete rundown on the laws, rules, and regulations for each and every state.
Here’s an example of the laws around advertising marijuana in a state that is anti-marijuana, Georgia:
Georgia does not allow dispensaries, nor advertising for their medical cannabis law.
Pretty clear cut. Compare that to a state that allows recreational marijuana, and you’ll see a completely different story. For example, this is just a small sample from the Colorado list of rules:
R 1102—Advertising General Requirement: No Deceptive, False or Misleading Statements A Retail Marijuana Establishment shall not engage in Advertising that is deceptive, false, or misleading. A Retail Marijuana Establishment shall not make any deceptive, false, or misleading assertions or statements on any product, any sign, or any document provided to a consumer.
R 1104—Advertising: Television A. Television Defined. As used in this rule, the term “television” means a system for transmitting visual images and sound that are reproduced on screens, and includes broadcast, cable, on-demand, satellite, or internet programming. Television includes any video programming downloaded or streamed via the internet. B. Television Advertising. A Retail Marijuana Establishment shall not utilize television Advertising unless the Retail Marijuana Establishment has reliable evidence that no more than 30 percent of the audience for the program on which the Advertising is to air is reasonably expected to be under the age of 21.
R 1105—Advertising: Radio A. Radio Defined. As used in this rule, the term “radio” means a system for transmitting sound without visual images, and includes broadcast, cable, on-demand, satellite, or internet programming. Radio includes any audio programming downloaded or streamed via the internet. B. Radio Advertising. A Retail Marijuana Establishment shall not engage in radio Advertising unless the Retail Marijuana Establishment has reliable evidence that no more than 30 percent of the audience for the program on which the Advertising is to air is reasonably expected to be under the age of 21.
R 1106—Advertising: Print Media A. Retail Marijuana Establishment shall not engage in Advertising in a print publication unless the Retail Marijuana Establishment has reliable evidence that no more than 30 percent of the publication’s readership is reasonably expected to be under the age of 21.
That represents less than half of the regulations surrounding the advertising and marketing of a cannabis product. The list goes on to include rules for signage, Internet, and even event sponsorship. A legal minefield indeed.
How About Educating the Consumer? Does That Count as Advertising?
Most definitely, but it is far better to go out with an education campaign than something that merely promotes the products and its effects.
With legal marijuana comes a whole world of questions and concerns. Whereas the traditional cannabis smoker may have had many years to experience the drug and its effects, people new to edibles and other marijuana products will want answers to some burning questions.
- How much should I take?
- What does it cost?
- What if I take too much?
- Can I mix it with beer or wine?
- Will I get arrested if I don't have a medical use?
- What about driving?
Legal cannabis businesses are more than happy to answer these questions, and if it’s done in the right way, it can be very effective. From social posts, YouTube educational videos, or even free downloadable infographics, a marijuana company can educate, inform, and advertise at the same time. It’s an excellent way to show that the industry is committed to a safe experience for all of its customers.
Compare that to ads for alcohol. They usually consist of people at the bar getting very merry, tailgating, or at the beach surrounded by semi-naked bikini models. In contrast, the legal marijuana businesses are far more grown up.