The Red Tape Behind Advertising Marijuana, a Federally Illegal Substance

Although marijuana is legal for medicinal use in 33 states and legalized for recreational use in 11 states and Washington, DC, it remains illegal at the federal level, classified as a schedule 1 substance alongside heroin and many other hard drugs. This creates a major problem for businesses who want to advertise their cannabis products.

This should not be surprising, as advertising for tobacco products—a federally legal substance—also became extremely complicated over the years. Once advertised on a plethora of television shows, the substance became widely feared as a killer drug and has been entirely banned from advertising on the TV and radio for almost fifty years. As recently as August of 2019, the FDA rolled out a proposed rule that would require tobacco companies to include graphic images on all cigarette packages and advertisements in order to deter use of the substance.

Similarly, cannabis is also a highly regulated industry, and the challenges do not stop when it comes to advertising the products. Although the advertising regulations vary by state, many digital platforms have banned all cannabis ads, period.

This excerpt from Green Entrepreneur gives examples of the stringent regulations on cannabis advertising in various states:

“In California, for example, radio, cable, print, and digital ads can only be shown where at least 71.6% of the audience is expected to be over the age of 21. Colorado maintains similar rules. However, in Delaware, no person may advertise medical cannabis sales in print, broadcast, or by paid in-person solicitation of customers.”

Furthermore, companies who are willing to publish cannabis ads are beginning to limit the advertisements they will publish to only those who are licensed cannabis vendors. For example, Weedmaps, a popular website that advertisements marijuana sellers, has decided to stop allowing advertisements from marijuana businesses without licenses in Michigan. California lawmakers have proposed a bill that would hold companies who publish marijuana advertisements in California liable for publishing advertisements by unlicensed vendors.

As a result of the stringent regulations, many companies have turned to billboards and other forms of outdoor advertisements for marketing their products. This contributes to the localization of marijuana campaigns. Essentially, because marijuana is illegal at the federal level and many digital advertisers such as Google and Facebook will not support advertisements connected to marijuana, the marketing for many products is done at the local level through billboards and targeted branding.

In an article published by Crain’s Detroit Business, the CEO of Green Peak, a marijuana dispensary, discussed the methods of marijuana advertising, including the various obstacles and the positive aspects of those challenges:

“‘There exists a marketing structure for a cannabis company, but it only focuses on where a customer might already exist,’ Chesnutt said. ‘They are only targeting those taking that extra step to seek out cannabis, not targeting a more general audience. So your marketing dollars are limited there, in my opinion.’

While the social media marketing blackout is frustrating for the industry, it may be better than an alternative reality where the platforms were receptive to marijuana because it was legal at the federal level.

‘I will say that it’s a level playing field,” Radway said. “We’re all engaging in old media, like newspapers or billboards. Sure, we’re boxed out of the new methods, but if this were a federally regulated industry right now, I’m quite certain Starbucks, Coca-Cola and Pfizer would own it. So you deal with it and try to get creative.’”

Although marijuana advertising is currently very limited in scope, companies are finding a way to market their product anyways, and some believe these limitations may be better for their success, anyways.

10 thoughts on “The Red Tape Behind Advertising Marijuana, a Federally Illegal Substance”

  1. I did not know that the advertising requirements, within the legalized states, were so stringent. Nor did I expect facebook and google to ban ads in states were recreational use has been legalized. However, I am not surprise because of its current nature as a federal schedule 1 drug.

  2. I had not really thought about the lack of cannabis ads on my feed. Though it does seem unfair to the industry, there are enough commercials in my daily life that I can’t say I’m upset about it.

  3. For anyone who has visited California or Colorado, you might think that there’s very minimal advertising restrictions, or that’s my opinion at least. Here in Texas I’ve recently noticed dozens of “CBD” billboards off major highways in the DFW area. It will be curious to see if the state government passes any regulations affecting billboards here.

  4. This is a very interesting issue that I had not really considered. That being said, I think this is something that cannabis companies can overcome due to the presence cannabis laws have in media currently and how many people know if cannabis is decriminalized in their state or not. Due to this, I feel like the most likely consumers will reach out on their own accord, though I could be wrong in that belief.

  5. I think cannabis companies are going to push their respective home states to their legislative breaking points. They will find loopholes in advertising laws and eventually force the states to act on these issues.

  6. This is a very unique topic and I am not sure how I feel about the “red tape” in marijuana advertising. On one hand, I hope it is treated in the same manner as tobacco in order to keep it out of commercials, magazines, and news papers. However, on the other hand, I do not want the lack of marketing channels to stunt the growth of the market and prevent innovative products from being seen by the masses. Hopefully, regulatory agencies find a middle ground and are able to prevent minors from seeing marijuana advertisements while also allowing adult users/medical patients to receive information and ads about the industry.

  7. This is an interesting topic! I feel like it will be hard to place wide-spread regulations of the advertising of marijuana, until it becomes legalized everywhere. I say this, because it makes sense to see advertisements where the substance is legal for both adult and medical use, but not so much in a state where it is still illegal. I don’t think that the substance should ever be broadly advertised, but there should be regulations established that allow small advertisements in certain locations.

  8. I was wondering why I only saw marijuana-related advertisements on billboards. It will be interesting to see how creative companies will get to avoid these regulations.

  9. I had never noticed the absence of marijuana ads, but now that it is brought to mind it makes sense why businesses aren’t allowed to advertise. I wonder how much money they would make off these ads if they weren’t prohibited.

  10. I love the throwback to cigarette advertisements back in the day. It was an entirely different culture when seeing any movie in the theatre was practically watching an hour and a half long cigarette ad. Just like with cigarettes now, I do not think anyone wants companies figuring out how to make weed more appealing to kids. I’m glad to see there are such stringent laws in place.

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