State governments in Washington and Colorado are busy laying the groundwork for cannabis legalization, regulation, and commercialization. For the first time in modern history, a state-regulated industry for the naturally-occurring cannabis plant will exist.
In an industry with no regulatory framework, it is crucial to approach every opportunity and every decision from a position of ethical and moral responsibility. We must reiterate the fact that even if it is legalized, cannabis is still a drug. As such, those who are involved in cannabis production and distribution will need to work together in order to build an industry based on integrity.
We believe that the marketing of any drug – whether for medical or recreational purposes – requires an honest approach and should adhere to strict principles in order to remain ethical. It is with this in mind that we propose the following guidelines for advertisers in the cannabis industry:
1. Cannabis marketing and advertising materials should portray cannabis responsibly.
a. Cannabis advertisements should not depict, encourage, or condone illegal behavior.
b. Although cannabis advertisements may depict the plant being consumed, they should not depict any scenarios that would suggest or portray excessive use, over-consumption, or addiction.
c. Cannabis advertisements should not portray the consumption of cannabis as a precursor to or in conjunction with activities which require a significant level of alertness and focus for safety reasons.
d. Advertisements should not portray anyone lacking control over their movement, behavior, or emotions as a result of consuming cannabis.
e. Establishments where cannabis is sold, processed, or grown should be portrayed in advertising as respectable places of business, and should not be portrayed as disorderly, unprofessional, or unmanaged.
2. Cannabis marketing and advertising materials should be targeted to adult consumers of legal age.
a. Advertisements should avoid elements and themes that would appeal primarily to children or people under the legal age for consumption of cannabis. In determining whether an advertisement would have special appeal to underage viewers, cannabis advertisers and marketers should consider the following factors among others:
- Pop Culture
- Entertainers & Celebrities
- Video Games
- Cartoon Characters
b. Models and actors featured in cannabis advertisements should be no less than 25 years of age, and should reasonably appear to be 21 years of age, or the age at which cannabis consumption is legal in the region or state where an advertisement will be shown.
c. Cannabis advertisements should follow all state and local guidelines related to ad placement and content, especially with regard to limitations on the distance that advertisements must be kept from schools, video arcades, playgrounds, and any other facilities principally occupied by children.
d. Cannabis advertisements should not attempt to convert non-consumers. As such, advertisements should not portray first-time usage as a social obligation or rite of passage, and they should not depict cannabis consumption as a solution to social alienation or bullying. Moreover, cannabis advertisements should only be targeted to people who already consume cannabis.
e. Cannabis should not be advertised at an event where the majority of the audience is likely to consist of people under the legal age for consumption.
f. Advertisers for cannabis products and brands, as well as retailers, growers, and processors, should take specific care to publish advertisements only in publications that are followed primarily by adults.
g. Digital media marketing for cannabis businesses should reflect a concerted effort to prevent outreach to underage people. This effort should include notifying parental control software companies of the addresses of any websites and social media profiles that contain cannabis advertisements.
h. Cannabis industry businesses should remain diligent about tracking and auditing their marketing process to identify the most effective and ethically responsible course of action to avoid having an influence on underage people.
3. Cannabis marketing and advertising materials should not emphasize or exaggerate the effects of cannabis consumption.
a. Cannabis advertisements should not imply or suggest that a cannabis product has unique or special qualities which it does not have.
b. Advertisements should not make unsubstantiated scientific claims about the health benefits of cannabis.
c. Cannabis that is sold for recreational purposes should not be marketed as a medical product. Conversely, cannabis that is sold for medical purposes should not be marketed for recreational consumption.
d. Advertisements should not recommend cannabis consumption as a solution to problems of a personal nature, such as stress, social anxiety, athletic ability, financial insecurity, among others.
4. While cannabis advertisements may contain romantic or flirtatious elements, they should not contain overt sexual references or explicit sexual activity.
a. Cannabis should not be advertised as a conduit for sexual activity or as a means of enhancing sexual performance or experience.
b. Cannabis advertisements should not contain lewd images or graphic nudity.
5. Advertising and marketing materials for cannabis should strive for social responsibility in their portrayals, and should not depict scenarios that undermine or negate the basic human dignity of a person or group of people based on their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, age, and physical or mental ability. Cannabis advertisers should strive to be aware of and to avoid the use of stereotypes in their portrayals.
These ethical guidelines, which we leave open for debate, are based on examples set by organizations in the alcohol and tobacco industries as well as on our own analysis of potential social impacts that are unique to cannabis.
Our goal with this proposal is not to define an endpoint for ethical standards in cannabis advertising, but to offer a starting point. We want to help clear the way for a cannabis industry which can become an accepted part of our society.
We encourage anyone planning to get involved in this industry to take a measured approach that puts social, environmental, and ethical responsibility ahead of profits. The future is uncertain, but we believe that with a unified approach we can work toward an industry that will be beneficial to all.