JUNE 2021: The United Nations has called for a new treaty to place a ban on cannabis advertising in all 193 member states. Affected brands have viewed the news with shock, seeing it as a kind of death knell for the industry if it were to go through. However, we're still a long way from any ban. And even if authorities did impose one, there would be simple workarounds cannabis companies could use to continue promoting their products.
Why is the UN calling for a ban on cannabis advertising?
The UN views today's ban on cannabis advertising promotion as equivalent to smoking in the past. Authorities say that the private sector is touting hemp-derived products as a tonic for every ailment, echoing the actions of the tobacco industry during the 20th century, potentially misleading consumers. They also suggest that cannabis is more dangerous than before because of observed increases in THC content over the last ten years.
But there are several problems with this argument. For starters, cannabis (and products derived from it) are now the subject of extensive research. Many independently-funded studies claim to have found human health benefits of the plant – something that the tobacco industry never secured. Furthermore, the majority of the so-called 'cannabis industry' does not promote THC-containing products, but rather products that contain other cannabinoids, such as CBD, derived from low-THC industrial hemp.
Additionally, the ban on cannabis advertising would not affect countries in which cannabis advertising is already banned. In the UK, cannabis is a Class B drug which means that possession, distribution and consumption are illegal. Therefore, advertising is not permitted under the law. Brands can only market non-THC-containing cannabis products in the UK.
How cannabis marketing could change in response to a ban
The UN's World Drug Report 2021 states that 'more investment is needed for research into the harm that the non-medical use of cannabis poses.' Given this loaded research agenda, cannabis advertising may become illegal in the future even in countries that permit consumption and distribution. Even so, this would not necessarily mean the end of cannabis marketing. Cannabis companies would still have plenty of options to promote their products, even with a social media blanket ban.
For instance, concerned cannabis companies could simply ramp up their SEO campaigns. This way, they could attract users via organic search if Google and Bing are forced to terminate ads. They could also cook up other ways of keeping customers engaged such as working with affiliates, improving their customer retention efforts and promoting loyalty schemes.
Added to this is the consumer enthusiasm for cannabis-derived products – a drive that will also help firms stay in business. It seems unlikely that any UN ban on advertising would prevent customers from seeking out cannabis websites, buying products and sharing their experiences with their friends.
Where does this leave CBD?
Firstly, CBD is not really the same as ‘whole cannabis’ and is not a psychotropic substance. Furthermore, research into the safety of the compound confirms that most people tolerate it well. Thus, legally, the UN also faces an uphill battle if it wants to curb CBD advertising.
The EU court, for instance, recently ruled that CBD is not a narcotic drug because it does not have any psychotropic effects, nor 'any harmful effect on human health.'
The ruling made in November 2020 dealt a severe blow to countries looking to restrict or limit the sale of CBD-containing products within their borders.
The UN says that it is applying a 'fact-based' approach to its treatment of the cannabis industry. It believes that providers need to improve their messaging and make it clear that medicinal cannabis is only for medical conditions.
However, most Western countries already enshrine this principle into law. In the UK, for instance, you cannot claim that cannabis or cannabis-containing products offer medical benefits without first obtaining a medical license from the Home Office. Similar rules apply in other major markets, such as the US, Canada and Australia.
The bottom line
The UN's recent push for a cannabis advertising ban treaty might sound like bad news for the industry. However, it is unlikely to have a major effect on the legal market unless it affects CBD advertising directly. Furthermore, C Word Marketing is already planning for a worst-case scenario. Even if countries do agree with the UN and decide to place limits on how brands advertise, there are plenty of other ways to promote CBD and cannabis-derived products.
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