Cannabis marketers are preparing for a new frontier. Though cannabis’ biggest obstacle to decriminalization — that it sits at the top of the federal drug schedule — might remain for the foreseeable future, progress in three key areas has marketers excited. We spoke with Cannabis Marketing Association Founder & CEO Lisa Buffo about these recent developments and what they mean for marketers in the space.
1. More states continue to decriminalize.
Since legislation passed in 1996 making California the first state to legalize medical cannabis, 39 other states have done the same — most recently Kentucky, which passed medical cannabis legislation earlier this year. On the recreational front, Delaware (which legalized medical back in 2011) legalized recreational use this year making it the 23rd state to do so.
Though New York legalized medical use in 2014 and recreational in 2021, the cannabis community is only now starting to feel the effects.
“It’s just different. It’s not just Colorado and Washington anymore, it’s New York. It’s these new places that have much more of a global focus and attention,” Buffo says. “And particularly given how progressive New York tends to be — that you can smoke outside* in New York City now, the dominoes are really falling at this point.”
2. Medical cannabis research is active in the U.S.
Legalization is only the first step. Education and communication are equally important next ones. Imprint Managing Partner Andy Seibert wrote last year about his frustrations with nurses at his mother’s retirement home: Despite the cannabis being prescribed by a physician and her needing the medication to treat her Parkinson’s, they still refused to administer the treatment
In the TEDx Talk below, Dr. Alan Shackelford expresses just how important research is for physicians and licensed caregivers. Despite witnessing dramatic results first-hand, he still felt hamstrung by the lack of peer-reviewed research.
The good news: Research is happening. Temple University’s Center for Substance Abuse Research announced in August a partnership with Cresco Labs to expand its research “into the ways cannabis can be used to treat conditions like chronic pain and food allergies.” In 2022, the University of Louisiana Monroe School of Pharmacy gained approval that will “allow the university to provide laboratory testing services and study new applications for cannabis and hemp.” Several states, including California and New York, are offering grants for those who want to study the potential applications and medical benefits of cannabis and hemp.
Research takes time, but seeing so many wheels in motion is promising.
3. States are providing clear(er) marketing guidelines.
The regulation of cannabis advertising and promotion is primarily a state-by-state issue, which is a nightmare for marketers. As of 2022, 19 states and Washington D.C. had provided guidelines — each with their own language and room for interpretation.
Buffo said most marketing regulations are based on existing rules for alcohol brands, with one big exception: Cannabis brands can make no health claims.
“Where it gets into that gray area is that wellness aspect, such as reducing anxiety. ‘Improve your sleep’ could be a health claim, which is a space everyone is trying to figure out right now,” Buffo says. “That’s why you’ll see a lot of gummies for ‘nighttime.’ This is a huge hurdle for the medical community; they’re trying to figure out how to create messaging around it.”
But there are signs of progress. Some states are refining their cannabis advertising rules to make them easier to understand and more business-friendly. New York’s Cannabis Control Board, for example, recently updated its documentation to clarify the guard rails for packaging, marketing, labeling and advertising.
“A major tech company saying yes to cannabis is significant. A domino needed to fall for that conversation to open,” Buffo says. “Maybe smaller, more local publishers will be more comfortable because of it.”
What’s ahead for content marketing in cannabis
Non-cannabis companies dedicate 9.5% of their budget to marketing, on average, but Buffo estimates that most cannabis businesses are only spending about 2% on marketing — especially considering the average cannabis company’s annual marketing budget is less than $50,000, according to the Cannabis Marketing Association.
However, progress in these three areas pushes us closer to a world where cannabis marketing is not dissimilar from alcohol marketing, which could mean big, big content marketing dollars.
“For a $32 billion industry, we should probably be spending $3.2 billion on marketing,” Buffo says. “And at these numbers, we’re not even close.”
If you’re a content marketer in the cannabis space and are looking for creative and innovative ways to reach your audience, we’d love to talk! Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us here.
*Buffo pointed out that smoking cannabis is allowed only where cigarette smoking is allowed, and that smoking cannabis is not allowed in cars or while operating heavy machinery.