USA: Federal Regulation of Marijuana Marketing

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The Need for Federal Regulation of Marijuana Marketing

John W. Ayers, PhD, MA1Theodore Caputi, MPH1Eric C. Leas, PhD, MPH2

JAMA. Published online May 16, 2019. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.4432

Anational for-profit marijuana industry is expanding substantially in the United States. Thirty-three states have legalized medical marijuana, 10 of which (where 1 in 4 individuals reside) have also legalized recreational marijuana. Sales of marijuana are projected to increase from $8.5 billion to $75 billion by 2030, rivaling current tobacco sales ($125 billion).1 The initial marijuana marketplace was limited to a few states, but emerging brands have developed sophisticated national marketing campaigns that could potentially have an effect across state lines. This marketplace expansion, along with questionable marketing practices, introduces a need for federal action.

An Emerging Marijuana Brand: MedMen

An example of a major, emerging national marijuana brand, MedMen, is helpful to illustrate the challenges ahead as more national brands emerge. MedMen is a US-based, publicly traded company that owns and operates licensed cannabis facilities involved with the cultivation, manufacture, and retail distribution of marijuana. The self-proclaimed “Apple Store of Weed,” MedMen is a lifestyle marijuana brand that operates under its newest slogan: “Welcome to the new normal” and has locations in Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Nevada, and New York (including a flagship on Fifth Avenue). This past year, MedMen initiated a well-funded national advertising campaign, including advertising buys on The Howard Stern Show (with a potential audience of 100 million since Sirius XM’s acquisition of Pandora) and The Adam Carolla Show (which holds the Guinness World Record for most downloaded podcast).2 Sleek, bright red billboards, YouTube videos, and social media advertisements coordinate both with the company’s yoga and apparel line that are sold in all 50 states. With MedMen’s product offerings, consumers can integrate marijuana into almost every aspect of their life, including bath soaps and bombs, candy, cosmetics, drink mixers or tincture, food, medicinal products (eg, pain pills or sleep aids), pet products, sex lubricants, and vaporizers.

Health Claims, but No Health Warnings: Health and medicine are implied in the name of this company, even though a majority of MedMen’s stores sell recreational marijuana. Billboards read, “Heal. It’s Legal.” The company’s blog Ember: A Journal of Cannabis and Culture has an entire section dedicated to health, including a claim that marijuana “can reduce anxiety, pain, and so much more,”3 a physician’s recommended list of marijuana products for menstrual cramps,4 and promotion of marijuana as a safe, natural, and nonaddictive alternative to prescription medications, even implying that marijuana can treat opioid addiction, an opinion with which experts disagree.5 The first national radio—podcast advertisements in 2018 did not mention marijuana, but advertised unnamed wellness treatments. A planned collaboration with Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, which was recently fined for misleading health claims,6 has been announced. A short film to promote MedMen starred actor Jesse Williams, who portrays a surgeon in the hit ABC 1-hour medical drama Grey’s Anatomy. Despite all of these nationally broadcasted health claims, MedMen’s products do not carry any national health warnings about the potential adverse effects of marijuana use. The only health warnings included on the MedMen website are “marijuana products impairs your ability to drive and operate machinery” and that MedMen “cannot guarantee the accuracy of any marijuana information provided” on its website.

Appeals to Youth: MedMen uses advertising techniques that could appeal to teenagers and perhaps even to children. MedMen makes use of models with youthful appearances. The MedMen clothing line features a high school varsity jacket emblazoned with a marijuana leaf. One celebrity spokesperson, Lake Bell, is known among teen audiences for her role in the 2016 animated film The Secret Life of Pets. A blog post entitled “How CBD Can Help With Breakouts”7offers a dermatologist’s endorsement of products for treating acne, a condition affecting nearly all teenagers. Highly sexualized imagery and promises to improve a user’s sexual experience are often used by MedMen, including T-shirts that pair the word cannabis with unrelated images of women’s bodies and a recent promotion featuring a salivating fruit placed over a woman’s genitalia with the caption “Get High Down Low.” Taffy, gummies, and gingerbread house kits are among many additional MedMen products that may appeal to youth. Regardless of intent, these marketing strategies might indeed attract youth.

The Need for Regulation

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