Medical marijuana is now legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia, and nine more states, including Florida, have legislation pending. Recreational pot is legal in Alaska, Colorado and Washington. If these trends continue, medical marijuana will soon be legal in more states than it is illegal.
If you are a healthcare marketer, is there a possibility you may soon be responsible for marketing medical marijuana? Even if you aren’t asked to market it as a dedicated product or service line, will you have to defend or justify its use in your hospital, physician practice or medical facility?
If legalization continues to expand, the chances are good that medical marijuana marketing will explode as a niche profession. Whether the industry evolves into something akin to pharma, herbal supplements or alternative medicine remains to be seen, but you should be prepared to take on the challenge, whether you expect to be marketing medical marijuana tomorrow, or a few years from now. When you do, you’ll go through the same steps involved with all marketing—getting consensus among stakeholders, targeting and understanding your audiences, developing a strategy and executing with the right tactics and media mix. If you expect to be developing your first medical marijuana marketing plan sooner than later, there are few important, unvarnished facts you should know.
1. Some polls, including one conducted by WebMD.com show that physicians are leaning toward legalization of marijuana for medical purposes.
In the April 2014 poll of more than 1,500 physicians, 69 percent said they think it may help with certain treatments and conditions—although they would like to see more research conducted. It is one of many polls and its results contrast with the official position of the American Medical Association and other medical groups who oppose all marijuana legalization. However, the takeaway for healthcare marketers is that the very people for whom you may be working are showing gradually increased levels of support for medical marijuana, and this may drive demand for marketing.
2. According to a recent CBS News poll conducted in April of this year, approximately 84 percent of Americans believe it should be legal for physicians to prescribe small amounts of marijuana for serious illnesses.
This is 31 percent more than those who support recreational use of marijuana, at 53 percent. Thus, while many Americans are still resistant to legalized marijuana just for fun, a shrinking minority still has strong objections to the highly controlled use of marijuana for medicinal purposes. This was demonstrated last year when a ballot initiative in Florida failed to pass because voters were fearful that the language would allow for unregulated recreational use. Insight from the Pew Research Center is showing, however, that attitudes will likely continue to shift. Understanding current perceptions and trends in this arena is important for medical marketers as they explore uncharted territory.
3. Media outlets are still reluctant to accept marijuana-related advertising.
If you’re charged with marketing medical marijuana and you know the public is more accepting of it, what tactics should you use? This is where things get sticky for healthcare marketers. Many traditional media outlets, including newspapers, billboard companies and even Google are reluctant to accept marijuana advertising, even if it’s strictly medical. What’s more, in states like Colorado, there is a long list of places and media outlets where marijuana of any kind cannot be advertised due to the fear of access by minors.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates broadcast TV and radio. So can you advertise on those media? Technically, you can but most broadcast outlets in most states aren’t accommodating. I say “technically” because there is no FCC law, per se, against advertising medical marijuana or the ancillary products and services (e.g. growing co-ops, dispensaries). The FCC does, however, have the power to deny renewal of a broadcast license if complaints are filed.
So if radio and TV aren’t yet a mainstream go-to for advertising, where are medical dispensaries and suppliers currently marketing their wares? Typically, they use storefront signage, event sponsorships, some local alternative newspapers and of course, websites, email and social media. The laws differ widely from state-to-state and even within a state’s municipalities. So for now, it’s a hyper-local world, in terms of laws as well as marketing tactics.
4. However, some medical marijuana dispensaries are seeing success with a new branding approach.
Overcoming the stoner dude stigma is on the radar screen of advertising agencies and medical marijuana businesses in states where it is legal. How are they doing it? With a brand refresh. In Oregon, a billboard shows a fit hiking couple ready to relax, and California edible products maker Auntie Dolores promotes a “conscious approach to cannabis” offering medical marijuana-infused organic and gluten-free goodies for patients and dispensaries; a doily even appears as part of the logo. Many dispensaries market themselves as holistic, health and wellness centers with websites powered by extensive content marketing. Words like “clinic,” “compassionate care,” “natural healing” and “alternative medicine” help elevate the product into the healthcare realm.
5. Until medical marijuana is federally legal, you may risk criminal charges as a marketer.
While marijuana, medical or recreational, may be legal in a given state, it is still federally illegal. Though the current U.S. Attorney General has said that he will not criminally prosecute medical marijuana cases, the prohibition against marijuana remains on the books. Therefore, marketing medical marijuana can be considered abetting a criminal conspiracy to distribute narcotics. There are few, if any accounts of marketers being charged or arrested, but the fact remains that the law allows it, and it would be easy to violate state laws and local ordinances if you are not thoroughly familiar with current regulations. Therefore, you’ll have to make the call. Market medical marijuana, or not?