Alternative Considerations to the U.N.'s Ban on Cannabis Advertising

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On June 24, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released the World Drug Report 2021. In it, they call for a comprehensive ban on cannabis advertising, with the declared intention of ensuring corporate interests don’t come before public health.

The report posits that ads have influenced young people to perceive cannabis as less dangerous than they previously had, despite the fact that in parts of the world cannabis potency increased by four times over the last 24 years. The UNODC equates this increase in potency with an increase in potential risk and finds this particularly worrisome alongside young people’s decreased perception of risk. We’re using stronger cannabis products, at higher rates, and we’re less afraid of them than ever. It’s a mismatch, they say — one that could pose a threat to public health. But would banning cannabis advertising really serve the public?

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Today, we suffer from a lack of access to information, especially regarding substances. Take, for example, 2019, when an outbreak of lung illness turned public attention toward illicit-market vape carts, which are unregulated and therefore run the risk of containing potential adulterants. Had the thousands who fell ill been more informed about the risks of using these illicit carts — or had they been more familiar with where and how to obtain legal, regulated carts — perhaps their stories would have gone differently.

Cannabis advertising promotes access to and consumption of only legal, regulated cannabis products, ushering users away from riskier illicit-market options. The product is regulated, and — crucially — so is the advertising. Though they vary by state, there are plenty of rules already in place to ensure these ads can’t mislead the public. Many states, for example, require ads to contain warning statements or bar them from promising therapeutic effects. Many require that any claim in a cannabis ad be substantiated by data— which is to say that cannabis advertising isn’t a free-for-all, and false claims are the primary no-no. Why, then, is there the worry that young people’s declining perception of cannabis is a result of lies fed to them by ads?

Content has already demonstrated its ability to educate. We’ve seen informative public service announcements successfully reduce the prevalence of drunk driving, though the evidence suggests that better-funded PSAs would help even more. We have evidence, too, that alcohol education works in schools; among almost 2,000 Australian teens, the ones randomly selected to complete an alcohol education program saw a greater increase in knowledge about alcohol, saw their drinking increase less than their counterparts’, and experienced a lesser increase in harm associated with their drinking. Clearly, giving people the tools to make an informed decision helps, especially with regard to a substance that’s already here and here to stay.

What’s more, cannabis advertising is not to be targeted at anyone underage, or make use of any imagery or rhetoric designed to appeal to the same group. Many states forbid colorful packaging, or the use of celebrities or cartoon characters to promote cannabis products. It’s also common for states to require websites displaying cannabis ads use an age-gate —essentially, a pop-up that asks a user to certify they’re of legal age — and most states even require these websites prove that over 71.6% of their viewers are over 21 to start.

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All this to say there are already abundant regulations in place to prevent cannabis advertising from threatening public health. These regulations may not yet be consistent across states, or necessarily fully up-to-snuff — but we have options. We can throw our hands in the air, the baby out with the bathwater, and ban the ads altogether — or we can focus our legislative energy on tightening, solidifying and properly enforcing the regulations we’ve already started to put in place to protect public health.

The UNODC is correct that sentiments on cannabis are changing, and that its use is becoming more prevalent. But who’s to say this is a function of cannabis advertising, rather than a natural consequence of how information spreads in the modern world — or anything else, for that matter? Moreover, who’s to say this shift in public opinion is anything but a step in the right direction, toward transparency and truth? We simply don’t have the data to back up such claims. And regardless, what’s done is done. Cannabis exists, and people will decide whether to use it; preferably, they’ll do so from an informed position.

Further, even if cannabis products have become more potent, and even if that increase in potency does indeed equate to an increase in risk, it would seem that the simplest way to combat even the possibility of threat would be via cannabis advertising content, by ensuring ads clearly and accurately conveys exactly what is contained in the product for sale. That is, after all, largely what ads exist to do — inform consumers about products they might be interested in. Dosing ought to be plainly clear, as should the warnings against overconsumption required by most states. That way, consumers know just what and how much they’re consuming, and are free to make their own choices on that basis. From my perspective, this would seem to serve public interests much better than stifling the flow of information-via-advertising ever could.

What’s the alternative to a ban, then? Stringent and consistent ad regulation, across states — so that the information conveyed in ads can be trusted to be accurate, reliable and morally sound with regard to who it targets. This means policies meant to serve public health like those mentioned above, and it means enforcing them consistently across all states, not just those with the most robust history of legislating cannabis. It means accepting that cannabis is already here, and acknowledging content as a legitimate tool with which to distribute valuable information about it. And with regulations like the aforementioned in place, we can be sure corporate interests aren’t given the chance to come before truth or public health.

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