Cannabis: An Uneven Marketing Playing Field

Two industries – cannabis and sports gambling – have some things in common.

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In February, several big sports-gambling companies spent millions of dollars each to promote their brands during the Super Bowl. The apps DraftKings, FanDuel and Caesar's Sportsbook all bought commercial time. NBC reportedly charged advertisers somewhere between $6 million and $7 million per 30-second spot. Meanwhile, despite the fact that legal cannabis, like online gambling, is a fast-growing, relatively new business, not a single cannabis company advertised during the Super Bowl. It wasn't because they didn't want to or because they lacked the money. It was because such advertising is not allowed.

Late last year, the e-commerce platform Weedmaps approached NBC about running a spot during the big game and was rejected out of hand. "The answer was a hard no," Weedmaps' Chief Operating Officer Juanjo Feijoo told Adweek. "They wouldn't even entertain the conversation." This was despite the fact that Weedmaps isn't really a cannabis company at all; it's essentially a software and media company. It never goes near the plant itself. Just the word "cannabis" appeared to put off the network advertising people.

The two industries – cannabis and sports gambling – have some things in common. They are roughly the same size – both are expected to be pulling in between $30 billion and $50 billion in yearly revenue by 2025, if not sooner. They both became widely legal only in recent years. A 2018 Supreme Court decision lifted the federal ban on sports gambling in states outside Nevada, leaving legality up to the states. Thirty states now allow it in one form or another, with five more expected to do so soon. This has given the industry a huge boost, similar to the one cannabis has gotten as states have continued to legalize cannabis (it's legal for adult use in 18 states plus Washington, D.C.).

Both are spreading across the country, state by state. And many consider both industries to be serving a "vice." This is a dubious notion when it comes to cannabis, which is often sold and purchased as a medical and wellness product – the opposite of a vice. It is also often purchased by people who want to use it recreationally, which in itself doesn't amount to a vice.

It's not so dubious with gambling: it's often considered a vice due to the extreme harm it can cause, both socially and personally. It also lacks the medical and wellness effects cannabis offers. Gambling has caused more suicides than any other addiction, with one in five problem gamblers reportedly having at least tried to end their own lives. Cannabis addiction is harder to pin down as studies typically conflate dependence – or regular use – with addiction. It is possible for users to develop marijuana use disorder, which is characterized by withdrawal symptoms that can last up to two weeks.

So why are not only television but also universities, social media, online ad networks and other marketing channels closed to cannabis companies yet open to accepting gambling sponsors? It's not a legal matter: NBC would have broken no law if it had allowed Weedmaps to air its ad. But that doesn't mean that the law – specifically, the federal law that treats the possession, sale, and use of cannabis as a serious crime – is irrelevant.

TV networks, social-media companies and other entities, such as potential suppliers, local governments, insurers and financial institutions, often shy away from dealing with pot companies because of the stigma that still surrounds the plant. That stigma is fading, but it would be fading much faster if the federal government were to finally legalize pot. Or at least make it federally permissible. In a few cases, as with federally chartered banks that have real legal concerns, there are valid reasons to keep clear of the pot industry for now. But the main problem is the fact that continued federal prohibition maintains the shroud around cannabis that likely won't fully dissipate until the law is changed. Still, companies that sell marketing opportunities could, if they wanted to, open themselves to cannabis.

I believe the main reason they don't is fear – not of legal sanctions but of appearing to support something that is considered "wrong," largely because of its federal legal standing. But those companies don't consider either gambling or liquor to be "wrong." Those industries don't face the same level of restrictions on marketing that the cannabis industry faces, despite the fact that both could be potentially socially ruinous. The Super Bowl, like the Stanley Cup playoffs and every other major televised sporting event, is festooned with beer and gambling ads. That doesn't mean those products should be restricted like cannabis. But rather, cannabis should have the same privileges these industries enjoy.

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