A crisis in cannabis communication

Published on March 5, 2021 by Corinne Doan

Censorship is hurting the Canadian cannabis industry, leaving it unable to fix its damaged reputation, writes Corinne Doan

The purpose of the Cannabis Act is to protect public health, safety and restrict access to minors. The architects of the Act believed this would be achievable by restricting communication. The Act has a meticulously detailed section dedicated to numerous promotion prohibitions. Highlights are prohibitions on information regarding price, or endorsements. Communications cannot be depicted by a person, character, animal, real or fictional. And my personal favourite, it is prohibited to communicate any health benefits related to cannabis. The extensive communications prohibitions equate to CENSORSHIP.

Censorship is the counterbalance to freedom of speech. It suppresses speech considered harmful. The purpose is to prevent distasteful ideas from consciousness. Therefore, if something is censored, it has a negative connotation. An example would be when the War Measures Act was used to limit speech from militant political opposition during the 1970 October Crisis. In contrast to an armed militant group are the censorships posed on cannabis—a plant. Keep in mind, until the mid-1990s Canadians faced imprisonment and a $300,000 fine for disseminating any cannabis related information. Deliberate misdirection and extreme suppression of information pressured society to believe an enormously misguided idea. Fear and ignorance fueled with stigma and oppression unfairly damaged cannabis credibility. For a communications professional, this would be considered a crisis.

Cannabis in the midst of a communication crisis

A communication crisis is an issue creating a negative impact on reputation. Managing damaged credibility can be achieved with proactive engagement with stakeholders. A safe, transparent environment for dissemination of information and feedback over time cultivates understanding. Therefore, it’s reasonable to conclude a communication policy embracing an open safe environment would be accommodated in the Cannabis Act. Oddly, that is far from the case. Stifling cannabis censorship is thriving to the point it could be challenged if stakeholders are being deprived democratic rights.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental criterion for democracy. In Canada, freedom of speech is protected in section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Also, The Charter permits enforcement of “reasonable” limits. Communication boundaries are necessary to protect the rights of others for public health and security. Likewise, communication creates a foundation to learn and build goodwill. Hence, it should be questioned, are the limits placed on cannabis communications reasonable?

The plant survived a century of prohibition because its medicinal purposes were recognized. Cannabis is less toxic with less side effects than many synthetic drugs (note, I did not use the word ‘healthy’).  Capitalism and politics relented and reversed stances on prohibition when potential revenue was identified. However, censorship has hindered the progress of the Canadian cannabis industry because it is not able to sufficiently address its damaged reputation.

How much is censorship hurting the industry? 

There is a cost for a damaged reputation. In his book, A Strategic Approach to Crisis Management, author Kurt Stocker explains a company’s bottom line will take a 5-50% hit due to bad reputations. Prior to the 2018 legalization, it was estimated the legacy market was earning $7 billion per year. It is estimated legal Canadian cannabis sales to be on the upside of $3.5 billion for 2021 (Desjardins Dec. 17, 2020 report). Although there are many reasons to blame, one has to wonder how much better the industry would be doing without ongoing censorship.

The hypocrisy to Canada’s censorship is mind boggling.

Consider, Canada’s economic advantage of being the first G7 country to legalize is dwindling. The new American administration has mandated cannabis legalization. When it does, it is unlikely the same communication prohibitions will be implemented. To do so, would restrict an already battered economy in immeasurable ways. For example, look at this year’s Super Bowl LV. A Superbowl commercial costs in the field of US$5.5 to $11 million. During the game there was a seemingly innocent advertisement featuring Scotts Miracle Gro. For over a century Scotts has been a respected American company for lawn fertilizers and garden accessories. It seems irreproachable; however, there is an issue which would restrict this commercial in Canada. Scotts’ subsidiary Hawthorne Gardening Company has a dedicated research facility for improving cannabis fertilizers. Hawthorne sales soared 71% to a whopping US$309.4 million in the last quarter alone. Because garden products do not sell during winter, the increase attributed to Scotts first quarter profit in the company’s 135-year history. Hence, Scotts is a strong advocate supporting cannabis legalization in the US. More, Scotts’ advertisement featured gardening/ cooking guru celebrity Martha Stewart. Stewart is also under contract with mega-cannabis conglomerate Canopy Growth and has recently released her CBD pet line. Accordingly, Scotts and its cannabis associations should be restricted to advertise in Canada. Leaving the question, how does prohibiting a lawn commercial in Canada protect its citizens from harm? The hypocrisy to Canada’s censorship is mind boggling. Canadian cannabis businesses are restricted from opportunity, and that is an immense harm.

The greatest challenge to the emerging cannabis industry is undoing the stigma related to a century of prohibition. That is a communication issue. The remaining prohibitions in the Cannabis Act equate to censorship. That too is a communication issue. With legalization, it seemed hopeful a welcome climate would be extended to help rectify the prohibition and censorship imposed on cannabis. Unfortunately, that is far from reality.  Instead, Canadian cannabis censorship puts the industry at great disadvantage.

All dollar values are Canadian unless otherwise specified.

Kurt Stocker, “A Strategic Approach to Crisis Management”, in the Handbook of Strategic Public Relations and Integrated Communications, ed. Clark Caywood, ed. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (Mahwah , N.J.: McGraw-Hill, 1997),197.

Corinne Doan is Canada’s first published author with a book regarding Canadian cannabis investments titled Canadian Cannabis Stocks Simplified: A How-To Guide for the Budding Investor. She was a licensed investment advisor with a focus on venture capital markets and held investment industry (IIROC) relevant licenses with the Canadian Securities Course (CSC), options and branch managers.  Also, Cori has an MBA with specialty disciplines in public relations and communications. Any data or Information that is not directly cited in this report is believed to come from reliable sources.