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Advertising marijuana is harder than you might think

More states are legalizing recreational and medical marijuana, and that means a new industry is emerging. Unfortunately for companies doing business in this industry, it has been difficult to spread the word.

Because cannabis is illegal under federal law, state governments and online advertising platforms are placing strict rules on how companies can market their products. From imagery and pricing information restrictions to television bans, it is nearly impossible for companies to disseminate their message directly to mainstream consumers.

“It affects the way we’re able to interact with our community,” says Jason Barrett, vice president of brand marketing for vaporizer producer VapeWorld. “People [want] to get direct answers on products they want to buy and the ways they want to use them. We have to use language to talk around our topic.”

Barrett says that since his products are primarily intended for marijuana and tobacco use, his website and ads have to use euphemisms and vague language to comply with online advertising regulations.

Medical marijuana has been legalized in 23 states, and recreational cannabis has been legalized in four states and the District of Columbia.

The Colorado Department of Revenue restricts marijuana advertising that has a “high likelihood of reaching minors,” thus most forms of public advertising are prohibited. In Massachusetts, medical marijuana dispensaries cannot reference the plant in their store name or publicize pricing information on their cannabis products.

“[Marijuana] has been dealt with through the criminal justice system for so long, there’s a general fear of how [legalization] is going to go,” says Kris Krane, co-founder and managing partner at 4Front Advisors, a cannabis business advertising firm. “[State governments] don’t want it to be appealing or in your face. They’re mostly worried about it appealing to kids.”

Television airwaves have become questionable territory as well. In July, the first cannabis commercial in the U.S. was slated to air on ABC’s Denver affiliate channel, KMGH. The ad ended up not running due to “lack of clarity around federal regulations that govern broadcast[s] involving such ads,” according to the station’s parent company, E.W. Scripps.

To Cannabrand, the Denver-based cannabis marketing company that directed the ad, this was nothing new.

“We’re really the guinea pigs here in Denver walking on eggshells because we don’t want to get ourselves or our clients in trouble,” says Olivia Mannix, co-founder of Cannabrand. “[The Colorado Marijuana Enforcement Division] can take away someone’s license for really anything that would cross the line.”

Mannix says the marketing strategies she develops for her clients stick to marijuana-focused publications and ways of skirting the strict online advertising regulations. She says for online advertising, she and her clients use marijuana review sites like Leafly and Weedmaps, as well as create standard Facebook profiles and events to avoid the site’s advertising platform regulations.

Google,  Facebook and Twitter all have advertising policies that restrict the promotion of the sale of drugs. Google’s policy prohibits ads that promote “substances that alter mental state for the purpose of recreation.” Facebook restricts any “illegal, prescription, or recreational drugs.” And Twitter bans “illegal drugs” as well as substances that cause “legal highs,” such as salvia and psilocybin mushrooms, despite their legal status in some states. Twitter and Google don’t prohibit the promotion of other legal prescription drugs, though Facebook does.

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