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How Do We Minimize the Stigma Around Cannabis? Start with These Three Lessons

What we can learn from the outdated stigmas and oppressive stereotypes of the recent past.

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Running a cannabis business means you are an ambassador to an emerging industry. Because the cannabis industry is so new, how you conduct business in the early days can make a lasting impression on how the public views the industry at large.

Hector Roqueta Rivero | Getty Images

As the leader of a cannabis, CBD, and hemp PR firm, I believe business leaders have a responsibility to combat the stigma against cannabis and the oppressive history that goes along with it. 

A hundred years ago, racism against Mexican immigrants influenced a linguistic shift towards using "marijuana" to refer to cannabis. For decades, the United States government and its allies demonized cannabis through a negative association with Mexican immigrants. This antagonism still lingers today as Black and Brown immigrants from Latin America are regularly targeted at the border and throughout the country. This is just one of many oppressive stereotypes the War on Drugs created against marginalized people.

Other industry leaders and I know drug history well and seek to undo the harms caused by drug policy over the last century. To be a responsible industry leader is to fight against outdated stigma and oppressive stereotypes within the cannabis community. Over the years, I have learned three hard lessons about combating the stigma around the plant. Here are three. 

Related: 'Breaking The Cannabis Stigma' - Q&A With Neil Chau of Trym

Lesson #1: Engage in product safety and transparency

Last May, California-based cannabis brand THC Living launched a new product called Canna Bumps. The product was advertised as snortable, white powdered cannabis concentrate. The product announcement sparked controversy within the cannabis community because it resembled cocaine. The controversy wasn't unique: The buzz surrounding Canna Bumps brought to life outdated and pre-existing stigma within the industry.

As a community, we've championed cannabis as superior to other substances for far too long. This dull dialogue perpetuates what the War on Drugs was designed to do: harness control and supremacy over others. Cannabis users are not superior drug consumers, contrary to the industry climate. Likewise, there isn't a superior consumption method of cannabis, just as there isn't any special way to consume any mood-altering/psychoactive substance.

What ultimately tarnished THC Living's reputation was its failure to practice brand transparency and product safety. Every 10mg dose contained 2mg of THC, but the company never revealed the rest of the product ingredients. We're still unsure of what compounds made up Canna Bumps.

Cannabis brands should use this event as a lesson in product safety and brand transparency. Product ingredients should never be a mystery. Every batch of products on the market must be lab tested. All products should have ingredients listed on the packaging, online product listings, etc.

All products should also include product safety information, such as guidance on how to consume the product. This is a matter of harm reduction. While we assume an inherent risk when consuming cannabis or any other substance, we can reduce the risk by providing instructions for consumption and any health warnings or safety disclaimers. 

Brand and product information should also be readily available to the media. Shortly following the downfall of Canna Bumps, there was a flurry of media coverage centered around product criticism without any response from the parent company, THC Living. This is a poor cannabis public relations move. Given the right media team, the garnered negative press attention could have presented a real opportunity to demystify their product and clear the air around Canna Bump's intended use and target consumer.

Lesson #2: Avoid stereotypes

In 2019, Ignite Cannabis Co. made headlines for its East Hollywood billboards that featured overly sexualized, semi-nude women with lackluster puns like "Nice Grass." This was unsurprising for a company run by Instagram celebrity Dan Bilzerian, whose feed is full of him posing with models. The brand's Instagram account mirrors similar content.  

Despite purported organizational values of social responsibility and disrupting marketing norms, Bilzerian's glaringly patriarchal image speaks the loudest volume of the brand. When Ignite partnered with WeedMD, a company half employed by women vocal about gender equity, women and their allies in the industry were outraged on social media. Rather than seizing the opportunity to disrupt gender norms, Ignite chooses to align itself with sexism and patriarchy. 

These outdated gender norms also don't represent marginalized genders in the cannabis industry. According to a 2019 MJBizDaily report, a third of cannabis industry executives are women. While there are still many opportunities to combat sexism in the cannabis industry, we can set cultural norms in this nascent market. If we're prioritizing social equity, our advertising must not resort to oppressive, outdated stereotypes. 

Instead, brand and market cannabis according to the drug law reform movement's values. We must live our values as cannabis leaders. Positive social change should be a significant aspect of how you operate and advertise your business. The tone of our brand messaging can change the societies in which cannabis enterprises operate in real, tangible ways.

Lesson #3: Have conversations about the drug war and advocate for social equity across the board.

Social equity begins close to home, specifically in how you operate your business. Though marketing and advertising are critical to how your brand is perceived, your employees are living testimonies to the climate of the work environment. These relationships can make or break your reputation as an industry leader.

Known for its luxurious dispensary storefronts, MedMen Enterprises is also known for its toxic work environment, according to a 2019 lawsuit brought on by ex-CFO James Parker.

Parker attributed the hostile environment to excess personal spending by co-founders and racist, homophobic, and sexist culture. Rolling Stone reports MedMen allegedly paid for chauffeured Escalades, a custom $160,000 Tesla SUV, chartered jets, safe rooms for its founders, and even a $300,000 conference table. One of the founders even brought their marriage counselor on staff as a life coach. These claims have given the founders a canna-bro reputation that has even been satirized on South Park.

Learning from MedMen's shortcomings in leadership, you should advocate for equity and fairness among your staff and your clients. As a socially responsible leader, it's crucial to partner and work alongside other businesses that share organizational values of social equity. Too often, we forget that we have the power to be selective and set our own examples in this emerging marketplace.

As more states legalize recreational cannabis use, it hasn't been long since reforms seemed impossible. The legal U.S. cannabis market is less than ten years old. For decades, we lived under cannabis prohibition, and this country now grapples with the impact the drug war continues to make. Outside of your organization, there are social movements about other types of drug consumers, including the fights for safe consumption sites and the decriminalization of all drugs. It's never too late to take a stance and become more politically involved in harm-reduction advocacy.

When you start up or run a cannabis company, you're representing the industry and the movement that brought it to the economic forefront of the future. Learn from the mishaps of those above to better your leadership efforts in driving an equitable, modern cannabis business.