History of Cannabis Marketing


With the world turned into digital came various opportunities regarding the advertising approaches. But it is often good to look back to the history to detect the fact that cannabis has been used for millennia in various intelligent ways, many of which have little to do with getting high. The previous century, however, was one of cannabis demonization; battles between the medical and legislative/political establishments in the USA were won by the latter. The anti-marijuana sentiment resulted in some serious anti-marketing, and two decades ago cannabis was illegal almost everywhere on Earth. 

In 2020, years of scientific breakthroughs have brought enormous changes in perception and legislation. Many countries and US states have decriminalized medical and/or recreational cannabis and a new (legal) industry with amazing potential has been born. Selling and marketing cannabis supposes looking back in order to figure out how to do it now. A fascinating oxymoron: new industry, new marketing strategies and an ancient product. 

Scroll down to learn how cannabis marketing looked like in the past and what marketing policies have been chasing it.

The Grass was Greener BC

A sign with Marijuana word.
Cannabis was first advertised and consumed a long time ago.

What a colorful history cannabis has. In 6000BC it was used in China as food, while in 4000BC the Chinese were already weaving hemp for their textiles. In approximately 2700BC we get the first written confirmation of its uses for medicinal, spiritual and other purposes. Cannabis took its time to arrive in Europe, but around 500-100BC hemp traveled throughout its northerns parts and a little after the first centuries AD, it spread in the Middle East (where hashish was another reincarnation of the plant). Early cannabis “advertising” was word-of-mouth between countries and continents, as well as mention in a variety of written narratives over the centuries, in Chinese, Persian, Spanish, Arabic and other languages.

A mid-16th century epic poem, Benk u Bode, by Mohammed Ebn Soleiman Foruli of Baghdad, concerned itself with an allegorical and dialectical battle between wine and hashish.

The Spaniards brought hemp to the Western Hemisphere and cultivated it in Chile starting about 1545. As early as 1619, the state of Virginia passed an Act requiring all planters to sow hemp; you could even be jailed for not growing cannabis during periods of shortage. During the 1840s, cannabis emerged as a mainstream form of medication in the Western world and a French doctor, Jacques-Joseph Moreau, found that marijuana suppressed headaches and helped people who had trouble sleeping. A primitive form of cannabis marketing at the time was boldly typefaced advertisements in pharmaceutical and medical magazines, on matchboxes and sometimes even on giveaways, such as almanacs. 

A Kind of Prohibition 

It all started going south in the beginning of the 20th century. After the 1910 Mexican Revolution, Mexican immigrants flooded into the US, introducing the recreational use of marijuana. Fear and prejudice against them, as well as a general prohibitionist sentiment, turned into fear of the plant itself. In 1911 Massachusetts become the first US State to outlaw cannabis and a decade later Britain and Europe followed the suit. In 1937, the “assassin of youth” was made federally illegal in the US with the passage of the Marihuana Tax Act and Harry J. Anslinger, the notorious commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was the mastermind behind the ant-marketing, anti-“reefer” campaign, realized with frightening copy, movies, posters and government and media propaganda. It was America’s first war on drugs and the effects of its fearmongering are still felt today. 

Beating the Cannabis Drum 

Its foremost the Beatniks (and not the hippies) that put cannabis back into the cultural conversation. They were the first generation of writers for whom cannabis was central to their experiences and their prose and poetry. Even before the Beats, there was the jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, principal supplier of Mexican marijuana to Harlem in the 1930s and a guy who, literally, created some of the new vernacular that came to define the plant (a “mezzrole” was the type of joint he rolled). Later, 80s and 90s hip-hop and rock artists would follow his example in their own music. 

During the 60s and the 70s, cannabis became hugely popular. In the USA, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws was doing a lot of promotional work to change attitudes and raise funds, even marketing itself in the pages of Playboy and High Times, the first publication about marijuana. It wasn’t until the 90s and the discovery of the endocannabinoid system that medical research was starting to produce results that would lead to a revolution. 

Modern age obstacles

Bulbs with cannabis in a wooden box.
There are a few obstacles that may make marketing campaigns complicated.

Cannabis marketers today have a fascinating task, but also face obstacles:

  • Legal. In America, failing to follow FDA regulations results in serious penalties. State laws vary and countries’ laws vary, so one needs to be legally well versed in what can and cannot be done. 
  • Major social networking and ad platforms, such as Facebook, don’t allow cannabis advertising. This might change, but for now, the most mainstream of ad channels (so, mass marketing) are not available to the industry. Additionally, ad channels need to have proof that a very large percent of their users are of legal age. 
  • Medical fact-checking is essential and there are serious repercussions to false claims. This is not the case of the shampoo that thickens hair to double its volume.  
  • The stigma of cannabis is still very much around. 

Yet in any kind of entrepreneurship and creative endeavor with its own demands, limitations just might work favorably and produce innovative, inspiring results. This is the case with marketing for the cannabis industry. 

Back to the Grassroots 

A symbol of cannabis on white and blue background.
Old-school and new marketing strategies can turn into prospective opportunities.

Of course, there’s old-school marketing and communication strategies, which have been around way more than all the digital opportunities. They are still relevant and can be extremely fruitful and engaging. After all, the product itself is something with social interaction and sharing fundamentally built into it. A real connection can be forged both with consumers and like-minded professionals during conferences, expos, and trade events taking place all over the world. Yet even away from this type of professional and organized context, building an offline, as well as an online, community via dispensaries, magazines, collective events and social mindedness is something cannabis marketers (and users) are learning to be really good at.  

As laws and regulations change, attitudes smooth out over time and the waves of reform keep on swelling, innovative cannabis marketing is certain to explode from a niche to a Big Bang. 

Solver Author: Solver

Subscribe to the intergalactic newsletter