The Grand Canyon State legalized medical cannabis in 2010, but it took over another decade for adult-use recreational cannabis to open up, too, when voters passed Proposition 207 in November 2020. Arizona is one of the newest states in the country to go fully legal, and though sales officially started in January 2021, the dust is far from settled.
In addition to legalizing medical and recreational cannabis, Arizona allows home cultivation (up to six plants for adult individuals or 12 per household), as long as the cultivation space is such that minors cannot access it and where plants are not publicly visible. A piece of legislation titled A.R.S. § 36-2850 also stipulates that Arizona medical cannabis patients can use cannabis delivery services, which state regulators have yet to open for the recreational market (as of July 2022).
Is it Legal to Market Cannabis in Arizona?
In short, yes. But as in other legal states, there are cannabis advertising rules on how and where brands can reach customers. A.R.S. § 36-2859 section 36-2859 mandates that cannabis businesses must include their name and license number or registration number in all advertisements and cannot facilitate or solicit online sales or listing services of cannabis products. Any unlicensed cannabis businesses or non-cannabis businesses that advertise unregulated cannabis products or services are subject to “a civil penalty of $20,000 per violation to the smart and safe Arizona fund established by section 36-2856.”
Additionally, packaging rules lined out in Section 36-2860 restrict the manufacture or sale of “marijuana products that resemble the form of a human, animal, insect, fruit, toy or cartoon.” The section also bans “products with names that resemble or imitate food or drink brands marketed to children, or otherwise advertise marijuana or marijuana products to children.”
How to Legally Market Cannabis Brands in Arizona
Because Arizona is such a new market, it’s still working out many of the details regarding advertising restrictions for cannabis brands, such as billboards. That gives relative freedom to cannabis brands that operate only within Arizona, though no one can say quite how long that dearth of limitations will last.
But for MSOs setting up in Arizona, it’s wise to continue adhering to the advertising guidelines common across numerous other legal states—particularly in respect to federal agencies like the FCC. For example, many state cannabis regulations typically have a long list of off-limits advertising channels, from television commercials to radio placements to public print ads at bus stops or the wraps on public transportation.
However, Arizona cannabis companies are permitted to activate marketing strategies on subscription-based, adult-focused media channels with a verified 70% majority of age 21+ users, including websites, print publications, podcasts, print adverts and CCTV spots in venues like bars.
Cannabis brands are also free to make use of their owned-media content marketing channels such as blogs, websites, white papers and newsletters, as well as opt-in programs like text message lists.
A large percentage of the total dispensaries in Arizona are run by MSOs based in other states, such as Cresco Labs (Illinois), Curaleaf (Massachusetts), iAnthus Capital (New York) and MedMen (California). Indeed, some MSOs have already tried to influence regulatory decisions that prevent recreational dispensaries from opening in certain municipalities unless they are part of a pre-existing medical cannabis business.
While dispensaries are limited in some of the marketing strategies other brick-and-mortar businesses might deploy, one thing that retailers can take advantage of is event marketing throughout the year.
Sunday Goods, for example, touts sun-grown cannabis that puts one of the Grand Canyon State’s most abundant natural resources to good use. Some capture the flavor of one of the Southwest’s most distinctive plants, like Sublime’s prickly pear edibles or Timeless’s Cactus Chiller vape carts. And Old Pal’s vintage aesthetic evokes a different kind of export: the ’70s cool of Arizonan superstar Stevie Nicks.
Top 10 Cannabis Brands in Arizona
From Scottsdale to Sedona, from Peoria to Phoenix, from Tempe to Tucson, Arizona is full of world-class dispensaries with house cannabis brands and home-grown independent cannabis brands that take pride in the Grand Canyon State’s unique approach to legal weed.
Top 10 Cannabis Brands in Massachusetts
From Uxbridge to Northbridge, Boston to Blackstone, Millbury to Shrewsbury, Leicester to Framingham, there’s no shortage of cannabis brands and dispensaries in Massachusetts several years into legalization.
Scottsdale, Tucson, Phoenix, Gilbert, Glendale, Youngtown, Peoria, Havasu City, Flagstaff, Mea, Show Low, Green Valley, Avondale, Gudalupe, Casa Grande, Chandler, Cottonwood, Taylor, Apache Junction, Tolleson, Norte Mesa
What is cannabis public relations? At its simplest, the profession revolves around deliberately crafting and managing the release and distribution of vital information between an individual or an organization and the public, with the goal of shaping brand visibility and perception through earned media. In industries that are relatively new, highly regulated or technical — all three describe cannabis — public relations also aims to educate the public and help consumers understand how to incorporate a range of novel and innovative products and services into their lives.
Public Relations Examples
Strategic and successful public relations programs always require commitment to long-term goals. Building meaningful relationships with media and other storytelling partners, educating key demographics and developing consistent messaging all takes time. The most fruitful partnerships and PR campaigns emerge only when both the agency and client accept responsibility for working closely with members of the media.
Public relations might include:
News Releases: an official announcement delivered to media that provides information or an official statement.
Proactive Pitches: the development of compelling stories to generate brand awareness through media engagement.
Rapid Response / Newsjacking: the tactical practice of using current events or news stories in such a way as to promote or advertise one’s product or brand.
Lead Monitoring Services: tracking how often a brand appears in digital, print and broadcast media, as well as tracking potential trends or breaking stories that could be narrative opportunities for brands
Award and Conference Submissions: positioning a brand’s key team members as thought leadership experts by applying to be considered for awards like the Clios or presentation opportunities at conferences like MJBizCon and other industry speaking events
Earned media dwells at the heart of many PR strategies. Powerful earned media is coverage on third-party media platforms that PR professionals secure through relationships with journalists and potent and persuasive storytelling. Effective earned media stories can bridge the gap between a brand’s broad messaging goals and compelling content. Media channels might include:
Owned media represents another area of content development that can contribute to a public relations strategy, particularly in cases where PR is part of an integrated marketing approach. Unlike earned media, which hinges on third-party publishing platforms, owned media consists of content published on brand’s own channels. Examples include:
Savvy public relations strategies use owned media to amplify earned and paid PR efforts. A brand might, for example, share its latest earned media hits on LinkedIn or through an email blast. Or a company wrestling with crisis communications might turn to Facebook or Twitter to post a retraction or clarification. Businesses use blog posts about myriad things, including earned media placements, to boost brand awareness through SEO gains. And web copy serves as a foundational tool for establishing brand values and brand voice, which should be maintained across all PR and marketing efforts.
Paid media is exactly what it sounds like—paying fees to engage with target audiences through strategic channels. Smart marketers often align paid media efforts with earned and owned media, to improve brand awareness in tactical ways. That might look like:
Pay-per-click search engine marketing
Boosting social media posts
Pay-to-play thought leadership
Broadcast or podcast ads
Billboards and display advertising
Reactive and Proactive PR
Public relations efforts are traditionally categorized as reactive or proactive. With reactive PR, communications professionals launch strategic and managed responses to current events, or implement crisis management practices to counteract negative messaging or news. When professionals pursue proactive PR, they develop and pitch compelling stories to generate brand awareness. While proactive PR is often what leaps to mind when people think of PR, both proactive and reactive are necessary parts of any public relations strategy.
Reactive PR might include shifting negative narratives impacting public perceptions of brands; aligning brands with broad local and national events that impact primary customers, even if the messaging is not explicitly about the brand; or reframing company organizational turmoil, such as a CEO’s resignation, in ways that reassure the public and investors.
Brands engage with crisis communications for many reasons, ranging from wrestling with natural disasters to explaining supply chain delays to responding to product recalls or staffing crises. Planning for crisis communications is essential, and just as necessary as pursuing positive and proactive PR efforts. Reactive public relations is by its nature a response to unforeseen circumstances or press. An important strategic goal for brands is anticipating potential negative feedback and planning responses in advance. The last thing a brand wants is to get caught off guard.
Responsivity, transparency, authenticity and accountability stand as key tenets of successful reactive public relations campaigns. So is speed. No matter the challenge, rapid responses are vital. This speaks to the need for advance planning for crisis communications. At the same time, responses must come across as transparent and honest. If the messaging sounds like spin, or suggests things are being concealed, this could compound the negative impressions the PR campaign is working to reverse.
Finally, today’s dynamic and sprawling media environment demands accountability. Promptly acknowledging harm caused by the crisis at hand and empathizing with affected parties will help avoid “us vs. them” perceptions that make brands come across as callous or out of touch.
Proactive PR represents the meat and potatoes of any strategy. This is the offensive game—the opportunity to strategically deploy messaging where a brand’s target audience is most likely to see it and to inject a company into broader local and national discourses. Proactive PR efforts can look like:
Pitching news releases
Thought leadership speaking engagement applications
Pitching thought leadership columns
Crossovers, collaborations and partnerships
Telling brand stories through cannabis PR
A good PR strategy typically includes all of the above elements, blending proactive and reactive approaches and a mix of earned, owned and paid media depending on the health of a brand’s image as well as its marcomms goals and budget. But the throughline connecting all of those efforts is storytelling—compelling and consistent narratives that educate the public about brands, products and services and the values that distinguish them from the competition.
A strong narrative foundation is especially important for cannabis brands. For decades, the plant endured intense stigmatization based on harmful propaganda. As the legal industry now emerges and flourishes, cannabis brands should devote resources toward shaping more positive, fact-based messaging surrounding the industry and the plant itself.
Brand approaches toward cannabis marketing narratives vary quite a bit.
In many cases, the difference in tone and theme hinges on the size of the cannabis company. Plucky startups might embrace the plant’s more renegade past. Big MSOs and established enterprises, on the other hand, often steer messaging toward more inclusive themes, such as wellness. Finally, storytelling and marketing vary depending on the kind of business. Dispensaries and plant-touching companies might call for different PR and communications strategies than ancillary services like law and accounting firms, and staffing agencies.
Integrated marketing and PR for cannabis companies
One thing all cannabis businesses should keep in mind as they develop PR strategies is to broadcast their unique narratives consistently across all marketing and communications platforms. Integrated marketing strategies deploy PR and marketing collaboratively, instead of pursuing PR and marketing goals separately in silos.
For example, marketing team members might broadcast blog and social posts on owned media channels to support the publication of earned media placements secured by the PR team. Another example: the PR team sending news releases to journalists promoting a new marketing or advertising campaign or event partnership.
Other integrated marketing tactics could involve carving out a spot on the company website for placing client testimonials, and showcasing media placements, podcast recordings and thought leadership speaking engagements. They could even include the production of case studies and gated content like white papers to evaluate the success of past PR campaigns or triumphant crisis management engagements.
Developing Key Messaging for Cannabis Brands
A strong sense of identity, conveyed through key messaging, serves as the foundation of all marketing and PR strategies. Companies seeking to pursue public relations projects should keep the brand’s major value propositions top of mind as they develop strategy and tactics. The 4 Cs of public relations remain as relevant today as decades ago:
Clear: Make key points clear to help keep conversations on track, whether they are being conveyed live, such as with journalists, or written.
Concise: If you have too many points, you’ll lose focus
Consistent: All supporting materials should convey the same key messages
Call to Action: Make sure to include prompts urging people to act in strategic ways for the brand. This can include signing up for a newsletter, engaging with brand social media, signing a petition and much more.
Public Relations and Thought Leadership for Cannabis Brands
One important and valuable segment of proactive public relations is thought leadership. Thought leadership represents an opportunity for professionals to share their expertise at conferences, industry trade shows and other speaking engagements like TEDx Talks, as well as through podcasts, interviews, radio and television broadcasts and earned media columns.
Thought leadership can be especially useful for cannabis companies that find their opportunities to leverage paid and social media limited by cannabis advertising restrictions stemming from federal prohibition. It’s also an opportunity to advance PR and marketing goals and brand narrative while establishing company team members as trusted resources. For example, the thought leadership presentation itself can be announced ahead of time in e-blasts and news releases.
Audiences attending live events, of course, hear presentations by thought leaders, regardless of whether it’s in-person or through something like a webcast. But so do many others who encounter presentations after they have concluded, thanks to sharing on platforms likeYouTube, Vimeo, Apple Music and Spotify. Excellent editorial thought leadership such as written columns and audiovisual assets, too, can gain invaluable word-of-mouth momentum when fans share the work through social media and other owned media channels.
Media Training for Cannabis Leadership
Success in thought leadership, as with all PR, requires honest assessments and understandings of the public-facing value of organizations’ primary spokespeople, as well as the mission, values and voice of the brand itself. Media training offers one powerful way for cannabis professionals to hone their skills as thought leaders and stay on point for engagements with journalists or during event appearances.
Performing public persona audits helps companies decide which thought leadership opportunities are appropriate for different members of the company. They also mitigate potential crisis comms. After all, businesses are made up of people. For a brand to earn a reputation for expertise and excellence, the people representing the brand must align polished messaging and project a unified front.
Consider: when media requests come through, a vital first step is assessing the journalist for credibility, past relationships with the brand, and the tone, depth and quality of stories they have produced. Brands should hold their own spokespeople to the same standards.
Even the most talented spokespeople benefit from media training. Public relations professionals teach cannabis leaders about how to dress, make eye contact, use body language and maintain agreeable energy through interviews and speaking engagements to subtly reinforce spoken messaging. Working with a cannabis-fluent PR firm places trained professionals in companies’ corners, helping teams navigate the essentials of communicating effectively with members of the media while remaining compliant with rigid cannabis regulations. Excellent training, too, helps cannabis leaders find ways during interviews and presentations to engage with broader discourses about this blossoming and thriving industry.
Massachusetts became the first state on the East Coast to legalize recreational cannabis, on December 15, 2016. The 18th state in the country to legalize medical cannabis and the seventh to legalize recreational sales, Massachusetts is part of a burgeoning movement in the Northeast to end prohibition, including cannabis markets that opened earlier in Maine and Vermont. Since Massachusetts legalized adult-use cannabis sales, it’s been joined by New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
In addition to legalizing medical and recreational cannabis, Massachusetts has also legalized home cultivation of up to six plants for individuals or 12 for an adult household. Lawmakers passed Bill H.2785 190th in 2018 to address the expungement of past cannabis convictions, though as of 2021 only a small percentage of eligible Massachusettsans have earned court approval to clear their records.
Is it Legal to Market Cannabis in Massachusetts?
In Massachusetts, as in other legal states, regulatory environments impose strict cannabis advertising rules dictating where and how brands can communicate with the general public. According to a piece of legislation called 223 935 CMR 502.000, CMOs are not allowed to develop logos, signage, brand names, or other collateral that feature “medical symbols, images of marijuana, or related paraphernalia, and colloquial references to cannabis and marijuana that the Commission determines are appealing to persons younger than 21 years old.”
According to the same piece of legislation, advertisements should also clearly warn consumers that cannabis products are only for adults over the age of 21; that cannabis use may be habit-forming or cause impairment; that adults should keep cannabis products out of the reach of children; that cannabis products are not approved or evaluated by the FDA; that one should not drive or operate machinery while using cannabis products; and that there may be adverse long-term health effects from cannabis, particularly for women who are pregnant or are currently breastfeeding.
Due to federal prohibition, Massachusetts cannabis brands are also forbidden from advertising on FCC-regulated networks including television, the radio, or web browser ads, as well as public advertising spaces that might be viewed by minors, such as billboards, newspapers or on public transportation. Additionally, cannabis brands must include the statement ‘Please Consume Responsibly’ in a conspicuous manner on the face of the advertisement.”
How to Legally Market Cannabis Brands in Massachusetts
Additional Massachusetts regulations limit some of the event marketing opportunities available in other states. For example, Massachusetts cannabis companies can only sponsor events for charities, sports teams or similar organizations if 85% of attendees would be of legal age.
Merchandising is highly regulated, too. Title 223 935 CMR 502.000 also prohibits “advertising, marketing or branding of MIPs or marijuana products, on clothing, cups, drink holders, apparel accessories, electronic equipment or accessories, sporting equipment, novelty items and similar portable promotional items.”
With that in mind, however, Massachusetts cannabis companies are free to deploy their marketing strategies to subscription-based adults-only media channels with a verified 70% majority of of-age users such as Massroots or the Bleacher Report. Cannabis brands also are free to make use of their owned media and content marketing channels such as blogs, websites, white papers and newsletters, or opt-in programs like text message lists. Earned media through PR efforts, too, is a legal marketing tactic in The Bay State.
Dispensary Marketing in Massachusetts
As of 2021, Massachusetts had over 150 cannabis retailers as well as a handful of delivery services. Dispensary marketing has necessarily trod a narrow line in response to the state’s strict advertising restrictions, focusing on relatively new media channels like podcasts or community engagement, such as sponsorship of adult amateur sports leagues. Generating word of mouth through promotions, attentive customer service and quality cannabis PR are also options for dispensaries that want an edge in an increasingly competitive market.
Massachusetts enjoys a unique culture all its own, one that broadcasts a distinct profile even within the broader New England landscape. From its density of universities to its elite sports teams, from its colonial legacy to its present-day proliferation of diverse, international communities and its vibrant environment of LGBTQIA+ pride, there’s a lot here for marketers to champion. Massachusetts cannabis brands, whether dispensaries, producers or ancillary services like legal and accounting firms or software consultancies, savor a rich opportunity to position themselves with Bay State values.
For example, Grasslands client Nimbus Vapor Company incorporates Boston slang like “wicked” and “pissah” into its marketing copy and celebrates the city’s gritty, brash sense of humor. Massachusetts dispensary Berkshire Roots gets its name from one of the state’s most beloved and dramatic natural landscapes, the Berkshires. General George S. Patton’s horse farm in Hamilton, Massachusetts serves as the inspiration behind Green Meadows. And former motocross racer Joe Villatico’s Greatest Hits Cannabis Company, another Grasslands client, is revitalizing the state’s 19th textile and paper mills into cultivation spaces for the cannabis industry.
Top 10 Cannabis Brands in Massachusetts
From Uxbridge to Northbridge, Boston to Blackstone, Millbury to Shrewsbury, Leicester to Framingham, there’s no shortage of cannabis brands and dispensaries in Massachusetts several years into legalization.
The cannabis industry has continued to grow nationwide at a steady clip, in both economic scale and cultural clout. But the picture can look quite varied from state to state and country to country, given the wide variation in market maturities and regulatory details.
Getting a practical snapshot of the current state of the cannabis industry requires not just the latest data, but also a certain level of intuition and nuance. So where are we at in 2022? This is the latest.
North American Cannabis Is Heating Up
At the end of 2021, the North American legal cannabis market was estimated to be worth $15.2 billion, or about 74% of the overall global market. It’s estimated to more than double in size over the next six years, with projections suggesting the market could be worth $38.2 billion by 2028.
Increasing awareness of and access to CBD products helped drive market growth in 2021, a trend sure to continue as cannabis and the wellness industry continue to overlap. But other hemp-based, THC-free products like Delta-8 have also experienced a meteoric rise, particularly in prohibition states where hemp-derived alternatives to recreational or medical marijuana can slot through legal loopholes.
Meanwhile, all eyes are on which states could join the legal market next. New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Connecticut, and New Mexico all ended prohibition in 2021. Rhode Island made the leap to legal in May of 2022. This year could also see Missouri, Ohio, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Florida and Mississippi either legalizing, opening formerly medical-only markets to recreational, or advancing advocacy efforts. All of this legalization effervescence is ushering in even more localized marketing for dispensaries and cannabis brands eager to distinguish, say, Massachusetts strains from California flower, or to connect Florida’s unique landscape to different cannabis flavors and effects.
Roadblocks Remain for US Cannabis Companies
The state-by-state legalization momentum is also opening up increased discussion about interstate commerce in post-prohibition regions with multiple adjacent legal states, like New England, the Mid-Atlantic and the West Coast. The feasibility of out-of-state imports and exports hinges in large part on federal law, not only in regards to the DEA but also financial policy.
Expect the SAFE Banking Act, which would give cannabis companies access to electronic banking networks and reduce the burden of cash-only operations, to continue to be a hot topic throughout 2022, after it stalled in the Senate in 2021. Discourse about SAFE and other aspects of the friction between legal states and federal prohibition will likely heat up as midterm elections approach, too.
Meanwhile, the national supply chain represents another factor that has impacted the cannabis industry over the past couple years, and which will continue to influence how companies structure themselves and agitate for interstate commerce. The COVID-19 pandemic affected the cannabis industry as much as any other industry struggling to get key components from Point A to Point B, whether it’s the plastic for pre-roll tubes or cannabis flower itself.
That pain point is contributing to the vertical integration trend, which gives cannabis companies more control over their total supply chain—at least in states where vertical integration is permitted. Expect to see more legal maneuvering as cannabis companies chafe against different states’ supply chain regulations, whether they prefer stand-alone licensing or vertical integration as a response to shifting market conditions.
The Cannabis Industry Is Truly Going Global
Just two years ago, the global cannabis market was worth a whopping $20.47 billion—and that was before continued legalization efforts and the COVID-19 pandemic boosted legal markets worldwide to even greater heights. Fortune Business Insights estimates that the international cannabis market will “grow from $28.266 billion in 2021 to $197.74 billion in 2028 at a CAGR of 32.04% in the forecast period, 2021-2028.” But where is that global growth taking place?
In late 2021 it was big news that Germany put legal cannabis on the table. It’s not clear what Germany’s timeline is for joining the United States, Uruguay, Canada and Malta as some of the most populous countries worldwide to end prohibition. But it’s certainly heated up conversations about the multinational future of the cannabis market and how big the largest cannabis companies could scale.
Elsewhere in Europe, Switzerland and the Netherlands are testing out what legal cannabis could look like in their countries, as are Luxembourg and Macedonia. “If countries like Luxembourg and Germany move forward, it could mean more” momentum for legalized cannabis in Europe, Grasslands client Laura Bianchi, founding partner of national cannabis law firm Bianchi & Brandt, told Benzinga. Meanwhile, cannabis continues to gain strength in South and Central America, where medical and recreational markets are expanding in Brazil, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Panama and Colombia.
Expect to See More International Exports and M+A
Low production costs and progressive regulations like those that have allowed Uruguay’s consumption lounges to flourish have helped change cannabis culture across South America. And legislation like Colombia’s decision to permit cannabis exports suggests South and Central America could become major players in the burgeoning global cannabis scene. Indeed, some South American cannabis companies are already making big international moves, like the announcement in late 2021 that Colombian firm Flora Growth would be purchasing the California-based Vessel Brand vape company.
Flora Growth isn’t the only company to take the consolidation trend that heated up in 2021 to a global scale. Ireland’s Jazz Pharmaceuticals purchased the UK-based GW Pharmaceuticals in a major medical cannabis acquisition last year. Late in 2021, Canada’s Tilray made a move signaling it might be gearing up to make a bid for the US-based MedMen Enterprises when it purchased MedMen’s debt—though that’s a long-term play that depends on the fate of federal legalization in the US.
The Wolverine State was the 10th in the country to legalize recreational cannabis, with the market opening on December 1, 2019. Michigan had previously legalized medical cannabis in 2008, though it wasn’t until 2016 that medical dispensaries were able to operate fully above board. Detroit, the largest metro in the state, only just approved recreational cannabis sales in the city in April of 2022, however. As Michigan’s legal cannabis market continues to unfurl, dispensaries and producers alike are finding new opportunities for growth.
Is Cannabis Legal in Michigan?
In addition to legalizing medical and recreational cannabis, Michigan has also legalized home cultivation of up to 12 plants, while medical marijuana cardholders and/or caregivers can possess up to 72 plants. A piece of legislation titled MCL 780.621e(2) also stipulates that as of January 1, 2020 Michiganders with misdemeanor cannabis convictions on their records can file for expungement with the prosecution office that was originally involved in their case.
Is it Legal to Market Cannabis in Michigan?
In short, yes. But as in other legal states, there are cannabis advertising rules on how and where brands can reach customers. Michigan’s Medical Marihuana Facilities Licensing Act (MMFLA) and Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marihuana Act (MRTMA), specifically stipulate that Michigan cannabis brands cannot target anyone underage, such as with the use of cartoon imagery, nor can they advertise on FCC-regulated networks including television, the radio, or web browser ads. Also off-limits are any public advertising spaces that might be viewed by minors, such as billboards, newspapers or on public transportation.
It’s important for leadership and marketing professionals to know that advertising rules for medical and recreational retail locations are different, too. For example, Michigan does not allow medical cannabis provisioning centers to refer to themselves as dispensaries in either branding or advertising collateral.
How to Legally Market Cannabis Brands in Michigan
Cannabis companies may have a long list of off-limits advertising channels, but they are free to apply marketing strategies to subscription-based adults-only media channels with a verified 70% majority of of-age users, including webpages and print publications. Cannabis brands are also free to make use of their owned media and content marketing channels such as blogs, websites, white papers and newsletters or opt-in programs like text message lists.
There are also clear guidelines set on not only where advertisers can display their campaigns, but what marketing collateral should include in order to stay compliant. The Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act states that cannabis products advertised to adult audiences must include a warning label that reads “For use by individuals 21 years of age or older only. Keep out of reach of children. It is illegal to drive a motor vehicle while under the influence of marijuana. National Poison Control Center 1-800-222-1222.”
Dispensary Marketing in Michigan
Michigan boasts 260 recreational retail outlets and 410 medical cannabis provisioning centers as of 2021, with numbers continuing to climb as new Detroit cannabis businesses open their doors. As competition heats up, more and more retailers are turning to dispensary marketing to reach new customers and solidify their brand recognition. That’s especially true in townships that embraced legal cannabis early on like Lansing, Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Flint. It’s also true in Michigan’s many college towns, from Ann Arbor to Kalamazoo.
While dispensaries are limited in some of the marketing strategies other brick-and-mortar businesses might deploy, one thing that cannabis brands can take advantage of is event marketing throughout the year. No month is bigger for promotions, however, than April as dispensaries jockey for position ahead of 4/20, one of the biggest days of the year for cannabis marketing and retail.
Cannabis Brand Marketing in Michigan
How are Michigan cannabis brands distinguishing themselves? The Mitten State is full of cannabis companies ranging from edibles producers and cultivars to testing labs and ancillary services. Many are leaning into Michigan’s unique Midwestern culture, ice-carved landscape and close-knit sense of community.
Glacier Cannabis, for example, offers up strains like Cold Snap and Frosty Michigan. Northern Light Cannabis Company in northern Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is not only named for the aurora borealis but also has close ties to the Bay Mills Indian Community. And North Coast Joint Ventures, which has several dispensaries throughout the state, is a nod to the Great Lakes that define so much of the Upper Midwest’s outdoor recreation and agriculture.
Top 10 Cannabis Brands in Michigan
From Burr Oak to Big Rapids, from Lansing to Iron Mountain, from Grand Rapids to Sault Ste. Marie, from the UP to the Soo there’s no shortage of cannabis brands and dispensaries in Michigan.
Cadillac, Evart, Honor, Kalkaska, Big Rapids, Mt. Pleasant, Cedar Springs, Gaylord, Bear Creek, Petoskey, Bay City, Saginaw, Lowell, Cheboygan, Owosso, Mackinaw City, Kalamazoo, Jackson, Sault Ste. Marie, Walled Lake, Southfield, Adrian, Coldwater, Petersburg, Manistique, Monroe, Christmas, Escanaba, Negaunee, Iron Mountain, Houghton,
It was no April Fools’ Day joke when New Mexico’s legal cannabis market opened on April 1, 2022, just ahead of 4/20, one of the industry’s biggest retail days in the calendar year. The 12th state to legalize medical cannabis and the 18th to legalize recreational sales, New Mexico is part of a swell of Southwestern states ending prohibition to varying extents, including Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. And so far, legalization is a move that’s really paid off—the state made $4.5 million just in its opening weekend.
In addition to legalizing medical and recreational cannabis, New Mexico has also legalized home cultivation of up to 12 plants. Senate Bill 2, separate from the House Bill that legislated adult-use sales, addresses the expungement of past cannabis convictions. Hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans are now eligible for their sentences to be dismissed and/or records cleared.
Is it Legal to Market Cannabis in New Mexico?
In short, yes. But as in other legal states, there are cannabis advertising rules on how and where brands can reach customers. New Mexico’s HB 2 Cannabis Regulation Act, signed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in April of 2021, specifically stipulated that New Mexico’s regulators would create limitations on advertising in accordance with industry standards.
As in other legal states, New Mexico cannabis brands cannot target anyone underage, such as with the use of cartoon imagery, nor can they advertise on FCC-regulated networks including television, the radio, or web browser ads. Also off-limits are any public advertising spaces that might be viewed by minors, such as billboards, newspapers or on public transportation.
How to Legally Market Cannabis Brands in New Mexico
Cannabis companies may have a long list of off-limits advertising channels, but they are free to apply marketing strategies to subscription-based adults-only media channels with a verified 70% majority of of-age users such as Massroots or the Bleacher Report. Cannabis brands are also free to make use of their owned media and content marketing channels such as blogs, websites, white papers and newsletters or opt-in programs like text message lists.
Regulators also set clear guidelines for where advertisers can display their campaigns, and what marketing collateral should include in order to stay compliant. A piece of legislation known as N.M. Code R. § 188.8.131.52 states that “any advertising or marketing materials created for viewing by the public shall include the statement ‘Please Consume Responsibly’ in a conspicuous manner on the face of the advertisement.”
According to the same piece of legislation, advertisements should also clearly warn consumers that cannabis products are only for adults over the age of 21, and should be kept out of reach of children; that cannabis products are not approved or evaluated by the FDA; that one should not drive or operate machinery while using cannabis products; and that there may be adverse long-term health effects from cannabis, particularly for women who are pregnant or currently breastfeeding.
Dispensary Marketing in New Mexico
The New Mexico market may be one of the newest in the United States, but the state opened its cannabis market with 118 medical and adult-use dispensaries ready to serve customers. That’s considerably more competition than other newly legal states have seen on their first day of operation. Other Southwestern states like Nevada and Arizona each supported less than a hundred dispensaries waiting for the green light when their markets opened. Dispensary marketing in the Land of Enchantment is no doubt already heating up along with the spring weather.
Dispensaries and cannabis producers can also take advantage of event marketing throughout the year. When New Mexico dispensaries began selling to customers in April, dispensary marketing in the Land of Enchantment immediately began to heat up right along with the spring weather, and it’s growing hotter every month.
Cannabis Brand Marketing in New Mexico
How are New Mexican cannabis brands distinguishing themselves in a newly legal market? As you might expect from a state as gorgeous as the Land of Enchantment, cannabis marketing in New Mexico tends to leverage design elements that refer to the unique colors, shapes and symbols of this distinctive corner of the Southwest.
Everest Cannabis Company, for example, features web design inspired by topographic maps and New Mexico’s signature turquoise and cobalt hues. Sandia Cannabis’ logo features stylized mountains that reference Indigenous motifs. The High Desert Relief dispensary even incorporated into its logo the iconic Zia, which is the Land of Enchantment’s official state symbol and which originated from the indigenous Zia Pueblo. So did New Mexico Alternative Care, which blends the Zia with the green cross typically associated with medical cannabis, as well as the Rod of Asclepius, which is frequently used as a symbol of medicine.
Top 10 Cannabis Brands in New Mexico
From Santa Fe to Las Cruces, from Albuquerque to Taos, from Farmington to Carlsbad, there’s no shortage of cannabis brands and dispensaries in New Mexico, even if the market is brand new.
From the far-reaching consequences that the War on Drugs continues to inflict on minority communities to a lack of diversity that’s particularly pervasive at the most lucrative leadership levels, cannabis has yet to shake a long history of racism. And while media coverage of cannabis has not failed to note the numerous inequalities that the industry continues to face, disparities in journalism, marketing and PR are part of the cannabis industry’s social equity problem, too.
Less often discussed is who gets to tell the story of modern cannabis—and which journalists are actively working to expand our understanding of this plant and its place in America’s legislative, cultural and carceral landscape.
It’s no secret that the Fourth Estate has long been a male-dominated field, from the highest editorial positions to the most entry-level gumshoe reporters. While more women than men currently earn journalism degrees, a 2021 study by the Women’s Media Center found that 65% of bylines and similar credits are attributed to male journalists across print and digital media, wire news and television broadcasts. And according to a 2021 study by the Reuters Institute, the numbers are even starker on racial parity in journalism—just 18% of top editors in the United States identified as non-white in the study sample.
That has certainly had an impact on the way cannabis has been covered over time—or hasn’t been, in the case of all the countless rejected pitches and spiked stories that never made it into publication. After all, the value of diversity in media and publishing is that a greater variety of stories are told from a wider breadth of experience, as Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spotlighted in her 2009 TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”
How different would our understanding of cannabis be if newsrooms were more diverse decades ago? What if more journalists of color had published reports about the effects of the systemically racist War on Drugs and its enforcement in publications with majority-white readership? If we had more cannabis stories told from a perspective rooted in the BIPOC experience, would policy change have occurred sooner? These are impossible questions to answer, but they still spark the speculative imagination.
Cannabis Journalists of Color
There are hints of what could have been. Consider, for example, the Pulitzer Prize-winning multipart series on the international heroin supply chain, to which Black investigative journalist Les Payne contributed for Newsday. In 1975, the same year the series was published as a book-length collection, Payne went on to serve as one of the co-founders of the National Association of Black Journalists, whose members continue to do innovative work reporting on cannabis amongst other beats.
Or take a look at the work done by the team behind Say Brother, a Boston-based public television program that turned to more national topics after producer John Slade joined the program in the early 1970s. Under his guidance, coverage expanded to explore the impact of U.S. drug policy on Black Americans, and also on how that impact was filtered through the pop-cultural lens in Blaxploitation films like Superfly.
Today, there are many more cannabis journalists of color telling vital stories locally and nationally online, in print, on podcasts and other platforms. Editorial interest has also increased as decriminalization and destigmatization have made it less perilous to hinge one’s career on covering a federally illegal substance. Not only are more journalists like Tauhid Chappell doing necessary, substantive reportage in the cannabis space, they are also working to help other minority journalists build their careers, including work focused on cannabis policy and culture.
Women of BIPOC communities are breaking multiple barriers at once as they step into cannabis journalism, as Lyneisha Watson did when she started the High Folks series for High Times—she’s the first Black woman to have a regular column for the publication. Writers such as Syreeta McFadden are part of a rich tradition of groundbreaking Black female journalists, including Alice Allison Dunnigan, Ida B. Wells and Ethel Payne, all of whom reported on some of the most important Civil Rights issues of their day—from the White House press corps and beyond.
As journalist Errin Haines, who served as the national writer on race for The Associated Press from 2017-2020, once observed on that tradition: “Black women have been telling the truth about America for a long time. As a Black woman in journalism, my obligation is no less than that. And I do that on the shoulders of all of the women who’ve done that work before me and with me now,” as she told Glamour in 2020.
The form those diverse cannabis stories take are also more varied than ever, as are the backgrounds of the storytellers. For example, Donnell Alexander has not only built a strong body of cannabis reportage for publications like The Guardian, Insider and Cannabis Law Report, he also served as co-host for the WeedWeek podcast from 2018 to 2020. Hip-hop star Fab Five Freddy dug into the history of prohibition for the Netflix documentary Grass Is Greenerin 2019, while rapper Nas executive produced and narrated Smoke: Marijuana + Black America, a news special for the BET network.
Cannabis Storytelling in the Marketing and PR Space
Now cannabis-focused marketing and public relations are providing yet another avenue for public education, community-building and storytelling. And unlike the long history of male voices dominating mainstream journalism, the marketing and PR industries have become female-led sectors. In an about-face from the Mad Men days, public relations now sees some 61.3% of positions filled by women (or 59.7% when you add in statistics from the advertising sector).
However, marketing and PR still have a long way to go on racial parity, with an overwhelming 82.6% of advertising employees identifying as white. That creates even more incentive for diversity in hiring and talent retention, paving the way for further advances in who gets to create and contribute to cannabis messaging in legal markets, from branding strategies to award-winning ad campaigns to PR pitches to thought leadership.
Building a More Inclusive Future for Cannabis Storytelling
While both the media and advertising industries continue working to diversify their ranks, professional development events have been popping up to better educate journalists and PR professionals on how to cover cannabis in a more nuanced and inclusive way. The Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, for example, hosted its first cannabis media workshop at WHYY News in 2019. Even the oft-conservative academic realm is digging in, as with the University of California, Berkeley’s cannabis journalism course and a Temple University class titled “Marijuana in the News,” among others.
The greater availability of cannabis-specific journalism and marcomms education will help a new generation of students of all identities consider this as a viable and important field on which it’s worth building a career. And if, like more than a few journalists before them, those J-school graduates eventually make the leap into marketing and PR, they’ll come with a richer perspective on how to tell cannabis stories without leaving marginalized communities behind.
As cannabis businesses roll out their Pride Month ad campaigns and sponsorships this June, it might look like just another case of rainbow-washing. After all, companies from all sorts of industries—from fast fashion to food and beverage giants to financial companies—have tried to capitalize on allyship with the queer community, with varying degrees of authenticity.
But the ties between the cannabis industry and the LGBTQIA+ community go far deeper than rainbow-colored rolling papers or a fresh bowl of Banana Hammock. In fact, we might not have legal medical cannabis in a vast majority of the United States if it weren’t for the work of gay and lesbian activists over the past 50 years.
How LGBTQ Activists Agitated for Medical Cannabis
Missing from much of the discourse about diversity and inclusion in cannabis is the role that LGBTQIA+ activists have played in ending prohibition. Just a year after the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which Pride Month commemorates, the United States outlawed cannabis via the Controlled Substances Act.
In 1976, however, a straight man named Robert C. Randall became the first legal medical cannabis patient in the country post-federal prohibition when he successfully won the right to use cannabis to treat his glaucoma. The case directly contributed to setting a precedent for classifying cannabis as a Compassionate IND, or what the U.S. Food and Drug Administration terms the “compassionate use of [an] investigational new drug.” That Compassionate IND designation for medical cannabis would come to the fore just a few years later when a new health crisis emerged in the 1980s—the rise of a deadly disease later identified as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV / AIDS).
As the political and medical establishment turned their backs on the epidemic first identified among gay men, the queer community and its allies developed their own compensatory networks of care, including the distribution of medical cannabis. Smokables and edibles were used to treat everything from HIV symptoms themselves to the side effects of azidothymidine, better known as AZT—an HIV-AIDS medication that was also classified as a Compassionate IND, just like cannabis.
Early Medical Cannabis Pioneers
Many of those pioneers who established care networks and made medical cannabis not only legal but accessible were based in San Francisco, one of the most prominent centers of queer culture in the country. Dennis Peron, for example, is sometimes called “the godfather of medical marijuana.” He spent years selling cannabis underground in the Castro District and connecting AIDS patients with medical cannabis, including his late partner, Jonathan West. Later, he went on to found San Francisco’s first public dispensary in the early 1990s and co-authored California’s historic ballot initiative Proposition 215 for medical cannabis use. Prop 215 co-author and San Francisco denizen Mary Jane Rathbun earned the nickname “Brownie Mary” for her clandestine distribution of thousands of infused edibles to those living with HIV and AIDS.
Queer activists led the way in other major California cities, too. Scott Imler, a Methodist pastor and another Prop 215 co-author, opened the Los Angeles Cannabis Resource Cooperative, which was the first dispensary in LA County. Los Angeles Black Gay Pride Association founder Paul Scott also served as an early board member of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club and founded the first medical cannabis dispensary in Inglewood.
“The genesis of the cannabis movement, gay people served at the heart of it,” Koehn told the The Orange County Register in 2021. Today, Koehn and Goldman are an all-too-rare pair of gay elders who survived the AIDS crisis and have seen plant medicine become legally available across the country, starting with California in 1996.
LGBTQIA+ Friendly Marketing for Cannabis Companies Year Round
Some early advocates for legal cannabis have been honored with namesake strains, from Jack Herer to Ed Rosenthal and Michka Seelinger-Chatelain. But many of the LGBTQIA+ advocates who helped pave the way for legal cannabis aren’t exactly household names, even in cannabis-friendly circles.
While there isn’t a hot-selling line of official Brownie Mary edibles or Peron-branded pinners (yet), the queer community continues to influence and intersect with cannabis culture in ways large and small. From drag queens like La Ganja Estranja and YouTube personality The Gay Stoner to the Queer Cannabis Club debut at Aspen Gay Ski Week in 2022 and the founding of publications dedicated to queer cannabis culture like Buds Digest, cannabis has never been so openly queer.
Authentic PR narratives and strategic partnerships are a prime opportunity to celebrate Pride throughout the year and educate new consumers about the role LGBTQIA+ activists continue to play in the fight for federal legalization. San Francisco’s Apothecarium dispensary, for example, proudly features an art gallery dedicated to Mark Estes, one of the victims of the AIDS epidemic who was well known in the Castro in the 1990s. Others like The People’s Dispensary, which operates in California, New Mexico and Illinois, have an explicit mission to create a safe and inclusive space not only for queer cannabis consumers, but also BIPOC and other marginalized groups.
Even if a cannabis company isn’t queer-owned or explicitly LGBTQIA+ branded, there are other ways to signal allyship. When in doubt, follow the lead of queer cannabis brands, whether it’s donating a portion of proceeds to organizations which offer support to the queer and trans communities, emphasizing intersectionality or accessibility in messaging, as well as featuring diverse models and inclusive language in collateral.
Don’t be afraid to celebrate the individual identities of your team members (if everyone involved consents) or promote community events, like parades and fundraisers, in line with your brand’s values. Speak to your customers as they speak to one another and acknowledge what priorities they share with your brand.
After all, stoner stereotypes—often rooted in white, male, heterosexual humor—are becoming more and more things of the past. As more people try cannabis for the first time or reconnect with weed after years or decades, the number and diversity of people who want to see themselves reflected in this space expands, too. It’s time to bring queer cannabis culture out of the closet and give this overlooked, underground history its due.
Learn how to get your brand in front of the right audiences, despite challenging advertising regulations
What is one thing that two-thirds of Americans support (and likely consume), but have never seen or heard traditionally advertised—on TV, radio or most print outlets? If you guessed cannabis, you’re right.
Even in legal states, the ways that cannabis companies are allowed to advertise their products or services are strictly regulated.
That certainly presents a challenge for cannabis businesses trying to figure out how to educate consumers about their products and raise brand awareness. But knowledge is power—particularly when it comes to knowing where, when and how cannabis companies can advertise in different markets, without getting into regulatory hot water or wasting resources.
Whatever elements you choose to include in your cannabis marketing plans, know that advertising limits don’t have to be a total bugaboo. Instead, they can inspire your team to be more strategic in connecting with customers who run the gamut from canna-curious to long-time connoisseurs.
With a solid understanding of cannabis advertising rules, you can craft a marketing strategy that gives you more bounce to the ounce, without ever once putting a picture of bud on a billboard.
What Are Cannabis Advertising Rules?
The rules for how cannabis companies can advertise vary by state. Here’s a small sampling:
Colorado cannabis regulations stipulate: “A Retail Marijuana Business may Advertise in television, radio, a print publication or via the internet only where at least 71.6 percent of the audience is reasonably expected to be at least the age of 21.” (Massachusetts sets the bar at 85 percent.)
In Illinois, you aren’t allowed to show any consumption—from smoking or vaping to popping an edible treat.
Maine marijuana policy, along with several other states, forbids dispensary marketing from including signage or visual advertising within “1,000 feet of the property line of a preexisting public or private school.”
This skims the surface of the kind of rules that determine how cannabis companies are allowed to get the word out about their products or services. These rules aren’t unlike those applied to other highly regulated industries such as alcohol or tobacco. But there is an additional layer of complication that other industries do not face.
Because cannabis is federally illegal, that means that TV and radio stations beholden to the Federal Communications Commission will most likely refuse ads peddling cannabis, even as you see placements for major liquor and beer brands on prime-time TV.
So if you aren’t allowed to depict the product or show it being used, or make any overt health or safety claims, and you’re limited in when and where you can advertise on television, radio, the internet and the urban space where your business operates, what’s a cannabis company to do? You get strategic about your marketing efforts.
Advertising Compliance for Cannabis Brands
Let’s face it—compliance is the name of the game in cannabis. And compliance with advertising regulations is just as important for cannabis brands as following the rules for cultivation, manufacturing and retail.
Some types of marketing are easier for cannabis brands to navigate than others because there’s less red tape. Content marketing through owned-media channels, for example, provides companies a little more freedom and control over the information they provide and how they communicate their brand values.
Owned media is only one part of a successful cannabis marketing strategy, however. It’s important to be educated on the advertising regulations in the jurisdictions where you do business and to know exactly what’s necessary to stay in compliance. Advertising regulations at the state and local levels can get very granular, and even certain wording or phrasing in advertising materials can run the risk of fines, having to pull promotional swag, or even the loss of your cannabis license.
It’s crucial to be fluent in cannabis and to work with partner companies that can say the same—particularly if you’re working with a vendor on marketing and advertising efforts rather than handling them in-house. Having experience in advertising is one thing, but knowing which states might penalize you for making health claims in a blog post is quite another. You need a strong background in both advertising and cannabis to avoid any messaging mishaps.
Alternatives to Traditional Advertising
Cannabis entrepreneurs have always been a creative bunch. For decades they found clever solutions for cultivation and sales before the era of medical and recreational legalization. Now a new generation of cannabis professionals is finding workarounds to reach customers in legal markets despite advertising rules still very much shaped by the War on Drugs.
Just as it’s important to know how to work within the confines of traditional advertising and all its attendant regulations, it’s equally valuable to know when the better opportunity is an alternative advertising channel. Cannabis companies are thinking outside the box and meeting customers where they’re most likely to be hanging out. These days, that meeting place is often online.
Radio and TV, Meet Podcasts and Vlogging
Just because television, radio and digital advertising are more tightly administered than your company’s website doesn’t take these channels off the table entirely. Or at least, cannabis business owners can find creative workarounds that still produce results.
Increasingly, cannabis and CBD brands are turning to podcasts instead of terrestrial radio to place audio advertisements. And instead of traditional TV commercials, cannabis brands are turning to other video content, like product reviews and how-tos hosted by vloggers, influencers doing unboxing videos or behind-the-scenes footage that gives consumers a peek at how your company functions.
Advertising Cannabis on Social Media
That said, the digital platforms that host podcasts and video content have their own usage terms and conditions. Social media companies have a notoriously conservative take on cannabis, natural psychedelics and other substances that are illegal at the federal level.
As a result, the online cannabis community has found creative workarounds to avoid having traffic to their profiles throttled or their accounts shadowbanned or outright suspended on sites like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. For example, the hashtag #weed gets flagged by an algorithm but #ouid, #w33d and #st0ner tags or emoji like the tree, broccoli or seedling have less chance of getting negative attention—at least until the bots catch on.
While it’s hard to say for sure where social media platforms will land when cannabis is eventually legalized at the federal level, there may be changes coming sooner than that. Our own Ricardo Baca predicts we’ll start to see a softening of the cannabis-averse guidelines as soon as 2022. Indeed, other big tech companies adjacent to social media such as Apple and Google are starting to loosen their restrictions on cannabis-related apps and paid SEO terms.
Tapping Into Cannabis-Fluent PR
PR, of course, remains a fantastic advertising resource for cannabis brands. Working with cannabis-fluent publicists to reach journalists and consumers through earned media, event marketing and other PR channels is a targeted solution to raising brand awareness.
One of the major advantages of public relations is that it sidesteps advertising regulations. Instead of exposing your brand message to anyone who drives by a particular highway mile or clicks over to a certain channel at a certain time, you can make deeper connections with potential customers. From trade shows to current-events interviews, thought leadership columns, conference presentations and media releases, PR offers a vast array of opportunities for messaging that can reach a wide audience—but one that’s curated too.
4/20 is widely considered the dankest day of the year, when cannabis enthusiasts celebrate coast to coast and the whole world gets a little hazier. As legalization has spread and stigmatization has decreased, the term 420 has grown from a stoner in-joke to a nationally recognized, if still unofficial, holiday.
And it remains a huge marketing opportunity, not unlike the commercialization of Pride Parades or the proliferation of Presidents Day sales.
So how did this curious bit of shorthand that for decades has inspired the theft of 420 mile markers and street signs come to encompass decades of cannabis culture? Of all the historical terms linked to cannabis, from the racially-tinged marijuana to the devil’s lettuce, chronic and fire, how did 420 come to be so widely known and instantly recognizable? And how can cannabis brands capitalize on the enduring power of one of the best-known examples of cannabis culture slang? Here’s the scoop on 420 marketing.
The Origins of 420
As the legend goes, it all started in 1971 after school let out one fall afternoon in the Bay Area city of San Rafael, California. A group of friends who called themselves The Waldos shared a toke before heading out to Point Reyes in search of a clandestine weed crop that, according to local rumor, had been planted by a member of the U.S. Coast Guard. The private code they used to remind one another to meet up for the mission at 4:20 p.m. became an inside joke passed back and forth in letters, in the school yearbook and even emblazoned on an art class batik banner.
After The Waldos graduated, they continued to run in the broader Bay Area social scene of the 1970s, crossing paths with members of the Grateful Dead and their fans while working backstage at various gigs. The 420 joke trickled out of their friend group and into the lingo of the regional scene. In the years since, it took on a life of its own with a wide variety of telephone-game origin stories, like the popular theory that 420 was a law enforcement code for marijuana offenses. Eventually, 420 became baked into cannabis culture far beyond California, even as the larger myth obscured The Waldos’ role in starting what would become the ultimate stoner meme.
The Power of Modern 420 Branding
Over five decades later, 420 has taken on a life of its own. The shortest of shorthands has gone from a time of day to puff-puff-pass with your buddies to an international holiday on April 20, when cannabis enthusiasts across the planet celebrate their favorite plant. 420 legalization rallies, parties, festivals and smoke-ins pop up every year in cities from San Francisco to Denver to Vancouver to Amsterdam. Even the COVID-19 pandemic couldn’t dim 420’s shine, with many marketing events and community gatherings going online as state health officials discouraged large public gatherings.
And while 420 fervor certainly hits a crescendo each April, the euphemism extends far beyond the cannabis realm.
It’s a term embraced by companies big and small, both in and outside of the cannabis industry. Fast-food restaurants like Carl’s Jr. and snack brands like Totino’s embrace the meme. For a while at least, if you showed your receipt from the Canabliss Dispensary next door at Straight from New York Pizza in Portland, Oregon, they’d give you a slice and a soda for $4.20. Melt Cosmetics put out a 420 makeup palette in smoke sesh-inspired hues, and Arizona-based FourTwenty infused its skincare line with CBD and THC. Vacation rentals on sites like AirBnB, VRBO, and BudandBreakfast.com denote which properties are “420-friendly,” indicating on-site consumption is A-OK. 420 is the name of a canna-tourism group in Denver, a hotel package in Portland; and even a piece of cannabis legislation in California.
Why 420 Branding and Marketing Still Works
So why did 420 take off as a meme in the cannabis space decades before widespread legalization? And why has it endured in the era of big cannabis marketing budgets and a pop culture landscape increasingly driven by rapid-fire microtrends? Understanding why 420 has been such a durable meme is key to understanding what makes for effective 420 product launches.
Essentially, 420 is a short, instantly recognizable phrase that still has the whiff of a secret or an inside joke. That’s the kind of snappy, larger-than-life tagline that marketers hunt for like prized truffles. The term signifies not just the overall appeal of cannabis, but also the pre-legalization era that evokes nostalgia for a lot of people who partake. Even if you never scarfed down a magic brownie in the parking lot of a Marin County Dead show, it’s hard to put a price on that kind of sentimentality. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the dispensary or happen to see a 420 street address, it always generates a “heh” moment.
420 is also flexible and adaptable, as any durable meme should be. Just look at the sheer variety of companies that have incorporated this catchphrase into their branding. These are just a few of the reasons why the week of April 20 remains one of the best times to launch cannabis products, and the days leading up to it feel a little like Black Friday.
420 Marketing Today
Despite being invented well before the internet went mainstream, 420 was perfectly adaptable perfectly to use as a hashtag and shorthand in the social media era too. It’s not often you find a piece of cultural ephemera that can be folded into new trends in the cannabis industry without losing its old-school flavor. Naturally, marketers still want to tap into that longstanding association.
420’s decades-long staying power contributes to the meme’s unique ethos as well. Even years after the Waldos first met up at 4:20 p.m., the term still suggests that it’s time to enjoy yourself— the bud equivalent of “it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.” 420 still powerfully recalls The Waldos’ communal belief in putting a pause on obligations to take some time together and in the social nature of savoring weed.
Of course brands of all sorts, whether in the cannabis industry or adjacent to it, would want to make that potent ethos their own. That’s especially true now that legal recreational and medical cannabis are bringing more people together than ever. While cannabis culture might be evolving beyond old stoner stereotypes, 420 isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.