Who Gets to Tell Cannabis Stories? Why Journalism and Cannabis Marketing Need Diverse Voices

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 Greener in 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.

Celebrating the Queer History of Cannabis Culture in Pride Month, and All Throughout the Year

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. 

1991 Castro Street Party © David Prasad / Creative Commons ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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.

Couple Michael Koehn and David Goldman also became involved in cannabis advocacy in San Francisco during the AIDS crisis, inspired by Rathbun’s work. They have continued to serve as medical cannabis advocates through the Brownie Mary Democratic Club as well as San Francisco’s Medical Cannabis Task Force

“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. 

More and more companies are embracing implicit or explicitly queer branding like Cann, Sonder, Rythm and Kush Queen (the latter even makes Pride-branded CBD lube). Even more are proudly embracing their LGBTQIA+ team members, from Drew Martin and Madame Munchie to Peak Extracts and Boulder Creek Technologies. Still, the cannabis industry can always do more to honor its queer legacy. 

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.

An attendee of a Pride party co-sponsored by Grasslands

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. 

How to Walk the Line With Cannabis Advertising Rules

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.

To learn more about Grasslands agency services, contact us anytime.