I’ve been a public relations professional my entire career; in full transparency, I ran PR for Rolling Stone and its former owner, Wenner Media, twice. Similar roles at other iconic publications like Playboy demonstrated to me the power of the media to impact, educate and influence public opinion as a result. Playboy changed the way people looked at sex. Rolling Stone changed the way a generation looked at sex, drugs, and rock & roll. To say nothing of how an advertising campaign designed specifically to change how advertisers looked at their readership, “perception and reality” succeeded beyond anyone’s wishes.
Now, in 2021, I believe we, as communication professionals, need to build upon our relationships with the media partners we work with to change the way people look at cannabis. As states continue to enact legislation to legalize it for medical and recreational use, it is still stuck in a time warp in many people’s minds. Let’s look at the last 50 years of how the media regarded cannabis.
At first, the media didn’t really discuss cannabis, and when it did, cannabis was usually described with negative terms and connotations. They didn’t call the classic film Reefer Madness for nothing; without getting into the politics behind that, it helped create a lasting image and stigma about people who use cannabis. Words like “dope,” “stoner,” “space-out,” and so on perpetuated that image, which the media embraced, as did Hollywood. In film, as evidenced by Easy Rider, Dazed and Confused, Half Baked, the entire Cheech and Chong library, Pineapple Express and many others, cannabis has been a natural prompt for jokes and punchlines.
It’s not that I wasn’t laughing as hard as anyone else; it’s that as I became more knowledgeable about cannabis, I knew I had to use my skills as a communications strategist and media relations expert to help mainstream the benefits to society. Research, in countries such as Israel, has been able to identify ways that the cannabis plant could be used to help patients with conditions like depression and PTSD. Recent research suggests the potential efficacy of treating pain with microdoses of cannabis.
The mainstream media hasn’t truly embraced cannabis yet. While we have had a cottage industry of cannabis publications like High Times, Dope, MJ Headline News and Freedom Leaf, which embedded themselves into the community and the culture itself, networks and other mass media outlets have largely ignored cannabis. For instance, Jim Belushi’s recent show on Discovery, Growing Belushi, is, in my opinion, the most realistic portrayal of the passion and drive that many in the industry share. The show wasn’t about the prospect of getting high; rather, it was about pursuing a legendary strain that delivers powerful benefits and results to help his clientele.
One area of the media that quickly understood the impact the industry had as states started to legalize it was the financial press, which recognized this industry stood poised to generate so much revenue. Multibillion-dollar multinational companies have been investing serious money for years, and as a result, CNBC, with its Cannabis Business News column, and Bloomberg, which regularly covers the market in Bloomberg Business Week, present objective reporting rather than integrating old stereotypes into what is becoming increasingly an industry to watch.
Publicists and the media can collaborate without violating any ethics in the stories they tell to the masses. While CBD has been making a breakthrough of sorts in health and wellness coverage in a wide variety of outlets — it doesn’t hurt to have Martha Stewart get into the business to help change its image — the THC side isn’t as lucky. However, I believe through collaboration, we can make such a difference in how people perceive it.
Imagine watching on Good Day NY, a yoga demonstration where the instructor mentions they’ve applied a topical CBD cream to their body before to increase flexibility. Or, as opposed to another cooking session on The Rachel Ray Show, imagine she demonstrated how to make recipes or cocktails infused with CBD or THC and included a discussion from a medical expert about responsible dosing. On popular shows like Succession, why is it commonplace to show family members casually offering a colleague a drink to relax or celebrate, but not typical for characters to offer to a bong hit, especially in states where it’s legal? On shows like The Neighborhood or Black-ish, that, to their credit, use their platform to create discussions on serious issues, we could have storylines where characters apply for a dispensary license but use the opportunity to show the lack of social equity in the industry by the high cost of admission to the community most seriously affected by years of social injustice.
As the cannabis industry grows, it’s incumbent upon us who work on the PR side to reach out to our friends on the media side — writers, producers, actors and the reporters who cover them, to change the conversation.