UN drug chiefs have called for a worldwide ban on all cannabis advertising.
In the World Drug Report 2021, released today, the United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs (UNODC) said a “comprehensive ban on advertising, promoting and sponsoring cannabis would ensure that public health interests prevail over business interests”.
The report’s authors said they were calling for the ban because young people perceive the drug to be safer than it actually is, a notion that it said had been influenced by persuasive marketing.
A ban on cannabis advertising – which the UN can only recommend not enforce – would work in a similar way to bans recommended by the World Health Organisation on tobacco advertising, which have been effective in decreasing smoking in higher and middle income countries.
“The idea [with a cannabis advertising ban] is that you put public health interest before commercial interests,” Angele Me, head of research and trends analysis at the UNODC, told VICE World News.
“Of course it is up to member states to decide if they want to take up this ban. But you have a large private sector now that is pushing to expand the cannabis market with all kinds of products claiming many things. It’s like tobacco advertising 100 years ago, which said tobacco was good for anything. The main thing is to make sure young people are not tricked by adverts into thinking cannabis is a healthy choice, when it’s not.”
Today’s report revealed that cannabis products have almost quadrupled in strength in the US and have doubled in Europe in the last two decades. It found the percentage of THC, the main psychoactive component in cannabis, had risen from four per cent to 16 per cent in the US between 1995 and 2019, and from six per cent to 11 per cent in Europe.
Despite this, the report said the percentage of children and young people perceiving cannabis as harmful has decreased by 40 per cent over the same period. It concluded: “Such a mismatch between the perception and the reality of the risk posed by more potent cannabis could increase the negative impact of the drug on young generations.”
In the US, weed advertising and branding regulations vary from state to state, but are far more lax compared to those in Canada, which has strict federal laws on advertising and promoting cannabis.
In many legal weed states in the US celebrity endorsements are allowed, packaging can be heavily branded and colourful, and weed shopfronts look like any other stores. However, in most states where cannabis has been legalised there are restrictions on promoting cannabis products to young people. In some states, such as Washington, adverts cannot depict cartoon characters or contain pictures that could be appealing to children.
By contrast in Canada, cannabis shops are papered over and have no adverts on the doors or windows. Tactics such as celebrity endorsements, testimonials, price offers, and the use of “people, characters or animals” or imagery associated with “glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring” are banned. In Uruguay, the first country to legalise weed, advertising the drug is banned outright.
“Whether you agree with the idea of a tobacco style advertising ban or not, this call for a ban on cannabis advertising does feel like a significant departure for the UN,” said Steve Rolles from drug reform group Transform. “The fact they are actively engaging with the regulation debate is a tacit acknowledgement that legal cannabis is something that cannot be ignored and has to be positively engaged with.
“The debate has moved decisively from should we legalise, to how to legalise responsibly. A ban on advertising and promotion is a sensible starting point for legal cannabis markets, because it’s been an effective way to reduce harmful tobacco use.”
Yet George McBride, co-founder of Hanway Associates, a UK cannabis consultancy, thinks a UN ban will have little bite. “Companies in the US are allowed a pretty broad range of advertising to adults, with minimal enforcement at state level,” he said. “In terms of the UN’s recommendation, I don’t think any of the US states will take a blind bit of notice.”
This year’s annual World Drug Report warned that the number of people using drugs has increased (above a rise in the global population) by 12 percent to 275 million in the last decade.
It revealed a huge increase in the number of online drug sales which, even though still dwarfed by street sales, will, it said, “usher in a globalised market where more drugs become available in more locations”.
Cocaine supply chains to Europe were diversifying, it also reported, pushing prices down and quality up, while noting that seizures and production of methamphetamine in South East Asia and the Americas have “rocketed”.