Cannabis has come a long way since its days of prohibition and the “war on drugs” that labelled it a negative influence on people’s lives. The tables have turned and the plant is now being branded a “wellness” product that can actually be healthy for users.
Wellness products are ones that promote health in a holistic sense — physically, mentally and spiritually. This often takes wellness products beyond traditional health products, such as vitamin supplements, and into more new age territory — think Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop company, which sells items such as a psychic vampire repellent.
Wellness has become a huge industry. In 2018, the Global Wellness Institute estimated the wellness industry to be worth $4.2 trillion, with a growth rate of 12.8 percent between 2015-2017.
While wellness may help companies fight the old stoner stigma and appeal to new customers, such as women, the hype can get out of hand, causing some companies to make claims that can be a stretch.
To get to the bottom of this cannabis wellness trend, Greencamp spoke to a number of cannabis industry professionals about why companies are using this marketing technique — and how some have gone too far.
The old stigma
Cannabis has been branded negatively in the past in an attempt to steer people away from the drug, which was illegal in Canada and is currently a Schedule I drug in the U.S.
Cannabis was labelled as the “devil’s lettuce” and a gateway drug that would lead to harder substances, such as cocaine or heroin. A “war on drugs” that began in the 1970s saw the U.S. government crack down on psychoactive drugs.
The hippie counterculture movement also sprung up in the 1970s in the U.S. and featured cannabis heavily for people to “open their minds” and resist the U.S. government, which was losing trust due to conflicts such as the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.
From the proliferation of cannabis came the “stoner” stereotype — typically a male sitting in a basement with his buddies and a bong, burnt out and with few prospects. Pop culture figures such as the comedic duo Cheech and Chong helped spread this image with their funny but clueless banter.
Cannabis has come a long way since then.
Among the popularization of cannabis consumption came cannabis advocates who didn’t see the drug as dangerous as governments were claiming, but actually something that could be of benefit, or at least less dangerous than other legal substances, such as alcohol.
In 2017, Canada became the first major world economy and second country to legalize recreational cannabis, joining an ever-growing number of states in the U.S. who have done the same.
With legalization came more research into cannabis and claims that it could be helpful for a number of ailments, such as anxiety, stress, insomnia and pain.
These claims have helped move cannabis’ image from a dangerous drug to something that could actually be good for you.
Enter cannabis wellness
Since it is still early in the game for cannabis research, studies have not been able to definitively prove a lot of its claimed effects, such as a treatment for sleep or anxiety, according to Dr. Michael Verbora, the chief medical officer at licensed cannabis producer Aleafia.
“It is really hard to say that it is proven to be an anti-anxiety, or it is proven to be a good agent for sleep because we haven’t done the same levels of studies that is required to make those claims,” he said.
Verbora says that in Canada licensed producers can’t make any medical claims of their products due to the country’s cannabis laws, but can link to research and consumers can make inferences from that.
Instead, companies are turning to “wellness,” which allows them to show cannabis in a softer light without definitely saying what it can do, as well as latch onto the larger industry that has taken off.
A quick search reveals numerous companies using the key term “wellness” in their descriptions, such as Blissco, a “Canadian Wellness Cannabis Brand.”
April Pride, the founder of the women’s cannabis brand Van Der Pop, says that wellness is a nice middle ground between medical and recreational use of cannabis that people may be searching now that the drug is increasingly legal.
“Wellness is this in between, where it somehow should please all people,” she said. “I think it just makes the public feel better about taking something that has been a Schedule I drug [in the U.S.] and then all of a sudden have it available on the corner in your neighbourhood.”
The wellness trend also comes at a time when it appears to meet a certain desire from today’s consumers for more balance, who may be stressed out from the pressures of modern life.
“We’re moving too fast, we’re on our phones, everything is so insane in this modern world, there’s no time to reflect and to just relax,” Pride said. “[Cannabis is] something that seems to be an okay next step in this search for a more balanced life.”
Verbora agrees that cannabis can appeal these days to a population looking for more balance. He says that people have “a lot of ruminating thoughts,” and a huge percentage of people suffer from anxiety, depression and chronic pain.
“What people really are trying to do is find safe ways to change their lifestyle or to use more natural products to live meaningful lives, to find more reward in their relationships or their work,” he said.
To find this balance, people have become more willing to turn to cannabis after other treatments, such as prescription drugs, that have not provided good results.
“We’re going 20-25 years on prescriptions for anti-anxiety, anti-depression, things I know in my life have had great benefit, but I certainly understand the need to question them, ask maybe whether there is another way to deal with this,” she said.
The addiction crisis that has spawned from the prescription of pharmaceuticals has caused a pushback against them and science in general, according to Verbora.
“I think more and more people are transitioning away from science and high quality evidence because they’ve grown highly skeptical, and for the right reasons,” he said. “We have an opioid crisis and many people are addicted to pharmaceuticals and we sold this as evidence based medicine but we didn’t really weigh the risks and benefits properly when prescribing them.”
Instead, Verbora says people are becoming more willing to trust anecdotal recommendations based on lifestyles they might see on platforms like Instagram — giving fuel to the wellness industry.
“A lot of people are pushing back a bit from science and are saying, ‘Well, if this Instagram person uses it and they feel good and they do yoga like I do and eat healthy and wear the same clothes as me, then maybe I should use the same products as them because I will feel and resonate with them similarly,’” he said.
[Quote] “I think individuals are looking for anecdotal evidence and observational evidence more so than these pharma-funded studies, I think they’ve grown really skeptical of them and have reasons for that.”
Pride calls it a “perfect storm” that has opened people to accepting cannabis more.
“It’s a perfect storm of pharmaceutical companies lying to us, getting us addicted; our heroes have been smoking pot for 20 years, look at Snoop Dogg, they seem to be doing alright, I guess all the adults were lying to us,” she said.
“You’ve got people who are fed up in a lot of ways, and cannabis is something that can benefit, or we’re more open to adopting it because of this perfect storm.”
Cannabis wellness and women
Not only does wellness marketing position cannabis as a possible treatment, it also helps market it to women.
Currently, men make up a larger portion of the cannabis market than women.
Statistics Canada reported in May that cannabis has grown for men between 2018 to 2019 from 16 per cent to 22 per cent, while it remained stable for women at the lower level of 13 per cent.
To gain more women customers, companies are turning to wellness.
According to Katie Pringle, the co-founder of cannabis marketing company Cannabis Communications, wellness is an “approachable category” for women.
“I think [wellness] gives people permission to be looking at a category they might not have looked at before,” she said, noting that cannabis has a unique appeal to women for some of their ailments, such as menstrual cramps or endometriosis. “By inserting cannabis, [women] don’t have to take whatever other kinds of pain meds they were taking in the past.”
To get women to take cannabis, though, is not just about the right buzzwords, but education.
“[Women] are the chief medical officer of the house, they’re taking care of their partners and children and parents, sometimes their partner’s parents,” Pringle said. “Arming these consumers with the right information and educating them, I think that’s going to be the turning point.”
If women get on board, though, it could mean a lot for the industry given women’s purchasing power.
“[Women] make 80 percent of the purchasing decisions in our home and a lot of that has to do with health and wellness,” she said. “It is women who are leading the charge and making sure the people around them that they love are having optimal health and wellness.”
To Kirsten Gauthier, chief marketing officer at cannabis company 48North, women need to be able to talk about their experiences to break the stigma around it.
“This plant is going to evolve in a lot of verticals and women are going to be the conduit to teaching and evolving this plant from it being a very strong THC joint,” Gauthier said.
As women learn more about cannabis and can share that information and let it inform their household purchasing decisions, it can move cannabis further from a drug to something that can be used for health.
This might not mean your mom will be handing you a joint any time soon, but could fall into a more consumer-friendly cannabis package, such as the non-psychoactive cannabidiol, or CBD.
CBD — A wellness dream come true
Calling marijuana a cannabis wellness product can inherently feel weird given that it does have a risk of creating dependency and has other health detriments, such as potential negative effects on cognition and memory.
That’s where CBD comes in. Verbora says there is no evidence that CBD is addictive, but has claimed that it does have benefits, such as treatment for stress and inflammation.
“What we’re seeing is that there’s this growing interest predominantly in [cannabis with] low THC or no THC to help people with stress, anxiety, aches and pains and maybe a little bit of ruminating thoughts before bed,” he said.
Gauthier calls CBD the “gateway cannabinoid” because of its safety.
“It’s just such an easy wellness product for people to understand and to take and feel the benefit of,” she said.
CBD can be extracted from both cannabis and hemp, and with the passing of the Farm Bill in late 2018 in the U.S., companies can now legally create CBD products from hemp in the U.S., with some restrictions.
The new law has helped to flood the U.S. market with CBD products, which can be sold in the states where cannabis is not yet legal and in mainstream stores, such as Walgreens.
Not only are hemp CBD products widely available in the U.S., they also come in a variety of forms, from topicals to herbal teas, allowing companies to find different ways to appeal to customers — all under the category of things that make you feel “well.”
Beware of the CBD hype
While some companies have been able to effectively use CBD’s therapeutic properties to market their products — Pride points out Charlotte’s Web, which was named after 12-year-old Charlotte Figi after it helped alleviate her epilectic seizures — others are taking advantage of the new U.S. laws and hype around CBD to make outlandish wellness claims.
“We’re seeing the challenge of CBD products popping in every category without really understanding all of the details surrounding the origins of those products and what’s actually in there,” Pringle said. “So there is a big layer of confusion for consumers.”
In Canada, CBD falls under the Cannabis Act, the set of laws that regulate the country’s new cannabis industry.
The Cannabis Act asserts that companies cannot present any sort of lifestyle in cannabis marketing, CBD or otherwise, or make any claims on what the products can do.
However, in the U.S. the laws are looser.
Gauthier says there are massive billboards advertising cannabis in California, where it is legal, and CBD products have gone mainstream. She highlighted American Eagle Outfitters recently announcing a line of CBD products in its U.S. stores.
Verbora calls it the “wild, wild west” in the U.S. regarding cannabis marketing, especially with CBD.
“The problem is people will take a small study in an animal, it could be for dementia, and the next thing you know they’re claiming CBD prevents dementia,” he said. “A lot of research has to happen between the small animal study and the market claim that it cures or prevents something like dementia, for example.”
Verbora says that companies are taking advantage of people’s acceptance towards anecdotal evidence to make outlandish wellness claims, such as CBD can cure cancer. This causes harm, Verbora says, as it could prevent someone from pursuing a more effective cancer treatment.
Gauthier feels that the wellness market is being “greenwashed” and taken advantage of by marketers. Greenwashed means making everything seem like it is good for the environment.
“Marketers throw words around to make people believe things are better than they are — I think that’s happening with wellness,” she said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
She says that labelling cannabis as a “cure-all” only hurts the industry in the long run as it hurts trust between cannabis companies and consumers.
“To be trustworthy, you have to manage your message, be steadfast and deliver good products, those will win in the end,” she said. “Right now it is very noisy, I think.”
Cannabis is predicted to be a huge industry, but it comes with its challenges. After being labelled as a danger for decades, companies now have to find a way to make it appealing to consumers.
With legalization comes more studies into the drug which do reveal it may have properties to help people with various conditions, giving companies an avenue to take to redress cannabis.
Combined with an acceptance of anecdotal evidence, a desire for more natural remedies and a way to combat modern stress, wellness seems like the answer to marketing cannabis in a softer light.
However, it is still early in the game and not all the facts are known. Thus, it is wise to be aware that not all health claims may be true about cannabis.
Instead, one can still sit back and watch the industry take shape in new and interesting directions.