It’s Time to Put an End to Whitewashed Cannabis Marketing

Using only white people in campaigns isn’t destigmatizing marijuana; it’s racist

there is a couple in the image; the man holds a beer in one hand; in the other hand the man holds a cannabis cigarette and exhales a large cloud of smoke
Cannabis users come from all walks of life, and marketers need to upgrade adverts to represent that diverse user base.
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People from all walks of life use cannabis. From soccer moms to Rastas to seniors to rappers to lawyers to kids with epilepsy. Across certain U.S. states, Colombia, Canada and Germany, you will find people using the plant recreationally and medicinally. However, if you look at the media and emerging marketing in this space, what you see is young, attractive, overwhelmingly white people. It seems as if many brands, in an effort to destigmatize the use of cannabis, have decided to simply (and literally) whitewash their campaigns.

Last year, I asked a creative agency to work on collateral for a Mother’s Day campaign, and all the concepts were white. I was the only one in the room who asked why this was. Perhaps I asked it because I was the sole African-American in the room at the time and I didn’t see anyone resembling my mom or dad in any of the creative work presented that day. And more broadly, I only saw one kind of American family reflected in those concepts. My default concept of what a family looks like isn’t only white or black. Seven concepts were presented that day, and each featured at least two images—14 images total—and only white individuals were portrayed. That doesn’t look like America.

When I questioned the creative team on the lack of diversity in the concepts, the response was disheartening. They said that the common stock image sites they used did not have images of people of color that would work for this campaign. The subtext: All of the images with people of color with cannabis portrayed those individuals as stereotypical stoners. There were no images of black individuals using cannabis for wellness.

I apply this same lens to influencers and events.

Influencer marketing is one of the hottest marketing trends in ages, and I understand its success. Yet in our industry, minority influencers are incredibly hard to find because there is a double stigma for being a cannabis-using minority. And as House representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently stated to Congress, African-Americans are arrested for cannabis use four times more than Caucasians, even though Caucasians consume at slightly higher rates. A white suburban homemaker with a joint is hip; a working professional African-American man with a joint is a criminal.

Even my own family has been apprehensive and hesitant about my career in cannabis. “Is this what you are doing with your MBA?” asked my dad. “Congrats, you just put a target on your back,” said my mother. Others just stopped talking to me entirely. We finally landed on a don’t ask, don’t tell policy, although my mom did ask which pot stocks she should invest in. And I’ll be the first one to admit that I was scared. I didn’t update my LinkedIn profile until last year, even though I have been working in the cannabis industry for two years.

For me, the experience of being in a leadership role in the cannabis industry has been disorienting. Prior to being an executive, I had never really consumed the plant until I stepped into this job. What I hadn’t fully grasped at that time was the degree of activism associated with being a woman of color in a position of power in the cannabis industry. Admittedly, it’s hard to bear witness to the compounding negative effect on our communities, communities that have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs. The rise of the plant and its popularization began with black and Latino culture at the turn of the 20th century; in 1933, jazz musician Cab Calloway penned a song called Reefer Man.

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