UN publishes recommendations on cannabis advertising for member states

25th June 2021

The United Nations Office on Crime and Drugs (UNODC) has made recommendations for a worldwide ban on cannabis advertising in its World Drug Report 2021, released today.

The authors of the report have said that a “comprehensive ban on advertising, promoting and sponsoring cannabis would ensure that public health interested prevail over business interests. Member states of the United Nations will be encouraged to adopt the recommendations, however, the UN would be unable to enforce such rules.

The potency of cannabis (the amount of the psychoactive cannabinoid, THC, contained in a product) has been consistently on the rise over the last few decades. Despite this, the UN report finds less young people today perceive cannabis to be risky than they did in 1995. The UN implies that this notion has been influenced by persuasive marketing.

It is hoped that advertising bans on cannabis products could work in a similar way to current bans on tobacco advertising which have been recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

In an interview with Vice World News, Angele Me, Head of Research and Trends Analysis at the UNODC, stated: “The idea [with a cannabis advertising ban] is that you put public health interest before commercial interests.

“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.”

The report claims that THC potency in cannabis has doubled in the last two decades, while almost quadrupling in the US, where many states have embraced the legalisation of recreational cannabis.

However, the report also finds that the percentage of young people that perceive cannabis use as harmful has decreased by 40 per cent in the last 25 years.

The report concludes: “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 Canada and Uruguay – the only two countries to have federally legalised recreational cannabis – there are tight regulations on advertising.

In Canada, dispensaries are unable to advertise in their windows or doors and celebrity endorsements, testimonials, and the use of “people, characters or animals” or imagery associated with “glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring” are banned. In Uruguay, advertising cannabis in any capacity is completely banned.

In contrast, however, some states in the US that have now legalised recreational cannabis have few restrictions on advertising. For example, some states allow celebrity endorsements of cannabis products as well as bright, colourful, and heavily branded packaging.

On the other hand, most cannabis-legal states have introduced restrictions such as bans on promoting products to young people and adverts featuring cartoons or images that may appeal to children.

While many in the cannabis industry believe that the recommendations will have little effect on the regulation of cannabis advertising, others consider the move by the UN to be a positive in the ongoing conversation around cannabis.

Steve Rolls from the drug reform group Transform, told Vice: “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.”

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