Connect with us


OPINION: Marketing medical cannabis for the mainstream – is anyone getting it right?



Dave Barton, co-founder and creative director at cannabis content agency, thermidor<, explores the challenges brands face in marketing medical cannabis and wonders whether any of them are actually doing it well.

As part of my prep for a medical cannabis panel session at CB Expo in Dortmund, I was asked to consider which UK brands in the sector were marketing themselves well. 

In my honest opinion? None of them – If we’re talking about UK flower, extracts, oils, tinctures etc, that is.

It’s hardly their fault. Brand-as-a-marketing-play doesn’t yet come into the equation. Right now, we’re at a point where the challenge here in Britain is both raising awareness about the availability of medical cannabis and communicating its benefits. 

Or, as that most erudite cannabis connoisseur, UK Grime sensation, Big Narstie, so eloquently puts it: “The crisis of medicinal cannabis right now is not so much down to the product; it’s the ecosystem between doctors and patients.”

While clinics are better placed to conduct the cannabis conversation than producers/distributors; the big question for me is – how do they best do that? And how do they do so in a nation where illicit recreational use almost certainly outstrips legal medical usage?

What can I get you?

As a consumer/patient – where UK medical cannabis is concerned – choice or even brand awareness is negligible: save for a ‘we have this or this, which do you prefer?’ discussion with the clinic you go with. 

The supply chain issues are evident from the outset. I’m presuming this is chiefly because all legal cannabis has to be imported into Britain (despite the fact we’re one of the World’s biggest exporters of medical cannabis – but that’s another story).

There are also limited product categories. Sure, CBD companies have an opportunity to carve more of a ‘consumer wellness-oriented affiliation’ (albeit without making health claims) via a number of different form factors; but extolling the virtues of safe, consistent access to EU GMP-compliant, vapourised THC cannabis isn’t the first thing the untapped medical cannabis community needs to hear about. 

Before we can even get to brand awareness, we need would-be patients to understand that medical cannabis is available, legal, and beneficial for a range of different health concerns. But whose role is it to educate potential patients? 

Educating the educated

Education and advocacy organisations like Drug Science, the Medical Cannabis Clinicians’ Society (MCCS), the United Patients Alliance, PLEA, Nurture Nursing, and Sativa Learning are taking up the mantle – as well as clinics – in educating both patients and medical professionals. However, ‘traditional’ GPs don’t seem that forthcoming. They feel they have no reason to be. 

Therefore we need to identify and lean into the things that will pique their interest: as an alternative treatment for pain relief for example. The UK hasn’t experienced an opioid epidemic to the same extent that the US has, so we don’t have as radical or reactionary a public health crisis to address in which cannabis can offer a viable alternative to mainstream meds.

That’s not to say that we don’t have patients suffering from conditions that are significantly alleviated by cannabis. But, as transformative as many of these cases are, they’re in the minority. As a society, we’re not at enough of a healthcare crisis tipping point to go in search of what many still see as ‘bad drugs’.

The sad thing is, it’s only by magnifying these individual cases that medical cannabis will get noticed as a force for good. It shouldn’t be like that, but, alas, it is. 

Brands that want to be noticed should be stepping up and joining these advocacy efforts. They need to help normalise cannabis within healthcare – addressing particularly, as in my own case, the objections associated with cannabis as a treatment for mental health conditions. If that was done effectively – and it was made easier to access – then no doubt we’d see patient numbers rise significantly. 

Money vs medicine

To ensure commercial success in medical-only markets, cannabis companies of all ilks need to work together to reduce stigma and drive awareness. For most patients in the UK, medicine as a commercial concern feels slightly shady (for want of a better term). Giving people what they need to feel better, of course that comes at a cost; but that cost is rarely prohibitive – thanks to the good old NHS. Unless we’re talking about cannabis, that is. 

But undoubtedly things are changing. I think they have to. Why? Because healthcare is a global concern. So many people I’ve met anecdotally attest to the positive properties of recreational cannabis in different scenarios – particularly in the US where the cost of healthcare/insurance is often prohibitive to large swathes of the population. But here in Britain, we have the opposite problem. The meds our GPs offer are affordable, familiar, and in good supply.  

The marketing challenge – one that goes beyond advertising restrictions, Instagram takedowns, and Facebook bans – is about defining the line between medical and recreational cannabis. As I see it, if we want recreational markets to exist legally, then first we need medical cannabis to gain acceptance. 

Positioning x patients 

The great irony is – in the UK at least – the perception persists that medical cannabis needs to be positioned as far away from recreational cannabis as possible. It requires legitimacy. We need to squeeze that particular Trojan Horse through the proverbial gates – and while it may anger some, we need to accept that many will opt for ‘med-as-rec’; if we want the stigma to end. And that’s ok. 

So how do we build authentic legitimacy – without reverting to te same tropes used by pharma, alcohol, and tobacco companies? We need cannabis to have as logical a purpose and identity as these sectors. If we want broad access to safe, effective cannabis products then we need to stop pretending it’s the same as anything else. It isn’t. 

We should be focusing on the impact of cannabis: the ‘experiences’ it offers. But what do we do instead? At a consumer level, in non-rec markets like the UK, we fumble our way through CBD supplements, terpenes, and other barely legal solutions – many of which lean heavily on the ‘grungy ganja leaf’ aesthetic; something which I’d argue a lot of would-be consumers (rec and med) don’t identify with. 

The duality of destigmatisation

With or without an eye on a possible recreational market, medical cannabis companies here in Europe are at the mercy of legislators, investors, public healthcare systems, overseas producers — before we even get to destigmatisation.

Building a cannabis brand that can transcend the inherent obstacles isn’t easy. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but making a case for cannabis consumption requires a commitment that you don’t see elsewhere.

It’s this duality, I’d argue, that’s at the heart of the destigmatisation conflict. Cannabis can be for everyone, but not everyone wants it. As a result, we lean into the audience that wants it most. Save for those who are going to consume it recreationally anyway, those who want it most are those who see its therapeutic value – as a medication and as a conduit to an elevated state of being.

What they maybe don’t realise is that they have a ripe opportunity to double down on brand expansion; to diversify into other areas of cannabis culture; to promote and celebrate its impending arrival — through creating the legacy it wants to see.

I hate to be so obvious, but that’s what Cookies has done: build a brand around cannabis-as-a-lifestyle, honing their rec consumption pitch as legalisation allows. Admittedly it’s a bigger ask to reconcile an established adult-use brand with a medical audience. But maybe that’s the sweet spot in uniting awareness – communicating the fact cannabis has a foot in both camps?

There is no simple answer; which is why marketing medical cannabis falls back on ways used by other sectors. But if we want all the things that make cannabis unique to shine, then we too must be prepared to look at it differently.


Dave Barton, co-founder of thermidor>:

Dave Barton is co-founder and creative director at thermidor<: a content-led creative agency focused exclusively on cannabis, psychedelics, and plant medicine. He’s also a UK-based medical cannabis patient and co-host of the lobsterpot< podcast (for his sins). 

Home » Comment » OPINION: Marketing medical cannabis for the mainstream – is anyone getting it right?


Cannabis Health is a journalist-led news site. Any views expressed by interviewees or commentators do not reflect our own. All content on this site is intended for educational purposes, please seek professional medical advice if you are concerned about any of the issues raised.

Copyright © 2023 PP Intelligence Ltd.