The Cannabis conversation
Cannabis is moving decisively into the mainstream. Predicted to become a multi-billion-dollar global business, it’s emerging as the magic ingredient in a growing range of consumer products. 1HQ’s Laura Wade and David Gray discuss the phenomenon – and the opportunity for brands – from either side of the Atlantic.
Do you think there has been a shift in public attitudes towards cannabis?
DG: The case last year of Billy Caldwell was a turning point in the UK, I think. The confiscation at Heathrow of the oils used to control his epilepsy brought the medicinal use of cannabis into the public eye. At the same time, there are growing calls for general legalization in the UK – with some commentators predicting this will happen in the next five years.
LW: In the States the momentum has really been building over the last 18 months. Legalization in several states has been a big factor. There has also been research that shows that over 90% of US voters believe it should be legalised everywhere. But the key thing is that it’s shifting beyond being the recreational drug that is Marijuana, into an ingredient in the health and wellbeing space through its medicinal counterpart CBD.
DG: That’s right. In the past, awareness of the health benefits was low and confined only to small groups of interested people. But that’s changing.
Before we go any further we should clarify what we mean by cannabis in this context:
DG: We should. There is still a lot of confusion about the terminology in the UK. For our purposes the two substances we need to distinguish between are Cannabidiol (CBD) and Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). THC is the substance that, when present at certain levels, like it is in marijuana, is a psychotropic. It’s illegal here if present above 0.3%. CBD, on the other hand, is the non-intoxicating compound that’s in hemp. It’s perfectly legal in the UK as well as the States – and it is growth in the market for CBD that is booming.
What are people taking CBD for and why is it gaining in popularity?
DG: The biggest use is pain relief – not fleeting pain like a headache, but chronic persistent symptoms associated with conditions like arthritis and fibromyalgia.
LW: The same is true here in the US. It’s also an increasingly common choice for people who suffer with anxiety or have trouble sleeping. I think we should think in terms of a spectrum of usage – from people dealing with specific pathologies to others who just regard it as contributing to their general health and wellbeing.
DG: Many of the health issues we face are down to inflammation in our bodies. CBD has anti-inflammatory properties – and so it can help with a range of different symptoms. It’s something people often turn to it when all other drug therapies have failed. I think it’s also important that as well as being effective, it’s also regarded as natural. That’s a sweet-spot that traditional pharmaceuticals struggle to hit.
LW: And it really does seem to work. Recent research has revealed that we have CBD receptors in our bodies – so you could say we are hard-wired to respond to it.
What sort of products can you find with CBD?
LW: There really is an explosion of CBD as an ingredient here in the States. You find it in everything from skincare products and massage oils, to luxury cosmetics, beverages, dog food... you name it, chances are someone’s doing it. There’s even a line of CBD-infused tampons.
DG: This is one of the issues – it’s getting towards panacea status. But the market for these products is unregulated. It’s like the Wild West, which inevitably means there are going to be some unscrupulous players who are in it to make a quick buck. A lot of products can only be bought online and there’s already evidence to suggest that misleading labelling is going on – to the point where some supposed CBD products contain no CBD at all.
Is this ‘Wild West’ atmosphere making it harder for people to understand and untangle CBD and THC?
DG: It probably doesn’t help. But ultimately the two will find their natural audience because the needs are distinct. THC is for people who want the psychotropic effect - where it’s legal, there will no doubt be THC brands who will still play to associations of ‘counter-cultural-cool’. CBD is for people who want to feel well - and because legality is not an issue, it’s undergoing a process of acceptance and normalisation.
LW: I would say it’s less of an issue here because that process of normalisation is ahead of the UK. People in the States are already comfortable with the difference between the two. The bigger issue is one of trust. Amidst all the hype, people want reliable information about CBD, so that they can make informed choices that work for them.
You’ve both been working with brands in this space recently. What have been the key lessons?
DG: We’ve recently helped to launch Dragonfly. It’s the first CBD brand to appear in Boots and offers a range of oils designed to boost health and wellbeing. Achieving mainstream distribution has been a massive plus – instantly answering any doubts there may have been around trust. As far as UK consumers are concerned, being in Boots is a seal of approval.
With so much confusion surrounding this market, brands have a vital role to play doing the fundamental things brands do – offering recognisable quality, assured consistency and helping people to understand the choices on offer.
LW: I agree 100%. Helping this market to grow-up represents a huge opportunity for brands – and we’ve been exploring opportunities in this space. The interesting question is what the big, established players will do with CBD. Will they want to go there? And if they do, how will they tread the line between product performance and lifestyle values?
DG: It’s a great question. I think they will get there – albeit cautiously and selectively. Having worked in tightly regulated medical markets, as well as the wider world of wellbeing brands, we’ve seen the importance of getting the balance between the rational and emotional right. The same applies certainly applies here and I think it’s something that established brands moving into this space will need to navigate.
LW: For sure. Our job is to help brands get that blend of messaging and visual codes spot-on. Being able to see things from both a US and UK perspective is a definite advantage.