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It’s time for marijuana businesses to act like a mature industry and protect youth

By Eric Anderson
Originally published at MJBizDaily.com.

(Editor’s note: This column is part of a recurring series of commentaries from professionals focused on the cannabis industry. Eric Anderson co-founded SE2, a Denver-based marketing and communications agency focused on public issues. SE2 does not work with the cannabis industry but consults with a nonprofit focused on protecting youth in the new era of legal marijuana.)

For the marijuana industry, the story of e-cigarette producer Juul offers a cautionary tale.

New York Times review of a damning new book about Juul called “The Devil’s Playbook” notes: “The story of Juul’s rise and fall teaches us something about greed, capitalism, policy failure and a particular cycle in American business that seems destined to repeat itself.”

I have raised teens in Colorado during the past decade, so I’ve had a front-row seat to the harm caused by both Juul and mass-market marijuana.

The Colorado General Assembly this month overwhelmingly approved legislation to limit harm to teens from high-THC products after parents – including legislators themselves – spoke about how these products have hurt their kids.

Denver Post reporter Alex Burness noted in a Twitter post that the Legislature was “sending a message and it’ll be very interesting to see how it’s received nationally.”

He also tweeted: “In some ways it feels like the end of a honeymoon phase for the industry here.”

I encourage you to watch this 8-minute Wall Street Journal video chronicling “How Juul’s Valuation Went Up in Smoke” after widespread concern about the youth vaping epidemic.

Juul’s disregard for the impact of its product on underage users didn’t just hurt kids –  it ultimately devastated the company’s bottom line.

It’s up to the marijuana industry to decide whether it repeats this cycle.

I recognize that writing this column in this publication makes me a turd in the punch bowl at the marijuana commercialization celebration.

The legalization trend is snowballing. Legal marijuana sales are growing. Valuations are rising.

With so much money to be made by going full speed ahead, tapping the brakes seems counterintuitive.

However, while it’s tempting to focus on short-term riches, now is the time to take the long view and consider how to become responsible corporate citizens.

In fact, I believe that companies that do what I’m proposing will be more sustainable and make more money – at least in the long run.

When the inevitable market consolidation occurs, these responsible players are more likely to be the survivors – the Anheuser-Busch and Molson Coors of this emerging industry, if you will.

Corporate social responsibility – in this case, working to limit the harm of a legal adult product on kids – is not just the right thing to do, it ultimately is good for business.

First, let me get a few things out of the way.

  • I’m not a prohibitionist. I don’t oppose marijuana legalization or businesses making lots of money from this evolving industry.
  • I recognize that tobacco and alcohol have caused far, far more damage than marijuana. But I also see that increasingly high-potency, new-look THC products pose a serious risk to kids.
  • I get paid to consult with Smart Colorado and its national One Chance to Grow Up initiative. Smart Colorado was created after Colorado legalized recreational marijuana just to focus on protecting kids. It’s not anti-legalization, but the nonprofit is against anything that harms kids.
  • I’ve also consulted with a big beer company. And I drink beer. (I don’t use marijuana, but people I know and love enjoy it.)

Now, here’s my point: An industry that defends – or just ignores – unethical activities in its ranks will be judged based on its bad actors.

It’s not enough to say that you don’t sell your products to those under 21 if your products harm those under 21.

It’s not enough to just say you’re complying with all laws.

And please don’t say it’s just a parenting problem.

While the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment notes that overall youth marijuana use has not significantly changed since legalization, it adds that “the way youth are using marijuana is changing.” For example, dabbing rose from 4.3% in 2015 to 20.4% in 2019, according to the state’s comprehensive survey of youth.

Recently, NPR affiliate Colorado Public Radio published a photo of a watermelon-flavored syrup advertised as “Fast Acting. Discreet. Versatile.” One bottle had 1,500 milligrams of THC. What could go wrong?

Kids are being hospitalized after eating THC products that look like popular candies.

Do you want to be judged by products like that?

If you consider yourself one of the responsible players and want to leave a legacy that you can be proud of, consider the following:

  • Candy/fruit/sweet-flavored products appeal to kids. Full stop. That’s why they’re being banned from tobacco products at the federal, state and local levels even though now there’s a national age limit of 21 to use any tobacco products.
  • Are your products medicine, or are they just for fun? If you blur those lines, you send confusing messages to kids who see things in black and white.
  • Products that are “discreet” (i.e., designed to be hidden) appeal to kids trying to avoid scrutiny from parents and educators. It seems so obvious it doesn’t need to be said. But let’s stipulate this, OK?
  • Marketing that reaches kids creates demand among kids. Do you promote your products in places, ways or digital platforms that appeal to teens? If so, you’re marketing to kids, even if that’s not your intent.
  • It’s not enough to just avoid marketing to kids. It’s your responsibility to support parents and deter youth from using your products. Don’t shame parents; collaborate with them. Responsible companies work to limit the harm of their products. The beer industry provides examples (though, given persistent underage drinking, we all can clearly do better).

Are you using your capital and influence to make sure your product isn’t used by young people in ways that hurt them?

Are you proactively engaging public-health experts and youth advocates who are steeped in the research about what strategies are effective, as opposed to activities that are just window dressing?

Are you demonstrating to policymakers that you’re part of the solution, not part of the problem?

It’s time for visionary industry leaders to step up and set a high standard for this emerging market.

Eric Anderson can be reached at eric@se2communications.com.