Few industries have been able to change their narratives as drastically as legal marijuana, and it has done so with the help of two sympathetic groups: Football players with a traumatic brain disease and sick children.
Since California first legalized any form of cannabis with its medical marijuana law in 1996, 25 states have legalized cannabis for medical use and four states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, nearly 90% of Americans said they support the legal use of medical marijuana and 54% said that any marijuana use should be legal in the U.S. Just six years ago, 70% of Americans supported legalizing medical marijuana and 46% supported overall legalization, according to Gallup polls.
Due to strict advertising regulations within legalized states, companies and advocates within the industry can do little to publicize cannabis to new audiences. However, by enlisting the help of those who already have a national platform, the industry has been able to work around these limitations for cannabis.
"We need to publicly embrace it," Leonard Marshall, a former defensive lineman for the New York Giants, said in an interview with MarketWatch. Marshall, who was diagnosed with signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease, in 2013, uses cannabidiol (CBD) — a non-psychoactive component of marijuana — to treat his symptoms, which include depression, headaches, short-term memory loss, tremors and sensitivity to light. He was the keynote speaker at the Cannabis World Congress & Business Exposition on June 16.
Marshall was joined at the event by other former NFL and NHL players who have publicly admitted to using cannabis to manage pain and other conditions. "It's something we need to start having serious discussions about," said Eben Britton, a former offensive lineman for the Jacksonville Jaguars and Chicago Bears, in an interview with MarketWatch. "If we can use our platform as former pro football players to spread that message and get that idea out there, I think that's one step in the right direction."
Sports stars provide a massive platform to promote the benefits of cannabis. Professional football has been the most popular sport in the U.S. since 1985, according to Harris Poll, and Sunday Night Football was the most-watched television program of the 2015-2016 season, with an average of 21.3 million viewers a game, according to Nielsen ratings.
However, within the league, cannabis isn't as openly embraced. Players who test positive for marijuana use are subject to fines and suspensions by the league; however, in some cases, marijuana violations result in more lenient consequences than other banned substances, according to the 2015 NFL Policy and Program on Substances of Abuse.
"They don't want their players to look like pot heads," Marshall said. "They're very protective — and they should be — of who uses [the NFL] shield, how the shield is used and what do people think of the shield as it is being used."
The NFL's tough stance on marijuana use has been a recurring issue for current players like Josh Gordon, a wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns, who has beenindefinitely suspended after repeatedly testing positive for cannabis and failing multiple alcohol tests.
Along with professional athletes, another group has helped to improve the public perception of the former black market industry: Children with serious illnesses. Parents of children with chronic or life-threatening illnesses across the country have been advocating for access to medical marijuana for the past few years. As their stories become national news, conversations about marijuana have shifted from an illegal drug to a potential medicine, says Joel Stanley, chief executive of Stanley Brothers, a hemp and cannabis extract producer.
In 2012, Stanley and his company worked with Charlotte Figi, a 5-year-old epilepsy patient, and her family to develop a low-psychoactive CBD product to treat her symptoms. The result was Charlotte's Web, a hemp extract that helped ease Figi's symptoms. Stanley and Figi's story was documented by the 2013 CNN documentary "Weed."
"Charlotte's story really moved the needle forward decades," Stanley says. "The traditional way of screaming at government — 'free the weed' — that was never going to work, and where that method didn't work for decades, Charlotte's story came and broke down stigma."
Despite the success stories, medical marijuana treatments for children have yet to be accepted as a legitimate course of action by some experts. "A limited case series is considered the weakest form of evidence," says Kevin Chapman, a brain spinal cord and nervous system specialist at Children's Hospital Colorado, who is studying the usefulness of CBD in treating epilepsy in children. "Families whose kids don't respond to treatment don't always come forward."
The public reputation of the legal marijuana industry will be especially noteworthy this year, with at least 13 states slated to vote on medical or recreational legalization in November and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency's upcoming decision to reclassify the federal status of the substance. And voters across the political spectrum are becoming more open to medical marijuana.
A solid public relations strategy centered around these stories may be what it takes to change broader public opinion on legalization of medical marijuana. "When we combine those powerful moms and those children with our nation's heroes, football players, and put them together to push forward, I think we're going to see a lot of momentum from those two efforts," Stanley says.
Original story by Kathleen Burke | MarketWatch