Cannabis, cannabinoid medicines and advertising – where should the line be drawn?Watch
Our campaign "Are You Ready?" launched in the last few weeks and focuses on some of the world-class research we do. We had planned to use this image:
to highlight groundbreaking work at Reading to create a new treatment that dramatically reduces and even stops epileptic seizures in children.
Our team of scientists identified and extracted a single, non-psychoactive component from cannabis that had been largely ignored previously. The cannabinoid medicine, Epidiolex, they helped create is now having very exciting results in clinical trials in the United States and has now started tests in the UK. It has the long-term potential to transform the lives of millions of sufferers around the world, including 500,000 people in the UK alone.
However, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), which sets the rules for advertisers, informed us this month that promoting this research using the image and headline breaches its UK Advertising Codes.
The UK Advertising Codes lay down rules for advertisers, agencies and media owners to follow.
They include general rules that state advertising must be responsible, must not mislead, or offend and specific rules that cover advertising to children and ads for specific sectors like alcohol, gambling, motoring, health and financial products.
The key passages of the UK Code of Non-Broadcast Advertising, Sales Promotion and Direct Marketing include stipulating:
1.1 Marketing communications should be legal, decent, honest and truthful.
1.3 Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society.
1.10 Marketers have primary responsibility for ensuring that their marketing communications are legal. Marketing communications should comply with the law and should not incite anyone to break it.
And specifically on the mention of drugs, Section 21.6 is:
Marketing communications for rolling papers or filters must not condone or encourage the use of illegal drugs. Except in exceptional circumstances, for example, in the context of an anti-drug message, any reference to illegal drugs will be regarded as condoning their use.
The University wrote to the Committee for Advertising Practice for clarity on the Code and its Copy Advice Team wrote to the University on Thursday 11th June. The crux of the response was:
“We think that in the context of an ad that references the use an illegal drug (albeit in the context of research for medicine), the headline “Are you ready? For drugs that work” alongside the large and familiar image of a cannabis plant, may be seen to trivialise the use of drugs and subsequently may be understood to promote its use. We think that if the ASA were to receive complaints about the ad they would be likely to investigate and that, based on ad as it currently appears, may ‘Uphold’ those complaints. We would therefore recommend against the use of the image and the title in this context...”
It told us our advert "may be seen to trivialise the use of drugs and subsequently may be understood to promote its use". And it told us the Advertising Standards Authority may uphold any complaints it receives from the public, meaning the advert could potentially be banned.
We are proud of our scientists’ work. We credit the public with the intelligence to tell the difference between cannabinoid medicines and illegal drug use. We have a zero-tolerance approach to drugs at the University. And we have put forward strong arguments against this to the CAP.
There is nothing "trivial" about millions of people across the world suffering from epilepsy treatments that have serious and distressing side effects.
So our argument against the Committee of Advertising Practice’s view was threefold:
First, we credit the public with the intelligence to distinguish between illegal soft drug use and creating new cannabinoid medicines to treat epilepsy.
The medicine has been developed after a team of our scientists identified and extracted a single chemical, non-psychoactive component from the cannabis plant – formulating it as a strawberry flavoured solution, in a sesame oil mix.
In other words, it does not create a high and is from a completely different part of the plant than the Class B drug in dried or resin form.
This research has already had worldwide coverage – being fully peer-reviewed by scientific community; has been presented and debated across the world; and has had global media exposure – and concerns about being seen to promote the use of cannabis has never been raised.
Second, universities exist to promote and provoke debate – that's why our advert has a deliberately strong visual image and headline.
It is a clear play on words illustrating that illegal cannabis use is harmful; that current epilepsy treatments leave many sufferers with distressing side-effects; and that the use of the non-psychotic compounds in the cannabis plant can now be extracted to treat the condition.
It is hard to believe that the advert could be seen as condoning drug use.
Third, we take our responsibilities as an advertiser and educational institution very seriously. The advert has a clear disclaimer that the University has a zero tolerance approach to drug abuse and links to anti-drugs information on the Talk to Frank campaign.
We are in the extraordinary position of one of the leading research-intensive universities in the UK being advised and potentially prevented from promoting genuinely top-class work as it sees fit.
Universities exist to promote and provoke debate - that's why our proposed advert is deliberately strong. One has to question where the line should be drawn when a normally pretty staid publication like National Geographic puts a cannabis plant on its June front page to promote its “Science of Marijuana” cover story.
However, as a responsible institution, we must operate within the rules for advertisers – so while we have run the poster on our own campus, we do not plan to use it elsewhere for now.
But what do you think?
Have we got this right? Does this advert “trivialise” drug use? Should advertisers be able to discuss the use of cannabinoid medicines – and if so how? Where should universities draw the line in promoting their own research? And do universities have wider responsibilities to young people in how they market themselves?
The Epilepsy Society has much more information about the condition. For broader advice and information on drugs go to the Talk to Frank website.
We welcome your thoughts and comments so please join the debate in the forum.
Head of News & Content
University of Reading
and another thing, if weed stops seizures and you're promoting that, then what's the problem? promoting drugs can be good when it is medicinal, and even if it is purely recreational, if you advertise the dangers/risks, then there's no problem with that either.