Today, 30 licensed producers grow medical cannabis at an industrial scale, selling it to more than 50,000 patients nationally.
The government’s own estimates have the number of patients growing ninefold to more than 450,000 by 2020.
With the election of the Liberal Party’s Justin Trudeau, all indications point to marijuana being legalized within the next year. If that happens, millions of recreational pot smokers will join the nation’s tens of thousands of medical marijuana users.
To keep tabs on this evolving industry, Cision has conducted a three-month analysis of the medical marijuana industry and perceptions that Canadians hold on cannabis. We also spoke with medical cannabis professionals to understand the challenges their industry faces in the coming months and years.
Aggregating social media posts from key forums, blogs and social networks, Cision segmented and analyzed more than 48,000 social marijuana discussions which revealed several key findings:
- On social, Canadians are very liberal in their opinions on marijuana, often sharing photos of recreational use
- Treatments for pain, symptomatic relief for cancers and epilepsy are the most discussed uses by Canadians
- Regionally, Ontario and British Columbia are the most supportive of legalization of recreational use, while the Prairie provinces represent the weakest support
- The medical cannabis industry faces serious challenges managing perceptions that Canadians hold on efficacy and use of cannabis
The report consists of data found during a three-month analysis of discussions on social media, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and forum sections on news sites, which includes 48,000 social conversations.
Cision constructed searches to capture relevant discussions in social media about marijuana to understand Canadians’ perceptions of the drug and its medicinal uses. We leveraged the social intelligence platform Cision Global Insights to analyze social media discussion and yield qualitative and quantitative insights around key findings, emerging trends and key discussion drivers.
November 20 – February 20
English and French
Leading Topics of Discussion
Canadians are freewheeling in their willingness to discuss marijuana, even sharing images of its use on public social media like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Over the 93-day monitoring period, Cision found that 41 per cent of all marijuana conversations were about recreational use.
2. Legalization and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
Social media commenters overwhelmingly support marijuana legalization.
More than 9,500 social mentions, about 20 per cent of the conversation, referenced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and legalization. Many of those asked for his continued efforts to legalize marijuana in Canada. Trudeau’s large share of voice likely stems from the election he won in October.
3. Health and science
Marijuana is often in the news with the release of studies either promoting potential health benefits or warning of negative side effects. These news items generate 14 per cent of the social conversation around marijuana.
News events that reference the dangers of pot generate spikes in discussion, but they do not impact the ongoing social media dialogue of most pot smokers and medical cannabis users.
Dispensaries act as distribution centres for medical marijuana and cannabis products in an unofficial and illegal fashion. However, these retailers are working directly with federal government-certified marijuana growers, and in some municipalities these businesses are tolerated by police. These messages and discussions around dispensaries represent 9 per cent of the social discussion.
On social, these dispensaries share images of their products, while others share news on legalization or community events associated with their dispensaries.
Producers are less active on social media than point of sale dispensaries. Only 7 per cent of the conversation speaks about or is generated by marijuana producers. Producers are interested in generating investment and working successfully with regional municipal partners.
Most discussion online about producers are relating to news about regulation changes and news items about production methods and facilities.
How Pot Became So Popular
On Friday, December 4, 2015, Gov. Gen. David Johnston delivered the governing priorities of Canada’s new Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in the speech from the throne. This included a pledge to legalize, regulate and restrict access to marijuana.
This is the culmination of advocacy efforts dating back for decades but most recently within the youth wing of the Liberal Party and the 2012 convention where a motion passed that inserted legalization into the mainstream party’s official election platform.
In the past decade, Canadian regulations have shifted to allow private producers to grow cannabis for medicinal purposes. While medical marijuana is legal, as it is in 23 states in the United States, many Canadians feel the drug should be made available for recreational use like tobacco and alcohol.
A survey by Forum Research released in November 2015, found that 59 per cent of Canadians approve legalization and 67 per cent want it sold in liquor or convenience stores like cigarettes and alcohol. It would then be taxed like those goods as well, creating, what proponents say would be, a valuable new revenue source for governments.
A common argument against the legalization of marijuana would increase its accessibility to youths. However, a study by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse found between 33 and 50 per cent of grade 12 students are already smoking pot. Trudeau has said that it is easier for Canadian students to buy marijuana than beer or cigarettes.
Canadian activists and advocates for medicinal marijuana use have pushed for research or acceptance of the drug for decades. In 1972, a report by Senator Gerald Le Dain, found no scientific basis for pot to be classified as a dangerous substance. More than 40 years later pot is still illegal.
90 years of enforcement have failed
In 1922, Canada became one of the first developed nations to prohibit the sale, production and use of marijuana. Parliament overreacted to sensational and racist articles written by an Albertan magistrate named Emily Murphy. The impact of her anti-drug crusade is still felt today.
An article by Maclean’s magazine found that 69 per cent of all drug crimes relate to marijuana and 54 per cent of those are for simple possession of pot. One law change could significantly reduce drug-related crimes.
Supporters believe that legalization will save taxpayers money, reduce prison overcrowding and allow police resources to be more effectively allocated to serious crimes.
5 to 8 million potential pot customers
The Forum Research survey released in November found that 20 per cent of respondents had smoked weed in the past year. Thirty per cent said they planned to in the next year. When non-smoking respondents were asked if they would smoke if it were legal, 17 per cent said they were likely or very likely to.
The number of Canadian pot users could be as high as 37 per cent of the population; a more conservative estimate is 20 per cent or about 5 million potential pot consumers. Estimates project the industry being worth between $5 and $10 billion. On the higher end, that would be about half of what Canadians spent on alcohol in all of 2014.
Marijuana a cash cow for British Columbia
Across Canada there is a push and pull between the acceptable consumption of marijuana and an instituted effort to crack down on its illegal production and sale. A study by the Frasier Institute found that Illegal pot production and distribution is worth an estimated 1.5 to 2.8 per cent of British Columbia’s $130 billion economy. Pot could be worth as much as $3 billion to residents of British Columbia without legalization.
It is less of a question of if the drug will be legalized than what will happen when it is.
Canadians from across the country take part in the discussion around marijuana daily. Ontario residents generate 43 per cent of the social discussion, which calls to reason as Ontario is home to 38 per cent of the population.
British Columbia, which has long held more liberal views on marijuana, represents 28 per cent of the conversation around pot, more than double its percentage of the Canadian population.
Quebec and Alberta each generated 10 percent share of voice, while the Prairie provinces and Atlantic Canada both represent 4 per cent of the conversation.
People from all provinces discuss using cannabis in a transparent way, even sharing images of them with pot or smoking it. Despite little online opposition to marijuana, some provinces feature less online engagement, which is an indication of less support or increased social stigma around its use.
By that analysis, British Columbia is the most open to marijuana use, and proportionally, Quebec and Alberta are less-so.
News items, government action drive social conversation
The leading driver of social media discussions are media stories about health and regulations. For instance, on January 16, 2016, the Sun Newspaper’s national chain published stories about the hazy rules governing dispensaries in Toronto and other regions of the country. The large spike in discussions on January 16 is from both the sharing of the article and discussions about dispensaries across the country. This pattern continues regionally based on media coverage.
Communication Challenges Facing Canadian Producers
According to Cam Battley of the Canadian Medical Cannabis Industry Association (CMCIA), which governs 17 of the 30 legal medical cannabis producers, the medical cannabis industry’s biggest challenge is perception.
According to the CMCIA, the credibility of medical cannabis is lost in dueling messages about actual symptomatic relief and curative pipedreams that some people espouse.
Our analysis shows that many Canadians hold misconceptions about marijuana’s potential curative powers. Of all symptoms discussed in social media conversation, curing cancer is the second most often discussed, second only to chronic pain.
“There are people out there who claim that cannabis is a miracle drug, and it is not,” Battley says. “I never read good research that shows that medical cannabis is a disease modifying therapy.”
Disease modifying therapies are things like vaccines or medication that cure diseases. However, medical cannabis has been seen to ease symptoms associated with cancer treatment, which accounts for a little less than half of the social discussion related to cancer and cannabis.
Credibility is key
Battley emphasised that the industry needs professionalism and credibility through scientific facts to move forward.
“Medical cannabis alone is a very good business and that’s due to the scale of the unmet need in terms of symptom management,” Battley says. “Medical cannabis helps reduce symptoms for people suffering from chronic neuropathic or nerve pain, certain anxiety disorders, multiple sclerosis and bowel disorders.”
Studies by Health Canada have repeatedly shown marijuana’s efficacy in relieving pain. It has also been found to be extremely effective in reducing symptoms of nausea, aiding in the treatment of anorexia and helping patients with sleep disorders.
One form of non-psychoactive cannabis, cannabidiol is even one of the only effective treatments for a certain type of epilepsy that affects infants.
Taxes, insurance are barriers for patients
While medicinal cannabis has hundreds of benefits, they only work if someone can afford them.
Medical cannabis isn’t covered by most insurance programs, and it is the only prescribed medicine the federal government taxes. According to Jordan Sinclair, the communications manager at Canopy Growth Corporation, a leading Canadian medical cannabis producer, that’s a double standard that hurts patients and impacts the industry.
“We want the law changed so that medical cannabis is zero-rated like every other prescribed medication in Canada,” Sinclair says.
The majority of Canopy Growth’s clients are paying out of pocket for medical cannabis. Insurance companies have been slow to pay for medical cannabis as a therapy. This forces patients to choose between therapies that are paid for, which in some cases may not work well, and medical cannabis which they cannot afford.
Establishing the credibility of medical cannabis as a form of symptom relief will be crucial to the industry’s future success. Convincing employers and the insurance industry that cannabis solves problems instead of creates them will be an even greater challenge after legalization.
Thoughts for communication professionals:
- The science backing the medical efficacy of cannabinoid products on some symptomatic effects is resolute, where challenges persist is in optics.
- These days a substantial gray area exists between legality and illegality, which makes local perceptions of a business important to its survival. Expert communication management is key to successful community and government relations.
- Legalization is a moving target, and the only team that knows for certain when cannabis will be legalized is the federal government, Prime Minister Trudeau and his close advisors. Until a new law is on the books and regulations around promotion of cannabis products have been formalized, communication about marijuana will be a dangerous game.
- As more research is conducted on the efficacy of medical cannabis, claims of medicinal benefits will be proven and disproven. Keep up to date on the accepted medical benefits as accepted by Health Canada and be careful to not make false or misleading claims.
- While some segments of Canadian society are ready for medical marijuana, serious roadblocks are facing businesses looking to grow marijuana or sell it in many municipalities in Canada. Even in British Columbia, dispensaries are facing ongoing zoning and variance disputes put the survival of many businesses at risk. Public affairs practices can benefit from briefing themselves on regional opinions held by local community groups, councillors and other officials. Social monitoring can be a tool for doing just that.
- Just as the tobacco and alcohol industries have industrial detractors, opposition groups will mount strong arguments against the legalization and proliferation of medical cannabis. When working with these groups, remember how popular cannabis is in Canada when approaching social media. Tread carefully, those in glass houses should not throw stones.
- The medical cannabis industry will likely persist parallel to the recreational use industry even if marijuana is legalized. The key messaging for medicinal marijuana is that it is a safe, reliable and cost effective product for symptom relief. This may clash directly with more bombastic marketing that could be aimed at recreational users.
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