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The UK Cannabis Industry Needs New PR Strategies

By Kajal Shah
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The cannabis marketplace is an ever changing one. The opportunities being generated in the UK space are immense. Yet despite the countless benefits cannabis can bring to the economy, patient care and supporting health and wellness for consumers, an image problem continues to persist.

Despite its expansive growth, there is still a lot of uncertainty and misinformation. Having worked with several cannabis businesses in recent years, I firmly believe there are a myriad of ways in which the industry can benefit from PR support. A strong PR strategy can not only drive media coverage, but help to reach customers, shorten sale cycles, bolster brand reputation and drive change within political and regulatory circles.

Whether you are a flourishing cannabis brand, a start-up or ancillary cannabis business, PR can help you stand out from the competition and become a credible voice in this competitive market.

Here are some key ways in which cannabis businesses can profit from PR:

Campaigning for progress

Each category of the cannabis sector faces its own reputational challenges. Medical cannabis is perhaps the most significant of these, yet it still goes largely misunderstood by the general public. This, along with regulatory restrictions and a lack of education in the clinical community means cannabis stigma continues to exist.

For the thousands of patients suffering with the likes of multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, still struggling to access this fully legal drug, this is a tragic, pressing issue. There are several families and individuals across the UK who campaign for medical cannabis access to be improved, by leveraging their story via the press and lobbying Parliament. Some of these high-profile families have been supported through strategic communications at The PHA Group, most notably Hannah Deacon, the mother who successfully campaigned for the first NHS cannabis license for her son, as well as the parents of toddler Charlie Hughes, who are currently seeking Judicial Review against NICE.

Both cases offer strong proof of the powerful role PR can play in supporting those in need of medical cannabis. Through speaking to media and generating coverage of the stories of both families, the complex issue of medical cannabis access has been thrust into the public eye, this in turn putting fresh pressure on the Government to address this through much-needed change. For cannabis leaders and professionals looking to invest in PR, it is critical that your PR partner understands the key issues, culture and complexities of the industry to create credible stories and campaigns to gain cut through in the media.

Reputation enhancement

CBD is the most established sector of the UK cannabis industry, having become firmly attached to the lifestyle scene in recent years with its broad spectrum of health and wellness products. With approximately 7.3 million people in the UK using CBD products each year through a market already worth an estimated £300 million, the industry is predicted to grow at a rapid rate, with experts claiming this figure will more than triple in the next five years.

Just some of the many hemp-derived CBD products on the market today.

Despite its impressive growth, the industry has faced its own stumbling blocks. Until this year, CBD had been in a period of regulatory uncertainty and the industry faced understandable criticism when high profile cannabis probes found over half of the most popular CBD oils did not contain the amount of CBD promised on the label. This did nothing to help the already precarious public perception of CBD in the UK, meaning firms have had to work extremely hard to heal their reputations and ensure their brands are deemed trustworthy by consumers going forward.

With hundreds of brands claiming to be the best option, establishing credibility and becoming a trusted voice is key. Educating your audience by positioning company experts will help to keep your audience up to speed on the most current information and allow your brand to achieve an authoritative voice within the cannabis space.

Amplifying awareness 

Driving awareness drives revenue. It doesn’t matter if your story and products are revolutionary if nobody knows they exist! PR can help build a narrative which conveys the purpose of your business, along with its vision and products, whilst promoting key insights to keep your company relevant. The power of public relations in this regard is very similar to that of positive word-of-mouth.

Strategic brand building

UKflagCannabis companies can’t advertise like mainstream companies, so they must tread carefully in the marketing of their products. However, there are great possibilities within PR. Through case studies and careful product placement, PRs can work carefully with CBD companies to raise awareness of the benefits of their products and solidify their brand image, without risking trouble with the ASA. With CBD brands and manufacturers springing up left and right, there are opportunities aplenty for PR firms to lend support, whether that’s from a consumer perspective, across food and drink, beauty or general wellness, or from a strategic business view.

Stories sell. It’s vital for a brand that wants to develop a sustainable, long-term plan to build a story which resonates with its audience. Strategic PR can therefore increase brand value and coupled with a digital marketing and social media strategy, boost engagement and elevate the profile of the business.

A wealth of opportunities

The legal cannabis industry is gaining traction and is one to watch. In relation to medical cannabis, the industry has called for change to improve patient access and pressure has been exerted on the government and regulatory bodies to normalise cannabis as an effective treatment for a myriad of health conditions In parallel, the CBD sector is only set to grow and in recent years, there has been increasing interest and investment into hemp, a versatile variety of the cannabis plant hailed as the next big thing in sustainability.

Cannabis is a commonplace yet spectacularly complex plant. It therefore needs a PR strategy which can uncover key angles and opportunities across a multitude of avenues to position brands within the space for success and growth.

Whilst there is still much to learn and navigate in cannabis, PR has an important role to play in changing attitudes as the industry continues to expand and evolve. I am excited to see where it goes next.

India’s Cannabis Market: Examining Regulatory Frameworks Then & Now

By Shantanu Sinha, Rohit Fogla
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A Sacred Plant

In India’s ancient Vedas texts, religious scholars described cannabis as “one of the five most sacred plants.” Cannabis has been a part of India’s religious rituals and festivities for millennia. Ancient Indian Ayurvedic practices used cannabis as an active ingredient in medicines, ranging from digestion problems to blood pressure. Nearly 191 formulations and more than 15 dosage forms have included cannabis as a key ingredient in the Ayurvedic texts. The plant grows wild throughout India’s Himalayan foothills and the adjoining plains, from Kashmir in the west to Assam in the east. This accessibility and abundance of cannabis presents India with the unique opportunity to harness the plant for economic growth.

Despite the country’s long history of cannabis use, the plant remains illegal except for in government-authorised premises that produce and sell bhang (which can be either ground cannabis balls or a drink made by mixing cannabis in milk), or for research and medicinal purposes.

Regulation of Cannabis in India Today

Cannabis is misunderstood legally and industrially in India. Under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act of 1985, trade and consumption of both cannabis resin (charas) and the bud (ganja), are illegal and anyone found with them could face up to 20 years imprisonment. There is also a strict ban on cannabis (including hemp) production in India. Although some powers are given to the state government to grant licenses to cultivate cannabis under certain circumstances (such as for research and medicinal use), relatively few research organisations have obtained them. In fact, only the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand regions, which are both in northern India, have received hemp cultivation licenses.

Kashmir region of India, the Northern-most part of the country
Image: Tanvir Kohli, Flickr

The Indian cannabis market has gathered significant attention recently, with various activists/NGOs filing court petitions demanding legalization of cannabis. They argue that the medicinal benefits of cannabis are hard to ignore, and the ideal climatic conditions for cannabis cultivation have the potential to boost the Indian economy and create millions of jobs. One of these NGOs is the Great legalization Movement, which is working to legalize the use of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes in India. In the summer of 2019, the Delhi High Court admitted a writ petition filed by GLM seeking decriminalisation of cannabis under the NDPS. The public interest litigation argues that the grouping of cannabis with other chemical drugs under the NDPS Act is “arbitrary, unscientific and unreasonable.” Although originally planned to be heard in February 2020, the hearing has been pushed back to May 1, 2020.

There is also traction among some government officials for the legalization of cannabis. Officials including Maneka Gandhi and Tathagata Satpathy have spoken in favour of cannabis decriminalisation. In November 2019, Madhya Pradesh, the second largest state in India, decided to legalize the cultivation of cannabis for medicinal and industrial purposes. As one of the poorest states in the country, it is hoped that the legalization will attract new businesses to the fore. Even more recently, it was announced in February 2020 that the BJP government in Manipur is also considering the legalization of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes.

The Market for Cannabis in India

According to a report by Grand View Research Inc., the global legal marijuana market is predicted to reach USD $146.4 billion by the end of 2025. For India, with a population of approximately 1.4 billion and a growing middle class, the potential market for cannabis products is substantial.

A number of promising Indian cannabis start-ups have arisen in recent years, some of whom are collaborating in order to grow in the domestic market. These start-ups are generally focusing on medicines, cosmetics, textiles, accessories and foods. One of the most promising is Boheco (the Bombay Hemp Company), which is backed by high-profile investors including Google India’s Managing Director Rajan Anandan, and Ratan Tata of Tata Sons. The company is agro-based and intends to reimagine the future of Indian agriculture and sustainable living with hemp. It is also a major supplier of raw material to fellow start-ups, Hempster and B.E. Hemp.

In February 2020, the India-based healthcare start-up HempStreet (who concentrate on the use of cannabis in Ayurvedic medicine) raised USD $1 million in pre-series A funding. The company will use the funding to support its technology growth, research development and to launch a new set of cannabis-based products. Abhishek Mohan, HempStreet’s co-founder said they intend to set new milestones for the medicinal cannabis sector in the country. They are also building blockchain technology to track the cannabis from seed to sale, eliminating the risk that the cannabis they grow will add to the substance abuse problem.

According to HempStreet’s founder Mohan, globally about one in five, or 1.5 billion people suffer from chronic pain. India is predicted to be ranked highest in terms of chronic pain cases by 2025, presenting a huge market for those companies who intend to create treatments for chronic pain with cannabis.

Medical Research

In government authorised research premises, India has begun its medical research of cannabis. In order for cannabis to be used for medicinal purposes, it must have both CBD and THC components in the required proportion. Research is needed on Indian cannabis to study the chemistry and breeding of the plant to ensure it is appropriate for use in medicine.

The Indian Institute of Integrative Medicine (IIIM) have taken legal license to cultivate cannabis for scientific and medical research purposes to develop products for epilepsy and cancer treatment. Under a tripartite agreement, the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), the India Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Department of Biotechnology have agreed to develop the epilepsy and cancer treatment products. The CSIR will cultivate the cannabis product and then carry out clinical work. The ICMR will then administer the clinical trials at the Tata Memorial Centre in Mumbai and AIIMS in Delhi. In February 2020, the IIIM and CSIR entered into a cross-border agreement with the Canada-based cannabis research company IndusCann. This research & development collaboration aims to create ample opportunities for developing varied medicines from cannabis. Union minister Jitendra Singh described the agreement as a “historic” achievement, and that Jammu and Kashmir will be the first in the country to develop medicines from the cannabis plant. Singh noted that, incidentally, this is happening at a time when the government is making efforts to encourage foreign investment.

Medical Cannabis Clinics

Bangalore’s Vedi Wellness Center.
Image credit: Bangalore Mirror

The doors of Bangalore’s Vedi Wellness Center opened for the first time on February 1, 2020, establishing itself as India’s first medical cannabis clinic. After five years of extensive research, HempCann Solutions will sell tablets and oils made from cannabis at the center. Since opening, the center has received over 100 calls and 25 drop-ins. The company regards Bangalore as a place that is open to new ideas and treatment methods. It was also where The Great legalization Movement began. The establishment of this center mirrors a trend in Europe, Canada and Australia in the opening of medicinal cannabis clinics. One year after the UK’s first cannabis clinic opened, it was announced in January 2020 that the UK’s Medical Cannabis Network plans to open more sites in the coming months.

Looking Forward

Despite being a trusted ingredient in the treatment of various ailments for thousands of years, the use of cannabis in modern medicine is restricted by India’s outdated cannabis laws. Although legalization is still some way off, the rising number of cannabis and hemp start-up companies, and the growing popular support for the plant’s legalization , is encouraging. Considering the medical and economic reasons in favor of legalizing cannabis, it may not be long before the Indian Government unlock the full potential that legalization would bring. For now, it will be interesting to track the success of India’s first medical cannabis clinic, and whether it will pave the way for others clinics to open across the country.


References

BBC – ‘Cannabis-based medicines: Two drugs approved for NHS’ 

Benzinga – ‘India-Based Health Care Startup HempStreet raises $1m’

Daily Pioneer – ‘India has the best cannabis hence more research is required’

Economic Times – ‘Is India losing out on a ready-to-boom cannabis market by not legalising its use?’ 

Great Legalization Movement

Grizzle – ‘Indian State Legalizes Cannabis’

Labiotech – ‘Here’s the latest new on medical cannabis from Europe and Germany’

Live Mint – ‘These Indian startups are betting on Cannabis without the high’ 

Marijuana Business Daily – ‘How India can be come a global cannabis leader: Q&A with Bombat Hemp’s Avnish Pandya’

Marijuana Doctors – ‘Medical Marijuana in India’ 

Nutra Ingredients – ‘Marijuana cultivation in India permitted for research and medicine, but nutraceuticals remain left out’

Opindia – ‘Manipur Considering Legalising Cannabis Plantation’

Quartz India – ‘Legalizing cannabis could be one solution to India’s agrarian distress’ 

The Asian Cannabis Report – May 2019

The Hindu – ‘The risks of legalizing cannabis’

The Kashmir Images – ‘CSIR-IIIM signs Agreement with IndusCann for research on cultivation of cannabis’

Times of India – ‘Delhi HC to examine plea to legalize cannabis use’

Your Story – ‘Cannabis startup HempStreet offers Ayurvedic prescription products for pain relief’

Youth Kiawaaz – ‘The Cannabis Industry: India’s Untouched Gold Mine’

Youth Kiawaaz – ‘The Complicated Relationship of India and Cannabis’

Marguerite Arnold

UK Non-Profit Launches Project TWENTY21 To Register 20K Cannabis Patients

By Marguerite Arnold
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Marguerite Arnold

In late June, as more than a thousand people descended on the South Bank Center to attend the largest cannabis conference held so far in the UK, another development was taking place away from the headlines.

Drug Science, a non-profit research group founded to reform drug policies based on scientific evidence rather than politics or even economic considerations, launched an ambitious trial project in the UK.

The goal? To get medical cannabis to 20,000 British patients suffering from a range of conditions that the drug is well known to help treat.

Who Is Drug Science?

Founded by Professor David Nutt, the former chief drug advisor to the British government who was fired in 2009 for stating that ecstasy and LSD were less harmful than alcohol, the group itself is clearly not afraid to tackle controversy. The Project TWENTY21 initiative is an ambitious if not desperately needed undertaking.

Targeted patient groups include those suffering from chronic pain, PTSD, MS, Tourette’s and addiction.

Several cannabis companies have already signed up to support the effort which also includes the United Patients Alliance ,and academic researchers.

According to Abby Hughes, Head of Outreach for UPA, “Whilst a change in UK law has given clinicians the green light to prescribe medical cannabis, the majority of patients are denied access, some even being criminalised, whilst corporations are profiting from the same plant.”

UKflagHughes also noted that the goal of the project is to begin to ground patient demand in research and hard data. “We hope that by having a dataset that proves the efficacy of medical cannabis, thousands of patients will be able to access legal, affordable medicine, which may improve their quality of life,” she said.

What Is The Scope of Project TWENTY21?

It is the first-of-its-kind project in the UK where, 9 months after the law changed to allow prescription of cannabinoids as well as the medical importation of the same, there are less than 20 (legal) patients in the country. And all of the successful candidates so far have fought for the right and still do.

While important in its own right, the concept if not forward motion on the same, is also poised to create similar trials all over Europe. This is especially true in countries (like France) where the issue of reform has not moved at all. Or even in Germany (with well over 50,000 patients two and a half years after similar reform was passed by the Bundestag) where problems with access and questions about medical efficacy still frustrate the close to a million Germans who cannot access the drug. Switzerland and Luxembourg may yet prove to be similiarly interesting.

Why Is This Timely?

There has been an increased call for the need for widespread and sustained population trials across Europe as the cannabis industry has really begun to establish itself since mid-2016. This is the only way to help forward medical understanding of cannabinoids at a level that leads to mainstream acceptance. And more importantly, medical and payer mainstream approvals. Until that happens, despite all the press releases, overall sales across the continent remain low.

One of the most important issues beyond this – the extraordinarily high pricing seen in Europe until late last year – has also played a role of course. Payers (see the German “statutory” health insurers) on the front lines of uncertain medical efficacy are still reluctant to pay for a drug, in any form, they do not understand, do not have evidence for, and are still highly suspicious of.

There has been an increased call for the need for widespread and sustained population trials across Europe With cannabis companies agreeing to provide product (in this case potentially from Australia), a research organization with national chops and brave leaders is likely to take the conversation far. And not just in the UK.

While Drug Science is of course not the only British entity planning canna trials and in part supported by the Canadian industry (see The Beckley Foundation for starters), Project 2021 is also certainly likely to be a study with both local as well as regional and global implications.

In Europe, there are other regional trials now in the offing (see Switzerland, Germany and France). Only Germany of course, has a patient population that is starting to be large enough to be effectively studied, and of course, the majority of these patients are still receiving dronabinol.

It is also clearly a steady state march, rather than a discussion that is likely to see significant boosts in patient numbers any time soon. Unless of course, there are other contributing factors.

Regardless, unlike the U.S. and even Canada, the strict medical focus of Europe (including the UK) is finally moving the conversation to the next level. Large, regional and/or national medical trials – and further for conditions the drug is well-known to treat but are so far considered “off-label” for most Europeans will be the watchword here for the next several years.