Cannabis companies promote marijuana at AdWeek conference



Cannabis companies promote their brands at the Advertising Week conference in Midtown. Photo: Jess Nelson.

Viola Harrington hadn’t been able to read the Bible in three years. 

The churchgoing grandmother suffered from glaucoma, a disease that slowly damages the eye’s optic nerve resulting in visual disturbances, pain, and, ultimately, blindness. She took eye drops and a variety of medication, but the chronic pain in her eyes was debilitating. 

One day, while staying with her grandson in Colorado, Viola agreed to try cannabis. After using it a few times, she started to cry. Her pain diminished; she picked up her Bible and began to read it again.

Harrington’s grandson, former New York Knicks player Al Harrington, is a marijuana advocate and owner of a cannabis company fittingly named Viola. The Harringtons’ story was shared at the annual Advertising Week conference, held October 1-4, at the AMC Loews in Lincoln Square, where cannabis entrepreneurs gathered to discuss marketing marijuana. 

A number of cannabis brands attended the conference, with some including Atlas Growers, a Canadian medical company, and PRØHBTD MEDIA, a cannabis advertising agency based in Los Angeles. The only catch to the event: most states, including New York, haven’t legalized marijuana yet. 

Since the pace of legalization varies state-by-state, cannabis companies cannot advertise to consumers using ad platforms like Google or Facebook. Instead they have to create and market content to consumers in different ways, such as the variety of online videos PRØHBTD posts to attract new customers.

“We’re leading it from the black market to the supermarket,” said Drake Sutton-Shearer, CEO and founder of PRØHBTD. Most of the panelists discussed the health benefits of marijuana and the different ways people can consume it. Sutton-Shearer said cannabis could “replace alcohol, opioids, anxiety medicine, and Ambien.”

“There’s a lot of misconception of what the cannabis consumer is,” said Shannon Belisario, the director of brand development at PRØHBTD. “As products emerge on the market, there will be different types of consumers.” Belisario said her mother uses cannabis products like “topical creams for ailments like joint pain and psoriasis.”

The bottom floor of the AMC Loews cinema complex displayed marijuana leaf-related imagery, notably designed in black and gold as opposed to green. One wall highlighted a list of more than 75 cannabis companies and their headquarters, grouped into categories like “flower,” “software & services,” “legal & consulting,” and “social & eco responsibility.”

Given that cannabis is still illegal in most states, the conversation shifted to the effects of the war on drugs and mass incarceration in the United States. Some states have passed measures to decriminalize and legalize marijuana within its own borders. Nine states have now legalized marijuana for adult recreational purposes, with 30 more, including New York, allowing medical marijuana programs.

Panelist Michael Christopher, an executive at Mood 33, a Santa Monica-based company that sells cannabis-infused sparkling tonic, said New York State could be a watershed moment in the legalization of marijuana.

“If we could get New York to flip to an adult-use state, that could be the turning point,” said Christopher.

Some restrictions on cannabis use have already started to change in New York City since Mayor Bill de Blasio announced, as of September 1, that New Yorkers without a criminal record would be issued tickets for publicly smoking cannabis, instead of facing arrest. 

But possession of marijuana can still lead to incarceration in New York City if a person is caught with cannabis and no identification, or if they have a record. And a loosening of marijuana laws doesn’t address the fact that thousands of New Yorkers remain in prison for marijuana-related offenses. Over the past 20 years, there have been more than 800,000 arrests for marijuana-related offenses in New York,  according to a state report issued by Governor Cuomo’s office.

Kareem Burke, co-founder of Roc-A-Fella Records, who spoke on the panel, advocates for all marijuana-related criminal records to be expunged, first state-by-state and then, “hopefully federally in due time.” But getting released from prison for marijuana offenses is just one step, he said, sharing that he has two drug offenses, which are both felonies.

A New York Times investigation published last May highlighted the drastic racial disparities in marijuana-related charges in New York City, even though studies show white and black Americans smoke marijuana at roughly equal rates. Over the past three years, black New Yorkers were arrested for marijuana at eight times the rate of white New Yorkers. In Manhattan, alone, blacks were arrested at 15 times the rate of whites.

“More needs to be done in these communities that are the most affected by discrimination,” said Burke. “You have a 70 percent recidivism rate after people go to jail, and when they get out they can’t get into this business because they have a record.” 

All speakers firmly agreed that consumers will soon see marijuana on the biggest advertising stage of the year, regardless of state-by-state legality.

“It’s just a matter of time before cannabis is advertised at the Super Bowl,” says Brian Braiker, editor of Ad Age.