(Reuters Health) – In the state of Washington, where recreational marijuana has been legal since 2012, cannabis companies are banned by law from making social networking messages that appeal to young people who encourage excess consumption and suggest that drug has healing properties.
But a new study finds out that these rules are being ignored by some companies. Researchers who examined 1,027 publications by marijuana companies in Washington found that 137 cannabis promoted had therapeutic benefits, while 17 encouraged excess consumption and nine used images that appealed to teens.
"We are in the early days with the legalization of marijuana and we are finding out what policies will be, especially with regard to advertising and promotion," said lead author Dr. Megan Moreno, a pediatrician professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "The goal is to avoid the use of teenage marijuana. And we know that its use is linked to marijuana exposure, so we try to limit exposure to content that promotes or glorifies the use of marijuana."
As reported in JAMA Network Open, Moreno and colleagues analyzed posts on Facebook and Twitter from the business pages of six recreational marijuana companies in Washington to see the frequency with which they have adhered to state regulations. The companies had between 374 and 2915 followers of Twitter and between 342 and 1592 followers of Facebook.
Although there were 38 companies that sold cannabis in the state, researchers excluded companies from their study if, for example, there was less than a year of publications to evaluate or the company was not a retailer.
All messages have been evaluated by human encoders, according to Moreno, because it can be difficult to evaluate a site in certain areas such as the appeal to young people, because that implies analyzing images, for example. Included in the analysis were publications from December 1, 2015 to November 30, 2016.
Most publications followed the regulations, but 13.3 percent promoted healing or therapeutic benefits, such as "# Cannabis used to facilitate PTSD" and "MJ can literally improve the health of your pet." Most publications that give out medication benefits (69 percent) came from a single company. Some of the messages in the messages were subtle, transmitting a therapeutic suggestion through the hashtags included, such as #wellness or #health, Moreno said.
Companies are required by state standards to include warnings about the negative effects on cannabis health, how it can affect concentration, coordination and judgment, as well as the possibility that the user may become addicted. Two of the six companies did not have any warning.
A very small percentage of publications (0.9 percent) seemed to be directed directly to adolescents. One of them showed a boyfriend, while eight showed the cartoon characters who appealed to teens and young adults, such as Scooby-Doo. "These characters are considered retro and great for teens," Moreno said.
The most "disturbing" aspect of the discoveries was the percentage of publications that give health benefits, said Dr. Antoine Douaihy, the Senior Academic Director of Addiction Medicine Services for the Western Psychiatric Hospital of the Medical Center of the University of Pittsburgh. "The reason is that they are promoting cannabis as a good effect for pain, mood and anxiety, when in fact it used to systematically auto-medicate it by anxiety, it could end an anxiety disorder."
Douaihy also worries that the health message will attract teens who have more vulnerabilities and develop brains. "Keep in mind that medical marijuana is never a first line treatment at all. It is always a last resort," said Douaihy, who was not affiliated with the new investigation. "This type of message suggests that it could be a first-line approach for someone really stressed and anxious, like someone who deals with school problems or their parents. Saying that you can have teen-type medical benefits."
The new study is important because "it raises the question of the treatment of social networks as a form of publicity and begins to question how this advertising should regulate," said Dr. Ryan Vandrey, associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Faculty of Johns Hopkins Medicine.
And it highlights the fact that the states will be those that regulate cannabis advertising, "while regulating comparable markets (tobacco and alcohol) are made by national agencies," said Vandrey, who did not participate in the new investigation. "So they declare that they have legalized cannabis for medical or non-medical reasons, they have to create regulatory bodies from scratch."
What makes it especially difficult is that cannabis falls into an area between recreational drugs such as alcohol and tobacco and pharmaceuticals, because there are actually medicinal uses for cannabis, said Vandrey. For this reason, Vandrey believes that any cannabis advertisement should have the same type of warnings as pharmaceutical ads.
The results of the new job can only be the tip of the iceberg, said Sean Young, founder and director of the Digital Behavior Center of the University of California, Los Angeles and the Institute of Technology of Prediction of the University of California. New notes that some of its research were funded by marijuana companies.
More people get their information on cannabis from websites dedicated to the promotion of marijuana than on Facebook and Twitter, explained Young, who was not affiliated with the new investigation. "These sites … are much more within the gray area than companies like Facebook and Twitter that are commercialized publicly and face much more scrutiny."
SOURCE: bit.ly/2Bby1qV JAMA Network Open, online on November 16, 2018.