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Year one: What we can learn from cannabis legalization

People often suggest that Canada’s cannabis and pharmaceuticals industries are close cousins—that the lessons learned by Canada’s pharmaceutical community are an excellent bellwether for the maturing national cannabis marketplace.

In many respects, they are right. The highly regulated nature of pharmaceuticals has been a blue print for the legalization of cannabis. Follow the rules. Value and commit to transparency. Tell the truth and be careful how you position or market your organization.

This is where the paths of pharma and cannabis diverge in the woods. As legal cannabis consumption expanded from solely medicinal use to include recreational use, we have to look beyond a follow-the-leader approach.

From a global pharmaceutical perspective, while Canada is often seen as a small, albeit important market, at times we are not the focus for research activities like clinical trials for innovative therapies. However, in the case of recreational cannabis, we are an unrivalled global leader. While medicinal cannabis audiences including healthcare practitioners await data from clinical trials and investments in research in targeted disease areas, from a recreational perspective, the eyes of the world are on us.

We are only the second nation in the world to federally legalize adult recreational cannabis. The international community has been watching how we navigate this nascent effort. Did we pay enough attention to the concerns of public health? Did we keep our children safe? Did we truly address concerns, such as impaired driving and education related to the risks of cannabis? Are we making progress to eliminate the black market?

One year after legalization, we can now reflect and ask ourselves: What lessons does our growing Canadian cannabis leadership have for other homegrown industries?

1. We fear what we don’t understand

For many, cannabis is a relatively new phenomenon. While the majority of Canadians claim to support legalization, concerns persist related to safety, responsible consumption and keeping the product out of the hands of youth. Remember, many people grew up in the era of “this is your brain on drugs” anthem. To some, the legalization of cannabis and cannabis products still represents a seismic social shift.

The lesson here is that organizations must continue to provide consistent, credible information to Canadian consumers. They need to be thoughtful in the ways they anticipate and answer their questions. Overestimating what the public knows or feels about cannabis, without regularly asking them the question, is a potential pitfall. It may also lead to missed opportunities to better educate and address real concerns.

2. Leadership matters

Eventually, the frantic early days of producers and retailers all vying for space and market share will give way to less frenzied, more even-paced growth. Over the long term, successful companies and a sustainable industry will rely on solid business acumen and corporate leadership.

The legalization of cannabis is helping us understand how an entirely new industry transitions from an idea to a thriving economic driver around the country. It has also shown us that in order to do this successfully, strong, experienced and thoughtful leadership skills are necessary.

3. Expect the unexpected

CBD. Edibles. Seniors and cannabis. Everyday, we discover more about how Canadians understand and use cannabis products. The legalization of cannabis has opened the door to new thinking and new experiences. This reminds us that we can redefine an experience and a product, but we also have to be open to how our customers relate to and interact with that product.

We have been surprised and delighted by the new interests in this space, but the organizations that have thrived are the ones who have remained nimble to pivot and meet consumer demands.

There is still a long road ahead as Canadians acclimatize to the new world of legal cannabis. While some continue to have concerns, and suss out what this means for themselves, their families and communities, it is important to ask them questions, and build communications strategies that address public priorities. Cannabis is the challenge marketers and communicators have been waiting for. Overnight, a new industry emerged, full of opportunities and challenges, angst and growing pains. We learn at the same time that we teach.