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Marijuana sector firms get marketing pushback as legalization looms

A man wears a virtual reality headset at the Lift Cannabis Expo in Vancouver, B.C., on Sunday, January 14, 2018. Lift.co, which hosts industry events and provides education, has seen its Facebook ad account deactivated and their YouTube channel shut down. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Some Canadian marijuana sector companies are getting pushback against their marketing efforts from social media platforms and government officials as legalization of recreational pot looms and regulations are not yet final.

Lift & Co, which hosts industry events and offers cannabis education, has had its YouTube account suspended and Facebook ad account deactivated, with both companies citing a policy violation.

Lift CEO Matei Olaru said he believes its accounts were targeted in connection with the U.S. tech giants’ policies barring promotion of the sale of illegal, prescription or recreational drugs, even though medical marijuana is legal in Canada and recreational pot will soon follow suit.

The company’s content on both platforms largely involved cannabis education and promotion of upcoming industry trade shows, but believes it got lumped into the broader category of marijuana, which is illegal under U.S. federal law.

“I think we got bundled into the whole cannabis thing,” said Olaru. “That because we are promoting an event about cannabis and there is cannabis in our profile, we just got taken down.”

Meanwhile, Canadian licensed producer MedReleaf cancelled its Quebec launch of its recreational brand San Rafael ’71 scheduled for Friday after Quebec government officials expressed concern. The event involved live performances at a Montreal club on April 20 or 4-20, when cannabis culture is celebrated by the drug’s enthusiasts each year.

MedReleaf’s vice-president of strategy Darren Karasiuk said the producer heard the concerns of Quebec’s provincial liquor retailer SAQ, which is also tasked with cannabis distribution, and it respects proposed laws which bar the promotion of “lifestyle” cannabis consumption.

“We continue to act in full compliance with the current regulations and are working collaboratively with the SAQ and all our provincial partners and distributors to provide factual cannabis information in an open dialogue,” he said in an emailed statement.

Advertising medical cannabis is essentially prohibited in Canada, with some exceptions. As the country prepares to legalize marijuana for adult use later this year, the rules governing recreational pot are expected to be less stringent but, like tobacco, an ad blitz is not allowed.

The proposed federal rules dictate that a cannabis brand cannot be associated with “a way of life such as one that includes glamour, recreation, excitement, vitality, risk or daring.” In Quebec, proposed rules dictate that advertising cannot directly or indirectly associate “the use of cannabis or a cannabis accessory with a particular lifestyle.”

Still, cannabis companies have been ramping up their marketing efforts in recent months to get consumers better acquainted with their brands and offerings now, using innovative tactics such as releasing cannabis-inspired but drug-free products and bringing on celebrity investors.

To promote San Rafael ’71, MedReleaf has released a cannabis-free beer in partnership with Amsterdam Brewery, and an accompanying ad campaign. The Canadian brewery and licensed producer are also jointly sponsoring Canadian Music Week in Toronto next month.

Lift had been promoting its upcoming cannabis expo in Toronto next month when its social media presence was restricted.

Lift’s Facebook page is still up, but its account used to create and manage ads on the social media platform was deactivated earlier this month. Its appeal for 1/8what? 3/8 was also rejected by Facebook, Olaru said.

“We don’t support ads for your business model,” Facebook’s support team responded, according to a screengrab of a message shared with the Canadian Press.

Lift’s YouTube account was suspended on Thursday, and its appeal rejected based on YouTube’s guidelines and terms of service, Olaru said.

Examples of Lift’s YouTube content included panel discussions on business and investing and patient reviews of legal cannabis products from licensed producers, he added.

“When our whole company is built around educating consumers and industry through content that has government officials in it… Why are we getting taken down, when it’s all about informing an otherwise opaque market where there is no information?”