Medical Marijuana: What Pharma Companies Need to Know

Handling Comms During COVID-19? We've compiled our best resources.

If you think that people talk a lot about medical marijuana, you would not be wrong. Virtually every aspect of the topic, from Access to Zoning, is discussed online. But not by everyone, nor everywhere.

An interesting new report from Cision, News & Social Landscape Analysis on Medical Marijuana, examines three months of social media discussions and online news about medical marijuana (MMJ).

The Current State

Since 2013, the majority of Americans now support legalizing marijuana. To date, 23 states and the District of Columbia have legalized its use, and a number of marijuana-related ballot measures will be before voters in 2015 and 2016.

Yet, marijuana is still classified by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as a Schedule I narcotic — an illegal drug with “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Research and testing in the U.S. has, therefore, been very limited. Doctors violate Federal law if they prescribe it. Transporting it across state lines can land you in jail.

Want all the key findings on medical marijuana? Get the full report today!

Both Sides Now


Not all pharma companies have the same agenda when it comes to medical marijuana. Yet, no matter which side a company is on — supporting or opposing legalization — it will be helpful to examine not just what is being said by whom, but the where and when of online conversations.

For example:

  • Globally, countries that have legalized medical marijuana do not discuss it nearly as much as we do in the U.S. (where)
  • The volume of online conversation in the U.S. differs by region. (where)
  • There is increased newspaper coverage of MMJ-related stories leading up to State ballot initiatives. (when)

In this post, I want to talk about how pharma companies can use these findings (plus other insights in the full report) to improve the receptivity of their efforts, simply by being more aware of geographic differences and timing.

Let’s look at this in more detail, with examples from the report.

1. Keep a Geographic Perspective

Perhaps because I was born in South Africa, I like to start with a global view. As Americans — myself included — we often see ourselves as the center of everything, so looking beyond our borders provides a bit of perspective.

The chart below (Table 1) compares the weekly conversation volume in the U.S. (the top line) to conversations in other countries where the use of MMJ is legal. So, yes, we do talk about MMJ more in America than in countries where it is readily available.


2. Acknowledge Regional Differences

Within the U.S., there is a significant difference in the volume of social conversations when looked at by region. We can see that the overall level of conversation about MMJ is lowest in the Northeast, where most states have already legalized MMJ. At the same time, the highest levels of conversation are out West, where marijuana is approved for recreational use (Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Alaska) and where residents of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Nevada are working to put marijuana-related ballot measures before the voters.


3. Note that Timing is Everything

In addition to the two “where” factors described above, “when” data can be especially helpful. We looked at the media coverage of MMJ in large daily newspapers over the course of four years. Using this extended time scale, we can see a significant drop-off in media coverage following legalization of MMJ (Arizona) and the ramping up of media leading to ballot measures (Florida, Ohio). Legislative wrangling (Philadelphia), and program implementation (Illinois) also boosted the volume of media coverage, while New York’s Newsday remained at a consistent, low level.


Using the Data

Pharma companies can turn these insights into actions, starting with their own internal conversations.

  • Thought starters: If or when the U.S. as a nation legalizes MMJ, it may no longer be a much-discussed issue. What is likely to be the long-term impact on your company? How has legalizing MMJ in other countries changed the medication habits of those populations? What lessons can we learn from partnering with vs. opposing legislators?
  • Pharma companies wishing to get involved in online conversations about medical marijuana will have to stay attuned to the shifting political and legislative landscape. It will be important to monitor the timing of specific events that drive public (and media) attention.  
  • Messaging in a state that has legalized marijuana for anyone over 21 should be different than in states yet to have any provisions for medical marijuana. Developing different personas can help guide the communications and marketing messaging more effectively.

To generate the report, Cision analyzed over 153,000 social MMJ discussions and 4,286 news articles. Cision’s Visible Intelligence® platform gave us qualitative and quantitative insights on the top sites and authors, sentiment, volume, emerging trends and key discussion drivers. For more insights and thought starters, download the full report.


Images: Brett LevinDamian Gadal (Creative Commons)

About Mathilda Joubert

Mathida Joubert is a Vice President in the Global Insights group at Cision. An analyst at heart, she loves following data bread crumbs to ultimately tell stories. She has consulted numerous automobile manufacturers, biotech and pharma companies, major foundations and other not-for-profit organizations to help them measure the success of their communication activities. Always planning the next place to visit, she’s visited over 30 States in the U.S. and extensively abroad, but her favorite remains her native country, South Africa.

Recent Posts

Cision Blogs

  • Communications Best Practices

    Get the latest updates on PR, communications and marketing best practices.

  • Cision Product News

    Keep up with everything Cision. Check here for the most current product news.

  • Executive Insights

    Thought leadership and communications strategy for the C-suite written by the C-suite.

  • Media Blog

    A blog for and about the media featuring trends, tips, tools, media moves and more.