JOINT ACCOUNT

It has 300 million users worldwide, it has been used for religious purposes since the eighth century BC, the Liberal Democrats are in favour of it and a third of all GCSE pupils have tried it. However, despite its popularity, this product is still illegal in the UK.

Luckily for cannabis, the climate is changing, the great and the good – from chief constables to the pages of The Economist – have called for its decriminalisation. The police regularly caution those found in possession of small amounts, rather than prosecute; The Economist is curious about the revenue it would generate if it were to be traded openly.

But if cannabis were freely available how would it be marketed? This Saturday (March 4) Channel 4 brings together all shades of opinion to debate the issue of legalisation in an evening of programmes dubbed “Pot Night”.

C4’s commissioning editor for factual programmes Peter Salmon says that despite the tabloid furore surrounding the evening (even though none of the programmes have been shown to the press) it is intended as a serious look at the issues surrounding cannabis.

“C4 is not afraid to take on subjects deemed too difficult for other channels,” he says. “We are asking why it is okay for 120,000 people a year to die from cigarette-related illnesses and for between 4,000 and 5,000 people a year to die from alcohol-related disorders, but cannabis is beyond the pale.”

As part of the evening C4 will be screening “Joint Ventures” created by Barraclough Carey Productions. It takes as its premise the fact that cannabis has been legalised and examines how a cannabis-based product could be developed. The programme stars Adam Faith as an entrepreneur anxious to get a foothold in the market, but his problem is that cannabis cigarettes and other tobacco-associated products are already controlled by the tobacco conglomerates with their ready-packaged “spliffs”.

While the programme is fantasy it is received wisdom that the major tobacco companies have sizeable chunks of land in central and South America which could be producing cannabis as soon as it is legalised. Branding sources also suggest that most of the tobacco companies in the US have already registered suitable names such as “Acapulco Gold” and “Red Leb” in the event of legalisation. Philip Morris, it is said, has registered the name “Marley” after reggae star and consumer Bob Marley. However, naming experts point out that Philip Morris is quite within its rights to register any names which are vaguely similar to its own brand Marlboro to prevent any infringement of its copyright.

Inevitably, the tobacco companies are loath to discuss the subject. Philip Morris referred calls to the Tobacco Manufacturers Association, as did other tobacco companies. The TMA in turn referred the matter to the individual tobacco companies. A spokesman says: “It is a hypothetical situation, you have to take it up with the tobacco companies.” And Joint Ventures producer and director Ian Potts says: “We tried to talk to tobacco companies in the course of our research for the film but hit a brick wall. They were not willing to enter into the spirit at all.”

In Joint Ventures, the decision is taken to talk to new product development company CLK about alternative cannabis-based products. While the programme is fictitious CLK approached it in the same way as a as real project. Marketing director Irene Inskip says: “We treated it as a proper brief and I think we have come up with some imaginative solutions and alternatives to cannabis cigarettes.”

CLK says that the problem with branding cannabis products (if it were legal) is that the drug is saddled with a number of images – none of which may appeal to a Nineties audience. Cannabis may mean either the Sixties, drippy hippies and Jimi Hendrix, or terrible student parties where stoned guests with the munchies clear out the fridge and the larder, or the sweet whiff smelt on the breeze at the Notting Hill Carnival.

Inskip says that it has a slightly seedy image and that products would have to be positioned upmarket. “Initially, if it were legalised it would be a niche market. People who had always taken it would continue to do so but there would still be a greater mass of people worried about the effects. We would have to get rid of that taboo. The key is to position it as a confident, upfront classy brand.”

CLK first looked at stylish cannabis-based, non-alcoholic drinks which could be taken to a dinner party as an after-dinner treat. “Smoking a joint is a ritual. It’s a social thing and we wanted to continue that air of sociability,” says Inskip. “We proposed an after-dinner drink, or perhaps more ideally, an aperitif because cannabis is renowned for making people hungry. Guests would get in the mood for dinner and they would get the giggles, which is a good dinner-party ingredient.”

The company also looked at producing anti-stress products because of cannabis’s relaxing properties. In his book “Forbidden Drugs” consultant psychologist Dr Philip Robson points out that until relatively recently every major civilisation has taken advantage of the drug’s medicinal properties. It has also been reported that some suffers of multiple sclerosis take cannabis to relieve their symptoms.

But eventually CLK settled for cannabis-based chocolates, which they named “Seventh Heaven”. The company says that hypothetically the brand would be positioned at the top end of the market with a target age group of 25 upwards. It would encompass well-off younger people and all those old hippies who have now settled down into middle-aged, middle-class domesticity.

Advertising agency WCRS then produced a strategy for Seventh Heaven. Chief executive Andrew Robertson says: “We didn’t want that `dingy room at a student party’ feel. We wanted to normalise the product and to make it aspirational – as a sort of alternative to eating After Eights at a dinner party.” WCRS developed a mock ad, which featured the Seventies track “Summer breeze” by the Isley Brothers and the end line :”Seventh Heaven makes every evening end on a high note”.

While CLK and WCRS developed the bogus brand for TV other real companies have considered what they may do with cannabis if it were legalised. Richard Branson has been reported as saying that he would extend his Virgin empire to Virgin cannabis if it were legalised. However, a Virgin spokesman says that what Branson in fact said was that he would sell it if it were legal and if it were proved 100 per cent that it was safe.

The spokesman adds: “Many companies would be worried about getting involved because of the safety aspect. I doubt that tobacco companies would have been so keen to get into the market all those years ago if they knew then that cigarette smoking is detrimental to your health and that consumers would bring class actions for damages as they are now doing.”

Carlsberg-Tetley has recently carried out research into youth lifestyles and trends. While it is not suggesting that two halves of lager and a packet of spliffs will become the standard order in pubs, the company has investigated “cannabis cafes” in Amsterdam. These allow the sale and consumption of cannabis in certain cafes and undermine the criminal dealing end of the market. A spokesman for Carlsberg says: “We have been doing a lot of research into future trends and attitudes to all sorts of things, including cannabis. However, that doesn’t mean we would necessarily open a chain of cannabis bars if it were legal.”

One company that is already making the most of its cannabis associations is Australian clothing company Slaam Streetwear. Australian farmers are finding that one of the most environmentally sound (and also profitable) crops is hemp – a close relative of the cannabis plant which contains low doses of the narcotic THC. Hemp is then turned into fabric for jeans and other clothing. Slaam Streetwear is marketed with a cannabis-leaf logo and the company concedes that its cannabis associations are a marketing ploy. Consumers smell and even taste the clothing, but in reality it is no more than just very strong fabric, claims the company.

While ersatz cannabis clothing is selling well in Australia the biggest problem for real cannabis products – if they ever come to market – is not one of image, perception or safety but cost. In C4’s Joint Ventures the Seventh Heaven brand is scuppered by the duty levied on it.

Producer and director Ian Potts says: “Accountants suggested that the Seventh Heaven chocolates would cost £10 for a half-pound box, but if the same duty were to be levied on them as for cigarettes – and that is 380 per cent – then the chocolates would have to retail for £60.”

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