As of December 2018, ten American states have legalized the use of cannabis for adults, while 33 states have allowed it for medical reasons. Since more states may legalize in 2019, the de-stigmatizing of medical cannabis through education has spread to multiple media platforms, including network television. Public service announcements and product advertisements can play a critical role in sparking a public conversation on important issues.

A recent ad for the Gillette campaign that launched earlier this month addressed the pervasive nature of toxic masculinity and invited men to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man today. Responses to the campaign have been polarizing, but ultimately the ad succeeded in encouraging important public conversation.

The growing acceptance and increasing legalization of medical cannabis in Canada and various states in the USA has also sparked a number of discussions revolving around what is acceptable to air on television. A recent decision by CBS, a well-known television and radio broadcasting network, in which they refused to air an ad for medical cannabis during the Superbowl has recently come under scrutiny.

The medical cannabis ad, created by Acreage Cannabis, depicts real people of various ages and demographics who suffer from chronic and debilitating conditions. Among those depicted are a young teenage boy with seizures, a man addicted to opiates, and a veteran who lost a limb in service to his country. All testified to the benefit of medical cannabis in their lives and how it could potentially save others. The ad ends with the line “The time is now” and a call to action urging citizens to contact their local politicians and advocate for change.

Although there was a clear disclaimer at the end of the ad explaining that it is “for educational benefit only” and “not intended to constitute an offer of sale of any products or materials”, the TV spot was refused by CBS on the basis that the network simply doesn’t air any cannabis-related advertising.

CBS is no stranger to controversy – the network and the NFL has been both praised and criticized for its lack of support towards athletes like Colin Kaepernik, who sat down during the playing of The Star-Spangled Banner during a televised game in order to protest police brutality and to support the Black Lives Matter movement. The NFL’s responses to this and similar instances displayed a tendency to try to appease their audience rather than an attempt to understand the deeper significance of the issue.

This attitude towards complex issues is a possible explanation for CBS’s decision to ban the medical cannabis PSA. The ad is geared towards de-stigmatizing cannabis, and focuses on its medical use so that potential patients can understand their options. However, in CBS’s eyes, campaigns to educate people about medical cannabis could be viewed as creating ‘unnecessary’ access or encouraging viewers to use marijuana, something that the network deems to be inappropriate or potentially offensive to their viewer base.

Since the medical cannabis ad was banned from appearing during the Superbowl, it has continued to stoke controversy on both sides of the medical cannabis debate. On the one hand, medical cannabis is not yet legalized in all American states despite its many proven benefits. On the other hand, the Super Bowl has a long history of airing beer ads that potentially promote a toxic drinking culture and ads for clothing and products that, unlike Gillette, do not encourage men or women to challenge harmful stereotypes.

The Super Bowl also runs ads that feature medications with numerous harmful and questionable side effects. However, what does this mean for maintaining fairness in the marketplace? If ads about other medications are permitted to air on the basis that consumers can make their own decisions regarding the product, then is CBS’s stance on medical cannabis entirely fair?

Despite the fact that the company Acreage Holdings has a license to distribute and grow cannabis, and that medical cannabis is legal in several states, no television networks have aired the ad, though it can be viewed online. The polarizing responses that these ads received is a clear indication of how far we have to go with continuing education on gender issues, healthcare, access to treatment, and creating safe spaces. The normalization of medical cannabis use is integral to furthering the fight for supporting patients long term.

Does the banning of the medical cannabis ad count as censorship? Compared to other ads that CBS has run, is the decision fair?