Cannabis company Helius Therapeutics removes billboards after complaints

One of the billboards which caused the trouble. Helius Therapeutics maintained cannabis was a medicine, but the Advertising Standards Authority disagreed.
FIONA GOODALL/GETTY IMAGES
One of the billboards which caused the trouble. Helius Therapeutics maintained cannabis was a medicine, but the Advertising Standards Authority disagreed.

Billboards promoting cannabis as a medicine have been found in breach of advertising standards.

The Advertising Standards Authority made the decision after several complaints about the billboard campaign in December, but it took no action because the advertiser, Helius Therapeutics, had taken down the signs.

One complainant, T Williamson, said only medicines that had been evaluated by Medsafe and had consent to be distributed were allowed to be advertised in New Zealand. 

A referendum will be held in 2020 on making cannabis legal for personal use.
CHRIS SKELTON/STUFF
A referendum will be held in 2020 on making cannabis legal for personal use.

Another, B Heslop, said the advertisement gave the impression that all cannabis was medicine and therefore good for you, which was misleading.

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Medicinal cannabis company Helius put up three versions of a billboard, each with a different photo of a person and the words, "Cannabis is a medicine."

The company said the purpose of the campaign was to address the stigma associated with cannabis, draw attention to its use as a medicine and honour patients and advocates who had stood up for reform. 

ROBERT KITCHIN/STUFF
The NZ Drug Foundation has commissioned a study into the economic benefits of legalising cannabis, and diverting away from punitive approaches to drugs.

Of the four complainants, two zeroed in on cannabis still being illegal. The Government passed a bill in December which will allow pharmacies to sell regulated marijuana products and plans to hold a referendum on personal cannabis use in 2020.

One complainant, G Smith, said only when medicinal cannabis was legal would it be appropriate to advertise in public where children could see.

T Haddon said the billboard was a breach of Treaty rights and was promoting an illegal substance which affected the minds of youth. 

Paul Manning says medicinal cannabis will soon be a drug for everyday people.
SUPPLIED
Paul Manning says medicinal cannabis will soon be a drug for everyday people.

The ASA acknowledged Helius had acted promptly, but agreed cannabis was still illegal in New Zealand, and it was not socially responsible to imply that all cannabis was "medicine".

It found the billboards breached both the general code and the Therapeutic and Health Advertising Code.

"The complaints board was unanimous in its view the advertisement was likely to mislead, confuse or harm consumers and had not been prepared with the requisite sense of social responsibility."

Medsafe said in December that it was important to note the Government's medical cannabis scheme was designed to increase availability of medicinal cannabis, rather than make all cannabis available.

At the moment, Sativex, a drug for reducing spasms, was the only cannabinoid-based product approved by Medsafe in New Zealand.

Paul Manning, Helius' executive director, said at the time that medicinal cannabis would soon become a very mainstream product, and it was "a "stretch" to suggest that a billboard was going to encourage children to start smoking it.

Helius hopes to have products in the market by 2020 but is waiting on the Health Ministry to finish its work on public consultation, licensing rules and quality standards.

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