"Cannabis is medicine".
That's the message this morning splashed across Auckland's largest digital billboard on the corner of Anzac Avenue and Beach Road in the first advertising campaign from a licensed New Zealand cannabis company.
Helius Therapeutics, the Kiwi cannabis start-up bought into by rich-lister Guy Haddleton, today launched a nationwide advertising campaign that aims to reshape the reputation of cannabis from black market recreational drug to a legitimate treatment.
This follows the Government passing The Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill, setting the way for the creation of a medicinal cannabis scheme that will allow New Zealand companies to manufacture medicinal cannabis.
The campaign will start on billboards throughout New Zealand, before shifting to nationwide newspaper ads early next year.
Helius executive director Paul Manning says the campaign will feature eight Kiwis, who are a cross-section of patients, advocates, entrepreneurs and parents.
"These New Zealanders passionately support medicinal cannabis and each has their own story to tell," Manning tells the Herald.
"We want to highlight that it will be mainstream people who will use medicinal cannabis, which will soon become a very mainstream product."
Drawing on his long career in the ad industry, Manning commissioned well known creative director Simon Shattky (the mind behind New Zealand's recent takeover of Times Square in New York) to pull together the campaign.
Manning concedes that some might find the campaign confronting but says the overarching aim is to make people comfortable with seeing cannabis in the mainstream.
He says until now much of the stigma associated with cannabis is derived from the plant existing on the outskirts of society as a black market product.
This stigma is something that Manning has seen first-hand.
Jokes about sampling the product and living the "high" life were commonplace when he first told friends and former associates he was starting Helius. Beyond extracting a polite chuckle, these moments served to confirm to Manning that cannabis was in serious need of a rebrand.
"Medicinal cannabis is not about people getting high," says Manning.
"It's about people feeling healthier. And we're hoping our campaign will be a conversation-starter over the holidays."
Manning says this is part of the reason why the campaign employs real people, rather than models or actors.
"It's about honouring the people who have been courageous enough to fight for access despite the perception of cannabis in the mainstream over the years."
Manning points to the struggle of one of the faces of the campaign, mother Katy Thomas, in trying to get access to medicinal cannabis for her child who has a severe form of epilepsy.
"Over the years, it couldn't have been easy for a mother to go to media and ask for permission to give her child cannabis. There was a lot at stake in terms of her reputation," Manning says.
However, sentiments have been changing over the last year. A recent study commissioned by Helius found that a growing proportion of New Zealanders now want access to cannabis products to treat a range of ailments, well beyond the remit of palliative care.
Manning says he hopes this campaign will help to inspire New Zealanders in the mainstream to submit their views when the Ministry of Health calls for public input in the new year.
"Just like the passionate Kiwis in our campaign, we will need everyday people to have their say in the coming months on the pending regulations and scheme for medicinal cannabis," he says.
"The legislation may have passed but the process is by no means over, with the manual now to be written."
Faces of the campaign:
• Katy Thomas -A passionate mum blogger with a son who has severe epilepsy . • Pearl Schomburg - A medical cannabis advocate and driving force behind Auckland Patients Group).
• Emmelene Pryce - Mother with a son who suffers from with epilepsy.
• Neville Findlay - Zambesi founder and medical cannabis supporter.
• Helene Ravlich - Writer and breast cancer survivor.
• Grace Boyle - Marketer and medical cannabis supporter.
• Myken Stewart - Business person and endometriosis sufferer.
• Danny Battershill - High-profile cannabis patient suffering from severe autoimmune eczema.