Pot ads along highways? Lawmakers wrangle over legalization's consequences

By Patrick McGreevy for the Los Angeles Times

“Broadly banning advertisements such as billboards along highways seems to be go beyond what is reasonable, medicinal cannabis is a form of medical therapy and should not be regulated like alcohol or gambling.” - Mike Liszewski



Comedian Tommy Chong’s image grinned from a freeway billboard near Sacramento in recent months, promoting the counterculture icon’s brand of marijuana to passing motorists.

But now a campaign has begun to outlaw such ads from all state highways, threatening to block entrepreneurs taking advantage of newly legalized pot in California from hawking their wares to a captive audience stuck in traffic.

Five state lawmakers have introduced a bill that would bar advertisements for marijuana products and services from all 265 state highways — 15,100 miles of roadway — in an effort to prevent the marketing of pot to minors in the state.

The measure, which is drawing opposition from Chong and others in the medical marijuana industry, would be a significant expansion of rules adopted under Proposition 64, the initiative approved in November by state voters that legalizes the sale of marijuana for recreational use in California.

The initiative bans billboards for recreational pot products along the 4,315 miles of major state highways that cross state borders.

The proposed new law would expand the billboard rules to also apply to the medical cannabis industry and to 10,000 more miles of state highways, and it closes a loophole that exempts unlicensed pot businesses from the law, according to Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland), an author of the bill.

“Without AB 64, this exception would eclipse the rule and our children would see cannabis ads across the state,” Bonta said. “We feel that all highways, and not just ones which cross state lines, are inappropriate venues for cannabis advertising, particularly as Proposition 64 required an adult audience for advertisements other than billboards.”

Bonta was joined in introducing the legislation by Democratic Assemblymen Ken Cooley of Rancho Cordova, Reggie Jones-Sawyer of Los Angeles and Jim Wood of Healdsburg, as well as Assemblyman Tom Lackey (R-Palmdale).

Chong, a businessman who was part of the Cheech and Chong comedy team known for stoner-themed movies including “Up in Smoke,” said the latest legislative effort represents “antiquated thinking,” and fails to recognize the medicinal value of cannabis.

“It’s totally not justified,” Chong said of the legislation. “It’s stupid. It shows you how ignorant they still are. It’s been proven that marijuana is not only harmless, but it’s good for you. So what are they protecting? Who are they protecting?”

Chong said minors are going to see marijuana ads in other places, including magazines.

The bill is the first attempt to merge the provisions of Proposition 64 on recreational marijuana with the Medical Cannabis Regulation and Safety Act, which was approved by the Legislature in 2015 and regulates medical marijuana.

The latter act provides that a new state bureau will begin issuing licenses for the growth, transportation and sale of marijuana by Jan. 1, 2018.

The new bill would extend the highway billboard ban to also include marijuana-related firms that may not have to get required licenses, including the  dispensary locator website Weedmaps, and events like the Emerald Cup, an annual festival in Northern California that includes music, educational panels and contests for the best pot strains.

The measure would also close an existing loophole that allows pot billboards on more than 10,000 miles of state highways that start and end within the state, including stretches of Pacific Coast Highway, Santa Monica Boulevard, Venice Boulevard and Highland Avenue in Los Angeles County and Beach Boulevard in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Cooley, who lives less than a mile from the Chong billboard, said the bill is needed to provide a uniform approach to marijuana businesses. It also would apply the billboard ban to recreational-use businesses even before licenses are issued.

Activists who support California’s 20-year-old medical marijuana law, including the group Americans for Safe Access, say the proposed new restrictions are too broad.

The group doesn’t oppose reasonable restrictions on advertising, but doesn’t think medical pot should be lumped in with the same prohibitions on alcohol and tobacco ads, according to Michael Liszewski, the group’s director of government affairs.

“Broadly banning advertisements such as billboards along highways seems to be go beyond what is reasonable,” he said, adding “medicinal cannabis is a form of medical therapy and should not be regulated like alcohol or gambling.”  

He suggested a “more reasonable” approach would be to restrict the types of material in medical marijuana ads, such as banning the use of cartoon characters that might appeal to minors.

The billboard featuring Chong was adjacent to the U.S. 50 freeway where more than 120,000 motorists drove by it each day. The sign advertised the availability of Chong’s Choice brand marijuana products at the Horizon Collective, a nearby medical marijuana dispensary.

The dispensary paid for the billboard but recently took it down because of the expense, even though it brought in customers, according to Vincent Austin, a worker at the shop. He said the dispensary might want to advertise there again once the sale of recreational marijuana is allowed, likely in late 2017.

The legislation is not warranted, he said.

“I think that’s wrong,” Austin said. “These businesses are legal and [the state] said it’s legal. We should be able to advertise like anybody else if we want. Why would you want to limit us from being able to do that?”

The concept of the bill is supported by Dennis Hathaway, president of the Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight, who said he has concerns about marijuana-related billboards he has seen popping up in Los Angeles.

Hathaway fears the billboards will send a message to young people that using marijuana is fun without addressing the potential negative health issues involved.

“A billboard is not like an ad on TV where the parents have parental control and can keep their kids from seeing it,” Hathaway said. “Children riding in a car will see the billboards.”