No Marijuana Billboards? California Makes It Hard On Legal Weed

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California — birthplace of the Grateful Dead, Snoop Dogg and the Weedmaps app — is still uptight about marijuana, more than four years after voters legalized it for adult recreational use and 25 years after they OKd medicinal herb.

It’s baffling that there is still a stigma attached to cannabis in a state that grows more of it than anywhere else on the planet and whose legal industry employs more people than anywhere in the nation. The industry generated more than $3.7 billion in business last year in California, according to Leafly, a cannabis sales and news site.

Yet conflicts remain. Start with billboard advertising.

It is now illegal for cannabis companies to advertise on billboards along interstate highways in California. That stemmed from a court case brought by a San Luis Obispo man who said seeing a marijuana billboard along the freeway would expose his children to the dangers of the devil’s weed.

A judge ruled last fall that such ads violated the 2016 cannabis legalization initiative’s ban on billboards on highways that cross state lines. California regulators said the ban applied only on highways within 15 miles of state borders, but the judge threw that out.

Reality check: It’s not the billboards. Nearly three-fourths of California’s 11th-graders said marijuana is “fairly easy” or “very easy” to obtain, according to California’s 2015 Blue Ribbon Commission on Marijuana Policy, whose findings informed the legalization initiative, Proposition 64. Or as the panel’s chair, then-Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, said at the time, “We can’t deny the access and ubiquity of this drug.”

There’s an obvious double standard here: California’s children can still turn on the TV or take a drive with Dad and see plenty of ads touting the joys of consuming alcohol.

Assembly Member Jacqui Irwin, a Democrat from Thousand Oaks (Ventura County), doesn’t see a problem with this dichotomy.

For her, it’s about protecting children.

She’s pushing legislation (AB273) that would expand the cannabis ban to include billboards visible from any state highway in California. Yet at the same time, she is carrying a bill that would allow alcohol companies to give as many as a dozen promotional patio umbrellas to licensed booze sellers, a giveaway that is currently restricted.

“The cannabis industry promised not to advertise to children when they argued for Prop. 64’s passage. They have broken that promise, and this bill (AB273) is in response to that,” Irwin told me. “You don’t have to travel far to see billboards advertising cannabis stores and companies called ‘cookies’ and ‘lemonade.’… That is not meeting the intent or spirit of Prop. 64.”

So what’s the difference between advertising alcohol and cannabis?

Irwin says “the people of California have chosen to regulate alcohol and cannabis very differently. While there are similarities, to equate the two ignores the long history of regulation and consumption of alcohol compared to the very newly regulated cannabis industry.”

She said she is carrying the alcohol umbrella legislation (AB1070) “because allowing alcohol retail licenses to receive umbrellas will help these struggling small businesses” that have “not been called out by parents as being attractive to children.”

That seems like a double standard to many in the cannabis business.

Where is California’s pride in a legal industry that counts 57,970 jobs in the state, nearly 24,000 of which were added in the last year, wonders David Mack, a senior vice president at Eaze, a cannabis delivery company. “How in the heck is it OK to make it harder for these legal businesses to succeed?” he asked.

Assembly Member Bill Quirk, a Hayward Democrat, is trying to address this stigma. He wants to help the legal cannabis industry thrive so the illegal one won’t.

For him, it’s about protecting children. Like his.

“It is the illicit market that introduced cannabis to my son when he was in middle school,” Quirk told me. “This type of advertising is an important tool for licensed cannabis providers to be able to compete and stay in business.”

He added, “We still have people who think prohibition is the best policy. It is this thinking and these policies that resulted in cannabis being introduced to my son and daughter by illicit dealers while they were 13 and 16, respectively. We need the legal market to drive the illicit market out of business and protect our children.”

For the record, Quirk’s children are now successful adults, and neither is addicted to any drugs. But he worries that policies that focus on prohibition open the door for the illicit market to make drugs attractive to minors.

Quirk is also working on legislation to address a different marijuana-related oversight in California. His AB1256 would ban California workplaces from using evidence of cannabis use, such as a urine sample, as a reason to fire or not hire someone.

Many urine tests that companies use can’t detect THC, the compound in marijuana that makes you feel high. And the only valid reason to fire a weed user, Quirk said, if is they’re high while on the job.

“No one should be allowed on a work site if they are intoxicated with any substance,” Quirk said. “I want a bill that will assure a person is sober at the workplace as well as allow responsible cannabis users to work.”

Twenty other states have job protections for medical cannabis users. California — the nation’s cannabis capital — does not, nearly three decades after legalizing medicinal cannabis.

“It’s stunning that there are so many other states that offer that protection,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project. “It doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense.”

Maybe it’s not so stunning, given how California is still working out its issues when it comes to weed.