Lansing — A pair of bipartisan bills in the Michigan House would ban marijuana billboard advertisements throughout the state, but the legislation is strongly opposed by the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association.
A bill by Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township, would ban medical marijuana advertisements on billboards while a bill by Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, would ban recreational marijuana billboard advertisements.
Whiteford, who likened the ban to the prohibition on tobacco billboards, said the legislation stemmed from her drives from West Michigan to Lansing.
“I keep seeing these billboards all over,” Whiteford said. She argued that several of them seem to be tailored toward children, especially those advertising California-based cannabis gummies company Kushy Punch.
“I’m so concerned about children and their exposure if this is allowed to continue,” Whiteford said.
Hammoud had the same concerns about ads that seemed to target children and noted California employed similar rules banning some billboard pot ads earlier this year.
“For anybody who needs to access marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, I highly doubt it’s a billboard that’s their primary source for how to access marijuana. It’s 2021,” Hammoud said.
The legislation has generated swift opposition from the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association, which has about 300 members around the state.
The group will be working to ensure the bills are defeated, said Robin Schneider, executive director of the association. Existing state administrative rules already set appropriate parameters for marijuana advertisements, she argued.
“Our regulatory agency has done a very good job to make sure those advertisements are in compliance with the law,” Schneider said.
Michigan administrative rules have no restrictions that would keep marijuana advertisements off of billboards.
But rules promulgated by the Marijuana Regulatory Agency prohibit targeted marijuana marketing to people 17 years of age or younger for medical marijuana and under the age of 21 for recreational marijuana. Under the rule, businesses are prohibited from advertising marijuana if they believe more than 30% of those who see the ad are under the age of 17 for medical marijuana or under the age of 21 for recreational marijuana.
The Marijuana Regulatory Agency has never disciplined a company formally for failing to abide by advertising rules on billboards, according to a list of its disciplinary action orders. The only advertising action the agency has taken occurred in 2019 after a company claimed its vape cartridges were “free of pesticides, microbials and heavy metals” in an online ad.
The agency, which has no position on the legislation, attempts to work with and educate licensees before taking disciplinary action on violations, said Andrew Brisbo, executive director for the Marijuana Regulatory Agency.
The agency’s advertising rules have evolved since marijuana’s legalization and regulation, Brisbo said. Prior to June 2020, the state banned ads for products of any kind and worked with companies to comply with those rules. Now, the ads are governed by rules that allow product marketing but require truthfulness, prohibit health benefit claims and ban outreach to youth.
“To my knowledge, we’ve received no complaints or concerns” since the rules were changed, Brisbo said.
“I’m comfortable with the rules we have in place as it relates to advertising,” he said, arguing the rules are a reasonable exercise of the agency’s power. “We look at advertising more holistically than simply looking at a single medium, and that’s how we’ve approached our regulations.”
But Hammoud was not reassured by the agency’s rules.
“Obviously that’s failed,” Hammoud said about the regulatory agency’s bans on marketing to kids. “No one can look at the Kushy Punch advertisement and tell me that’s not tailored to kids or youth.”
Schneider disagreed that any billboards, including the Kushy Punch brand, were tailored toward children. They’re no different than casino, alcohol or adult novelty ads along the expressway, but are a long way off from tobacco, she said.
“The fact that tobacco kills people every single day — I don’t view our industry similar to the tobacco industry at all,” Schneider said.
Earlier this year, the California Bureau of Cannabis Control ordered highway billboard companies to stop selling space for cannabis marketing and take down existing ads on roads that cross state boarders, the Associated Press reported. The court-ordered change allowed the signs to remain on highways entirely within California borders.