cannabis advertising

How Should California Regulate Cannabis Advertising?


The Emerald Tribune

California Senate Bill 162 was proposed to limit the advertising of cannabis brands, to the end of protecting children. It would have banned cannabis-branded billboards and apparel, the use of cartoon characters, and sporting events sponsorship. The bill died in the Senate last month. The Emerald Tribune considers the laws regulating similar industries, in an attempt to figure out how best to manage cannabis advertising in California. 

Walking down any city street in California, you are likely to see window displays full of clothing and other apparel decorated with cannabis leaves. The seven-pointed fan leaf is gaining in popularity and cultural cache as legalization sweeps across the nation.

Imagine an article of clothing covered with cannabis images, and you are just a few clicks away from finding it online. If you do online shop for some weed-themed products, expect to see lots of advertisements for similar products on social media and other ad-supported websites.

Got Trim? Billboard on 101

Got Trim? A billboard visible from 101 North

You are also likely to see billboards and large advertisements for specific cannabis brands. They started popping up in Humboldt County earlier this year, and more seem to appear every day.

Not everyone is excited about it. Some lawmakers are concerned that children who are exposed to cannabis apparel and advertising will be tempted to smoke it, when they otherwise might not. California Senate Bill 162 (SB-162) was introduced by state senator Ben Allen of Santa Monica.

“Cannabis companies would be expressly forbidden from advertising in the most common and effective ways”

SB-162 would have banned the advertising of cannabis brands on roadside billboards and apparel. The bill also would have banned the use of cartoon characters, and advanced marketing techniques like sponsorship of sporting events.

Two different cannabis billboards on 101

Two billboards for cannabis-related industries on 101 North

Only cannabis companies would have been affected by SB-162. Apparel companies that produce hats and shirts emblazoned with weed imagery would have been unaffected, so long as they were not advertising to induce the sale of cannabis.

Cannabis companies would be expressly forbidden from advertising in the most common and effective ways, even if they used non-cannabis imagery. Billboard ads on the freeway would be banned. Radio, TV, and other broadcast formats would be limited to times and stations when, “at least 71.6 percent of the audience is reasonably expected to be 21 years of age or older.”

SB-162 suddenly died last month, when the Assembly Appropriations Committee put it on hold. Opponents of the bill claim that Prop 64 includes sufficient language to forbid appealing to children.

“Should cannabis be strictly regulated like cigarettes, or allowed to self-regulate like alcohol?”

Advertising for tobacco is heavily regulated at the state and federal level. Cigarette ads have been banned from national TV since 1973. Advertisements for smoke shops may not mention cigarettes, little cigars, smokeless tobacco, nor any tobacco brand names. Cigarette ads are also forbidden from appealing to children with cartoon characters.

An automated trimmer billboard in Fortuna

An automated trimmer billboard in Fortuna

Alcohol advertising is far less regulated, but there are other ways to control the behavior of brands in a capitalist system. The National Association of Broadcasters, a trade group of TV networks, frowns upon displays of people imbibing alcohol in advertisements. Have you ever noticed how the actors never actually drink any beer in beer commercials? 

Should cannabis be strictly regulated like cigarettes, or allowed to self-regulate like alcohol? What about other so-called “vice” industries, like gambling, or sexually-oriented businesses like strip clubs and adult toy stores? There seem to be very few laws regulating the impact of advertisements from these industries on children, or anyone else for that matter.

“Americans are subjected to more direct-to-consumer drug advertisements than any other nation.”

Legalized gambling is explicitly linked to children by its contribution to schools, positioning itself as a boon to child welfare. The California lottery has contributed over $30 billion to schools since the program began, with 80% of that money going to K-12 education. Driving around California, you will see hundreds of giant billboards and other advertisements for casinos.

A similar sign elsewhere in Fortuna, visible from 101

A similar sign elsewhere in Fortuna, visible from 101 North

Of course, cannabis in California has two sides. We can only compare it to vice industries when talking about the recreational market. The medical cannabis market is more aptly compared to the pharmaceutical industry, which has some of the most prevalent advertising of all.

Americans are subjected to more direct-to-consumer drug advertisements than any other nation. In fact, we are one of only two countries who allow direct-to-consumer advertising for prescription drugs. The other country is New Zealand.

Two different cannabis billboards on 101

A cannabis billboard on 101 North shortly before Eureka

We are inundated with drug commercials all day and night on television, and there don’t seem to be any laws in the books to protect kids from overexposure. Recent voter initiatives like Prop 64 have demonstrated our society’s consensus on the safety of cannabis therapies. Why should they be more restricted than conventional over-the-counter or prescription drugs?

It remains to be seen if another law will be written to replace the failed SB-162. Opponents contend that Prop 64 contains sufficient language to protect children from unwanted exposure to cannabis advertising. Perhaps we should examine our treatment of other vices and pharmaceuticals when we consider new cannabis legislation.

cannabis advertising

A billboard on 101 North in Eureka


For the time being, all of the pictured billboards will be allowed to stand. Until another law is written and passed, the only limits to cannabis advertising are set by Prop 64, and by local ordinances. 

What do you think about the failure of SB-162? 

How do you think cannabis advertising should be regulated? 

Drop us a comment below and let us know! 

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