The Complete Guide to Marijuana
Every day brings new questions about the legality of marijuana in different states — the drug remains a schedule 1 substance at the federal level, but 11 states have made weed fully legal, and another 22 allow it for medical usage. So it figures that, with the legal status of cannabis in flux, the regulations regarding cannabis advertising change all the time.
It can be difficult to stay up to date on regulations, especially for boutique dispensaries just getting into the business that want to spread the word about their product but aren’t sure how to get started or where to even look for guidelines.
We have you covered. We’ve put together this guide on marijuana advertising laws, which we’ll update regularly to ensure you have the latest information. Still have questions? You always can contact us to ask.
Who Determines What’s Legal for Marijuana Marketing?
State regulators generally determine laws regarding cannabis advertising. However, not every state has set up such laws. The rate of legalization is outpacing many states’ preparedness — they may not have addressed any questions of advertising legality, which means policies will be set via individual case precedent.
For instance, after a billboard in Maryland depicted Michelangelo’s Adam smoking a jay, state legislators enacted new standards for pot advertising. Up until then, it was relatively unregulated.
What Regulations Have States Placed on Marijuana Advertising?
Many states model their marijuana advertising laws after already-existing ones governing alcohol advertising. One major consideration is exposing kids to advertisements for controlled substances, including marijuana.
When Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana for recreational usage in 2014, the state stuck with a guideline the alcohol industry has used for self-governing — no advertising on television programs, radio stations, websites or print publications where the audience includes more than 30 percent people under age 21.
What Happens to Advertising That Can Be Viewed Across State Lines?
This is an area the states are still working through. It’s complicated.
Since marijuana is banned at the federal level, you won’t see any national advertising for the substance — i.e., you can’t take out an ad in a national sports publication for cannabis because it would probably get the magazine into a mess with federal regulators.
Other regulations vary according to what states the ads will be seen in. You can buy an ad for a dispensary in many magazines that only target Colorado readers. But you can’t buy one in a magazine that will be distributed across state lines. Colorado law explicitly states cannabis sellers cannot target people out of state.
How about advertising in a state that has not legalized marijuana for a dispensary located in a state where marijuana is legal? This, again, is tricky and will likely come down to a court challenge some day.
A controversial billboard in Connecticut, where recreational pot use is illegal, reminded travelers that in nearby Massachusetts, they can use it legally. Groups protested the billboard, but it wasn’t removed. Some state legislatures are putting such items on their agendas for future sessions — so you can be sure there lobbying dollars will flow there.
Safety Claims Closely Monitored
Whatever type of cannabis advertising you engage in, from online to billboard, there is one regulation that remains consistent no matter what state you choose to advertise in, and that’s regarding safety.
You cannot make false claims about your product’s safety. You cannot imply the product does things it can’t deliver. You cannot mislead people about the effects of marijuana. Every state monitors for these things, and violating such guidelines could lead to fines or being blacklisted by a media company.
Other safety-based regulations in advertising:
- No promoting “over consumption” of marijuana
- No claiming unproven curative effects of the drug
- In some states, posting advertising without a list of possible side effects (i.e., may be habit-forming), much like with tobacco advertising
Will Every Media Property Accept Marijuana Advertising?
No. TV stations, magazines, newspapers, websites and billboard vendors can decide whether they want to accept cannabis advertising dollars.
Rejecting them has not, so far, been proven to violate free speech or any other regulations. So if you try to advertise with a brand whose audience doesn’t quite line up with your target, don’t be surprised to receive a rejection. (The NFL famously refused a cannabis ad for the Super Bowl; the league has strict policies regarding player marijuana usage.)
Individual State Laws for Cannabis Marketing
Colorado, California and Washington are three of the most prolific states to legalize marijuana, and all have posted rules governing its advertising. Here’s the rundown on their current rules, but make sure to check back often, as regulations evolve quickly within new sectors like pot advertising.
What Are Colorado’s Pot Advertising Restrictions?
Since Colorado was first to legalize pot, it remains ground zero for the industry. Many things that happen in Colorado wind up imitated in other states. The Marijuana Enforcement Division of Law Enforcement enacted some strict limitations on advertising, including:
- No outdoor signage of any kind
- No mobile or otherwise location-based advertising
- No unsolicited internet pop-up ads
- No banners on mass-market websites
- No unsolicited leaflets or handbills
What Are California’s Laws Governing Cannabis Advertising?
California has the largest economy of any state where cannabis has been legalized. It’s attracting a big share of the advertising dollars in the sector, so you should understand the guidelines governing weed marketing in the state. Here’s a rundown on regulations in California, which went into effect in January 2019:
- TV, digital, print and radio ads for marijuana can only run if at least 71.6 percent of the audience is over 21
- Cannabis advertisers cannot include imagery that would attract minors, such as movie or cartoon characters (in other words, SpongeBob can’t be your celebrity spokesperson)
- No giving away freebies or promoting contests tied to cannabis
- Billboards on highways cannot be closer than 15 miles to the border or 15 miles to another state (this is designed to avoid the aforementioned type of controversy seen between Connecticut and Massachusetts)
What Are Washington’s Marijuana Advertising Laws?
The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board has a comprehensive listing of what’s OK and what’s not in marijuana advertising:
- Hiring agencies to promote videos and using search options like Google Ads is permitted
- No advertising on public transit or in shelters
- No advertising on publicly owned property or within 1,000 feet of places frequented by those under 21, such as schools or playgrounds
- No sign spinners, costumed provocateurs or other people advertising on the streets to bring attention to a business; no inflatable tubes, either
- No wrapped vehicles
- Direct mail is OK as long as you don’t include coupons
- Billboards are allowed, though they cannot use certain words or imagery, such as leaf or joint
Keep Up With the Latest on Cannabis Advertising
Marijuana regulations governing cannabis marketing will change and evolve as the marketplace grows and more states approve it for recreational usage. Stay informed by checking back with us periodically for the latest updates.
Gino Sesto is the Founder of DASH TWO, a Digital and Outdoor Advertising Agency based out of Culver City, CA. He has extensive experience and knowledge within the advertising industry, covering all formats from traditional media to digital media. Gino has over 25 years of experience and has helped with the release of several #1 records, including Bone Thugs N Harmony, The Offspring, Eminem, Jay-Z and more. Over the last 3 years, Gino has grown DASH TWO from 5 employees to over 20 employees and has expanded the company by opening a satellite office in Nashville, TN. Outside of DASH TWO, Gino is also a avid Certified Flight Instructor and is an active member of AOPA and The Entrepreneur Organization.