San Diego Proposals Illustrate Tricky Issues Around Cannabis Advertising

    San Diego City Council is currently considering far-reaching restrictions on cannabis billboard ads. A revised land development code update, first proposed by District 6 Council Member Chris Cate in 2018, would ban such ads within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks, playgrounds, day care centers and youth centers. Cate initially wanted to also ban ads near libraries, churches, residential care facilities, and even residential housing, but these venues are not included in the current proposal.

    Cate argues that these rules are necessary to protect children and families from cannabis advertising. San Diego’s neighbor to the north, the city of Los Angeles, implemented a law in 2018 requiring that cannabis billboard ads be at least 700 feet away from schools, daycare centers, public parks and public libraries.

    California state law already includes some cannabis advertising restrictions. Under Proposition 64—the legalization measure approved by Californian voters in 2016—cannabis billboard ads cannot be placed within 1,000 feet of day care centers, K-12 schools, playgrounds, or youth centers. It also regulates radio, cable, digital and print ads, banning them from venues where audiences are predominantly under-age. Companies also cannot use elements like cartoons or toys that appeal to children.

    Billboard advertising, together with other outlets like magazines and newspapers, has become particularly attractive for cannabis businesses. This is because digital platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google prohibit cannabis ads. Advertising on online platforms like WeedMaps has resulted in intense controversy because of the proliferation of ads from unlicensed businesses.

    But to what extent are heavy restrictions justified or desirable? There is some research on how cannabis advertising affects children. In a 2017 study published in Current Addiction Reports, the authors found that a group of California sixth- and eighth-graders who were exposed to cannabis advertising were more likely to view the drug in a positive light and want to use it.

    Other research has shown that advertising more generally can negatively impact children. A 2004 American Psychological Association research review found that advertising of non-nutritious foods and popular alcohol or tobacco brands was likely to create positive perceptions in children and contribute to their consumption or use of the products. Increases in advertising of certain foods, for example, have been linked to rising childhood obesity rates.

    So there are valid concerns about cannabis advertising and its effects on children. However, these should be balanced with the need to ensure that adults, many of whom require cannabis for medical purposes, can legally and safely use it.

    “Protecting children” should not be a pretext—as has been seen in countless other drug contexts, including most recently in bans of flavored nicotine vapes—for restricting or criminalizing cannabis access. 

    Legalization and youth protection can happily co-exist. In Colorado, teenage cannabis use has dropped below the national average for the first time in history, thanks in part to a state-level youth education campaign. And national research has found that states with medical cannabis laws have lower rates of teenage cannabis use.

    Other states around the country have similarly wrestled with cannabis advertising. In Oklahoma, lawmakers are convening a special state panel to study medical marijuana advertising and make recommendations. “I had four constituents give me a call very concerned with the billboards,” said Rep. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore; “…let’s just say they don’t indicate they are for medical marijuana. It is more of a recreational-type billboard.” The billboards in question had used language like “happy hour” or “treat” to promote the products.

    The San Diego land development code update illustrates the tricky issues faced by both regulators and cannabis companies—and the need for both sides to behave responsibly.

    The proposed rules also include other changes related to cannabis laws—loosening, for example, regulations that require cannabis businesses to be a minimum distance away from housing and other facilities. Unrelated provisions revise regulations on food trucks and alcohol sales. The San Diego Planning Commission will consider the full proposal on October 24, and the City Council may vote on it before the end of the year.


    Photo of cannabis billboard ad in Kirkland, WA by Bri via WikiMedia Commons.

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