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  • Eric Ennis

So, You Want to Advertise Cannabis, Are You High?


The country is reconsidering the value and potential benefits of different forms of products derived from Marijuana or Cannabis. Since this is a state issue and not necessarily a federal issue, lets focus on the states, and which states have laws in favor or against the differing degrees of legality for cannabis. To be clear we are not taking any sides in this debate, but simply highlighting the potential for growth of the industry and how the different states will need to determine how cannabis companies will be allowed to promote and advertise their products and services.


They breakdown to the following categories this way. Legalized, Medical & Decriminalized, Medical, Decriminalized, CBD only, and Fully Legal.


The industry seems to be taking several cues from the Beer/Liquor & Wine industry and how it has negotiated and determined what rules and restrictions each media channel will follow. The long standing “Alcohol Industry” standard for advertising was that 70% or more of an ad medium’s viewership had to be 21 or older. That was recently revised to the new standard that 71.6% of the audience must be 21 or older. Additionally, alcohol advertising’s creative messages should not be designed to target or appeal to people under the age of 21. Using cartoon characters etc. is discouraged. The advertising cannot promote brands based on alcohol content or its effects. Lastly, the ads must not encourage irresponsible drinking.


As an example of how states are applying a similar line of thinking with regards to its regulation of cannabis advertising, Colorado law states that cannabis companies cannot advertise on television or radio without “reliable evidence that no more than 28.4% of the publication’s viewership is reasonably expected to be under the age of 21.” This rule is also applied to print and digital media. Of course, some digital properties can add “age gating” to help enforce this.


Cannabis advertising has various levels of censoring by social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.


One example to consider is the city of Denver. The city at first, was not allowing billboards, except for company store signs. Any advertising visible from the streets, sidewalks, parks, or other public places within the city limits was prohibited. Thanks to changes to a 2019 bill overhauling the marijuana industry regulations, restrictions were eased. Those same businesses may now utilize outdoor advertising if it is placed at least 500 feet away from schools, playgrounds and churches. This is similar to the restrictions billboards must comply with regarding Alcohol.


In the lead up to these easing of restriction, several dispensaries skirted the laws by sponsoring sections of the “Adopt-a-highway-Program.” This secured the companies name on signs along highways as partners with the state DOT, which maintained regular clean ups of 2 mile stretches of the highway in CO. More than 48% of the programs 248 miles of highways in 2018 were sponsored by marijuana companies.


One of the key concerns, most often cited as reasons for restricting advertising methods, are based upon a myriad of studies about how cannabis products can alter the developing mind of younger people, who have not reached adulthood yet. Despite society’s declining concern over the risks associated with cannabis use, neuropsychiatric conditions, automobile crashes and substance use disorders are often sited in studies as negative outcomes more associated with teens than with adults. In 2019, the Surgeon General’s report warned, “Cannabinoid receptors are crucial for brain development, which is why cannabis use during adolescence carries special risks.”.


A recent study was published in the “Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs” led by Dr. Pamela J. Trangenstein, Associate Professor of Health Behavior at the UNC-Chapel Hill Gilling’s School of Global Public Health. The research of 172 teens, ages 15 to 19, who lived in states with legal recreational marijuana and who used the drug at least once, reported that compared with those that never saw a billboard or storefront ad, those that said they saw them “Most of the time” or “Always” had seven times the odds of frequent cannabis use and nearly six times the odds of having Cannabis use disorder. Ironically, Teens who occasionally saw some form of cannabis ad on Instagram were 85% less likely to use marijuana frequently compared to those that never saw such promotions.


So is a takeaway from an advertising perspective, that outdoor advertising is more effective at promotion of certain products, than other forms of advertising like social media? Or is it that that some limited and defined parameters modeled after the Alcohol industry, like the distance from schools, playgrounds and churches should be strictly adhered too?


Who is ultimately responsible for cannabis advertising? The “Advertiser” or the “Vendor” that owns the platform. It seems to be a mix of responsibilities based upon the type of media. With OOH, the largest player Lamar, has published a slightly more restrictive policy directive than the state, at least in Colorado. Lamar’s rules for Cannabis ads include the Minimum of 85% of the targeted audience must be 21 or older, vs the state rule of 71.6%.

It’s other guidelines mirror much of the Alcohol and Cannabis laws currently in place.



  • Copy must not appeal to minors

  • Slag words like “Weed” or “Pot” cannot be used

  • No images of the plant or leaf

  • No mention or image of ingestible products or paraphernalia

  • No false Health Claims

  • No images of any product that is ingestible or edible

  • All copy must first be approved by Lamar and is subject to state and local authorities.

  • Disclaimers may be required in select markets

It should be recommended that the Cannabis industry continue to take their lead from the alcohol beverage industry. They should pool their resources of the different advocacy groups, to focus efforts now to study, establish, and publish guidelines of “best practices” for the nation, as it relates to advertising of Cannabis products. Codify the restrictions intended to keep the products out of the purview of children. Distinctions should be drawn that better define the right-minded promotion of legal Cannabis products. Early adoption and codification of the standards pre-emptively should head off government intervention and potential heavy handed crushing regulations that can often follow.



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