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California Won’t Ban Cannabis Ads, for Now

September 6, 2017

California lawmakers have backed away from a plan to impose significant restrictions on cannabis advertising, agreeing to kill a bill that would have banned cannabis-industry ads on clothing and other merchandise.

The proposal, by state Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), would have prohibited state-licensed cannabis businesses from advertising “through the use of branded merchandise, including, but not limited to, clothing, hats, or other merchandise with the name or logo of the product.” Nonprofits and other noncommercial speech would have been exempt.

“This was a commonsense measure.”

Allen and other supporters of SB 162 said the measure was aimed at protecting children from potentially harmful marketing practices. But critics complained that the bill went too far and could ultimately do more harm than good.

“SB 162 is broad enough in its language that it could cover branded merchandise worn by employees or even merchandise produced by an unlicensed third party if it was done so for the licensee,” Rebecca Stamey-White, a San Francisco-based lawyer who works with the cannabis and alcohol industries, told Leafly in June, as the bill made its way through the state Legislature.

In May the state Senate passed the measure unanimously, 40–0. In June, an Assembly committee OK’d it on a 12–0 vote. But from there it languished, and lawmakers on Friday of last week chose to let it die.

Some opponents argued the proposal risked unfairly restricting free speech. Others worried it could hamstring small businesses. And yet others argued that, because the bill applied only to state-licensed cannabis businesses, it might lead to absurd outcomes, such as barring even tasteful apparel by licensed cannabis businesses while ignoring more problematic merchandise sold by non-cannabis entities.

After the bill’s failure, Allen defended the bill to the LA Times, calling it a “commonsense measure.”

“The Legislature in the past has wisely prohibited advertising with branded merchandise by tobacco companies, expressly because items like hats and t-shirts are known to entice kids to smoke,” he said. “This was a commonsense measure to apply similar restrictions that would help prevent marijuana use by teens.”

California’s current cannabis laws already include restrictions on the use of certain music, language, shapes, cartoon characters, and other content shown to capture kids’ attention. And in addition to staying away from schools, daycares, and youth centers, advertisements can be served only to audiences where at least 71.6% of people are 21 and over.

Branded merchandise is also currently restricted, with distribution allowed only at “an industry trade show or other similar venue where the attendees are required to be 21 years of age or older.”

While SB 162’s failure is widely seen as a win for the legal cannabis industry, it’s unlikely the advertising fight is over. Fears of industry influence and advertising to minors were among the more politically potent arguments against Proposition 64, the state’s adult-use legalization measure, as voters considered it last year. Expect to see further efforts by lawmakers aimed at putting voters’ minds at ease.

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Ben Adlin

Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based writer and editor who specializes in cannabis politics and law. He was a news editor for Leafly from 2015-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @badlin

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