State lawmakers don't think pot billboards should be appealing to kids

This billboard for Tacoma’s Clear Choice Cannabis is an example of one lawmakers say they want to avoid. The store owner says he didn’t intend the ad to appeal to kids and is taking it down. Courtesy photo Washington Legislature

Washington state lawmakers are looking to crack down on roadside marijuana billboards that feature cannabis plants, cuddly animals or other images they fear could attract children to the drug.

The Legislature on Thursday passed a wide-ranging set of tweaks to the state’s marijuana laws, including new rules for what can and can’t appear on pot billboards.

The measure, Senate Bill 5131, awaits a signature from Gov. Jay Inslee.

The bill would allow outdoor advertisements for marijuana to show only a shop’s name, logo, location and the type of business it is. No depictions of pot plants or products would be permitted.

The bill also says weed billboards can’t use “images that might be appealing to children.”

State Rep. David Sawyer, who chairs the House committee that deals with marijuana policy, said lawmakers are doing their best not to flaunt Washington’s legal marijuana industry in the faces of federal officials who still consider the drug illegal.

State Rep. David Sawyer, D-Parkland, on trying to keep Washington’s legal weed market out of trouble with the federal government

Part of that means adhering closely to past federal guidance that says states must make sure pot stays out of the hands of minors, he said.

Sawyer, D-Parkland, said he’s worried that colorful roadside billboards, if left unchecked, could draw unwanted federal attention.

“I think if we are not the strictest state in the country, that we may have a target on our back,” he said.

Initiative 502, which Washington voters approved in 2012, legalized recreational marijuana use in the state, but only for adults over 21.

Still, lawmakers say they’ve been seeing pot shop billboards that seem to appeal to a younger demographic.

One example circulating around the Legislature hails from Pierce County, near Canyon Road East and 112th Street East. There, an ad for Tacoma’s Clear Choice Cannabis included a picture of a cat, along with the words, “Im so high right meow” (sic).

State Rep. Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, said that kind of advertisement will grab the attention of children, especially those just learning to read.

“The people who have called me from my district are very concerned because every time they drive past, the billboards are in their face,” McDonald said.

State Rep. Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, on why she pushed to ban marijuana billboards

Adam Schmidt, the shop owner, said he is taking down the billboard after hearing lawmakers’ complaints. He said the ad was never intended to appeal to kids, but instead to distinguish his business from others in the minds of adults.

“We try to be creative with our advertising like any business would, and they just didn’t like that,” he said.

McDonald she doesn’t understand why the state prohibits cigarette billboards, but allows them for weed. Under a 1998 settlement agreement reached with 46 states, including Washington, tobacco companies agreed to stop using billboards to advertise their products.

McDonald temporarily amended SB 5131 to ban marijuana billboards altogether, but that provision later was stripped from the bill.

Other lawmakers said they couldn’t support a ban on marijuana billboards. Sawyer said he worried a blanket prohibition could raise free-speech concerns, opening the state up to a potential lawsuit on First Amendment grounds.

Even so, some lawmakers said they’d like to see the Legislature restrict marijuana billboards further in the future.

“When you have those big billboards out there for our youth to see, it just telegraphs legitimacy,” said state Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place. Kilduff initially voted in favor of a marijuana billboard ban, but later supported the version of the legislation with fewer restrictions.

Adam Schmidt, owner of Tacoma’s Clear Choice Cannabis

Before passage of the bill Thursday, the state Liquor and Cannabis Board already had rules in place telling businesses not to target advertising to children.

But Sawyer said the new language specifying exactly what can appear on billboards — and banning everything else — should lead to fewer questionable roadside ads.

McDonald said she’s not so sure.

“It’s not allowed now, and nobody cares,” she said of marijuana business owners using kid-friendly images. “This just proves to me they don’t care about the law.”

Ezra Eickmeyer, a lobbyist for the industry group Cannabis Retailers for Smart Regulation, said a few distasteful billboards slipping through is an enforcement issue and shouldn’t be used to characterize the whole industry.

He said he and other industry lobbyists urged the Legislature to adopt the new rules restricting what can go on pot billboards.

“We’re cooperatively, actively pursuing good regulations to make sure we don’t attract underage users,” Eickmeyer said. “We’re being responsible here and solving our own problems.”

Eickmeyer said he’s particularly pleased with another part of the measure that bans sign spinners — people holding or spinning signs on the sidewalk — from being used to advertise pot shops, something he said “crosses a line.”

SB 5131 also would clarify that it is not a crime to give marijuana to a friend who is of age. Right now, only licensed marijuana businesses can transfer marijuana, and giving any amount of pot or marijuana edibles to another person is a class C felony.

Eickmeyer called that change in the law “absolutely needed” and a “no-brainer.”

“Come on, you light up a joint at a party with a friend who is of age, and it’s a felony to pass that joint to the person next to you?” he said. “There’s no logic in that.”

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