Despite the pleas of patients, dispensary owners and infused-product entrepreneurs, Denver City Council members unanimously approved going forward with a ban on all outdoor medical marijuana advertising in the city -- a more draconian measure than the original proposal for a ban near schools, parks and other facilities.
CB12-0586 would prohibit all advertising that can be seen by the public except a dispensary's sign on its building or parking lot. That means posters inside a shop for things like Cheeba Chews would be a no-no if they were visible through a window. The measure also includes leaflets and sign twirlers. Some have argued that the language could go so far as to outlaw dispensary T-shirts and bumper stickers that patrons willingly wear or display.
If you could see this image through a dispensary window, it would be off limits.
And although the ban doesn't include print advertising (at least not for now), it would require any such ad to feature the phrase: "For registered Colorado medical marijuana patients only." Read the entire document below.
Out of the fifteen or so people who commented publicly at Monday's council meeting, most were against the proposal. Representatives from industry groups such as the Cannabis Business Alliance and the Association of Cannabis Trades of Colorado said an outright ban would hurt their members. Several small medical cannabis business owners spoke in opposition to the full ban as well.
Kristi Kelly, owner of Good Meds and an ACT board member, argued that advertising not only helps current patients find meds, but it also normalizes the process for people considering alternative treatments like medical cannabis. "Thousands of patients have yet to find that relief because of this stigma," she argued.
Vocal supporters of the bill included representatives of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 7. MMIG, which has led the push to get the measure through City Council, says that a citywide prohibition against outdoor advertising could prove beneficial to the industry.
Proponents say the ads currently target the general population and give the impression that medical cannabis is for everyone, not just registered patients. Here's an excerpt from the bill's language, which MMIG helped to craft: "Medical marijuana advertising that uses the same techniques and media utilized to advertise products and services that are available for sale to the general public is inherently deceptive, because such advertising obfuscates the fact that marijuana is not lawfully available to consumers in the same manner as other products and services are, and creates the false impression that the sale of marijuana may be available for non-medical uses."
UFCW Local 7 spokesman Mark Belikin spoke before council and said that a negative public perception of marijuana caused by obnoxious advertising in Fort Collins led to that city's banning medical marijuana businesses altogether.
In public remarks, MMIG and UFCW Local 7 representatives said they were speaking on behalf of their members. Westword asked both for a membership list, but both declined to provide one.
MMIG director Michael Elliott said his organization does not give out its membership roster for "several reasons," despite his organization claiming to speak for more than fifty of them. Also worth noting: No individual medical marijuana business owners spoke in favor of the ban.
Belkin was more specific as to why Local 7 won't share, noting that the union's members aren't dispensaries but employees of them: "We don't disclose information about employers. That's confidential information," he wrote in an e-mail. "Also, disclosing who our members are would be used by the anti-union opposition of some employer groups. We represent some of the best workers in the industry and we don't want them to be a focus of the opposition."
Kristi Kelly of ACT for Colorado, which opposed the citywide ban, did not respond to e-mails, and there is no member information on the group's website.
Only Shawn Coleman, executive director of the Cannabis Business Alliance, favored a limited advertising ban but objected to citywide prohibition. He forwarded us a link to the CBA web page that lists its membership.
Those for and against the proposal were able to agree on one thing: They all said something should be done about sign-spinners who have been popping up on street corners along major thoroughfares.
This seems to have been the one recurring thread throughout the whole ban discussion, which started back in May. But if the sign spinners are the major concern of councilmembers, opponents said, perhaps the measure should directly address that problem alone rather than take such a broad approach to any outdoor advertising for MMJ.
City Attorney David Broadwell noted that while such an advertising ban is almost unprecedented, so is medical marijuana's unusual legal position in Denver. "If you've got a product that is unique and has a completely different legal context and legal foundation than other products might have," he said, "then regulation might be justified where it might normally not be."
Broadwell said he was confident that if the citywide ban would be upheld if passed but then challenged in court, as some medical cannabis advocates have threatened to do.
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Denver City Council will take a final vote on the proposed measure next Monday, August 20. Here's the proposal.
More from our Marijuana archive: "Marijuana initiatives: Why three alternatives to Amendment 64 didn't make ballot."