Medical marijuana ads for happy hours, back-to-school specials could face new Boulder reg

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Boulder may have a reputation as the Weed Capitol of the United States, but the city's medical marijuana center licensing requirements are arguably tougher than Denver's. And they could get even more stringent if city council passes an MMJ advertising proposal it'll mull over tonight.

Here's the proposed change, from the agenda for tonight's meeting, expected to get underway at 6 p.m.:

Advertisement. A medical marijuana business may not advertise in a manner that is inconsistent with the medicinal use of medical marijuana. A medical marijuana business may not advertise in a manner that is misleading, deceptive, false, or is designed to appeal to minors. Advertisement that promotes medical marijuana for recreational or any use other than for medicinal purposes shall be a violation of this code.

City of Boulder spokeswoman Sarah Huntley notes that the language pertains to signage as well as advertising in local publications. "The concern we've heard from members of the community and council is that they feel some of these ads are crossing the line -- that they're not really advertising marijuana for medicinal purposes, but advertising marijuana more broadly, and specifically for recreational purposes," she says.

Examples? Huntley mentions pitches for so-called "happy hours" at dispensaries, as well as "back-to-school ads, which tend to target a younger population. Not to say some CU students or other people of that age aren't medical marijuana patients, but many of them are not."

Officials are hoping to tackle these gripes within the licensing context, Huntley continues. "Boulder has regulations that require marijuana providers, whether they're grow operations or dispensaries or food providers, to have medical marijuana business licenses. We've just gone through a rigorous, intensive process over the past year -- and each business will have to go through a renewal process over the next year, much like liquor businesses do. And the proposal suggests that these concerns play a role in that regulatory context."

Of course, advertising is considered speech in the eyes of the law -- meaning First Amendment issues could come into play regarding what some observers might see as censorship. But Huntley says city attorneys believe "we're on solid footing" because "under state law, you're not allowed to promote or advertise illegal activity," and marijuana use continues to be a violation unless it's used for medicinal purposes. She adds that businesses confident they haven't done anything wrong "are certainly welcome to take it to court and ask for an independent review."

Huntley stresses that there won't be "a litmus test" in which particular wording, phrasing or imagery would instantly result in a violation -- although she acknowledges that "we expect over time that we'll start to develop a line." Instead, the licensing clerk will evaluate items on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, the provision would not be retroactive, so past ads could not be used to deny future licensing. And in an effort to avoid the appearance of inflexibility, "we anticipate that if we have concerns about individual businesses, we'll reach out to them prior to their renewal process to let them know. Then, if there's a repeat, our licensing clerk can use that as one of many possible concerns."

The bottom line from Huntley's perspective: "Essentially, we're asking them to be responsible advertisers."

More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical marijuana: Did Boulder's publication of a map showing grow locations violate the law?"

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