If the Medical Marijuana Industry Group has its way, there'll be a citywide ban on outdoor medical marijuana advertising in Denver.
And with the idea for this proposal currently floating around city council, MMIG might just get its wish.
The concept originated in Denver City Councilwoman Debbie Ortega's office. According to Ortega, the initial draft of her resolution was intended to ban outdoor advertisements like billboards, sign twirlers and sandwich boards within 1,000 feet of schools, daycares and parks.
To help craft her plan, Ortega asked several industry groups, including the Cannabis Business Alliance and the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, to bring their notions to the table. "I didn't know who to be talking with, so I relied on them to help me identify who the individuals were that needed to be at the table," she says.
Ortega says a group of about a half-dozen people met on at least two or three occasions. The draft that emerged was authored by Denver's city attorney based on existing city tobacco advertising bans. But at the last meeting, Ortega says MMIG director Michael Elliot brought up the idea of a citywide ban.
"I said, 'Now you are talking about a complete different intent,'" Ortega recalls. She remembers telling Elliott, "'What I am willing to do is: if you all come together in agreement and want this, I will move this forward. But that is up to you.'" No agreement was reached, she says.
Then, at the last council committee meeting, Ortega was discussing her original proposal when she says Elliot brought his citywide ban proposal before the entire city council. "The only issue before council was the draft bill," she stresses. "That is the one I am willing to move forward with now."
In a statement shared with Westword, Elliot argues that the proposal for a citywide ban is better than a less sweeping prohibition because it doesn't play into the whole "we must protect the children" approach that the U.S. Attorney has taken to shutting down MMCs within 1,000 feet of schools.
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According to Elliott, the council's real problem is not that the ads target children, but that the 98.25 percent of Coloradans who do not have a medical marijuana license are subjected to them. He also expresses fear that should a ban like the one Ortega first proposed is approved, dispensaries near parks could be recipients of federal closure letters.
"As it stands, even our biggest allies on city council remain frustrated with sign wavers and outdoor advertisements for $20 1/8's," he writes. "Such advertisements unite opposition to medical marijuana, undermine our support, and are largely responsible for the banning of MMJ businesses in Fort Collins and other jurisdictions. As a community, we should decide whether these advertisements are doing more harm than good. Perhaps the best approach would be 'out of sight, out of mind.'"
But Shawn Coleman of the Cannabis Business Alliance doesn't see it that way. The ban within 1,000 feet of schools makes sense in that it is specifically focuses on one demographic, he believes. Besides, supporting the most limited plan is preferable in his mind, since the council could have enacted a ban without input from groups like his.
In his view, a citywide ban "would harm the small businesses trying to do the right thing. You've got smaller operations who are off major thoroughfares and not in big locations for a reason. They've got a few small signs out and they need that ability to let people know where they are."
He also thinks a citywide ban stigmatizes the industry further and doesn't help to legitimize what medical marijuana providers are doing for patients.
Page down to continue reading about a possible marijuana outdoor advertising ban. "It is like one of the councilwomen pointed out: There are commercials for Ambien on all the time," Coleman goes on. "Just because someone isn't using a therapeutic method to treat their ailment -- just because they aren't doing it now doesn't mean that with some level of awareness, they might want to talk to their physician about it. A citywide ban runs a risk of creating a stigma. It says, 'We are uncomfortable with the industry altogether.'That's not good for patients. It is a slippery slope."
Ortega says she would help push a citywide ban if the industry backed such action. However, she admits she's unsure of its legality from a First Amendment standpoint.
In the Denver Post, MMIG member Norton Arbelaez implied that there wouldn't be any free speech grounds for challenging any ban on medical marijuana ads. Because marijuana is illegal at the federal level, he is quoted as saying, it isn't protected under the First Amendment.
Free speech attorney David Lane maintains that Arbalaez's argument is completely wrong.
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"It is protected free speech," he says. "Just because something is illegal doesn't mean we can't talk about it. You are allowed to discuss how to make a bomb and you can discuss -- if you are going to make a bomb -- where you can plant it so it does the most damage."
But that doesn't mean a ban couldn't be instituted. Lane notes that existing laws would support limited bans -- and free speech in commercial advertising receives slightly less protection than political free speech. He refers to a ban on TV cigarette ads as an example.
Other cities have taken action against MMJ advertising, including San Francisco, which requires ads to note that the medical ganja being advertised is only for registered patients, and Boulder, which bars things like "happy hours" and "back to school specials".
More from our Marijuana archive: "Medical Marijuana Industry Group decries feds' Cali crackdown, touts Colorado regs (VIDEO)."