Eager to build brand awareness in an industry subject to tight advertising and marketing restrictions, six cannabis firms have purchased a total of 16 “sponsor-a-highway” signs across the state, according to the state Department of Transportation, which supervises two corporate vendors that manage the program.
There is a problem: The simple designs are missing a series of warnings that the Cannabis Control Commission requires on every advertisement by a licensed marijuana company. Now, MassDOT officials will consult with the commission about whether to yank the signs.
The dispute comes as the industry tries to navigate the often-confounding set of restrictions on advertising in the state’s legal cannabis industry. Marijuana companies and state regulators are struggling to balance the expansion of the industry with demands by public health advocates, who have fought to restrict ads for tobacco and alcohol for decades.
“You never know when you’re driving down the street if your child is going to look up and say, ‘Gee, Mom, what’s that on the billboard?’ — just like with Joe Camel back in the day,” said cannabis commissioner Jen Flanagan, who helped draft the agency’s advertising and marketing rules. “It’s really about striking a balance between allowing businesses to grow but at the same time limiting exposure to the products.”
Flanagan called the sponsor-a-highway signs that lack required warnings “problematic,” saying, “I would like to have the disclaimers on them.”
The commission requires every marijuana advertisement to carry at least four different warning messages: one saying “please consume responsibly,” two of five possible health cautions (among them admonishments for pregnant women and minors to abstain), and a long paragraph containing various other disclaimers.