While the spreading legalization of marijuana for medical and recreational uses stands to produce many subsidiary economic benefits, in areas ranging from food delivery to the flagging black light industry, newspapers may not be able to cash in on this emerging opportunity, at least through advertising.
The U.S. Postal Service regional division based in Portland sent a note to multiple newspapers across the Northwest warning them that carrying ads for marijuana dispensaries, growers or marketers could run afoul of federal law.
The memo noted that although it is legal at the state level, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, and it is therefore against federal law “to place an ad in any publication with the purpose of seeking or offering illegally to receive, buy, or distribute a Schedule I controlled substance.”
The memo went on: “If an advertisement advocates the purchase of clinical marijuana through a Medical Marijuana Dispensary, it does not comply” with federal law.
The warning could have ramifications for newspapers that rely on the USPS to deliver copies to subscribers: although legal action is a concern, more plausibly the postal service may simply decline to deliver their newspapers, with obvious impacts on their subscription and advertising business.
This scenario is especially daunting for rural weeklies, which rely heavily on mail distribution.
The feds aren’t the only obstacle for marijuana advertising, as state governments are also stepping in. In December 2014 Washington State’s Liquor Control Board, which has authority over the marijuana trade, issued strict ad guidelines limiting marketing and promotional efforts by marijuana vendors.
Among other things, no marijuana advertising or labeling on marijuana or marijuana-infused products may claim that marijuana has any curative or therapeutic effects. Marijuana ads are banned from public property and transit vehicles, and merchants are forbidden from using giveaways, coupons, or branded merchandise to promote their products.
They are permitted to establish a separate business to sell merchandise (e.g. T-shirts and hats) promoting their marijuana store, but this merchandise can’t be sold in the store itself. Stores selling marijuana are limited to one 1,600-square-inch sign with their business name, which may not include any depiction of the marijuana leaf or paraphernalia like pipes or joints.
The rules didn’t explicitly forbid radio and TV advertising, but the LCB warned that such ads may well run afoul of the law in neighboring states or the Federal government, as “Television and radio… carry across state lines as well as places where children can see or hear.”