Cannabis Debate Spotlights Billboards as Medium of Speech

First Amendment Law

The marijuana debate – as legalization expands and society weighs the consequences – is vivid evidence that billboards are a forum for robust debate.

Yes, signs always have been part of protest, politics, and controversy. The current cannabis debate explains “billboard speech” in a way that is clear, interesting, and convincing.

Commercial speech promotes sales and profit. Cannabis billboards feature commercial and non-commercial messages. Both are protected by the First Amendment, with more protection for non-commercial messages.

Expression of ideas, opinion, and debate is exactly the type of speech that the First Amendment was crafted to protect.

Thirty-three states allow medical marijuana; 10 have legalized recreational pot. To gain perspective on the volume of consumption and the size of this growth industry, consider that medical-marijuana patients in Arizona consumed 61 tons of cannabis in 2018, a record. Arizona dispensaries sold 2.5 tons of edibles last year.

Medicine or mayhem?

Some consume marijuana for medical/therapeutic purposes, to alleviate arthritis, relieve migraines, or as a sleep aid, says the Marijuana Policy Project based in Washington, DC. Founded in 1995, the policy group’s premise is that marijuana prohibition has failed.

Marijuana Policy Project billboard

The Weedmaps app (“all things cannabis”) lists dispensaries and explains strains of marijuana. Its billboard said legal-marijuana states compare favorably on opioid deaths.

Responding to Weedmaps’ billboards in the Phoenix area, Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy posted billboards about impaired driving in Colorado, a pioneer in adult-use legalization.

In South Carolina, The Blunt Truth SC Task Force says “Marijuana is illegal, addictive and harmful to the body, especially developing brains.”

Counterpoint: “Most of the codswallop on the (Blunt Truth SC) website tends to concern cannabis and the developing brain, and most of the sources are other anti-drug organizations. A lot of the ‘facts’ are just correlations with no causation,” says pro-marijuana blog HerbanPlanet.

In Arizona, a citizens’ group called Matforce put up anti-pot billboards attacking the notion that marijuana is harmless.

Non-profit Drug Free Idaho is monitoring other Western states that have legalized marijuana. The group’s Keep Idaho.org uses billboards to publicize problems in other states.

In New Jersey, a non-profit (The Southwest Council) pointed out that pot’s potency has increased.

Political speech

Nevada voters approved legalization in 2016

Billboards proselytize for and against legalization, a form of political speech intended to affect election outcomes and influence public opinion.

This billboard urged Colorado voters to support legalization in 2006, which was rejected by nearly a 60-40 margin. Six years later, Colorado voters made history by approving Amendment 64 (legalization).

Legalization was on the ballot in Arizona in 2016 (Prop 205 failed). Both sides used billboards.

Government speech

Government also is a speaker on marijuana issues. Colorado’s Department of Transportation (DOT) won national recognition for its billboards and wall signs urging motorists not to drive high.

Colorado sells sponsorships of its Adopt-A-Highway anti-litter signs to cannabis dispensaries.

Washington State’s Department of Health apologized after posting a billboard featuring young people that said: “We don’t need pot to have fun. We’re Hispanics . . . We’re cool by default.” The sign was removed two days early.

Conclusion

The marijuana debate parallels earlier battles about alcohol (a legal product, taxed by government, and marketed with self-regulation).

The current, newer debate about cannabis will endure, as government collects more in taxes while also seeking to measure impairment, define any medical benefits, and calibrate risks.

Billboards – as a medium of speech – will be central to this rich debate.

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