DENVER – Free joints! Cheap weed! Marijuana advertising in Denver can be aggressive, with psychedelic billboards promoting an affordable high.
But that may be ending in Colorado's largest city after the city council voted 13-0 Monday night to ban outdoor advertising for medical marijuana.
"I don't appreciate folks that are out in front of a creepy old van slinging this dope, and they're making this industry look bad," said Councilman Paul Lopez. "I'm sick and tired of my neighborhood being overrun by folks who don't respect it."
Marijuana advertising is a murky area for regulators dealing with an industry whose very existence violates federal drug law. Medical marijuana is illegal to grow and sell and illegal to advertise, but regulations vary widely in the 17 states that flout federal drug law and consider pot legal for people with certain medical conditions.
Delaware, Montana and Vermont ban marijuana advertising, though Montana's ban is under legal challenge. Washington state bans physicians from advertising that they recommend the drug.
California and Colorado, two states known for their vibrant marijuana industries, are flush with advertisements for the drug.
The Denver advertising ban doesn't affect print advertising or radio or television ads, but the ads would have to include the disclaimer that pot is "for registered Colorado medical marijuana patients only."
The local marijuana industry was deeply divided on the ban, which requires one more vote next week but appears certain to pass.
One Denver group, the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, actively pushed for the ban, saying unseemly ads give people a bad impression. Other industry groups, including the influential Cannabis Business Alliance, argued that the advertising ban goes too far.
Marijuana marketing is in its infancy, and companies are still tiptoeing around federal threats, said John Nicolazzo of the New York-based Medical Cannabis Network, which provides business services for the medical marijuana industry and owns more than 1,000 marijuana-related Internet domains.
"Our industry has been under constant scrutiny, and advertising is a big part of that," Nicolazzo said. "It does kind of hinder us from going mainstream, to where we want to be."
Lenny Frieling, an attorney and prominent marijuana legalization advocate, said marijuana shouldn't face special limits.
"I don't think any medicines should be advertised, period, end of story. Whether it's medical marijuana or something that will give me an erection for eight hours, I find it all inappropriate," said Frieling, head of Colorado's chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "Ban it all or don't ban any of it, singling out marijuana is just willful ignorance."
A U.S. attorney in San Diego last year vowed to crack down on companies that accept marijuana advertising in violation of federal drug law, but so far there have been no criminal charges. The U.S. attorney in Denver has told dispensaries near schools to close or face federal seizure, but he has not addressed advertising for the drug.