Proposed legislation in Michigan that would ban cannabis advertising from billboards has arisen consternation by dispensary operators, although passing such a ban would have significant legal hurdles.
The bipartisan legislation, HB 4608, sponsored by Rep. Mary Whiteford (R-Casco Township) and Rep. Abdullah Hammoud (D-Dearborn) modifies the Michigan Medical Marihuana Act (MMMA) to eliminate the Marijuana Regulatory Agency’s (MRA) authority to set advertising standards and simply bans outdoor advertising for anything marijuana related.
“I think it’s a big problem. We can’t have tobacco on billboards so why are we able to have marijuana on billboards?” Rep. Whiteford told Lansing’s Fox 47 News.
Privately, multiple Michigan cannabis lobbyists told Grown In that the legislation is likely to garner a majority vote in both the Michigan House and Senate. But because the bill seeks to modify the MMMA, which was enacted through a referendum, it will require a three-quarters vote in both houses to pass, which is a steep hurdle.
“Banning billboards would greatly affect our marketing strategy. It is one of the main ways we reach medical patients,” said Narmin Jarrous, Chief Development Officer for Grand Rapids-based Exclusive Brands, which has four dispensaries in the state.
Jarrous argues that cannabis companies’ outdoor advertising is already closely regulated, since the MRA needs to approve language and imagery for their billboards in Michigan.
“Our imagery has to pass with the MRA, and we use GEOpath reports [with] demographic studies [that] show no more than thirty percent of the viewership is below the demographic target age. We do our homework before we put up a billboard,” said Jarrous.
Because cannabis companies are restricted from broadcast and most digital advertising, like on Facebook and Google, they are limited to outdoor advertising, and direct contact, like text and email lists. Marketers say banning outdoor advertising would be an especially big blow for local dispensaries in a vacation state like Michigan.
“What we decided was that site direction billboard along the highway where your store is located, especially in Michigan where you have a lot of tourists coming up, who are probably purchasing cannabis. Being able to tell them where you’re located is important. Similar to McDonald’s [billboards], that say ‘Exit 36 turn right,’” said Jeff Krueck, a partner at Chicago-based cannabis marketing company, 4240 North.
“The provisioning centers need to drive the traffic, which is different from brands, who are just building awareness. I think not being able to have billboards is more challenging for provisioning centers than it is for cannabis brands overall,” said Krueck.
But there’s lots of ways to skin a cat, when it comes to outdoor advertising, says Jared Mirsky, CEO of marketing firm Wick & Mortar, such as sponsoring a section of highway cleanup, a common marketing tactic in Colorado and Washington state.
“Buying sponsorship, that’s a great move, and sometimes less expensive than billboard placement,” said Mirsky. “A good number of dispensaries in Washington have some kind of mural. I’ve been looking at augmented reality murals. Someone could go up to a mural and interact with it.”
Still, the idea of banning billboards in Michigan has stirred up dismay among dispensary operators.
“I think we tend to resort to these pearl clutching ways,” said Exclusive’s Jarrous. “But we know the benefits of cannabis. During a pandemic, we continue to grow and provide jobs in Michigan, but we can only do that if we continue to grow our businesses.”