The Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission voted unanimously Thursday to ban billboard, radio, TV and most online advertising by marijuana companies — a move that representatives for the firms said they would fight in the General Assembly when it convenes next month.
The new rules also prohibit advertising in print publications such as newspapers and magazines that cannot prove that 85 percent of their audience is over 18 years old, and bans the use of leaflets or flyers in most public and private places.
In addition, the regulations state that internet ads must be accompanied by an age-verification page that users have to answer, a hurdle that cannabis officials say essentially prohibits online ads because there is no way to verify accurate ages.
The commission’s move, which would not go into effect for several weeks, comes just as the industry is rapidly growing. The commission’s executive director, Joy Strand, reported at the meeting that the state’s 71 cannabis stores have sold $96 million in products to Maryland residents since last December.
Without advertising, industry officials worry about the ability for cannabis companies to expand their businesses.
“This a total ban on advertising,” said Mackie Barch, chairman of the Maryland Wholesale Medical Cannabis Trade Association. “Social media is our only source. How do we communicate with anyone when Instagram is shutting down every cannabis-related account there?”
Barch said the commission passed the rules in response to the worries of just two state lawmakers who were upset about a single billboard on Route 50 depicting Adam and Eve smoking a joint.
Jennifer White, a commission spokeswoman, said such complaints about advertisements were only one part of the panel’s decision. She said the commission’s policy committee recommended the new regulations to mirror restrictions against the advertising of tobacco products.
Barch said it was unfair to compare cannabis — a product approved as a legal medical treatment — to tobacco and that the panel’s action “stigmatizes” cannabis patients. He said the decision is a “gross overreach” that violates the free speech rights of companies.
“We are going to have no choice but to defend those rights,” he said. “We have to stop treating cannabis as a taboo subject.”
Ashlie Bagwell, a lobbyist for the Maryland Medical Dispensary Association, said the group preferred requiring a disclosure page to accompany online ads rather than the age-verification step that she said “would limit access to social media posts.”
Bagwell also wanted to know if marketing items such as hats and t-shirts were permitted. Commission members did not provide an answer.
Philip Ziperman, a deputy attorney general for consumer rights, asked the commission to consider adding specific language restricting companies from making any medical claims about their cannabis products without scientific evidence.
The new regulations state that cannabis companies may not make any statement that is “false or misleading in any material way or is otherwise a violation” of state laws.
But Ziperman said his office has received “troubling reports” that some companies are claiming their products can treat cancer and opioid addiction.
“If a dispensary intends to make that type of claim, they have to have reasonable evidence to support it,” he said. “If not the claim is misleading.”
Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Press Association, said she was surprised the commission approved the regulations without any comment after everyone who testified, including the attorney general's office, asked them to take more time to consider their opinions.
“It’s too big an issue to move hastily on this,” Snyder said.
Newspapers that are members of her organization would have a difficult time proving that 85 percent of their readers are over age 18 because younger readers are not surveyed by the media companies, Snyder said.
But local newspapers and their websites are ideal venues for cannabis companies to reach local patients, she added.
“This shackles our members’ abilities to help the local and small businesses connect with their communities,” Snyder said. “It’s just wrong. Why are we rushing on this?”
It is unclear when the advertising ban would go into effect. White said the attorney general’s office still has to review the regulations and that, possibly, the General Assembly would have to vote on them.
Such approval, Barch predicted, “isn’t going to happen.”