You won't be seeing any more billboards advertising cannabis products along California interstates.
On Friday, Nov. 20, a San Luis Obispo County Superior Court judge ruled they are illegal under Prop. 64.
A San Luis Obispo father, Matthew Farmer, saw cannabis billboards while driving along Highway 101 and says this kind of advertising is wrongfully exposing his two children to cannabis use.
In October 2019, two San Luis Obispo attorneys, Saro Rizzo and Stew Jenkins, filed a public interest lawsuit in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court on behalf of Farmer.
In the lawsuit, they argue that these billboards are illegal under Prop. 64, which legalized marijuana and was passed by California voters in 2016.
“This is the reason you ban it on billboards,” Rizzo said. “When mom's driving on I-5 taking the kids to Disneyland and then you see this big appealing ad, how do you unsee it?"
The 2016 voter-approved ban, similar to the ban on billboards advertising tobacco, was enacted as part of Proposition 64 to protect children from cannabis advertising and disallowed these billboards on the approximately 4,315 miles of the Interstate Highways and State Highways, which cross the California border.
“That's what the people of California said is that major highways that cross the border will not have the billboard advertising on it to protect children and the public from this kind of advertising,” Jenkins said. “It’s not anti-cannabis. It's making sure that children aren't induced to try these drugs early and have them impact them permanently for the rest of their lives."
San Luis Obispo County Superior Court Judge Ginger Garrett ruled against the California Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) striking down a 2019 regulation it adopted to allow for cannabis billboards on highways that cross the state borders.
“Tobacco is legal, but advertising towards children is not. Cannabis is legal but advertising towards children is not,” Rizzo said. “These are the same types of tactics that were used to hook kids years and years ago and the people stood up and said, 'No, we don't want it happening anymore. I think we need to take that same mindset and approach it towards cannabis'."
Since Judge Garrett is reinforcing Prop. 64, state legislation, the recent ruling blankets California.
This means about 35 highways, including Highway 101, I-5, I-80, I-10, and others will be impacted.
Between the Los Osos Valley Road and the Avila Beach Dr. exits on Highway 101, there are three billboards advertising for cannabis, which will have to come down according to the ruling.
Local cannabis retail owners said they want to be treated fairly.
“I long for the day where cannabis industries are treated like any other industries and when we have the same business opportunities and responsibilities as other industries,” Megan Souza, owner of Megan’s Organic Market said.
According to Jenkins, cannabis can be advertised along highways that don't cross state borders, for example, State Route 227, which stretches from Arroyo Grande to San Luis Obispo.
Souza doesn’t have billboard advertisements marketing her cannabis storefront, but when she inquired about one in the past, it was a competitive process.
She relies on print and digital advertising, but says even those pose challenges.
“It is a constant struggle, advertising and marketing in the cannabis industry, because we are held to very strict standards,” Souza said. “We are having some certain push back from print media that has some restrictions on types of advertising that we can do, for example limitations on advertising deals or promotions.”
Under the ruling, the BCC must notify businesses about the regulations and if owners don't comply, they could face hefty fines and lose their license.
The deadline to take the billboards down has not yet been set. The attorney's behind this case are pushing for 30 days, but ultimately it will be up to the courts and the BCC.
The Bureau of Cannabis Control can appeal the judge's ruling. They declined KSBY’s request for comment, but a spokesman said they are in the process of updating guidelines.