In California, there are billboards touting “Knock-Out Brownies” — a pot-infused treat.
But don’t expect to see this in New Jersey if the state legalizes recreational weed.
There will be no flashing green leaf signs on the highway. No cartoon figures. No Facebook push. On TV and radio, pot would be pitched to the 21–plus crowd — after hours.
This is how the Garden State is contemplating the regulation of cannabis advertising. Think booze and cigarettes.
“It’s common sense to have restrictions now,” said Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey Cannabusiness Association, which represents over 600 companies eager to launch a potentially multibillion-dollar industry in the state.
"Tobacco, alcohol, and gambling ads are restricted, and following that road map would be advantageous” as long as the rules are reasonable, said Rudder, a former Medford Township mayor and Republican state Assemblyman.
New Jersey is poised to become the 11th state to legalize recreational marijuana under a wide-ranging bill proposed by State Sen. Nicholas Scutari of Union County and Senate President Stephen Sweeney of Gloucester County, both Democrats.
The measure that’s being debated in Trenton says cannabis cannot be marketed or packaged using any statement or image that “promotes over-consumption ... depicts a child or other person under legal age consuming cannabis ... or includes objects, such as toys, characters, or cartoon characters" that might appeal to a person under 21, the proposed legal age to purchase recreational marijuana.
Advertisers also would have to conduct research to make certain their messages are well-targeted so that at least 71.6 percent of the audience is 21 or older.
Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, said many marijuana companies across the country embrace some regulation because they want the cannabis industry to be viewed as responsible. “A lot of the industry is focused on avoiding the mistakes the alcohol and tobacco industries have made and they want to avoid being demonized in the public,” he said.
Joe Camel, a cartoon character who was created as the advertising mascot for Camel cigarettes more than two decades ago to entice young smokers, comes to mind.
Cannabis is still illegal in the eyes of the federal government, and marijuana companies in most of the states that have legalized weed have discovered they need to be creative to promote their products.
MedMen, a cannabis company based in Los Angeles, recently started an ad campaign, “Forget Stoner,” that features photographs of athletes, teachers, police officers, and grandmothers to reverse the stereotyped image of marijuana users.
Curaleaf New Jersey, which operates a medical-marijuana dispensary in Bellmawr, Camden County, uses Instagram to promote its cannabis products. It offers pictures of “Cannabis Cinnamon Honey Butter” and colorful closeups of various strains of cannabis buds.
Curaleaf is one of six dispensaries that now operate in New Jersey after medical marijuana was legalized in 2010.
Under the proposed rules that would govern recreational marijuana, cannabis products would be treated similarly to tobacco and alcohol and be required to have warning labels that advise consumers about the dangers of impaired driving and health risks.
Labels would have to state that cannabis must be kept out of the reach of children, that a consumer should not drive or operate heavy machinery while using cannabis, and that “the intoxicating effects of this product may be delayed by two or more hours.” Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers would also be cautioned about the potential dangers of cannabis consumption to a fetus and baby.
The bill was voted out of committee in November and is expected to be debated on the floor in the coming weeks or months. Gov. Phil Murphy has pledged to support legalization but objects to some of the provisions in the bill, including the proposed tax rate and the creation of a regulatory commission.
Scutari, a municipal prosecutor from Linden, wrote most of the provisions of the bill after visiting several other states that have recreational marijuana. He has said in previous interviews that the New Jersey bill would build on lessons that have been learned in those states, among them Colorado and Oregon.
The advertising and packaging provisions in the bill are designed to address concerns that legalization could spark an increase in underage cannabis use. Billboards promoting marijuana would be banned within 200 feet of elementary and secondary schools. TV and radio ads for cannabis could air only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
Facebook and Google have already banned ads for marijuana on their sites and are not likely to lift the restriction while the federal government prohibits its use.
The limitations likely won’t hurt emergent cannabis companies that are looking to establish a customer base, said Lyneir Richardson, director of the Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development at Rutgers Business School-Newark.
“There’s so much public expectation and interest in this new product,” he said. Information about the product will be readily accessible, he said.
Richardson said the advertising regulations are necessary. “Everyone is proceeding with the appropriate level of cautiousness," he said. “We see the business opportunity in legalizing cannabis, but we don’t know the unintended consequences. ... We should get the positive benefits from legalizing marijuana without stepping on the land mines.”
Canada, which last fall became the first major nation in the world to legalize marijuana, has also imposed limitations on cannabis advertisers. Ads cannot depict people enjoying cannabis.
As a result, many cannabis companies in Canada now resort to catchy images of edible cannabis candies or glossy photographs of leafy buds. They also provide informational messages.
Rudder said he understands the rationale for the regulations. “There are concerns out there from a community perspective as to who is the targeted audience,” he said.
Such worries will ease with time as people realize underage consumption can be controlled, he predicted.
“When it becomes a normalized consumer product and people view it as a healthier alternative to certain medications and to alcohol, these concerns will dissipate,” he said. “For now, it’s common sense to have restrictions.”