City Council to tackle marijuana advertising 

MIKE LABELLA/Staff photoThis billboard on the top of a building at the corner of Essex and Locust streets just north of downtown Haverhill advertises "weedmaps" a website that lists and provides directions to retail marijuana shops and contact information.

HAVERHILL — The Haverhill City Council may be the first local government in the state to tackle the issue of retail marijuana advertising.

The council is trying to determine how much control the city has over advertising regulations put forth by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission, and has asked for legal guidance from City Solicitor William Cox, who said he would seek clarification from the CCC.

The council wants to know whether communities, such as Haverhill, can regulate this form of advertising.

Councilor Colin LePage, chairman of the administration and finance committee, walked fellow councilors through a PowerPoint presentation focusing on existing billboard advertising that he said is skirting state regulations as it relates to influencing young people.

He said Massachusetts law prohibits advertising, marketing and branding on any billboard or other outdoor advertising, unless current and reliable audience composition date proves that at least 85 percent of the audience will be age 21 or over.

LePage noted that one billboard in Somerville off of Route 93, carries the message, “Let’s do this right” and “Don’t drive high” can be seen by anyone under 21 as can a relatively new billboard atop a building at the corner of Essex and Locust streets in Haverhill, which he said is in plain view of a school bus stop.

That sign in Haverhill advertises “weedmaps,” on online guide to retail marijuana shops.

Haverhill school pediatrician Dr. John Maddox told the council that Haverhill has an opportunity to be a “public health pioneer” by controlling this form of advertising.

“I would not want to propose anything that would put the city at risk, but I hope that you will take the spirit of making Haverhill known as the place that did marijuana right,” Maddox said.

Maddox introduced John Sofis Scheft, a lawyer with the Bellotti Law Group of Boston, who attended the meeting as a representative of the nonprofit Massachusetts Prevention Alliance.

Scheft told the council that everybody agrees that people under 21 should not have access to marijuana, and that the CCC has established the strictest standards in the nation for outdoor advertising.

“You have to prove, in advance, that your billboard is only going to reach an audience where 85 percent of the audience is 21 and over,” he said, noting that Massachusetts’ standard exceeds those of California and Maine.

He said the state’s regulations and law, regarding marijuana advertising, requires “reliable, up to date audience composition data.”

“All of the communities in Massachusetts are looking to you for leadership and guidance because you’re the first governmental body at the local level that is directly taking up this issue,” he said. 

Scheft said the regulations and laws are clear as to the need for this data before advertising is allowed.

But, he said, the CCC has not defined the process that has been left to municipalities to decide.

“You have the authority to regulate signage as it relates to marijuana business, as long as you don’t go beyond the state standard,” he said, adding there are a number of ways to obtain audience composition data.

“If I’m going to have a Taylor Swift concert at Gillette Stadium I can figure out the audience composition (age group). But, If I’m going to slap a billboard in downtown Haverhill next to a school, there is no way I’m going to be able to figure out who is going to see that whey they drive by and how many exposures there will be,” he said.

Scheft suggested the council first determine if any area of the city can meet the audience composition standard of 85 percent, and if there is no such area, then there can’t be any outdoor advertising.

Cox told the council it is not clear whether the city has the jurisdiction to enforce the CCC’s advertising regulations and whether the state regulations even cover billboard advertising.

“I would prefer to seek an opinion from the CCC, from their legal council, as to who exactly has the authority and jurisdiction to enforce their regulations,” said Cox, who warned the council to be aware of the possibility of violating any First Amendment issues.

Council president John Michitson said he isn’t completely trustworthy of the CCC and that he doesn’t want to just rely on that board.

“That is a very strong point for taking a hard look at this and seeing what we can control within our realm,” Michitson said. 

Scheft said there is a section in the law that says signage is an area where local governments may regulate.

“I don’t think it’s the leap that you may think it is, for you to step in and show some administrative leadership here,” he said. 

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