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City Council sets limits on pot billboards

A billboard on Morena Boulevard advertises the MedMen marijuana store in San Diego.
(Photo by Hayne Palmour IV / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

San Diego cracked down on marijuana billboard ads Monday, Jan. 13 after many months of analyzing the issue, but critics say the City isn’t going far enough.

The City Council unanimously approved banning marijuana billboard ads within 1,000 feet of schools, playgrounds, day care centers, youth centers and public parks with playgrounds.

Critics said the ads, which have become increasingly common in San Diego since state voters legalized recreational marijuana in 2016, should also be banned near libraries, churches and other places where young people typically go.

Council members said their concerns about potential First Amendment lawsuits make a measured approach more sensible.

“I believe the ordinance strikes the right balance that will protect children from cannabis billboard exposure and also create a legal and constitutionally sound ordinance that is narrowly tailored,” said Council member Chris Cate.

Critics noted that other cities in California and Colorado have more aggressively restricted marijuana billboards, including outright bans in some places.

Breton Peace, general counsel for local dispensary March and Ash, said he wishes San Diego was willing to get more aggressive, contending that such a move won’t hurt local marijuana businesses as long as it’s uniformly applied to all of them.

Peace suggested the City consult with constitutional law scholars and host a public forum where parents and community leaders can discuss what type of legislation they’d like to see. “We feel the current situation is unhealthy,” Peace said.

The law, which applies to legal and illegal marijuana businesses, will help level the playing field and drive more customers to the legal businesses, said Phil Rath, leader of San Diego’s United Medical Marijuana Coalition.

The new law will make 352 of the 644 existing billboard sites in the City eligible for marijuana ads, or about 54 percent. Rath said that would provide ample opportunity to the City’s legal marijuana businesses to continue advertising.

Critics urged the City to focus on expanding the new ban to include libraries, noting that alcohol-related billboard ads must be at least 500 feet from libraries.

Council president Georgette Gómez said she’d like to see libraries included in a future version of the law.

Resident Daniel Gebreselassie said the new law doesn’t go nearly far enough, because young people move around so much. He suggested an outright ban. “I don’t know why the City is endorsing this kind of advertisement,” he said.

Scott Chipman, leader of a local anti-marijuana group called San Diegans for Safe Neighborhoods, said the billboard law is just another example of the City failing to effectively control a rapidly expanding industry. “This City Council has allowed a horrible message to be sent to our kids that marijuana is an institutionalized norm in our City,” Chipman said. “There has been virtually no ‘counter messaging’ about the harms.”

But the City Attorney’s Office said San Diego must be careful. Courts have upheld billboard regulations that directly advance a substantial government interest, but the regulations can’t be more extensive than necessary to achieve that interest, according to the City Attorney’s Office.

A spokesman for Clear Channel, a leader in the billboard industry, said the company supports the new law and has already been complying with the restrictions.

Many of the City’s legal marijuana dispensaries consistently rely on billboard ads to attract customers. The ads cost several thousand dollars per month, depending on location. The law includes a six-month grace period for businesses to come into compliance. Violations will result in citations and fines.

— This report first appeared in The San Diego Union Tribune.


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