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Perturbing Promotion

Arizona state lawmaker sets sights on marijuana billboards



Another state senator has set his sights on the medical marijuana industry. This time, it's a debate over advertising.

Arizona Sen. David Farnsworth, R-Apache Junction, wants to pass legislation outlawing billboards advertising federally illicit drugs.

The only other industry that has seen similar limitations is the tobacco industry. Other social pastimes, such as alcohol, cabarets and casinos, advertise free of blanket legislation like the one Farnsworth has suggested.

Because there's nothing barring the advertisement of federally illegal drugs in federal law, Farnsworth's proposal is directly targeted at marijuana.

Perhaps similar to the ban on advertising cigarettes, the rationale is to limit exposure to minors. But then why has no one taken issues with other advertisements specifically targeting adult audiences?

Marijuana is already illegal to sell to most people in the state; no one is buying from a dispensary without a medical marijuana card. In fact, billboards encourage the destigmatization of marijuana by making it part of everyday life. Removing the allure of marijuana will discourage teen use more than hiding it from public view.

Attorney Jeff Kaufman told Howard Fischer of Capital Media Services he thinks the law would get struck down in court, because judges cannot use federal law to justify "discriminating against a lawful form of medication."

However, it's not unusual for the government to make special cases for "commercial speech," said First Amendment Coalition lawyer Dan Barr.

In fact, California, which legalized marijuana last year, already has a rule against advertising marijuana to those younger than 21 and has banned advertisements within 1,000 feet of daycare facilities and schools.

Conversely, Oregon recently scored 100 percent in a statewide youth sales sting operation, demonstrating that, even with legal recreational marijuana, it is possible not to sell to minors.

But Farnsworth's motives go beyond "protecting minors."

One of the billboards he specifically complained to Capitol Media Services about was one boasting that teen use has not increased since legalization in Colorado.

"I personally have been offended in my own neighborhood when I see a billboard that's promoting marijuana usage," he told Capitol Media Services.

Well, I think the modern political rhetoric has pretty well established that no one cares if you're offended, Mr. Farnsworth. But attempting to pass a law that stifles ideas, I think we can all agree, is not fitting of our country's founding ideology.

And to some extent, Farnsworth agrees.

"Free speech and promoting what you believe in is an important part of our society," he said.

The bill's current iteration faces some glaring issues aside from potential constitutional conflicts.

First, it only regulates signage along major state highways, leaving cities and streets as fair game for advertisement. It also potentially conflicts with political advertisements using marijuana legalization as a political platform.

Farnsworth assured Capitol Media Services that the final version of the bill, SB 1032, would steer clear of stifling legitimate political speech. But even if its revised, Bar isn't sure if it'll ever get to a point where it'll be constitutional.

Here's hoping for another Arizona legal red herring.


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