Blunt conversations

Billboards say a lot about cannabis. Who’s doing the talking?

Get parenting tips from a billboard.

Get parenting tips from a billboard.

Photo by Ken Magri

While I was driving through the worst of this summer’s Mendocino Complex fire, a billboard suddenly emerged through the haze near Laytonville. It showed a conversation between two parents and their daughter about cannabis.

“Under 21 Weed Can Wait” the advertisement read in all caps. “We don’t want you to use cannabis,” the silhouetted parental figures say. The daughter, also a silhouette, but marked with a pink cartoonish brain, asks, “Why not?” The answer: “Your brain is still growing.”

In the last few years, public discussion of cannabis by way of billboards has increased in states where adult use is legal, according to a study released last May by Rand Corp., a nonpartisan research organization. But the messages vary, and so do the groups behind them. I was curious about who paid for the Laytonville billboard with its apparent anti-cannabis message placed in the heart of cannabis country.

The billboard seemed to have no obvious sponsor, and the outdoor advertising company wouldn’t reveal the client. With its drab colors and shadowed figures, the sign looked like a throwback to the 1950s. Nevertheless, it caught my eye.

“Talk to your teens … they will listen,” it concludes. I agreed. As a lifelong pot-smoker, I once asked my 15-year old son to wait for adulthood so his brain could better develop. But, do billboards like this ever start a conversation?

Research from the Arbitron National In-Car Study, 2009 edition, the most recent edition of this study, seems to think so.

It found that “71 percent of travelers often look at the messages on roadside billboards” and more than one-third or “37 percent report looking at an outdoor ad each or most of the time they pass one.”

As the boards become a frequent format for social commentary, some in the cannabis industry are now employing them to change public attitudes.

Weedmaps, an online directory for cannabis businesses, began a billboard campaign in 2016 called Weedfacts. Most of the billboards discuss the benefits of cannabis legalization, like opioid avoidance, Medicaid savings and DUI reductions. Using plain white letters on black backgrounds, each sign states the facts in simple sentences.

To fight criticism that legalization increases usage, especially among youth, one Weedfacts billboard states, “Since legalizing marijuana in 2012, Colorado has had no increase in youth marijuana usage. Neither has Washington.”

Weedmaps director Carl Fillichio said the messages are backed by data.

“Opponents of cannabis legalization continue to voice concern that legalization leads to increased youth access and usage rates,” Fillichio said. “But in fact, this has not occurred in legal jurisdictions.”

Fillichio characterized Weedfacts as an educational campaign, rather than a promotional one.

“Weedmaps launched the Weedfacts campaign to help dispel some of the myths about cannabis, and foster real dialogue about its legalization,” Fillichio said. “It is our goal to foster informed discussion among neighborhood residents, community leaders and elected officials, and encourage more research and debate from people on both sides of the issue.”

Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a self-described bipartisan group, has a different outlook. According to Luke Niforatos, SAM chief of staff, the group seeks “a middle road between incarceration and legalization.”

“We are for smart policies on marijuana that reject both commercialization and criminalization,” Niforatos wrote to SN&R in an email.

He added that SAM’s billboards aim to promote health-first and smart policies that decrease marijuana use in addition to its legal consequences.

One of SAM’s billboards from 2014 that went up near MetLife Stadium in New Jersey featured a football player underneath the words: “Motivation, Perseverance, Determination.” Next to that was a cannabis leaf under the words: “None of the above.” The tagline: “Marijuana kills your drive. Don’t lose in the game of life.”

Niforatos sees billboards like this as an effective way to get SAM’s anti-marijuana message out to the news media and social networks. He adds that the group’s billboards are a means to combat the narrative pushed by pro-cannabis companies that marijuana is a harmless and benign substance.

“Unfortunately, we cannot compete with the pot industry’s millions in paid billboards that litter cities across the country,” Niforatos said. “But we do try to counter the misinformation of the industry with billboards that share the truth.”

In the political realm, billboards are a big business in election years. In 2016, they were used to help defeat the Arizona Marijuana Legalization Initiative, Proposition 205, which proposed legalizing the possession and consumption of marijuana by people 21 years and older.

Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy created a billboard that read: “Every three days someone dies in a marijuana-related traffic death in Colorado.”

Recall that Colorado was the first state to adopt recreational cannabis in 2012, but state officials cited that the statistics displayed by ARDP were misleading. Yet the damage was done: Arizona voters opted against Prop. 205 in November 2016.

What’s more, ARDP’s anti-205 campaign was fueled by a $500,000 donation from Insys Therapeutics Inc., a pharmaceutical company whose majority owner, John Kapoor, was charged last year with racketeering. The Department of Justice alleges that Kapoor also participated in the illegal distribution of a fentanyl spray called Subsys and was involved with bribing doctors to over-prescribe the highly addictive drug meant for severely ill cancer patients.

Critics argue Insys donated to defeat Prop. 205 after concluding that legal cannabis would hurt profits for the corporation’s new synthetic cannabis-based pill for anorexia, Syndros.

On the “yes” side of Arizona’s Prop. 205 was a group called the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol. Its billboard reversed the parent/child role, asking young adults to explain to their parents why pot is safer than alcohol.

One billboard shows a young girl in the foreground with her mother behind her. The question: “Have you talked to your parents about marijuana?”

“For decades, the federal government distributed anti-marijuana propaganda to parents and encouraged them to share it with their children,” said CRMLA chairman, J.P. Holyoak. “Younger voters need to talk to their parents about marijuana and make sure they understand it is actually less harmful than alcohol.”

The effectiveness of any advertised message depends on the viewer’s point of view, but it also helps to know the motivation behind the messenger.

And the mysterious “Weed Can Wait” billboard in Laytonville? As it turned out, it was sponsored by the Laytonville Healthy Start Family Resource Center, a nonprofit group funded by government grants and private donations.

The director of the nonprofit, Jayma Spence, said the message was specifically intended for kids living in the Humboldt region.

“Since Laytonville is in the heart of the ’Emerald Triangle,’ those of us who work with kids and families have wondered how to best approach the subject of youth use of marijuana when the area is known for the growing/production of it,” Spence said.

“Our message of ‘Weed Can Wait’ is meant to encourage parents to talk with their kids about waiting until they are older to use substances. Even if adults or parents use around them."