Mad, man: It's 4/20 this week—but some legal marijuana businesses and advocates can't buy advertising to promote it

Even where weed is legal—like Colorado and Washington and the 21 states that have embraced medical cannabis—marijuana businesses face unfair speech restriction

Even though polls show that most Americans support the legalization of marijuana, corporate America continues to censor pot-related speech.

Legal reformers are banned from issue-advocacy advertising; major websites such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo prohibit the listing of legal marijuana businesses; and normal folks face even tougher reprisals for speaking out at work, at school or in the community.

Justin Hartfield, founder of the nation’s leading marijuana-locator website WeedMaps, was doing interviews last week, telling people how lawyers for CBS Outdoor pulled his ad in New York’s Times Square from rotation after the billboard company took his $50,000 and told him the ad launched on April 1. “It was surprising, but not shocking, just because this has totally happened to us in the past,” Hartfield told this writer.

WeedMaps’ 26-by-20-foot electronic billboard would have been the Big Apple’s first mainstream weed ad. Designed to increase awareness of reform and mobilize the community, the 10-second spot was approved to run on the CBS Super Screen on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues, 18 hours a day for 61 days.

It was to read: “High, NYC” and was to feature a link to WeedMaps’ New York City marijuana-resource site. The website itself details the obvious: New York City’s illegal but highly evolved weed scene, the state of the failed law, ways to contact politicians, plus a stoner’s guide to NYC.

WeedMaps submitted its ad proposal in late January and received multiple levels of approval by Toronto-based Neutron Media, which sells CBS Outdoor’s billboard spaces, Hartfield said. In fact, Neutron Media had first approached officials at National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws and offered them the billboard—but they couldn’t afford it, so officials from NORML called the folks at WeedMaps.

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to do something similar to what NORML would do anyway, but also kind of branding WeedMaps, so I decided to take them up on it,” Hartfield said. As of press time, the ad was still pending legal review.

The rejection is part of a pattern: Weed-reform advocates often cannot engage in the same speech as drug warriors or gun lobbyists.

In 2010, the Marijuana Policy Project tried to run pro-cannabis ads in California in the run-up to Proposition 19, a statewide measure that sought to legalize and regulate pot. But broadcasters rejected the ads, said Aaron Smith, now head of the National Cannabis Industry Association. “The ad had nothing to do with saying marijuana is a good thing,” said Smith. “That’s what burns me.”

In March, Comcast rejected an informational ad about medical marijuana that was scheduled to broadcast in Long Island, New York; Massachusetts; and Chicago, USA Today reported.

Facebook routinely bans Smith from paying to “promote” news stories about the NCIA—even reports from the Wall Street Journal. Facebook promotions are vital to reaching the group’s base, he said.

Hartfield finds the double standards galling. “The ad is right above the Cold Stone Creamery,” he said of his proposed billboard in Times Square. “And you could argue that there are a lot of families going there and what message is that sending? Well, if you look up above the Cold Stone to the building immediately to the left, you’ll see a 24-seven ad for Stella Artois.”

Even where weed is legal—like Colorado and Washington and the 21 states that have embraced medical cannabis—marijuana businesses face unfair speech restrictions. Google, Yahoo, Bing, Facebook and Twitter ban any ads promoting “illegal drugs”—which is truly ironic, some say, given Google’s long history of running pill ads from overseas entities.

In 2011, the U.S. attorney in San Diego, Laura Duffy, even threatened newspapers for taking medical-cannabis dispensary ads.