California Wants to Stop Pot Dispensaries from Branding Merchandise

The nanny state comes after swag.


The terrible scourge of marijuana advertising restrictions continues to sweep down the West Coast. First it was Washington cracking down on dispensaries' beloved inflatable tube man mascots. Next came Oregon, where a town said no to pot-promoting roadside mannequins.

Now California has joined the fray, with state legislators proposing a bill to ban dispensary-branded swag, including hats, t-shirts, and hoodies bearing a dispensary's name or logo, all in the name of keeping minors away from weed.

The state authorities apparently think "that if kids see branded merchandise they'll start using cannabis," writes Alison Malsbury, an attorney at the cannabis-focused law firm Harris Bricken.

Prop. 64—California's 2016 legalization initiative, approved by 57 percent of voters—already bans marijuana advertisements targeting those 21 and under. The proposed SB 162 would expand the definition of targeting under-21's to include "all advertising of cannabis or cannabis products through the use of branded merchandise."

As Malsbury points out at CannaLaw Blog, this broad restriction will fall most heavily on small businesses trying to differentiate themselves in a crowded marketplace with a relatively homogenous product.

"It will definitely kill the swag game at all cannabis-related events in The Golden State, undermining cannabis business' ability to grow, compete, and spread their brands," she writes.

In addition to the costs levied on businesses, the measure makes no sense as a deterrent to underage smoking.

Even if dispensary-branded items are prohibited, any Californian—minors included—can shop around online and at brick-and-motor head shops for t-shits with children's icons Bill Nye the Science Guy and Yoda getting blazed, Simpsons-themed "dab mats," and even marijuana-emblazoned baby onesies, all of which seem far more likely to draw children's attention.

On top of that, much of cannabusinesses' branded merchandise and apparel relies very little on visual depictions of cannabis or cannabis consumption, preferring sleek and professional-looking logos and imagery.

That's because dispensaries want their brands to appeal to potential customers who already smoke weed, not kids who can't even legally buy the stuff. Plastering your business merchandise with a bunch of pot leaves seems like a surefire way to get your advertising lost in the crowd.

Few of these objections seem to matter to proponents of SB 162, who have sold the bill with a mixture of corporate scaremongering and for-the-children hysteria.

"We need to do this now, before Big Weed gets a lot of power," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Ben Allen (D –Santa Monica), told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Dr. Jacques Corriveau of the American Academy of Pediatrics told the Chronicle that a blanket swag ban was necessary because "it's hard to distinguish what's aimed at kids and what isn't." One wonders if the kids themselves might end up missing the advertising that's targeted at them.

California's senate passed SB 162 unanimously in May, and the Assembly will pick up the bill when its members return from their summer recess in August.

When they do, they should remember that Californians voted commandingly for legalized marijuana last year, in large part because they were tired of onerous restrictions on a relatively innocuous plant. Politicians should respect that vote, and resist their natural instinct to regulate this budding industry into the ground.