Clarence Cocroft is the owner of a legal medical marijuana business in Olive Branch, Mississippi. However, while his business is perfectly legal, the state is hell-bent on making it practically impossible for him to actually stay afloat. How? By making it a felony for Cocroft to advertise his business.
Mississippians overwhelmingly voted to legalize medical marijuana in 2020, yet the state has enacted a series of regulations that make it virtually guaranteed that legal marijuana businesses will fail to thrive. Not only does the state have a gauntlet of restrictive regulations that make finding an appropriate storefront extremely difficult (marijuana businesses cannot be within 1,000 feet of a church, school, or daycare, for example), but once a business opens, they're barred from nearly all forms of advertisement.
Under state law, medical marijuana businesses are banned from advertising through an extremely extensive range of media, including print media, television, radio, social media, mass text and email, and billboards. Signage for businesses themselves is also restricted. Not only are businesses prohibited from displaying their products in store windows, but storefront advertising cannot include cannabis leaf or bud imagery. Even websites are restricted to only providing the business' "contact information, retail dispensing locations, and a list of products available," as well as "general information reasonably expected to be necessary to serving qualified patients of the Medical Marijuana Program."
The price for slipping up is high—violators face felony charges.
This week, the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm focused on government abuse, filed a lawsuit challenging the regulations by arguing they violate business owners' First Amendment rights.
"Taken together, these provisions constitute a complete prohibition . . . on all forms of advertising not explicitly and specifically permitted by the Mississippi Medical Marijuana Act," the lawsuit writes.
The rules have been devastating for Cocroft as he attempts to keep his business running. After successfully securing a storefront that met the state's stringent requirements, he has struggled to bring in customers—something made even harder by the fact that his store, Tru Source, is located in an industrial park with little foot or vehicle traffic.
"It is common for clients to call Tru Source and ask for directions the first time they go. Tru Source employees have to provide these clients with landmarks and step-by-step directions to find the dispensary. But for the Ban, Clarence would place signage on major roads near the dispensary to provide directions," the complaint reads. "As a result of Defendants' ban, Tru Source has struggled to reach its desired clientele, cannot promote its products or its location, and has sustained and will continue to sustain significant harm."
"The Department's complete ban on advertising and marketing in any media violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution by prohibiting business owners like Clarence from engaging in truthful commercial speech to promote their legal businesses," the complaint argues. "By banning truthful and non-misleading advertisements about a legal product, the Department of Health has abridged Plaintiffs' freedom of speech and the freedom of speech of anyone else similarly situated."
While the citizens of Mississippi voted to make medical marijuana legal, state lawmakers enacted labyrinthine rules that make actually running a thriving legal cannabis business practically impossible. The state's ban on advertising goes far beyond any legitimate policy aim and clearly violates business owners' First Amendment rights.
By enacting these regulations, Mississippi lawmakers are likely to get the outcome they really want—a status quo in which medical marijuana is technically legal but nearly impossible to obtain legitimately, meaning that patients will once again be forced to look to the black market to find the products they need.