Broadcasters Are Still Fighting To Win Clearance To Air Cannabis Ads.


The Safe Advertising Coalition -- the year-old organization created by a group of nearly two dozen state broadcast associations spent another $50,000 on Washington lobbying during the first three months of the year. That is on top of the $120,000 they ponied up last year in their quest to bring “parity” to cannabis advertising, mostly by securing federal government clearance to allow local radio and television stations to air ads in states where recreational or medical marijuana is now legal.


Broadcasters have been pushing Congress to clarify federal law paving the way for cannabis ads on the airwaves without putting radio or TV licenses at risk. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, or the MORE Act (H.R. 3617) was passed by the House osue in April, but unlike earlier bills it does not include any provisions that would clear the way to help broadcasters. Prospects are also slim in the Senate, where little Republican support exists.


One hurdle is that a champion of changing ad rules is no longer in Congress. Colorado Democrat Jared Polis, who previously introduced legislation that if passed would have treated cannabis advertising like alcohol ads, left Washington to become his state’s governor.


Broadcasters have also looked to the Federal Communications Commission. Although the FCC has generally warned stations not to advertise “illegal” products, to date, it has so far sidestepping the issue of whether it would target radio or TV stations for license reviews if the agency received a complaint about cannabis ads.


FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington told the Massachusetts Broadcast Association during a speech last November that he doubted current rules allow stations in states where marijuana has been decriminalized to accept ad dollars from cannabis dispensaries. “Probably not,” was Simington’s read, adding that also remains an unsettled issues in his eyes. “It typifies the split between regulation of broadcasters and non-regulation of platforms, with the local community-focused institutions unfairly held back,” he said. Commissioner Brendan Carr has also expressed some skepticism about the idea.


In the meantime, most broadcast attorneys are sticking with their advice that stations refrain from accepting cannabis ads. The Radio Advertising Bureau in an advisory to stations called it a matter of “risk assessment” at this point. “There is some FCC precedent – related to lottery and casino ads – for the proposition that a federal prohibition should not apply to the licensee of a broadcast station who is acting consistent with state law,” the RAB said. “But as long as marijuana is illegal at the federal level, it’s possible that listeners may file challenges against radio stations that run marijuana ads when FCC licenses come up for renewal.”


If and when cannabis ads are allowed, radio should be a likely media option for sellers. An MRI study conducted in 2018 found that nearly one in ten radio listeners said they used cannabis at least once a month. A separate study from The Media Audit found that buyers of legal cannabis spend more time with radio than any other medium.


The ad agency Cannabis Marketing, Inc. (CMI) is already telling its clients that radio is the way to go. “Radio ads penetrate,” CMI tells clients in a primer about where they should be spending their ad dollars. “Initiating a medical marijuana advertising campaign on the radio can be highly cost-effective. When you compare a radio ad against a billboard ad and factor in the cost, the frequency, targeting and reach that radio has, it far outweighs the cost for one billboard ad that may not even be seen by many individuals who would be interested in the marijuana that you sell.” CMI also cites radio’s ability to raise brand awareness while allowing a brand to not get lost in the clutter of digital.


Fletcher Heald broadcast attorney Frank Montero told Communications Daily that he gets a lot of calls from broadcasters in states where marijuana is legal looking for guidance on whether they can accept a buy. But there is still no good answer. “It is in dire need of clarification,” he said.

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