When Colorado and Washington state began legal retail sales of marijuana in 2014, student newsrooms, like the one I advise at Colorado State University-Pueblo, were undoubtedly home to animated discussions about the implications legal pot have on advertising.
Now that voters in Alaska, Oregon and Washington, D.C., have OK’d retail marijuana sales, more student publications may be debating the “to run or not to run” issue soon.
Do pot shops want to advertise in student media?
Gil Asakawa, manager of student media at the University of Colorado, recently told me that the CU Independent is not “actively pursuing advertising from marijuana retailers, medical or recreational.”
Asakawa said the Independent has had two ads from pot dispensaries since they became legal, but he feels that businesses that sell marijuana are hesitant to advertise in campus publications, noting that ads for pot dispensaries in area alternative weeklies are plentiful.
“So it really is the direct exposure to student readers that makes the businesses nervous,” Asakawa said.
Diana Kramer, publisher and editorial adviser to student publications at the University of Washington, said in an email that their student publications haven’t been approached by marijuana retailers.
“(M)ost likely because demand has exceeded supply,” she said. “The licensed marijuana outlets have been selling out in very short order, and I doubted they would need to advertise.”
However, at CSU-Pueblo, local marijuana retailers want to advertise, said Julie Armstrong, who oversees student publication ad sales. “The interest is definitely there.”
Is it legal?
The Colorado Department of Revenue’s Marijuana Enforcement Division’s retail marijuana code rules, published on Sept. 9, 2013, include the following: “A Retail Marijuana Establishment shall not engage in Advertising in a print publication unless the Retail Marijuana Establishment has reliable evidence that no more than 30 percent of the publication’s readership is reasonably expected to be under the age of 21.”
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, cautioned that regulations such as these may face First Amendment commercial speech challenges in the future.
“I anticipate that is the kind of regulation ripe for a challenge,” LoMonte said.
He added that legal precedent suggests having a substantial minority of the audience of legal age should be enough to allow advertising. “To require a super majority of 70 percent is questionable.”
Alcohol ad limits
LoMonte said the marijuana advertising issue is “kind of a replay of the controversy we have had about alcohol ads.”
Alcohol advertising in student publications has been ruled legally permissible in several recent cases, LoMonte said.
Rulings in cases involving the Pitt News, Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia found that there should be nothing preventing student publications from accepting ads for something legal for a substantial portion of the audience, LoMonte said.
He added that a publication is not responsible for illegal activity just because that publication provided information on where the audience could buy alcohol.
Case for ethics and profits
From an ethical standpoint, LoMonte said student media would be well-advised to follow the standard practices of their communities.
“(Student media) have no obligation to be more puritanical than other publications,” LoMonte said.
In addition, although federal laws about drug-free campuses require that drug use is not promoted on campus, LoMonte said accepting an ad in a student publication does not amount to drug use promotion.
LoMonte said people have many places they can go to get information on where to purchase marijuana legally, so not allowing college media to run marijuana advertising could be deemed discriminatory.
“Why single out college media?” he asked.
And the potential revenue could prove beneficial for student publications wanting to find new sources of advertising dollars.
“I know firsthand the struggles we have with bringing in enough revenue to support our student publications through advertising,” CSU-Pueblo’s Armstrong said. “Advertising from retail marijuana shops would greatly enhance that revenue stream.”
Leticia Steffen is an associate professor of mass communications and coordinator of women’s studies at Colorado State University-Pueblo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter: @letstef