New England Treatment Access Uses Billboards for Medical Marijuana

Massachusetts legalized recreational marijuana with voters approval last November and the state is relaxing its rules towards cannabis. A medical marijuana dispensary, New England Treatment Access, has even purchased a number of billboards that drivers will see near Boston and the college rich area of Northampton in western Massachusetts. Northampton is home to one of New England Treatment Access’s dispensaries. Should legal marijuana dispensaries be forced have no call to action with their advertising?

Massachusetts commuters might catch a glimpse of the future out their car windows on Monday: the state’s first billboard ads for a marijuana dispensary.

New England Treatment Access, or NETA, which operates medical marijuana dispensaries in Brookline and Northampton, has purchased space on four billboards: two on the Massachusetts Turnpike near Exit 5 in Chicopee, one on Route 28 in Somerville, and another near the Mass. Ave. exit off Interstate 93 in Boston.

The ads are simple: set against a bright green background, they read, “Why wait for better health?,” and carry NETA’s Web address.

Norton Arbelaez, the nonprofit’s director of government affairs, said the ads are directed toward two groups: those who have considered using marijuana for medical reasons but haven’t followed through, and those who currently use the drug but obtain it from black market dealers or gray-market “caregiver” delivery services.

About 45,000 Massachusetts residents so far have registered as medical marijuana patients with the state. But not all of them frequent dispensaries, Arbelaez said, and NETA’s studies of use rates in other states suggest that up to 120,000 patients here could benefit from the drug.

“There’s no call to action — this is educational,” he said. “There are tens of thousands of patients that have a need but haven’t accessed the regulated market.”

Marijuana companies face numerous constraints on how they can advertise, especially regulated outfits like NETA that actually handle the drug.

For one thing, most radio and television stations refuse to accept ads from cannabis firms, because broadcasters are federally regulated and the drug is still illegal under US law. Social media platforms such as Facebook and print publications distributed across state lines are also squeamish because of federal prohibition.

Besides federal law, Massachusetts’ medical marijuana regulations limit how dispensaries can advertise, such as not being able to cite prices or use logos that feature marijuana symbols.

The state’s new recreational marijuana law comes with additional restrictions, saying businesses licensed by the Cannabis Control Commission can’t advertise in any outlet unless 85 percent of its audience is over 21 years old.

NETA isn’t currently subject to that rule, but Arbelaez said his group complied with it anyway, commissioning a study of who might see the billboards. The dispensary group did so out of an abundance of legal caution, Arbelaez said, and to reassure the billboard companies, Lamar and Clear Channel, that he said were nervous about running its ads.

“We went above and beyond and got an independent legal opinion about it,” he said. “Given their cautious or conservative nature, it gave an extra layer of comfort.”

Earlier this year, controversy erupted over an ad on a billboard owned by Clear Channel in South Boston from marijuana website and software company Weedmaps that read: “States that legalized marijuana had 25% fewer opioid-related deaths.” It was quickly removed.

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