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Cannabis billboards seem to be everywhere. One Michigan city may respond

Detroit — Billboards advertising marijuana dispensaries have become nearly ubiquitous along Michigan’s highways and some local streets, and at least one elected leader wants to curtail the ads within the state’s largest city.

Detroit City Councilwoman Angela Whitfield Calloway has directed the city’s Law Department to draft an ordinance to ban, or possibly restrict, further cannabis advertising on billboards.

“It’s taking over our city,” Whitfield Calloway said.

The highly competitive and lucrative cannabis industry in Michigan, which generates nearly $7 billion a year, is limited in how it can advertise, leading to a saturated number of billboard ads that the state regulates but doesn’t track. There is no database on how many cannabis billboards exist in Michigan.

A billboard advertising for the marijuana dispensary Ultra Cannabis can be seen on Eight Mile Road, in Detroit, June 6, 2024. One Detroit City Council member wants to ban such billboards or restrict them.
A billboard advertising for the marijuana dispensary Ultra Cannabis can be seen on Eight Mile Road, in Detroit, June 6, 2024. One Detroit City Council member wants to ban such billboards or restrict them.
David Guralnick, The Detroit News

Some of Michigan’s largest cannabis business owners said their “vice” is being unfairly targeted and further regulations in Detroit would violate free speech rights. A signage expert said restrictions would also limit Detroit dispensaries from fairly competing with suburban marketing after years of working to establish a social equity licensing program. Signage revenue mainly supports small building owners in the city.

“Billboards give people the ability to market themselves fast,” said Aric Klar, the CEO of Quality Roots, which has eight dispensaries in Michigan and does some billboard advertising. “Sometimes those billboards create disapproval by neighbors, but this has grown into a different beast.

“It’s easy to put restrictions on billboards. I can’t advertise where dispensaries aren’t allowed and I believe Detroit could ban signage anywhere outside the facility’s property. It’s a wild game, and the billboard companies absolutely love the vice businesses like liquor, sports betting and cannabis. Cannabis is only the most you see because there are the most competitors in the industry.”

Still, opponents such as Kaydn Mahouli are tired of the volume of cannabis billboards. The 9-year-old addressed the Detroit City Council last month, telling members how every time he travels to Detroit to visit his grandmother, he’s disappointed to see weed advertisements. He also sees them while helping his mom work in a substance abuse clinic in Pontiac.

“I worry kids are going to see that (cannabis billboards) someday, and they’ll be interested because they see it’s free, and then they’ll get hooked on it,” Mahouli told the City Council.

Kaydn Mahouli, 8, right, told the Detroit City Council at a May 8, 2024, meeting that he sees too many marijuana billboards when he visits the city and worries they may tempt children to try pot.
Kaydn Mahouli, 8, right, told the Detroit City Council at a May 8, 2024, meeting that he sees too many marijuana billboards when he visits the city and worries they may tempt children to try pot.
Screengrab

Whitfield Calloway said she’s not trying to limit free speech, but the number of cannabis billboards is “unacceptable.” She cited a federal judge’s ruling in January that upheld Mississippi’s restrictions on cannabis advertising, arguing that since pot possession and sales are still illegal under federal law, they don’t get the constitutional protections that some forms of commercial speech do.

“You can’t drive down a street or a freeway without seeing this one cannabis company,” said Whitfield Calloway, without identifying the company. “What can we do to restrict? I’m not trying to interfere with anyone’s rights to publicize or freedom of speech, but not long ago, we had a councilperson who wanted to limit alcohol and cigarette advertisements.”

David Whitaker, the city of Detroit’s law and policy director, wouldn’t comment on the status of the process but said it’s a “very complex issue trying to curtail commercial speech.” Whitfield Calloway was unavailable for further comment, awaiting the law department’s review.

Regulations now for cannabis billboards

Rules promulgated by the Cannabis Regulatory Agency prohibit targeted marijuana marketing to people 17 or younger for medical marijuana and those younger than age 21 for recreational marijuana. Businesses are banned from advertising marijuana if they believe more than 30% of those who see the ad are under the legal age.

“A licensee may not advertise a marihuana product in a way that is deceptive, false, or misleading, or make any deceptive, false, or misleading assertions or statements on any marihuana product, sign, or document provided,” the rules state. That hasn’t stopped critics from questioning why they see “free weed” ads along Michigan’s highways and major roads.

Detroit City Councilwoman Angela Whitfield Calloway
It’s taking over our city. … I worry kids are going to see that someday and they’ll be interested because they see it’s free and then they’ll get hooked on it.

Still, billboards advertising various cannabis dispensaries dot I-75 and I-94, nearly as common as ones for attorney Joumana Kayrouz and Sam Bernstein’s family law firm.

Many are from one firm, which acknowledges it likely has more cannabis billboards than any other dispensary in the state, but wouldn’t put a number on how many it has: Detroit-based Leaf & Bud Cannabis.

This is one of many marijuana dispensary billboards in Detroit. Dispensary owners argue that the billboards are needed because most other forms of advertising for cannabis aren't allowed by Michigan law, and they need to compete.
This is one of many marijuana dispensary billboards in Detroit. Dispensary owners argue that the billboards are needed because most other forms of advertising for cannabis aren’t allowed by Michigan law, and they need to compete.
David Guralnick, The Detroit News

The billboards usually feature CEO Mark Savaya’s smiling face. The ads showcase the company’s cannabis collection; red letters declare “FREE DELIVERY.” Three of his bright yellow billboards sit beside each other along I-94. Another ad is plastered on the side of a brick wall in the downtown building that houses Lafayette Coney Island and American Coney Island.

Savaya declined to comment, but his attorney, Scott Roberts, said the billboards feature Savaya “because we stand behind our products and company.” He contends Detroit’s emerging proposal unfairly targets companies such as Leaf & Bud, which have carefully crafted their advertising not to appeal to minors.

“We​ don’t use cartoons, silly names, inappropriate messages or even the word ‘weed,'” Roberts said.

The dispensary also has been a supportive part of the community in Detroit, he said.

“Leaf & Bud continues to support City of Detroit residents of all ages through donations and community events, such as bike giveaways and street cleanups,” Roberts said.

Marijuana dispensary owner Mark Savaya, left, and Detroit City Council member Angela Whitfield Calloway participate during a fall clean-up event in Detroit in 2023. But Savaya and Calloway are on opposing sides of whether to ban or restrict marijuana billboards in the city.
Marijuana dispensary owner Mark Savaya, left, and Detroit City Council member Angela Whitfield Calloway participate during a fall clean-up event in Detroit in 2023. But Savaya and Calloway are on opposing sides of whether to ban or restrict marijuana billboards in the city.
Provided by Savaya

Limits on marketing

Although Michigan voters approved recreational sales of cannabis in 2018, and medical use was legalized a decade before, it remains illegal under federal law. As a result, businesses are prevented from doing traditional marketing on television and radio stations, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Billboards have become the main form of marketing outside of in-person events, said Mike DiLaura, chief corporate operations and general counsel at House of Dank.

“We use billboards, signs on planes, and we do use social media but not in a paid way because they won’t accept cannabis money. It has to be organic and about building community versus paid ads,” DiLaura said.

“There are fewer avenues to advertise, so I have to sell you on the brand with repetition. Billboards that you may not consciously see as you go by and by interacting with canna-curious people at major events. Like this year, we’re at Arts Beats and Eats, Dream Cruise and plenty of winter fests.”

House of Dank plans to open three new stores this summer in Lansing, Kalamazoo and Ann Arbor. That brings House of Dank to 12 dispensaries in Michigan. With each new store, there are no less than 30 billboards to market in each city, DiLaura said.

“We will dial it back eventually, but we have to build up awareness and then we change them up for vendor partners,” DiLaura said. “This is a very large market, and there’s a lot of space for good operators. Mark (Savaya) and I are chasing different customers, and he’s certainly a competitor, but we’re not chasing each other through billboards. There is no doubt billboards are effective … , although it’s tough to measure.”

People wait in line to purchase cannabis at House of Dank in Monroe in April. Each new store that House of Dank opens in a city requires using 30 billboards, said Mike DiLaura, chief corporate operations and general counsel at House of Dank.
People wait in line to purchase cannabis at House of Dank in Monroe in April. Each new store that House of Dank opens in a city requires using 30 billboards, said Mike DiLaura, chief corporate operations and general counsel at House of Dank.
Katy Kildee, The Detroit News

DiLaura said cities should revisit their regulations to ensure they are working, “but in this case, I don’t think there’s an actual problem.”

“It’s easy to say, ‘We see these billboards everywhere,’ but I don’t think there’s any more today than there were three years ago,” he said. “It’s critical we keep drugs away from children, and too often, people tie together illegally purchased drugs with our industry. I’ve never heard a criticism of Budweiser or Jack Daniels for advancing teen drinking. It’s politically easy to point a finger at us and say your advertising is causing a black market.”

‘It’s embarrassing what advertising has turned into’

Quality Roots’ Klar is hoping to launch his company’s ninth storefront in New Jersey by the end of July. Since the state doesn’t allow cannabis billboards, he said he purchased billboards over the river in Philadelphia to market the new location.

Quality Roots marijuana dispensary Director of Product Discovery Ben Rothenberg and CEO Aric Klar help customer Sylvia Gantt of Detroit with a purchase in Hamtramck on April 19, 2021. Klar said Quality Roots focuses its advertising more on digital than billboards in a bid to ensure it is not targeting those under the age of 21.
Quality Roots marijuana dispensary Director of Product Discovery Ben Rothenberg and CEO Aric Klar help customer Sylvia Gantt of Detroit with a purchase in Hamtramck on April 19, 2021. Klar said Quality Roots focuses its advertising more on digital than billboards in a bid to ensure it is not targeting those under the age of 21.
Daniel Mears, The Detroit News

“It’s embarrassing what these billboards have turned into. I don’t think billboards should say ‘free weed,’ and we even have a funny campaign to keep up that just says ‘we sell cannabis’ because we’re not in the business of giving away stuff,” said Klar, who started his first shop in Hamtramck. “We’ve got quality service, products, and we sell cannabis. That’s a fair message.”

Klar said because cannabis is limited in ways it can market, billboards have been the go-to method to create brand identity. To Quality Roots, billboards are secondary, so the company focuses on a digital presence to make sure they’re not targeting people under 21, he said.

“We ran a Zillow campaign, and it was taken down, but we still thought it was clever — interest rates are high and you should be, too,” Klar said with a laugh.

A cannabis billboard on a freeway in Metro Detroit on June 12.
A cannabis billboard on a freeway in Metro Detroit on June 12.
Clarence Tabb Jr., The Detroit News

One town’s fight against cannabis billboards

Cannabis billboards aren’t just an issue in Detroit.

Monroe Charter Township has filed seven complaints this year to the Michigan Cannabis Regulatory Agency after billboards were illegally put up for nearby dispensaries. The township south of Monroe has fewer than 15,000 people and has a sign ordinance, in place since 2010, that no new billboards can be erected within city limits without permission.

“A lot of the complaints are just that they use prohibited words like ‘weed’ or an image of a marijuana leaf,” said Kim Fortner, the township’s community development director and zoning enforcement officer. “It’s usually because they don’t check our ordinance before putting them up, and we always offer a warning for a first offense, and there’s no fine if they take it down within five days.”

In 2021, a set of bills by state Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Casco Township and then-Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, called to ban cannabis billboard advertisements. The bills were referred to a committee but never made it to the House floor. Hammoud, now mayor of Dearborn, told The Detroit News they introduced the bipartisan legislation because ” there were ads back then that seemed to target minors,” but the legislation had no legs.

The Michigan Department of Transportation, meanwhile, regulates the size, lighting, spacing and locations of billboards along the highways, but all are on private property, said Jeff Cranson, MDOT spokesman. There is no inventory on the content of the signs, and the agency wouldn’t comment if it has seen an uptick in cannabis billboards.

The Cannabis Regulatory Agency regulates all forms of advertising and investigates all complaints determining if ads are false, deceptive or misleading, said spokesman David Harns.

The agency could not say how many billboards in Michigan are advertising cannabis, how many have received fines or complaints.

A Detroit News review of CRA records shows the agency has investigated 32 advertisement-related products between January-May and 46 incidents in 2023. The enforcement records start in late 2022 and don’t specify billboard advertisements from other forms of product advertising.

The CRA doesn’t keep a count of billboards but does have an informal billboard review process.

The agency, which has no position on proposed local ordinances, attempts to work with and educate licensees before taking disciplinary action on violations, Harns said.

“Many municipalities have ordinances that impact advertising — we take action when we are made aware that licensees are breaking these rules,” Harns said. “Any violation of our administrative rules can result in disciplinary action including fines, license restrictions, license suspensions, up to and including possible revocation of license.”

‘The city needs to be careful’

Chris Jackson of the Detroit-based Jackson Consulting Group works on all types of signage, permitting, land use and zoning and has been a developer in the city for the last 30 years. He said the billboards are a natural byproduct of a new industry that voters created.

“These businesses are no different than the auto lawyers, and they’re all competing for those customers. I don’t see cannabis being anything different,” said Jackson, who previously worked on writing the city’s cannabis ordinances.

Detroit was one of the pioneering cities leading the state effort toward recreational adult-use but only started awarding licenses last year after a lengthy process to establish an equity program to prevent big-brand monopolies.

“It would be a shame for those businesses now that they’ve been created to be prevented from advertising compared to the suburban stores. It would be unfortunate and keep the unfair advantage of drawing people out of Detroit,” Jackson said. “The city needs to be careful. As much trouble the city went through to help create the equity program, the last thing they should do is not allow them the same tools to advertise.”

srahal@detroitnews.com

@SarahRahal_

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