The Billboard Battle: Anti-Marijuana Group Wants Pro-Pot Signage Gone

A billboard on Seventh Street advertising the marijuana reviews app Weedmaps. An Arizona anti-marijuana nonprofit called the company's billboards false advertising.
A billboard on Seventh Street advertising the marijuana reviews app Weedmaps. An Arizona anti-marijuana nonprofit called the company's billboards false advertising. Joseph Flaherty
You've probably seen them around: marijuana factoids on billboards alongside a teal smiley-face logo for an app company called Weedmaps.

Seems pretty innocent, right? Not so, says a stridently anti-marijuana Arizona organization, which is raising alarms over the billboards. The group has asked the Attorney General's office to investigate the company for alleged false advertising.

The group, Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy, says marijuana app company Weedmaps is relying on disputed statistics about the effects of marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington. The company's billboards say the rate of youth marijuana usage in those states has remained unchanged despite pot legalization in 2012.

In small print near the bottom of each ad, Weedmaps cites recent surveys done in each state as its source for the numbers.

ARDP also called another Weedmaps billboard that touts marijuana as a way to battle the opioid crisis "dangerously false." The Weedmaps billboard says, "States that legalized marijuana had 25% fewer opioid-related deaths." It references a much-cited 2014 study on opioid overdose death rates in states that allow access to medical cannabis.

ARDP helped scuttle a 2016 ballot initiative to legalize marijuana in Arizona, with financial support from heavyweight donors like Nevada's Sheldon Adelson. They also received donations from Chandler-based fentanyl manufacturer Insys Therapeutics (whose founder and top executives were recently indicted for bribery and fraud amid the opioid crisis) as well as the Arizona Wine and Spirits Wholesale Association.

Last week, ARDP launched a "call for action" email to its supporters asking them to write to the Arizona Attorney General's office of consumer complaints. In a sample letter to the consumer complaints division, ARDP wrote, "Advertising on the billboards includes claims that youth use has not increased in Colorado and Washington since legalization of recreational marijuana; claims of a decrease in opioid deaths attributable to marijuana in legal marijuana states; how to find dispensaries; and billboards urging viewers to get high.

"These claims are false, misleading and dangerous," the group added.

That's not all that ARDP threw at Weedmaps. The nonprofit also alleges that these billboards violate the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act, which prohibits deceptive and false advertising.

Even more debatable is ARDP's claim that Weedmaps violates a federal law that prohibits ads that promote an illegal transaction of a Schedule I controlled substance.

The Weedmaps app would appear to be in the clear regarding this federal law. 

The billboard seems to fall under an exception to the law for ads that "merely advocates the use of a similar material, which advocates a position or practice, and does not attempt to propose or facilitate an actual transaction in a Schedule I controlled substance."

On the Weedmaps app, users can browse info on nearby dispensaries as well as cannabis strain and product reviews. A spokesperson for the company said the billboards have sources of the information on display.

"Our billboards provide communities with cited facts about the social effects of legalizing cannabis," Carl Fillichio wrote in an email to Phoenix New Times. "It is our goal to foster informed discussion among residents, community leaders and elected officials, and encourage more research and debate from people on both sides of the issue."

ARDP looks like it's ready to counterattack with its own set of statistics.

On Monday, the organization announced that it's launching a new ad campaign. Its latest billboard, a stark black-and-white graphic, has one sentence: "Every 3 days someone dies in a marijuana-related traffic death in Colorado." No source on that factoid, however.

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The anti-cannabis nonprofit Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy unveiled a new billboard they will roll out in Phoenix this week.
Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy
Merilee Fowler, the secretary/treasurer for ARDP, wrote to New Times in an email, "Arizonans for Responsible Drug Policy's goal is to raise awareness about the harms of marijuana and to provide the public with facts based on reputable research. The just released report by RMHIDTA, a federal agency, highlights the failed experiment of legal marijuana and the disastrous results in Colorado, including dangerous roads and increased youth use."

Fowler did not address her organization's claim that Weedmaps violated the Arizona Consumer Fraud Act.

Yet for all the talk of false advertising, ARDP's problems with the Weedmaps billboards boil down to methodology.

To support their claim that weed legalization has had no impact on youth pot smoking, Weedmaps relies on state studies from Colorado and Washington: a 2015 survey from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and a 2016 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey.

ARDP says that these studies are flawed and underestimate the number of young people smoking pot.

Instead, the pot prohibitionists point to state estimates from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which says that youth marijuana use increased 9.53 percent  in Colorado and 3.18 percent in Washington between 2011 and 2014.

(It must be noted that in their press release, ARDP directs supporters to browse these statistics within a larger research project from a like-minded group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana, which opposes blanket legalization and aims to educate Americans on the "harms of marijuana use and marijuana commercialization.")

Likewise, to rebut the claims of marijuana use easing opioid addiction, ARDP pointed to a study that found marijuana users were more likely to develop opioid use disorder.

Despite ARDP's eye-popping claim that Weedmaps is guilty of false advertising, we're ultimately left with competing studies.

So, who do you trust?

The app that promises to lead you to the nearest marijuana dispensary? Or the nonprofit that took money from fentanyl and alcohol companies to quash legal marijuana in Arizona?
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty

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