S.F. Billboard Calls Out Drug War Hypocrisy

The ad by Jay-Z’s cannabis brand delivers a blunt message and may challenge a recently passed law on bud billboards.

Do you have any idea how many crazy things are still legal? For starters, bestiality is allowed in 15 states. Also: federal law guarantees every citizen the right to own a flamethrower, but only ten states have decided that’s one freedom they can do without. And this is truly just the tip of the iceberg.

In Massachusetts, it’s totally chill to give your child alcohol as long as you are in your own home. In West Virginia, nothing is stopping you from texting while driving as long as you are over 18 and possess a valid license. There’s also technically no laws on the books in any state to specifically outlaw the act of cannibalism (though that one, like bestiality, is generally frowned upon).

For the team at Monogram — a California cannabis brand best known for its famous founder, rapper Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter — these lenient attitudes stood in stark contrast to the drug laws also on the books in many of these same states. 

That’s why, on March 1, the company unveiled a PSA campaign featuring “shockingly factual headlines set against the backdrop of eight striking portraits of individuals who have been charged for cannabis-related offenses.”

In a press release announcing the campaign, a quote from Carter makes it clear that he isn’t planning to wait for change to arrive at his doorstep. 

“Cannabis laws are out of date and disproportionately cruel and punishing when compared to the rest of the legal code,” Carter said. “We still don’t have proper regulation for texting and driving in Missouri, but staying home and smoking weed will get you locked up. I created this campaign to amplify the voices of those who have been penalized for the very same thing that venture capitalists are now prospering from with the emerging legal cannabis market.”

With plans for more to come, the initial cities chosen for the campaign included Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Miami, and San Francisco. 

Those trying to spot Monogram’s PSA will find it pasted to the side of a building just past where Kate Street intersects with I-80. It features a massive black-and-white photograph of a dapper Black man — blunt in hand, at peace in a cloud of curling smoke — and the following message in bold, capital letters:

“You can marry your first cousin in more states than you can buy recreational weed.” 

As it turns out, 19 states currently allow for marriages between first cousins, while only 14 states have a legal recreational cannabis market.

You can practically hear Jay dropping the mic. But for those who can’t read between the lines, Monogram spells it out. 

The campaign aims to highlight the hypocrisies surrounding cannabis legislation, demonstrating “just how antiquated these regulations are by juxtaposing them with far more divisive realities, depraved vices or dangerous transgressions — from cannibalism to flamethrowing — each of which is still permitted in the eyes of local lawmakers,” the press release states.

But beyond all the good intentions, the ads may also serve another purpose: functioning as a loophole for cannabis companies looking to skirt California’s new ban on bud billboards. 

As SF Weekly’s Joe Kukura reported last month, a recent lawsuit filed by a total narc — err… concerned parent — resulted in a ruling that put the kibosh on cannabis billboard advertisements along highways that cross state lines. In San Francisco, the relevant roadways are 1-80 and U.S. 101.

When one remembers that television commercials, social media campaigns, and other forms of pot promotion remain mostly off-the-table, it’s easy to imagine why companies like Monogram might be on the hunt for clever workarounds. And considering the timing of Monogram’s latest — coming shortly after the state ban was announced — one wonders if that is indeed what we are witnessing.

Sam Keywanfar, CEO of MilkMoney Inc., the ad agency Monogram worked with on their latest campaign, addressed the issue of cannabis billboard restrictions in a statement to SF Weekly: 

“This entire conversation about what you can or cannot advertise based on how close a billboard is to a different state only further exemplifies the hypocrisies surrounding cannabis and the arbitrary nature of the borders and laws that govern the industry,” Keywanfar said.

Fair enough, but the question of whether billboards dedicated to a cannabis-adjacent cause and carrying the name of a cannabis brand are different from ads directly plugging the products a brand sells has yet to be answered. In all likelihood, a California judge will one day be the judge of that.

Are billboards dedicated to a cannabis-adjacent cause and carrying the name of a cannabis brand different from ads directly plugging the products a brand sells? In all likelihood, a California judge will one day be the judge of that. 

But whatever the outcome, Monogram’s contribution to the visual tableau of the I-80 commute is a welcome dose of different — a metaphorical flamethrower, spouting a white-hot plume of truth above a sea of gig economy boosterism, smartphone ads, and cloud computing solutions.

Zack Ruskin covers cannabis for SF Weekly. Twitter @zackruskin 

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