Pot Billboards Banned on Interstate Highways

Marijuana ads must come down across California, as a new ruling limits which roads may host such high-visibility cannabis promotions.

There is a giggle-worthy sign of the times rising high over SoMa, just a stone’s throw from a building operated by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department. Hovering above the Five Keys Charter School — where the incarcerated can work to earn credits toward a high school diploma — there is a billboard advertising the services of cannabis delivery company Eaze.

“It takes 3,240 tons of fuel to reach the moon,” the sign declares. “Or 1 gram of Sour Diesel.” 

That billboard will have to come down soon, according to a recent legal ruling. Not because it’s next to a county sheriff’s facility, but because it is located next to Interstate 80. While cannabis billboards still remain legal on most California roadways, a judge ruled in November that the state will no longer allow billboards for cannabis on highways that cross state lines.

The judgement comes in the wake of a lawsuit filed by Matthew Farmer, a San Luis Obispo father who — despite voting in favor of Prop. 64 — was nevertheless unhappy that his children were being served advertisements for the devil’s lettuce. A California Superior Court judge agreed with Farmer’s legal complaint, ruling that such billboards promote “interests which are inconsistent with the protection of the public,” and that cannabis companies “may not advertise or market on a billboard or similar advertising device located on an Interstate Highway or a State Highway which crosses the California border.”

Here in San Francisco, there are only two roadways that meet that criteria: I-80 and U.S. 101.

U.S. Route 101 originates in L.A. But its San Francisco leg zooms freeway-style through Visitacion Valley and Potrero Hill before turning into Van Ness Avenue, then Lombard Street, and becoming a freeway once more after crossing the Golden Gate Bridge. The route continues north all the way through Oregon and Washington — running all the way up to the Canadian border.

Interstate 80 is a nearly 3,000-mile coast-to-coast highway that runs from here all the way to New Jersey. But not even two miles of it is located in San Francisco proper. I-80 originates near 16th Street, where it’s a westward veer from U.S.-101 that immediately makes straight for the Bay Bridge. 

These well-traveled highways represent but a minuscule percentage of overall San Francisco thoroughfares. As a result, there are only two cannabis billboards on these roads that would be affected by the new restriction. (The second is above a chicken wing shop on Lombard Street, a residential area that is still technically U.S. 101.) Both signs promote the delivery service Eaze.

“Billboards are very important for revenue and for letting adults know where to find legal products,” Eaze senior director communications Elizabeth Ashford tells SF Weekly. “Most online platforms ban cannabis ads. While we’d prefer to reach adult consumers through targeted digital advertising, tech platforms make this nearly impossible.”

Only two cannabis billboards on these roads will be affected by the new rule. Shutterstock

The state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control (BCC) the body that regulates the state industry has sent notices to companies with billboards, but they have not yet issued any cold, hard deadlines for billboard removal.

“The Bureau is currently working with licensees with billboards to try and get boards taken down as expeditiously as possible,” BCC spokesperson Alex Traverso tells SF Weekly. “But each situation is different. Some have paid a year in advance for locations and in those instances, we encourage the licensee to reach out to us if they have questions about their unique situation.”

That flexibility may soften the blow a bit, but the cannabis industry still feels the ruling represents terrible policy.

“Some judges and legislators still lump cannabis in with tobacco, the only other legal product that faces advertising bans,” Eaze’s Ashford says. “Tobacco kills users, is addictive, markets to children, and isn’t a California industry. Cannabis is an essential medical product, isn’t marketed to kids, and employs thousands of unionized W2 employees in California. 

“The only thing these bans do is help the criminal market thrive and perpetuate the War on Drugs.”

This isn’t the first cannabis ad ban to apply to San Francisco. Back in the medical marijuana days before 2018, dispensaries had ads on Muni buses and bus stations all over town until those too were banned during the Mayor Ed Lee era. 

“For cannabis particularly, there’s a finite amount of [ad] inventory that’s available,” says Jon Lowen, co-founder of the cannabis ad analytics platform Surfside. “There are other regulations on where you can place these boards, in terms of certain distance from a school or certain points of interest that might over-index for minors”

By “over-index for minors,” he means that kids might see the ads. That’s the same complaint the mad dad from San Luis Obispo successfully used to get the state cannabis billboard policy overturned.

The original 2016 Prop. 64 California recreational cannabis laws set billboard policies whose main concern was that out-of-state “cannabis tourists” might come here just to buy weed and then drive high-as-the-bejesus on our bordertown roadways. That argument is now moot, considering that every single state bordering California (Oregon, Nevada, and Arizona) now has the same recreational cannabis rules that we have. No one has to cross the state border just to buy marijuana here anymore.

Joe Kukura is a contributing writer for SF Weekly. news@sfweekly.com

Related Stories