Ultra Health, a medical marijuana provider licensed by the state of New Mexico, wanted to advertise on the outside of city buses in Albuquerque. The proposed wraparound ads featured large color photos of people of various ethnic groups and ages and a slogan, “Your Health. Our Commitment.”
But even though the sale and use of marijuana for medical purposes has been legal under state law for a decade, and the city of Albuquerque’s bus advertising policy does not specifically prohibit medical cannabis ads, the city’s Transit Department rejected the ads, citing concerns about federal law and restrictions on federal grant funding.
“The City Legal department has concluded that any advertisement displayed by the Transit Department for any sale or distribution related to medical cannabis, including THC or CDB, is prohibited by federal law, despite the state of New Mexico’s medical cannabis laws and regulations which provide limited license for distribution and patient use,” said Bruce Rizzieri, director of Albuquerque’s Transit Division, in a Sept. 13 letter to Ultra Health’s president and CEO Duke Rodriguez, who was state Human Services Department secretary under Gov. Gary Johnson.
Rizzieri added that recipients of federal transportation grants are prohibited from advertising marijuana.
The issue highlights the conflict between federal law and less restrictive state statutes and policies concerning the production and sale of cannabis, which a growing number of states have legalized even for recreational use.
A spokeswoman for Ultra Health said the design of the bus ads purposely avoided advertising the company’s products as recreational drugs.
“It’s a health care-centric design,” said Marrissa Novel in an interview Wednesday. “If we took off our logo and used the name of another health care provider, like Lovelace, I’m sure the city wouldn’t have rejected it.”
Rizzieri said the city would be willing to write to the Federal Transit Administration requesting its position on medical marijuana advertising. One Albuquerque city councilor who disagrees with the city’s rejection of the ad proposal took it upon himself to do just that.
Councilor Pat Davis — who is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for a congressional seat — sent a letter this week to the agency’s chief counsel, Dana Nifosi, as well as to Acting U.S. Attorney James Tierney asking for guidance. “I do not see that advertising medical cannabis (that is offered for sale pursuant to a state law) is prohibited,” Davis wrote.
Albuquerque’s bus advertising policy prohibits ads related to “an illegal or unlawful activity” or alcohol or tobacco products. But none of the policy’s restrictions deal with medical cannabis.
Referring to a federal law that Rizzieri had cited, Davis wrote, “Please note that this section of law prohibits advertising that seeks to illegally distribute a controlled substance. I believe that distributing medical cannabis pursuant to a state law does not constitute illegally distributing a controlled substance.”
Davis also argued that an amendment added by Congress to the federal government’s appropriations bills specifically forbids the U.S. Justice Department from taking actions against people and companies participating in medical cannabis programs licensed by the states. However, that protection is set to expire in December.
Ultra Health has eight dispensaries in New Mexico, including one in Santa Fe. Novel said the company has not tried to advertise with Santa Fe’s bus system but might consider it in the future.
It’s not clear what would happen if they did try it.
Don Templeton, president of Templeton Marketing Services in Albuquerque, which handles advertising on Santa Fe Trails buses, said Wednesday the city of Santa Fe does not have a specific policy related to medical marijuana advertising. “I’ve never been asked by any [dispensary],” he said. “If I did, I’d want to bounce it off the city first. Anything that might be controversial I’d always ask the city.”
Ads for marijuana have appeared on buses in California — where both medical and recreational marijuana are legal — without any federal repercussions.
But even though medical marijuana is legal in more than half of the states, other cities have been reluctant to allow advertising for it on their buses. The Boston Globe in March reported that the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority “has an explicit policy prohibiting ads that promote ‘the sale, use, or cultivation of marijuana or marijuana-related products.’ ”
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