New York’s Cannabis Billboard Battle: SAM and Weedmaps take to the roads

With a handful of working days left in New York’s legislative session for lawmakers to decide on a bill to legalize cannabis for adult use, both sides are taking to billboards for influence. Weedmaps, often called the Yelp for cannabis businesses, and Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the nation’s largest anti-legalization group, have both put up billboards across the state.

Weedmaps has taken over a billboard that looms over the 787 freeway in Albany, a little further than a stone’s throw from the state Capitol building, where lawmakers are debating whether to legalize before breaking for summer. The billboard appealed to one of the strongest talking points for legalization: the potential for tax revenue, or to put it another way: Pot for potholes. The billboard reads, “In 2018, states with adult use marijuana laws generated $1 billion + in marijuana tax revenue.”

Weedmaps spokesperson Carl Fillichio said that the company has 1,000 “WeedFacts” billboards up in 23 states (“more than 160 different cities”), with 62 up in New York, located in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Long Island, Manhattan, Queens, Rockaway Park, Staten Island and Syracuse.

“As New York and other states across the country consider cannabis legalization, there is a lot of misinformation out there. So we think that it’s important to share and talk about the benefits–underpinned by independent research–regarding marijuana. We want New Yorkers to be educated with facts, and it is our intention to foster open, informed discussion and debate,” Fillichio told Cannabis Wire.

Meanwhile, SAM has billboards up across New York “in specific locations designed to increase pressure on targeted legislators crucial to defeating the bill,” SAM spokesperson Colton Grace told Cannabis Wire. SAM is also currently running billboards in Denver that highlight “specific examples of harms that have been caused by legalization,” such as, Grace said, rising ER visits and thriving illicit markets.

“Billboards are a useful tool in getting a message out to people who we may not reach through other mediums, such as social media and news outlets. The use of billboards has always been an aspect of our key initiatives,” Grace said.

One of SAM’s New Windsor billboards reads, “Since marijuana legalization, opioid-related deaths have risen 49% in Colorado.” Toward the bottom is the prompt: “Tell Senator Skoufis,” with the number to reach him. The image and message are unmistakably grim, depicting a person’s bare feet with their toe tagged as if in a morgue. The tag reads “49%.”

(Research on how legal cannabis affects opioid use is mixed. For example, research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine concluded that “Policy makers could consider medical marijuana legalization as a tool that may modestly reduce chronic and high-risk opioid use.”)

“We timed these billboards to coincide with the last month of New York’s legislative session. These have been put in specific legislator’s districts to educate their constituents and give them the opportunity to call them right away before a vote is made,” Grace told Cannabis Wire.

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