HTTP/1.0 200 OK Content-Type: text/html Marijuana Billboard In South Boston Causes Stir
Pubdate: Wed, 12 Jul 2017
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2017 Globe Newspaper Company
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Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/52
Author: Katheleen Conti

MARIJUANA BILLBOARD IN SOUTH BOSTON CAUSES STIR

Marijuana billboard in South Boston called 'insensitive'

The advertisement was from Weedmaps, a California-based company that
runs an online marijuana dispensary rating service and sells inventory
software to pot shops.

While waiting at a stoplight on East Broadway in South Boston last
week, Sheila Greene looked up at a billboard and was stunned. In white
letters against a black background, a message read: "States that
legalized marijuana had 25% fewer opioid-related deaths."

Greene was bothered by the fact that the advertisement - from
Weedmaps, a California-based company that runs an online marijuana
dispensary rating service and sells inventory software to pot shops -
was placed in a neighborhood hard hit by opioid abuse. "I couldn't
believe it was being advertised," she said.

So she contacted a representative of Clear Channel Outdoor - which
owns the billboard structure - to point out that the message violated
the company's own policy regarding "exclusionary zones." Clear
Channel's website states that "advertisements of all products illegal
for sale to minors that are intended to be read from places of
worship, primary and secondary schools or playgrounds" are prohibited
in such zones. Greene estimated there are about 24 places of worship,
schools, playgrounds, and after-school and summer programs less than a
mile from the site of the billboard at 613-617 East Broadway.

Soon after she lodged her complaint, the message was removed.

"The ad was placed in error at a location not meant for the content
displayed," Jason King, a spokesman for Clear Channel, said in an e-mail.

The South Boston incident illustrates the kinds of issues communities
could face now that marijuana use has been legalized in Massachusetts.
State lawmakers are in the midst of rewriting the voter-approved law
before recreational sale of the drug is scheduled to begin next July.
They have been wrestling with how much control to give cities and
towns over marijuana sales, how it can be marketed, and who will
regulate the industry.

Greene said she was dismayed to find out that Weedmaps has similar
billboard ads in places such as Lynn and Quincy, which have high
incidences of opioid-related overdose deaths. In the first three
months of the year, there were 450 confirmed and suspected opioid
overdose deaths in Massachusetts, according to the latest quarterly
data from the state Department of Public Health.

Community-by-community data from 2016 - the latest available - show
there were 196 opioid overdose deaths in Boston, compared with 150 in
2015. Lynn had 47 deaths in 2016, two more than the prior year, while
Quincy recorded 42, two fewer than in 2015.

"It's just insensitive," Greene said. "I'd like to say moronic, but
advertisers are smart; they know exactly who they're marketing their
products to."

Chris Beals, president of Weedmaps, said the company has in the past
voluntarily pulled down ads in response to community complaints. For
example, he said, it removed ads from Toronto's subway and bus routes
that showed locations of local dispensaries.

Beals denied that the current "WeedFacts" ad campaign, which quotes
statistics from reports and research journals, is targeting certain
neighborhoods or demographics. "Not at all," he said. "Incredibly not
so."

Weedmaps has bought space on 80 Clear Channel billboards in
Massachusetts, but the company says it can't dictate where the
messages will be posted. That decision is made by Clear Channel.

"We basically take billboards on a space-available basis," Beals said.
"We have little to no say in terms of the [location of the]
billboards."

Weedmaps has been advertising in Massachusetts for seven months. The
WeedFacts campaign started in May with two ads, including the one
referencing fewer opioid deaths in states that legalized marijuana.
The company attributed the information to a study using data collected
between 1999 and 2010 that was published three years ago in the
Journal of the American Medical Association. The second ad cites a
Colorado public health survey indicating marijuana use among young
people in Colorado has not increased since the drug was legalized in
that state.

Joanne Peterson, executive director at Learn to Cope Inc., a
Taunton-based support organization for families dealing with
addiction, called Weedmaps's comparison of opioid deaths rates to
marijuana use "problematic."

"People don't just stop using opioids. Ever," Peterson said. "It's
very rare that somebody can just refuse to use heroin and switch to
marijuana."

She said the statistic Weedmaps is quoting is outdated and shouldn't
be advertised in neighborhoods severely affected by drug overdoses.

"We have watched more people dying [of opioid-related overdoses] this
past year than any other," she said.

The marketing campaign "is misleading, disrespectful, and
insensitive," Peterson said. "People are burying their family members
- - they don't need to see that it's better to smoke marijuana."

Because the cannabis industry is so new, Beals said, Weedmaps's
approach in Massachusetts - and particularly in Boston - is to present
information "in a respectful way and as factually as possible." The
company is preparing to roll out a new set of WeedFacts messages to
add to the two already on billboards, which have emerged as one of the
few marijuana-friendly advertising vehicles.

"We felt that as the state was moving toward a legalized framework
that they're working on right now, one should promote dialogue," Beals
said. "We want to be sensitive about the way we present those facts. .
. . But I think it's also important to talk about the benefits and
research coming out of marijuana. There should be an open discussion.
We're not putting up giant pot leaves or photos of people consuming
marijuana."
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