Connecticut's budding cannabis industry is undergoing changes before it's even up and running.
Lawmakers rewrote several provisions of the cannabis law passed in 2021. There are now more extensive rules on how and where it can be advertised.
NBC Connecticut Investigates first reported on the issue back in October when billboard after billboard pointed the way to dispensaries just over the border in Massachusetts.
"I think we see alcohol advertisements all over and I think marijuana is less dangerous as long as it's regulated," said Kaitlin Erickson of West Hartford.
She said the billboards don't bother her, but they bothered Connecticut Attorney General William Tong.
The law passed in 2021 said billboard advertisers had to prove at least 90% of the audience is reasonably expected to be over the age of 21.
"I think common sense tells you they can't make that showing," he told NBC Connecticut Investigates in October.
The billboards were still up months after Connecticut's law went into effect, prompting Tong to send letters to seven dispensaries in Massachusetts asking them to remove their billboard ads.
Some of the companies complied. Others pushed back, saying they have the data to show they're meeting the 90% threshold.
So legislators went back to the square one and hammered out new rules for cannabis advertising.
"It's not a complete ban on billboard advertising. It does place what are called time, place and manner restrictions about the type of advertising you can do for cannabis restrictions, when you can do it, where you can do it," said Rep. Mike D'Agostino (D-Hamden), who chairs the legislature's General Law Committee.
The law signed by Gov. Ned Lamont on May 26 stipulates that only cannabis establishments with a Connecticut license can advertise on billboards in our state. In addition, billboard ads cannot be displayed between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m.
There are also new restrictions on the placement of those billboards.
"We said that there just simply cannot be any advertising for cannabis establishments within 1,500 feet of schools, of churches, of houses of worship, places like that," D'Agostino said.
On a recent drive around the state, NBC Connecticut spotted a handful of billboards for out-of-state cannabis retailers. The difference was noticeable from October, when the ads were abundant along the state's highways.
Green Gold Group, a dispensary in Charlton, Mass. told NBC Connecticut in a statement, "While we are disappointed to see the state take such a restrictive position, we respect their right to do so, and above all, believe in compliance with state law regardless of our thoughts on the matter. We hope the state will reconsider their position on this subject in the future, and look forward to the day they do so."
“We had three [billboards] and we took them down. And we have one remaining," said Bob Patton of Green Meadows in Southbridge.
Technically, the billboards should already be gone. The law went into effect as soon as Lamont signed it last month.
Green Gold and Green Meadows said they will comply. Another dispensary, Canna Provisions, no longer has billboard ads in Connecticut, but its chief operating officer said the move is disappointing.
“Border commerce is something that's been going on for a long, long time. And in a region that can only survive through regionalism and cooperation, this seems like a really short sighted hypocritical salvo to make,” Erik Williams said.
“It goes in my mind rather against the spirit of what cannabis has tried to do and try to bring to society as it comes forward as an industry," he said.
All parties involved expect more changes to the state's cannabis law as the industry gets off the ground.
“I think the entire cannabis regulatory and economic structure is going to be continuing to evolve. And I would expect a bill next year, a bill year after that, that we will always be tweaking,” D'Agostino said.
"This is early on in the in the law coming to fruition in Connecticut, but you know, I fully expect that there are going to be shots every single year legislatively," Williams said. "It's a never ending battle, to see where this goes."
Lamar Advertising, which owns the billboards currently advertising cannabis, previously told NBC Connecticut that ad content and locations were thoroughly vetted.
The company had no comment on the law change but said in a statement, "We do appreciate that the state government apparently recognizes the power and impact that an effective billboard campaign can have for local businesses."
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