Judge disallows marijuana billboards on interstate highways

By KAREN VELIE

A San Luis Obispo County judge ruled Friday that marijuana billboards on California’s interstate highways and some state highways are prohibited by Proposition 64, a voter initiative approved in 2016.

California’s Business and Professions Code bars marijuana businesses from advertising on “state or interstate highways which cross the California border.” But the California Bureau of Cannabis Control interpreted the law to mean that billboards could be used to advertise marijuana businesses on interstate highways as long as they were not within 15 miles of the border.

“The bureau determined that a 15-mile radius was a necessary and appropriate distance from the California border because it satisfies the intent of section 26152(d) of the Business and Professions Code, while assuring that bureau licensees have an opportunity to advertise and market along Interstate and State Highways if they satisfy the identified radius limitations,” state regulators said in defense of their decision.

That 2019 interpretation led to cannabis billboards sprouting up along highways from San Diego to Crescent City.

Concerned with the impact cannabis advertising could have on children, Matthew Farmer filed a lawsuit challenging the state’s interpretation. His attorneys’ Saro Rizzo and Stewart Jenkins battled the bureau and its interpretation of Proposition 64.

SLO County Court Judge Ginger Garrett found that the bureau and Director Lori Ajax “exceeded their authority in promulgating the advertisement placement regulation.”

“The advertising placement regulation is clearly inconsistent with the advertising placement statute, expanding the scope of permissible advertising to most of California’s state and interstate highway system, in direct contravention of the statute,” Judge Garrett said in her ruling.

After it became apparent the state would likely lose the suit, Ajax announced plans to resign from the bureau.

“This ruling is a major triumph on several fronts,” Rizzo said. “First, it’s a victory for all Californians over the desires of unelected Sacramento bureaucrats who illegally tried to put corporate profits ahead of children’s health. Second, it’s a vindication of the doctrine of separation of powers in that an agency under the control of the Governor’s Office was basically told that it cannot subvert the voters’ will by adopting a regulation that clearly conflicted with a statute.”

In addition to the violations of state law, Rizzo and Jenkins discovered that the Lady Bird Johnson Highway Beautification Act forbids the advertising of substances illegal under federal law on interstate highways. Federal law still criminalizes marijuana and the placement of the cannabis billboards puts California in danger of losing 10 percent of its federal highway funding.

“The most significant thing about this case is that one person, with a couple of good country lawyers, can compel a state agency through the court to obey the law,” Jenkins said.

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