You Can't Use Kitties to Sell Weed in Washington

This Tacoma billboard proved a no-no
This Tacoma billboard proved a no-no

Plenty of pot shops went the easy route: Slap a pot leaf on a billboard, add some psychedelic colors and call it good. But the billboard for one Tacoma shop was a little more clever, featuring an adorable kitty cat, with a "Thug Life" tag around its neck, smirking beside a big, glowing phrase, "I'M SO HIGH RIGHT MEOW."

State Rep. Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, had no doubt about it: These sorts of ads were trying to sell drugs to kids.

"That's immoral, unconscionable. ... For children who are learning to read and focusing on reading skills, they read every billboard they see around them," McDonald says. "The message they're getting is that it's OK for them to ingest and smoke marijuana."

So last legislative session, she pushed an amendment that would have banned every single marijuana billboard in the state.

"We're not allowed to advertise cigarettes on billboards," McDonald says. "Why are we allowed to advertise marijuana on billboards?"

The amendment passed Washington's House, but never made it through the Senate.

Nevertheless, state Rep. David Sawyer, the Democrats' lead on most marijuana legislation in the House, says a bill that did pass added "pretty extreme restrictions on advertising."

There were already restrictions on marketing to children. But the new rules, which took effect last July, got more specific, banning advertising with toys, movie or cartoon characters. They ban exterior signs — like billboards — from featuring any pot leaves at all. No joints, bongs or other marijuana products either.

Weed shops also can't legally intentionally advertise to out-of-state residents. Sign spinners can't stand outside weed shops. And those shops can't use commercial mascots, animals or mechanical devices to catch the attention of drivers passing by. The days of 15-foot-high inflatable pot leaves are over.

Only two signs, limited to just over 11 square feet, are allowed — and they can't be within a thousand feet of schools, arcades, parks, playgrounds, public transit centers, or any publicly owned or operated property.

"It's pretty draconian," Sawyer says about the sweep of the bill.

Though he says he supports restrictions against advertising to kids, he says he opposed a full-scale billboard ban.

"During negotiations, all I asked was, give the industry a chance," Sawyer says. "These are legal businesses that are generally trying to do the right thing."

The new rules, however, still force the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board to make judgment calls. "Our enforcement officers spent an inordinate amount of time last year, dealing with advertising complaints," says Liquor and Cannabis Board spokesman Brian Smith.

And most of the time? It's friendly fire.

"It's usually one [marijuana] business telling on another business," Smith says. "There's a lot of finger pointing."

Some pot shops welcome the new rules. Sothy Hul, owner of Smokane, says she understands why parents get upset about certain weed billboards.

"A parent has to answer questions from their children," Hul says. "What is that? Why is that there?"

Smokane always sought to project a professional image, she says, so the new rules don't affect her.

"As a business owner I like that these rules are really stringent," Hul says. "There are people who don't play by the rules and take advantage." ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...