Federal Judge Upholds Mississippi’s Ban on Weed Advertising

January 25, 2024 · High Times

A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a Mississippi medical marijuana dispensary owner challenging the state’s ban on cannabis advertising. In the legal action, Clarence Cocroft II, the owner of Tru Source Medical Cannabis, argued that Mississippi’s regulations prohibiting cannabis advertising in any media amounted to unconstitutional censorship of the industry.

But U.S. District Judge Michael P. Mills disagreed with Cocroft and dismissed the lawsuit on Monday. In his ruling, Mills wrote that because the possession of marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, it is not a “lawful activity” that is protected by the U.S. Constitution like some other forms of commercial speech.

Cocroft opened his dispensary in Olive Branch, Mississippi after the state legislature legalized medical marijuana in 2022. In his lawsuit, he argues that he has faced difficulty reaching potential customers because of the state’s ban on advertising by cannabis businesses. 

The judge, however, said that overturning Mississippi’s ban on cannabis advertising would be a “drastic intrusion upon state sovereignty.”

“This is particularly true considering the fact that, by legalizing marijuana to any degree, the Mississippi Legislature has gone further than Congress itself has been willing to go,” Mills wrote in his ruling, according to a report from the Associated Press. “In light of this fact, on what basis would a federal court tell the Mississippi Legislature that it was not entitled to dip its toe into the legalization of marijuana, but, instead, had to dive headfirst into it?”

State Sued Over Advertising Ban

Cocroft is represented by the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian law firm. The lawsuit names the Mississippi Department of Health, Department of Revenue and Alcoholic Beverage Control Bureau as defendants in the legal action.

In the suit, Corcroft maintains that Mississippi’s ban on cannabis advertising prevents him from reaching out to customers via television, radio or print ads. He is even forbidden from placing ads on billboards that he owns. 

The judge ruled that the state cannot prohibit cannabis businesses from displaying products on their websites or from using “appropriate signs” on their businesses. The authority to enact other restrictions, however, lies with the state Health Department, which bans dispensaries from advertising or marketing “in any media.” Corcroft’s legal team says the ban amounts to unconstitutional censorship.

“When Mississippi legalized medical marijuana, it relinquished its power to censor speech by medical marijuana businesses,” said Ari Bargil, an Institute for Justice attorney. “If a product is legal to sell, then it is legal to talk about selling it.”

Corcroft’s suit argues that a current review of cannabis policy by the Biden administration and presidential pardons for low-level federal marijuana offenses constitute a de facto legalization of cannabis. But while the president has pardoned thousands of people who have been federally convicted of marijuana possession, cannabis remains illegal under federal law. As long as marijuana remains a federally controlled substance, the judge ruled, the states are free to pass laws that restrict advertising by cannabis businesses.

“Plaintiffs thus argue that Congress and President Biden have ‘all but’ made the possession of marijuana lawful, which strikes this court as a tacit admission that it still remains illegal under federal law,” Mills wrote.

In a statement released after the judge’s ruling and dismissal of the case, Corcroft said that Mississippi’s ban on cannabis advertising is a violation of the First Amendment rights of legal businesses. He added that he plans to appeal the judge’s ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I’m prepared to fight this fight for as long as it takes,” Cocroft said. “This case is bigger than me and my dispensary – it is about defending the right of everyone to truthfully advertise their legal business in the cannabis industry.”

Although Mississippi’s regulated medical marijuana businesses still face the state’s ban on advertising, Brian Vicente, founding partner of the cannabis and psychedelics law firm Vicente LLP, noted that some states with similar policies have later modified the restrictions.

“Mississippi’s marijuana laws are still new. In most states, we see advertising restrictions lessen over time as states realize that marijuana, including medical marijuana, is a legitimate product that is not only highly regulated but also legal and safe for sale in the state,” Vicente wrote in an email to High Times. “Mississippi needs to consider that, by severely restricting medical marijuana advertising, they are hurting their medical marijuana patients who need access to this important medication. These restrictions significantly impact patients’ accessibility to information about the program and their medication.” (Full Story)

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