Weedmaps brings pro-marijuana billboards to Michigan

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing – A marijuana-related firm called Weedmaps is bringing its own “weedfacts” to Michigan during an ongoing petition drive seeking to put a marijuana legalization question on the 2018 statewide ballot.

The California-based “technology and marijuana discovery service” company is paying for 22 pro-pot billboards in the Lansing region, 12 around Ann Arbor and six in Metro Detroit as part of an international campaign also targeting six other states and Canada.

The billboards feature selective statistics showing unchanged youth use, increased tax revenue, theft reductions and other developments in states that have already legalized weed. Five different versions are running in Michigan, which is creating and implementing new medical marijuana regulations.

The goal, according to the company, is “to provide communities with credible, verifiable facts about the benefits of legal marijuana,” although critics argue the statistics do no tell the full story about the effects in other states.

“As Michigan residents consider a marijuana legalization petition, and changes to dispensary regulatory requirements go into effect throughout the state, there is a lot of marijuana misinformation out there,” a Weedmaps spokesman told The Detroit News.

“So we think it’s important to share and talk about the benefits, underpinned by research, regarding marijuana. We want Michiganders to be informed, and we want to foster open, informed discussion and debate.”

Weedmaps did not disclose how much it is spending on the Michigan billboards. It has a rooting interest in legalization.

The company operates a website and mobile app that help connect marijuana users with legal medical or recreational dispensaries, which pay to be on the map and can purchase additional advertising packages. It’s been called the Yelp of the quickly growing marijuana industry and is already active in Michigan, where medical pot has been legal since 2008.

“Marijuana is Big Tobacco 2.0,” said Jeff Hunt, vice president of public policy at Colorado Christian University, who argues the new recreational law is having a “devastating” effect in his state despite positive reviews from some local officials. “Businesses are going to make a lot of money of promoting a drug that’s going to harm people for generations.”

The new ad campaign is largely running in states that have already legalized recreational use of the drug. Michigan and Arizona are the only target states that haven’t done so – but voters in both states could see proposals on the ballot next year.

A spokesman for the Coalition to Regulate Alcohol, which is seeking to put a legalization issue before Michigan voters next year, said the Michigan ballot committee is “in no way coordinating” with Weedmaps and is “indifferent” to the billboards.

“Our preference, if they want to be helpful, would be for them to contribute (to the official committee to help pay) for signature collection,” Josh Hovey said.

“We’re not going to do any ads until we’re guaranteed we’re on the ballot. All our resources are focused on communicating to our supporters and getting as many signatures as quickly as possible.”

The committee began circulating petitions in May, opening a 180-day window in which it must collect at least 252,523 valid signatures to qualify for the 2018 ballot. It had raised $518,288 for the effort through July 20, according to a filing with the Michigan Secretary of State.

Fact check

The Weedmaps billboards claim, among other things, that legalization has generated roughly $200 million in revenue for Colorado, that opioid-related deaths have fallen in states with legalized marijuana and that youth usage rates have not increased. Each claim includes fine-print citations, most referencing official government reports.

“Since legalization marijuana in 2012, Colorado has had no increase in youth marijuana usage,” says one billboard running in the Lansing, Ann Arbor and Detroit areas. “Neither has Washington.”

That Colorado claim is based on the 2015 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey conducted every two years in conjunction with the state Department of Public Health and Environment. Colorado voters chose to legalize pot in 2012, but the law was not fully implemented until 2014, so the data set is limited.

Politifact.com last year rated a similar claim “half true” because the survey data did show a slight increase in marijuana use among Colorado high school students during the first year of full legalization, but the uptick was not large enough to be considered statistically significant. Experts also said it was too early to draw conclusions about the new law.

The survey showed 21 percent of Colorado high schoolers said they had used marijuana at least once in the previous 30 days, up from 20 percent in 2013. Thirty-eight percent said they had used marijuana at least once in their lifetime, up from 37 percent two years prior.

Researchers concluded that youth marijuana use in Colorado was “relatively unchanged” in 2015, but critics note schools in four of the state’s larger counties did not participate, which may have influenced the findings.

The Washington claim is based on a fall 2016 survey conducted in coordination with that state’s official health department, commerce department and liquor and cannabis board. It concluded that teen use had “remained steady, despite the changing landscape.”

Marijuana critics respond

But marijuana critics argue youth use is a problem in Colorado and other states with recreational or medical laws, pointing to a series of reports from the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a regional law enforcement program run through the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.

According to a March 2017 update highlighting national survey results, 11.3 percent of Colorado kids age 12 to 17 reported using marijuana in the past 30 days in 2014-15, up from 10.7 percent in 2010-11. Colorado’s youth rate was the highest in the country, topping Vermont at 10.9 percent.

“Bottom line is that legalizing recreational marijuana just puts more drugs into the community,” Hunt said. “That’s all it really does. The biggest devastation, in my opinion, is on the youth. All the states that have either recreational or medical marijuana have the highest youth rates in the nation.”

Marijuana use can harm brain development, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, which says adolescents who use the drug can suffer decreases in short-term memory and concentration, attention span and problem-solving skills, all of which can interfere with learning.

The Michigan proposal, like laws in Colorado and Washington, would continue to prohibit recreational use by anyone under the age of 21. Pot shops could not be located within 1,000 feet of a school, but a municipality could adopt an ordinance changing the distance requirement.

The Rocky Mountain law enforcement group broke out statistics from a 2016 report by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment that showed a slight increase in use by 11th and 12th graders. But the full state report asserts that, across all grades, “past-month marijuana use has not changed since legalization either in terms of the number of people using or the frequency of use among users.”

The Colorado report did highlight health concerns associated with legalization, indicating that 6 percent of pregnant women used marijuana, at least 14,000 Colorado kids are at risk of accidentally eating improperly stored marijuana products and 16,000 were at risk of being exposed to second-hand smoke in the home.