Federal prosecutors are preparing to target media outlets that advertise medical marijuana dispensaries in California, according to California Watch. It's seen as another escalation in the Obama administration's newly invigorated war against the state's pot industry.
From California Watch:
Federal law prohibits people from placing ads for illegal drugs, including marijuana, in "any newspaper, magazine, handbill or other publication." The law could conceivably extend to online ads; the U.S. Department of Justice recently extracted a $500 million settlement from Google for selling illegal ads linking to online Canadian pharmacies.
[U.S. Attorney Laura E.] Duffy said her effort against TV, radio or print outlets would first include "going after these folks with ... notification that they are in violation of federal law." She noted that she also has the power to seize property or prosecute in civil and criminal court.
William G. Panzer, an attorney who specializes in marijuana defense cases, said publishers may have a reason to worry. Federal law singles out anyone who "places" an illegal ad in a newspaper or publication. Nevertheless, Panzer said he is not aware of a single appellate case dealing with this section of the law.
Local media, including the Missoula Independent, have run advertising for medical marijuana businesses. Those ads stopped running when the 2011 Montana Legislature passed SB 423, a law that, in part, prohibited advertising for "marijuana or marijuana-related products in any medium, including electronic media." The law was ruled unconstitutional in June and some businesses have resumed advertising. A ballot measure, IR-124, puts SB 423 to a vote in 2012.
California Watch notes that its state isn't the only one struggling with the issue of marijuana ads. Boulder, Colo., recently voted to ban ads that market to kids and recreational users. The city clerk decides which ads are appropriate.
The Association of Alternative Newsmedia, where we first read about the situation, is following the things in California. AAN linked to a story by attorney Harry F. Cole from Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, a firm specializing in communications law, in which he describes the media at "the collision point" between the federal government and California's medical marijuana industry.
"This is a story that will likely be developing big time in coming weeks," writes Cole. "But for now, the restraint we recommended last time around is still the order of the day."
California Watch quotes William G. Panzer, an attorney who specializes in marijuana defense cases. He believes publishers may have reason to worry despite federal law singling out anyone who "places" an illegal ad in a newspaper or publication.
"Technically, if I'm running the newspaper and somebody gives me money and says, 'Here's the ad,' I'm the one who is physically putting the ad in my newspaper," he told California Watch. "I think this could be brought against the actual newspaper. Certainly, it's arguable, but the statute is not entirely clear on that."