Marijuana Billboards At Super Bowl Will Pressure The NFL And Statehouses On Drug Policy

CREDIT: Associated Press

On Super Bowl Sunday, the face-off of Denver versus Seattle brings not just the issue of football to the fore. The match sees two teams play one another from the states that became the first to legalize recreational marijuana last year, in what may be the most prominent platform yet for marijuana reform ads.

At the stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., five ads will be displayed with messages that protest the National Football League’s stance on marijuana, point out there are as many annual marijuana arrests as there are attendees at the game (750,000), and suggest marijuana is safer than both beer and football:


CREDIT: Marijuana Policy Project

The Marijuana Policy Project, which developed the ads, has also circulated a Change.org petition calling on the NFL to recognize state laws and “stop punishing NFL players for using marijuana.” They planned to deliver the petition, which has garnered more than 12,000 signatures, in front of NFL headquarters in New York City Wednesday morning.

In the past, marijuana ads from sporting events have faced bans from advertising companies, and stringent resistance from marijuana opponents. What would have been the first major marijuana legalization ad at a major sporting event was pulled at the last minute from a jumbotron outside the NASCAR 400 in Indiana in July. Since then, Marijuana Policy Project Communications Director Mason Tvert says billboards have been featured at several sporting events, including a billboard protesting the NFL’s marijuana policy outside Denver’s Mile High Stadium in September.

Tvert told ThinkProgress that some companies that host billboards and advertising, like Clear Channel, have a policy against marijuana advertising even if it’s political or educational in nature. In October 2012, the company took down several provocative billboards after numerous complaints.

Other companies like CBS Outdoor, which owns the billboards outside MetLife Stadium, vary their policy depending on location and property owner. CBS Outdoor did not return an inquiry about whether the company has received calls to pull the ads. Ads by marijuana purveyors are subject to much more stringent limits on advertising, both from state law and from major online hosts including Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Colorado, for example, permits some newspaper, TV, and radio advertising that meets certain criteria. It does not, however, permit billboards or other public advertising. But those rules don’t apply to policy organizations like the Marijuana Policy Project, whose ads are considered political speech and thus retain much greater First Amendment protection.

Another marijuana advocacy organization came close to having a coveted TV ad during the Super Bowl, after it won the first round of an Intel contest. The organization, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said it was “excluded” from round 3 of the competition, for reasons it said were not explained, but Intel reserved the right to use its own criteria in selecting the 20 finalists.

The NFL has a zero-tolerance policy on marijuana, and has suspended players for using the substance. After Colorado’s recreational marijuana dispensaries started operating in January, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell hinted he might be open to allowing players to use medical marijuana. And in anticipation of the auspicious Seattle-Denver showdown, Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said the NFL should explore the option.