The owner of a cannabis dispensary in Mississippi has filed a lawsuit alleging that state laws which prevent him from advertising his business violate his First Amendment rights.
Clarence Cocroft II of Olive Branch, Mississippi is the owner of Tru Source Medical Cannabis. According to the Associated Press, Cocroft filed a lawsuit Tuesday because he says regulations put in place by the Mississippi Department of Health have made it inordinately difficult for him to run his business.
Mississippi legalized cannabis for medicinal purposes in 2022 but the laws only allow for people with certain “debilitating conditions” to obtain a recommendation. The Mississippi Department of Health opted to ban cannabis providers from advertising in any way shape or form. Cocroft said this is a violation of his constitutional rights as a business owner.
“All I want to do, like any other business owner, is have the opportunity to advertise. If I pay taxes in this business, which I do, I should be able to advertise,” Cocroft said at a news conference. “All I’m asking from this state is to provide us with the same liberty that they’ve provided other businesses.”
According to the Mississippi Department of Health website, Mississippi cannabis businesses are allowed to have a sign on their store and have a website with a list of products available but they cannot otherwise participate in any form of communication that could be perceived as advertising. An attorney for Cocroft, Katrin Marquez told the Associated Press that this constitutes unlawful censorship.
“Under the ban, Clarence can’t advertise in any media. He cannot place ads in newspapers or magazines, on television or radio, or even on billboards that he already owns,” Marquez said. “The First Amendment does not allow a state to completely censor a legal business. If it is legal to sell a product, it is legal to talk about that product.”
The list goes on. Legally operating cannabis dispensaries in Mississippi are not allowed to display products in their window, not allowed to send out mass text messages or emails. They can’t offer discounts, promotions or deals of any kind nor can they give away free product or any kind of samples. They also can’t put their business name on an Adopt-a-Highway sign or an electronic interstate sign.
Cocroft told the Associated Press that when he started his business, he actually set aside some money for advertising and even bought high-profile billboards in high-volume areas of the state which he has since been forced to lease out to other businesses.
“It’s simply unfair that every other legal business in Mississippi is allowed to advertise, while I have to rely on word of mouth,” Cocroft said.
Many states with legal adult-use or medical cannabis markets have enacted regulations restricting cannabis advertising. Most states opt to apply certain restrictions on cannabis advertising on public broadcasts to ensure that the majority of the audience who will see the ad will be of legal consumption age but the particularities vary state to state.
Most of these restrictions are likely not First Amendment Violations based on comparable Supreme Court cases related to tobacco and pornography advertising which have determined that reasonable time, place and manner restrictions are not First Amendment violations, but few states have outright banned cannabis advertising to the degree that Mississippi has. Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama have similar laws banning cannabis advertising through public mediums, but Marquez argued to the Associated Press that Mississippi’s laws are harsher still.
“The state government cannot simultaneously authorize the legal sale of a product or service, while forbidding the truthful advertising of said product,” Marquez said. “No law, state or federal, justifies the censorship in this case.”
According to the Associated Press, Cocroft is represented in this lawsuit by the Institute for Justice and his lawsuit is specifically targeted at leadership in the Mississippi Department of Health, Department of Revenue and Alcoholic Beverage Control Bureau. The language of the lawsuit alleges that state regulations unfairly target legally operating cannabis businesses trying to utilize their First Amendment rights to spread truthful, commercial speech.
Mississippi state law allows cannabis patients to obtain 3.5 grams of cannabis once per day, six days per week. The list of qualifying conditions is short and limited to illnesses like cancer, HIV and Parkinson’s disease. A full list can be found here.
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