Dennis Evans and Naomi Panciera of Denver check out a display of marijuana-themed gifts and apparel as they shop at Where the Buffalo Roam on Boulder's Pearl Street Mall on Friday, Nov. 7, 2014. (Paul Aiken, Daily Camera)

Boulder council to revisit ban on pot shops selling their own “merch”

You can buy pot in Boulder, and you can buy pot-leaf shirts. But you can’t buy shirts with the logo at any of the city’s retail marijuana shops.

The city code bans retail marijuana establishments from selling or giving away any products with their name or logo.

Several Boulder City Council members believe it is time to reconsider that provision, which appears to be unique to Boulder among Colorado towns that allow recreational marijuana sales.

“The Boulder businesses are at a disadvantage,” said Councilman Andrew Shoemaker. “Meanwhile, the Denver businesses can advertise and even sell merchandise in Boulder because they aren’t licensed here. We’re surrounded by other jurisdictions that are selling this, and we’re putting Boulder businesses at a disadvantage against other Colorado businesses and even more so as other states legalize it.”

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Shoemaker and Councilman Macon Cowles, who has argued that the city’s code is too strict for a community that supported Amendment 64 by wide margins, have asked that the City Council take a new look at the merchandising provision. Last week, they received a “nod of five” from their colleagues to have the council take up the issue in February.

“No recreational marijuana business shall sell, distribute, or provide, or allow the sale, distribution, or provision of, products marked with its name or logo, other than packaging in which marijuana is sold or on recreational marijuana products,” the code says. “This prohibition shall not prevent employees of the business from wearing uniforms with the name or logo while working for the business on the business premises.”

This provision was very important to Boulder County Public Health officials, who feared that marketing designed to appeal to youth could have the same effect on marijuana use among teenagers as years of exposure to Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man had on previous generations when it came to tobacco.

“When there is less perception of risk, with any substance, and there is accessibility, then use among youth goes up,” said Heath Harmon, director of health divisions with Boulder County Public Health. Harmon appeared frequently before the City Council as it was considering its marijuana regulations.

“Realistically, right now, with marijuana being legally available through retail establishments, it changes the potential for how advertising and marketing can impact youth in particular,” he said.

But industry representatives said Colorado has not seen the increase in use among teenagers that some predicted. At the same time, people are wearing pot shop merchandise from non-Boulder shops and pot-themed gear bought here.

“The idea behind (the restriction) was that there was a causal relationship between the commercialization of cannabis and teen use, and there is no data to support that,” said Shawn Coleman, a lobbyist for local marijuana businesses. “There’s nobody arguing that the cannabis industry should be marketing toward kids. All of the policy objectives around this merchandising thing are either demonstrably impossible to regulate or not supported by the epidemiological research. Why should our industry be the only one subject to this handicap?”

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Harmon said marijuana-themed gear might promote the drug more generally, but a T-shirt or hat or water bottle with the logo of a local stores tells teens exactly where they can find it. The brains of teenagers and even young adults are still developing, and drug use during that time period can have lasting impacts, he said.

“We don’t want to wait decades to learn the same lessons with marijuana that we learned about marketing with alcohol and tobacco,” he said.

Harmon said he isn’t surprised to see the issue come up again, despite broad support for the merchandising ban when City Council first adopted its rules in 2013.

“I know that there is a lot of pressure on council,” he said. “I think we knew that initially when the council adopted the regulations we have now. I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised.”

Coleman said the ban has broad impacts. Boulder businesses cannot sell merchandise from second locations in other cities for fear it could affect their license here. If they sponsor concerts or other events, they can’t put their logo on the concert t-shirt.

Shoemaker said that as a parent himself, he understands the concerns about teenagers using drugs, but he isn’t sure the merchandising ban is the best way to address that issue.

“I’m concerned about the child exposure as much as anyone, but I’m not sure this is accomplishing anything,” he said.

Erica Meltzer: 303-473-1355, or meltzere

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