An ad campaign by Colorado company Organa Brands that debuted this fall is targeting travelers. The trays utilized at TSA checkpoints at one California airport now contain prominent messaging about laws prohibiting transport of state-legal marijuana outside of California. (Provided by Organa Brands)

Cannabis ads have landed at a busy California airport

A cannabis company has an important announcement for travelers departing one of California’s busiest airports.

“Cannabis is legal. Traveling with it is not. Leave it in California,” reads an advertisement placed in the bottom of trays used by travelers to move items through security checkpoints.

Denver-based Organa Brands International, which makes vaporizers, edibles and other products, quietly launched the novel campaign this fall at Transportation Security Administration checkpoints at Ontario International Airport in San Bernardino, about 20 miles west of downtown Los Angeles.

It’s “unbelievable” that Organa Brands’ advertisement is in airport security checkpoints overseen by a federal government agency, company co-founder and president Jeremy Heidl told The Cannabist. But the concept behind the campaign that launched in September is to advance cannabis acceptance, not needle the feds, he said.

“We’re interested in pattern interruption in locations that are on the verge of or recently legalized cannabis,” Heidl said.

California’s medical marijuana market is well established, and Organa Brands is licensed in the state, he said. The impact of impending statewide recreational legalization, however, changes the cannabis conversation and creates an influential new market.

By appearing at TSA airport checkpoints, the advertisement also disrupts the status quo of cannabis at the federal level. It is illegal to transport marijuana across state lines or in federal airspace, although it happens often. TSA officials have said if marijuana is found in a traveler’s belongings, they are referred to local law enforcement officers.

TSA is overseen by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, an agency that as recently as April vowed to “uphold all the laws that are on the books,” as they pertain to marijuana.

However, neither TSA nor DHS had control over the ads appearing in the trays because of the unique private-public dynamic at play in airport security nationwide.

All trays used at airport security checkpoints — and the advertisements that appear inside of them — are provided by SecurityPoint Media (SPM). The private firm holds a patent on the trays and the carts used to move them within the checkpoints. SPM has served as sole provider since 2006, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled against a lawsuit brought by TSA challenging SPM’s patent on the system.

Individual airport authorities lease the trays from SPM, and advertisers pay the company to place ads in trays used at specific airports, company CEO and president Joe Ambrefe Jr. told The Cannabist. The company negotiates ad revenue-sharing with individual airport authorities, which are then given final approval of copy and creative assets appearing in those ads.

SPM provided the Organa Brands advertisement to Ontario International Airport Authority, which approved the copy contingent on no objections from TSA, said Steve Lambert, OIAA spokesman.

TSA had “no role” in the deal, Lorie Dankers, spokeswoman for the federal agency, said in an email statement to The Cannabist.

Lambert said that the ads “have been in place without objection for the past six weeks. As with any advertising, if concerns are raised that merit a review of a particular ad, (authority) staff will respond appropriately.”

When it comes to ads in security checkpoint trays, what is approved in one airport may not play well in another, SPM’s Ambrefe said.

“We’ve seen other copy from other brands operating in more traditional spaces be rejected by airport authorities for being racy or trying to push the envelope,” he said. “From our perspective, the (Organa Brands) copy was good corporate messaging with a point of fact — it functions more like a public-service announcement.”

Individual airports have broad discretion to control concession operators and can limit free-speech activities on their property, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled. Airports in states that have legalized marijuana have found themselves forced to act on that discretion as businesses have pushed to place cannabis ads and sell marijuana-themed products on their property.

Denver International Airport banned marijuana on its property in 2014, the year recreational marijuana sales started in Colorado. It banned marijuana-themed souvenirs from its shops at the beginning of 2015.

Florida’s Orlando International Airport banned marijuana on its premises in June following decriminalization by local police and voter approval of a comprehensive medical marijuana program in November 2016.

In Las Vegas, McCarran International Airport banned cannabis ads in August, a month after sales of adult-use marijuana kicked off in Nevada. However, the airport will continue to allow taxis with cannabis ads on its property.

Privately held Organa Brands declined to disclose an exact dollar amount spent for the trays, however Heidl called it “the most expensive campaign” the company has done in its seven years. He said the firm is considering expanding the campaign for airports in areas with newly legal cannabis markets.

Organa Brands operates in 11 states where the company’s concentrates, edibles and THC-infused beverages are sold in more than 1,200 dispensaries under the labels O.penVape, Organa Labs, Bakked, Magic Buzz and District Edibles. As part of its growth strategy, the company has been unafraid to spend big bucks to put its name in front of target markets — and push the boundaries of cannabis marketing, a tightly regulated space, the rules for which differ from state to state.

The company was one of the largest corporate sponsors of Denver’s new Levitt Pavilion, making a $125,000 investment despite the fact that the city’s restrictions on outdoor advertising for cannabis companies banned logos or product names anywhere in the 17,000-person outdoor amphitheater.

Heidl said the common thread across its marketing investments, including the new airport foray, is advancing cannabis acceptance and being good stewards for the cannabis industry.

“We’ve worked hard to make that a company culture thing,” he said.