Newspapers in half the states are breaking the law if they mail publications containing ads for marijuana products — even though the states have legalized pot, the U.S. Postal Service said last week.
This parsing of federal law, released by postal officials as national policy after inquiries from Oregon’s congressional delegation, is one of the messy consequences of the movement to legalize cannabis: It’s bought, sold and advertised for recreational and medical use in some states, but still illegal under federal law.
The confusion started in Portland, Ore., where local newspapers have been running ads for dispensaries and manufacturers in the state’s now-booming weed industry after voters legalized recreational pot for adults last year, following medical pot in 1998.
In November, Portland’s postal district issued a memo to newspaper publishers, telling them they are breaking the law by running ads for pot and using the U.S. mail to deliver their papers.
The reason? The U.S. Postal Service is a federal entity. Even though Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Alaska have legalized recreational marijuana and 23 other states have legalized medical pot, any newspaper running ads in those states violates a federal law preventing advertising for illicit goods.
The advertising ban, first reported by the Bulletin of Bend, Oregon, prompted an angry letter to postal officials from most Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation to figure out what was going on. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Suzanne Bonamici and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley accused the Postal Service in a joint statement of being rigid and said the agency should respect the voters’ decision to legalized pot.
“We are working as a delegation to quickly find the best option to address this agency’s intransigence,” the four Democrats wrote, according to published reports. “Unfortunately, the outdated federal approach to marijuana as described in the response from the Postal Service undermines and threatens news publications that choose to accept advertising from legal marijuana businesses in Oregon and other states where voters also have freely decided to legalize marijuana.”
A top Postal Service wrote back last week.
“Based on our review of the [law], we have concluded that advertisements for the sale of marijuana are non-mailable,” wrote Thomas Marshall, USPS general counsel and executive vice president, according to published reports.
Marijuana is listed in the federal Controlled Substances Act like heroin and other drugs. It prohibits advertisements in “any newspaper, magazine, handbill, or other publications,” Marshall wrote.
“These provisions express Congress’s judgment that the mail should not be used as a means of transmitting advertisements for the sale of marijuana, even if that sale is allowed under state law,” he said.
But there’s a twist. The Postal Service apparently has no authority to stop the mailers if their publications contain pot ads. The new policy directs postmasters to send a report to the local U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the Postal Service.
The matter would, in theory, then be turned over to a law enforcement agency for prosecution, although it’s unclear whether this kind of crime would be prosecuted. Federal authorities have generally not cracked down on pot sales in states where they’re legal.
The policy means that pot ads are off-limits to newspapers and other businesses that use the Postal Service to deliver papers, as well as direct-mail companies that to work with the cannabis industry on advertising.
Some local newspapers said the policy will cut into the bottom line of businesses struggling for revenue in the declining publishing industry.
“For our weekly in Washington state, Chinook Observer, it’s a large deal,” Steve Forrester, president and chief executive of the EO Media Group, which publishes the Observer, based in Long Beach, Wash., told the Bulletin this month. “They’re about a 6,000 circulation [paper]. Half of it goes through the mail, which is true of a lot of rural weeklies.”