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I-Team: Cannabis ads on Centro buses spark legal uncertainty due to vague New York laws

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For about 18 days, Centro ran ads for a local cannabis dispensary on the back of their buses in Syracuse. When the I-Team inquired about legality, Centro abruptly ripped the ads down; but in review of the law and guidance issued by New York State, it was still unclear whether or not anyone was doing anything wrong due to conflicting and unclear language from the Office of Cannabis Management.

The ads came from Flynnstoned, Syracuse’s first legal dispensary that opened this past summer. Using Mooney Marketing Group, the company set up ads featuring the company name, the word “Cannabis” and a required warning about intoxicating effects and other possible side effects.

The possible issue starts with NY Cannabis Law Sec. 86, which states “the board shall promulgate regulations for advertising and marketing content including but not limited to explicit rules prohibiting advertising that… is in public transit vehicles and stations; is on publicly owned and operated property.”

There is also language that prohibits advertising cannabis dispensaries “within or is readily observed within five hundred feet of the perimeter of a school grounds, playground, child day care providers, public park or library,” all places where Centro buses go, at times carrying kids themselves.

Ryan McCall, an expert on local cannabis laws with Tully Rinckey Law Firm in Albany, said that in this specific instance, Centro should be in the clear. The cannabis law mentions that ads are prohibited in public transit, not on; everything else is murky.

The MTA in New York City, for instance, has taken that extra step by explicitly prohibiting advertising cannabis in any capacity when it comes to public transit.

Centro’s spokesperson Steve Koegel pointed to the marketing and advertising guidelines provided to licensees, issued by the state’s Office of Cannabis Management. Nowhere in that document does it mention public transit; meaning license holders like Flynnstoned may have been wholly unaware of a possible issue.

“Thank you for bringing this to our attention. The ads in question have been removed and will no longer appear on buses. While the Office of Cannabis Management has issued direct guidance on the licensees’ compliance responsibilities, we are seeking clarity on how those rules apply to organizations like ours. When we receive that guidance, Centro will update its advertising guidelines and policies.”

The situation is confusing enough that Centro is unsure about whether they can legally run a PSA to avoid driving high issued by a New York State agency. Koegel shared mock-ups of a PSA encouraging people to use the bus rather than drive under the influence, featuring marijuana leaves, that comes from the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee.

The I-Team is also waiting for clarity from the OCM after finding further discrepancies between Sec. 86 of the cannabis law and the guidance provided to licensees. In the guidance, licensees are told they cannot advertise in a shopping mall unless their store operates within the mall itself. Flynnstoned, whose sole location is in Armory Square downtown, currently has a banner on the second floor of Destiny USA. The mall has not returned our request for comment.

In response to questions, the Office of Cannabis Management sent back a vague statement not addressing any of them, stating only that an investigation would hypothetically begin if someone was breaking the rules. Any kind of specificity surrounding Centro, Destiny USA, or Flynnstoned was left out.

Mike Flynn, owner and operator at Flynnstoned, declined to comment.

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