OLIVE BRANCH, Miss.—Today, the owner of an Olive Branch medical marijuana dispensary filed a federal lawsuit challenging Mississippi regulations that prevent him from advertising his business or educating people about the state’s medical marijuana program. Clarence Cocroft, the owner of Tru Source Medical Cannabis, teamed up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file the lawsuit and defend the First Amendment right of all Mississippians to advertise their legal businesses.
In 2022, Mississippi’s law legalizing adult medical marijuana—which was approved in 2020 with 69% of the vote—went into effect. This allowed Clarence to open Tru Source, the state’s first Black-owned dispensary, earlier this year. However, the regulations on advertising immediately hamstrung Clarence’s ability to get his business going. Tru Source is tucked away in an industrial park, off the beaten path, so without the ability to advertise (like any other new business could) Clarence struggled to find patients.
“Some people don’t know Mississippi has medical marijuana, and even if they do know about it, they might not know that Tru Source exists right here in Olive Branch. I want to help patients find the products they need for whatever illness they have, but not being able to advertise has made that almost impossible,” said Clarence. “It’s simply unfair that every other legal business in Mississippi is allowed to advertise, while I have to rely on word of mouth.”
When Clarence and his family members started Tru Source, he allocated a budget for advertising and purchased a few billboards in highly trafficked areas in northern Mississippi. Because of the state’s ban, Clarence has been forced to lease those billboards to other businesses that can legally advertise on them, including the local casino.
“Preventing someone from advertising his or her legal business violates the First Amendment,” said IJ Senior Attorney Ari Bargil. “The government simply has no interest in prohibiting a business from providing truthful information about its products to would-be customers.”
Mississippi law allows for the cultivation of medical marijuana to be sold to prescription holders in state-licensed dispensaries, such as Tru Source. Under state law, the Department of Health (DOH) may not prevent dispensaries from placing “appropriate signs” on their properties, displaying the products they sell on their website, or promoting charity or advocacy events. However, all other restrictions on advertising for dispensaries are left up to DOH’s discretion. The department has decided to take that discretion to the extreme by prohibiting dispensaries “from advertising and marketing in any media,” including newspapers, television, magazines, social media, billboards, and email lists. Essentially dispensaries are only permitted to have signage on their own property and maintain a web presence with “general information” about the business.
So, the question becomes: Can states treat speech related to a medical marijuana business as outside the bounds of the First Amendment, even though the business is legal under state law and the federal government has announced that it will not enforce its prohibition there? IJ’s lawsuit argues the answer to that question is a resounding “no.”
“The state government cannot simultaneously authorize the legal sale of a product or service, while forbidding the truthful advertising of said product,” said IJ Attorney Katrin Marquez. “All Clarence wants to do is advise people that they might be eligible to legally purchase marijuana for the medical conditions they’re struggling with, so he can help his business succeed.”
Mississippi dispensary owners are not alone in having their First Amendment rights infringed by state laws prohibiting advertising of legal medical marijuana businesses. All three bordering states with legal medical marijuana have similarly restrictive rules regarding advertising. Nearby Arkansas prohibits dispensaries from advertising their products “through any public medium” to the general public and Alabama, while using different language, essentially prohibits public advertising. All states with legal medical marijuana outlaw misleading advertising and advertising targeted to children. However, other states with legal medical marijuana impose much less burdensome restrictions than Mississippi and its neighbors.
IJ is the leading defender of the First Amendment right of business owners to truthfully discuss their products. IJ is currently defending the right of a small business owner to accurately label his easy-to-digest food products as “easy to digest.” In North Carolina, IJ is challenging a law that severely restricts the types of signage food trucks can use to attract customers. In 2019, IJ successfully defeated a Mississippi law that barred a natural food company from labeling its foods as “veggie burgers.”