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U.S. Postal Service Threatens Newspapers Over Marijuana Ads

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The U.S. Postal Service issued a warning to media outlets last week: Do not attempt to mail any newspapers that contain advertisements for marijuana.

In a new memo dated November 27, USPS says that it is illegal to “place an ad in any publication with the purpose of seeking or offering illegally to receive, buy, or distribute a Schedule I controlled substance.”

The one-page document, prepared by the Postal Service’s Portland District office, was reportedly delivered to a number of news organizations in Oregon, where legal recreational marijuana sales began two months ago.

“It’s a large deal,” Steve Forrester, head of the EO Media Group, told The Ben Bulletin, which first reported about the memo.

Forrester’s company publishes several newspapers in Oregon and Washington State, some of which have a significant number of subscribers who receive their papers via mail carrier.

“If an advertisement solicits the mailing of controlled substances such as marijuana, it would violate USPS mailing standards,” the new memo says. “If an advertisement advocates the purchase of clinical marijuana through a Medical Marijuana Dispensary, it does not comply with” federal law.

USPS included references to a portion of the Controlled Substances Act that reads:

It shall be unlawful for any person to place in any newspaper, magazine, handbill, or other publications, any written advertisement knowing that it has the purpose of seeking or offering illegally to receive, buy, or distribute a Schedule I controlled substance. As used in this section the term “advertisement” includes, in addition to its ordinary meaning, such advertisements as those for a catalog of Schedule I controlled substances and any similar written advertisement that has the purpose of seeking or offering illegally to receive, buy, or distribute a Schedule I controlled substance. The term “advertisement” does not include material which merely advocates the use of a similar material, which advocates a position or practice, and does not attempt to propose or facilitate an actual transaction in a Schedule I controlled substance.

It’s not clear what prompted USPS to draft the new memo, though Mark Scarborough, postmaster in Long Beach, Washington, said it was a “reminder of existing federal law” that “was not a directive,” according to the Bulletin.

As print media outlets across the country experience revenue shortfalls and go through rounds of layoffs, the burgeoning marijuana industry is seen as a potential source of crucial advertising dollars.

The USPS memo isn’t the first time federal authorities have levied threats against news organizations for working with marijuana providers.

In 2011, a federal prosecutor in California cited the same law in a warning to media outlets that run ads for marijuana dispensaries.

“I’m not just seeing print advertising,” U.S. Attorney Laura Duffy said at the time. “I’m actually hearing radio and seeing TV advertising. It’s gone mainstream. Not only is it inappropriate – one has to wonder what kind of message we’re sending to our children – it’s against the law.”

Duffy told a reporter for California Watch that she would be “going after these folks with … notification that they are in violation of federal law,” adding that her office has the power to seize property and assets in addition to launching prosecutions.

After the comments sparked widespread criticism in the media, Duffy walked them back, telling KPBS a few days later that going after newspapers for marijuana ads is “not the primary focus of our current enforcement activities.”

With respect to the new memo, the offices of Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Earl Blumenauer, both Democrats who are supportive of efforts to reform federal marijuana laws, spoke with USPS about the issue by phone on Tuesday, according to The Bulletin. It is unclear what those conversations entailed.

For now, publishers in the Northwest appear spooked.

“It is my understanding that they can cease [sic]your newspapers after a warning,”Laurie Hieb, executive director of the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, wrote in an e-mail to publishers, according to Willamette Week. “And after that I am not sure what the punishment would be, but [I] don’t think any of us want to find out.”

Read the full USPS memo on marijuana ads below.

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