Marijuana Debate Plays Out in Full-Page New York Times Ads

One of the Ads Likely Cost About $180,000

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An ad for Leafly, the Yelp of legal weed, appeared in the Sunday New York Times.
An ad for Leafly, the Yelp of legal weed, appeared in the Sunday New York Times. 

Two full-page color ads for separate marijuana-related organizations appeared in the front section of The New York Times over the weekend. The ads come one week after the Times editorial board called for the U.S. government to repeal its prohibition of marijuana., an affiliate of the nonprofit organization Project SAM, or Smart Approaches to Marijuana, ran an ad in Saturday's Times calling attention to the dangers of legalizing marijuana.

"The legalization of marijuana means ushering in an entirely new group of corporations whose primary source of revenue is a highly habit-forming product," according to the ad that drives people to, where the marijuana industry is compared to Big Tobacco.

The ad is in response to the Times' recent editorial about marijuana, the organization said in a blog post on its website.

An ad for ran on Saturday.
An ad for ran on Saturday.

Meanwhile, an ad on page 17 of Sunday's Times struck a decidedly different tone about marijuana. It was for Leafly, the Yelp for information about legal cannabis. And the ad congratulated New Yorkers on the state's adoption of the Compassionate Care Act, which allows medical marijuana, as well as urging readers to "Just Say Know."

The for-profit, Seattle-based Leafly is a website and mobile app that aims to help marijuana users, whether recreational or medical, find information about strains of cannabis as well as the dispensaries and retail outlets that sell them. There is, for instance, information on the NYC Diesel strain of cannabis, including locations in Colorado, Washington, California and Oregon where it can be bought. A user review gives NYC Diesel five stars and says, "Amazing diesel flavor, very nice head high and a sweet smell, I feel too stoned to write a proper review."

Leafly, which was founded in 2010, claims more than four million monthly visitors to its website and mobile app, which has been downloaded 1.6 million times, according to the company. Privateer Holdings, a private equity firm that invests in the legal cannabis industry, bought Leafly in 2011.

"It's history in the making," Nathan Peterson, Leafly's marketing director, said. "A cannabis company running an ad in The New York Times was unimaginable a few years ago and another sign that the Berlin Wall of prohibition is coming down." A full-page black and white ad in Sunday's Times costs about $180,000. Leafly's ad was in color, which can cost extra. A spokeswoman for Leafly would not confirm whether the company paid this amount. Leafly is also running ads on the Times' website that cost about another $15,000, according to Mr. Peterson.

Leafly claims it's the first "cannabis company" to run a full-page ad in the Times, although ads for advocacy groups such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML, and the Drug Policy Alliance have appeared in the paper.

A spokeswoman for the Times could not say whether Leafly's ad was, in fact, the first from a for-profit cannabis company to run in the paper. "This may be the first non-advocacy ad that has run," the spokeswoman said. But the paper doesn't track advertisements by subject and can't definitively confirm the claim, she said.

"For us to go out with an ad to reach the medical cannabis patient," Mr. Peterson added, "we couldn't imagine a better partner than The New York Times, which is America's publication of record."

Ad revenue at The New York Times Co. fell 4.1% during the second quarter, with sagging print sales leading the decline. The company's overall revenue was off 0.6% to $388.7 million.

Last Sunday, the Times editorial board called for the U.S. government to repeal its prohibition of marijuana and instead leave decisions about marijuana up to the states.

"There are no perfect answers to people's legitimate concerns about marijuana use," the editorial said. "But neither are there such answers about tobacco or alcohol, and we believe that on every level -- health effects, the impact on society and law-and-order issues -- the balance falls squarely on the side of national legalization. That will put decisions on whether to allow recreational or medicinal production and use where it belongs -- at the state level."

The timing of the editorial and the Leafly ad is purely coincidence, said Scott Lowry, Leafly's brand manager. "We decided to place this ad, and started working on it, when the Compassionate Care Act was in legislation," he said.

"The timing was definitely a good match," Mr. Peterson added. "The Times running that piece was extremely important to the entire cannabis movement in U.S., but we had been planning it for the last 18 months."

Last month, New York became the 23rd state to allow medical marijuana, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law the Compassionate Care Act. This year, Colorado and Washington became the first states to allow recreational cannabis use.

In Colorado, the move sparked a boom in the sale of legal weed, but it didn't lead to an explosion in ad sales for local media, TV stations and newspaper execs told Ad Age. And its unlikely the Compassionate Care Act will trigger an advertising rush in New York -- at least not yet. The state has 18 months to issue regulations and licenses to companies to grow and distribute medical marijuana, though Gov. Cuomo last week called up state lawmakers to expedite the process.

Leafly may ramp up its marketing efforts when dispensaries begin opening in New York and it can show people in the state where to buy legal cannabis, according to Mr. Peterson.

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