Anti-marijuana activists target ads for ‘Weedmaps’ app in Montreal


MONTREAL — Ben Anson says he was outraged to see a large-scale billboard advertising Weedmaps, an app that lists local marijuana providers, crop up in a spot near several schools in Montreal earlier this year.

Recently, he contacted the company hosting the ad, asking them to take it down because of the presence of children in the area.

He says they agreed, replacing that ad with a picture of a giraffe.

But the 47-year-old says he also filed a police complaint against the marketing firm handling Weedmaps’ advertising, believing the other ads that still remain around the city encourage people to engage in illegal activity.

“I never imagined that our mayor or the provincial or federal authorities wouldn’t stop this thing,” he said.

“Here I am, just a citizen, having to file a criminal complaint for something that is patently illegal.”

The advertising firm, Pattison Outdoor, did not respond to a request for comment.

Ads promoting Weedmaps, a California-based website and mobile application, have sprung up in cities across Canada in recent months.

The platform lists nearby medical marijuana dispensaries, delivery services as well and resources about cannabis.

It does not sell any of the products directly.

Pam McColl, a B.C.-based anti-marijuana activist, says she and the various groups she’s affiliated with have been taking aim at the marijuana advertising that has cropped up in several cities, including on door hangers in Toronto.

“Profiting from crime is a criminal offence, and so our strategy right now is to go after the big players, because we feel they’re doing the biggest harm,” she said.

While consuming marijuana for medical purposes is legal under certain circumstances, storefront dispensaries remain illegal, as do operations selling recreational cannabis.

Several groups contacted by The Canadian Press were unable to give a direct answer on whether Weedmaps’ ads violate Canadian laws or advertising standards.

A spokesperson for Health Canada wrote that the agency “is aware of this particular situation and is investigating,” and added the department has strict regulations on promoting products that include narcotics.

“Under these prohibitions, no person shall publish, cause to be published or furnish any advertisement to the general public respecting a narcotic, including cannabis,” says a department statement.

A spokesman for the Montreal police said the force could not confirm whether it had received Anson’s complaint or any others against the advertiser.

He said determining the legality of the signs was not within the force’s mandate.

A vice-president at Advertising Standards Canada, the advertising industry’s self-regulating body, said she couldn’t say whether a specific ad violated the organization’s standards until she studied it.

But Janet Feasby said the organization’s code includes the provision that advertising should “not directly encourage, or exhibit obvious indifference to, unlawful behaviour.”

She would not say whether the group had received any complaints about Weedmaps, citing confidentiality reasons.

A spokesperson for the city of Montreal said that while it governs where billboards can be displayed, regulating the content is up to federal agencies.

“Be reminded that the city is concerned with promoting healthy lifestyle habits and its position regarding the promotion of recreational cannabis is clear: it must be banned,” Jules Chamberland-Lajoie said in an email.

He added the city would wait for the province to unveil its plan to legalize cannabis later this fall before commenting further on the issue.

Weedmaps did not respond to a request for comment.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press