Critical Thinking: Should Newspapers Be Allowed to Mail Papers with Pot Advertisements Through the U.S. Postal Service?

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“Although marijuana use is legal in some states, a federal ban restricts newspapers from mailing papers with pot advertisements through the U.S. Postal Service. Should this law be changed?”


Keagan Beresford Keagan Beresford, 20, junior, Ball State University (Muncie, Ind.)

Beresford is a journalism major and French minor. He currently works at Indiana Public Radio as a student reporter. Additionally, he writes for Ball State’s student-run magazine, Ball Bearings, and its newspaper, the Ball State Daily News.

All arguments for or against marijuana legalization aside, yes, the law should be changed.

A growing number of Americans support marijuana legalization, and several states have already legalized recreational use. Using an outdated federal regulation to restrict the news media is simply an unproductive move for the U.S. Postal Service. If the end goal is to control the ways people obtain and use marijuana, this is the wrong way to do it.

The release from the U.S. Postal Service says it cooperates with all other agencies in preserving the laws of the United States, which is the sole reason to restrict the advertisements. It’s not even a definitive action against legal pot, more like a side effect in the larger scheme.

Further, news outlets are shifting from the traditional print model to a primarily online and mobile approach, so restricting marijuana advertisements for papers that rely on the U.S. Postal Service could unfairly target small rural weeklies and hurt their efforts to maintain already declining ad revenue.

This conflict between state and federal law is yet another legal gray area like the ones we’ve seen popping up since marijuana legalization came to the table. I understand, federal law is federal law, but there are no positive outcomes on either side of the equation.

Enforcement is another issue. In the event that a newspaper did run an advertisement and used the U.S. Postal service to mail the paper, the process of enforcing the ban or applying a penalty would be a waste of resources. And it’s not as if the newspapers are taking a partisan stance in favor of legalization; publications that run ads for liquor stores and other “vice” goods and services don’t necessarily endorse them.

One former long-time editor and publisher I consulted said she would run the ads anyway because consequences were unlikely. “What are they going to do?” she asked. “How are they even going to enforce this?”

More than anything, this approach seems like a heavy-handed attempt by the federal government to enforce its own policy. More than that, it is policy that’s on its way out the door.


Lou BrancaccioLou Brancaccio, 65, editor, The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)

Brancaccio has served as editor since 2000 and has also worked in editing positions in Fort Myers, Fla. Binghamton, N.Y. and Santa Monica, Calif.

There’s a general rule of thumb I go by whenever the government gets involved in anything: Stuff gets murky.

Such is the case with the U.S. Postal Services “ban” on pot advertisements. There was a lot of fret and worry right after the announcement. But in the end, it amounted to virtually nothing.

Quick review. Soon after a few states legalized the sale of marijuana, news stories began popping up that those states would be in direct conflict with federal law banning those sales (if state law and federal law conflicts, federal law wins.) But the U.S. Department of Justice quickly defused the conflict by saying it would allow states to create a process that would regulate the sale of marijuana for adults. But then the U.S. Postal Service got involved and said newspapers could have a problem if they accepted marijuana ads and those newspapers used the Postal Service to mail them.


The first problem for the federal government is the appearance of one agency agreeing to look the other way and another agency saying, “Not so fast, my friend.” This inevitably happens when a government becomes slightly larger than Saturn.

But what’s the real reason why this isn’t a player for newspapers? It really only applies to ads that solicit the mailing of drugs that are illegal under federal law. And in Washington all sales have to occur in person and at a licensed store within the state. So all ads you see in our state essentially say “Come on by the store and pick up some weed.”

Frankly the real issue, for me, has little to do with the legality of placing a marijuana ad. The real issue is should a newspaper morally accept a marijuana ad. Old timers will remember the debate about whether newspapers should accept cigarette ads. Cigarettes certainly are legal, but was it ever in society’s best interest to have us smoking? And should newspapers have contributed to that health hazard by accepting cigarette ads?  Will marijuana ever fall into that category?  Since that wasn’t the question, I’ll leave those answers to someone else.

2 thoughts on “Critical Thinking: Should Newspapers Be Allowed to Mail Papers with Pot Advertisements Through the U.S. Postal Service?

  • March 22, 2016 at 7:45 am

    I agree with both perspectives, most especially Mr. Beresford’s. As a newspaper advertising rep in Colorado, it was difficult and embarrassing to tell a paying customer that their advertising/business was essentially “no good here” anymore. Also, it’s frustrating while working on a summer tourism guide to pretend that the growing recreational marijuana industry in the area isn’t a draw for tourists. This policy forces newspapers in marijuana legal states to adopt a moral stance that might not be reflective of the readership and economy of their state/region/area, making newspapers, who already often face an uphill battle with adaptation and relevance to their readership, appear backwards or disconnected.

  • March 22, 2016 at 8:29 am

    It ought to be clarified that issue is not just marijuana advertisements in publications delivered by the Postal Service. The federal Controlled Substances Act itself prohibits persons from placing “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 1 controlled substance.” Marijuana remains a Schedule 1 controlled substance under federal law, although this Justice Department has decided not to restrict states that have legalized the sale of pot to adults. This was a political decision — one that could easily be reversed by subsequent administrations.


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