COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – When medical marijuana patients visit a dispensary in Ohio, the strain nicknamed “cookie monster” will likely be missing from the shelves.

The “cookie monster” name – like any cannabis product that references a kid’s cartoon character – is among the language that medical marijuana operators cannot use under the Ohio Medical Marijuana Control Program’s advertising regulations that took effect in 2017.

“I see patients chattering online sometimes about silly strain names and say, ‘Why can’t we find the same strains that are in other markets?’ And it’s because of those regulations,” said Leslie Brandon, marketing director at the Cleveland-based cultivator and processor Buckeye Relief.

Although the state’s marketing rules aim to limit children’s exposure to the drug, license holders and other cannabis reform advocates said they could hinder the industry’s dire need to attract new patients while propping up an illicit market.

“We want it to be easy for them to find our product; we want them to know exactly what they’re getting,” Brandon said. “But at the same time, we want to stay within the regulations.”

What can’t medical marijuana operators display?

Under Ohio law, medical marijuana license holders – the processors, cultivators and dispensaries – are barred from using various imagery and language on their product packaging, social media and other marketing materials.

It’s largely a way to limit the drug’s exposure to children and other populations, according to Darcy Moulin, an attorney with the Ohio Board of Pharmacy. For instance, items featuring cartoon characters or symbols deemed attractive to children will likely be shut down by the license holder’s regulatory agency.

Other restrictions – like barring the slang words “dank” or “haze” in cannabis strain names, according to the pharmacy board’s guidelines – are designed to deter Ohioans from using the drug recreationally. Pictures of plant leaves and paraphernalia are also nixed by the board.

“We want to make sure that in Ohio, it’s being used for the purpose it was legalized for,” Moulin said.

To ensure compliance, medical marijuana license holders must get every promotional item or advertisement approved by the state’s Medical Marijuana Control Program.

Once an Instagram post or product label is submitted, the program’s three regulatory agencies – the state board of pharmacy, department of commerce and state medical board – have 15 business days to decide whether to greenlight the material, Moulin said.

Creativity is key in the cannabis industry

As the Buckeye Relief marketing director, Brandon said the state’s advertising regulations keep her on her toes.

Since some logical locations for ads – like billboards, radio stations and TV broadcasts – are cut off to medical marijuana businesses, Brandon said creativity is key to getting as many eyeballs as possible on Buckeye Relief’s business.

“There is a lot of back-and-forth we do with the board to make sure we are following all the rules, so I think there’s a bit more work that goes into it than at an average consumer goods company,” she said.

One of the biggest barriers Buckeye Relief faces today is operating on social media platforms, particularly Facebook and Instagram, Brandon said. Because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, promoting its sale on those apps is heavily restricted.

“It’s just kind of a constant monitoring of our status on those accounts and trying to figure out how do we get the information out there without being shut down completely,” Brandon said.

Unintended consequences

Columbus attorney Ben Bodamer, who teaches a cannabis business course at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said while some of the state’s advertising safeguards are warranted, they can stymie license holders’ ability to properly educate patients and non-patients alike about the program and its available products.

As medical marijuana license holders are bound by tight requirements, so-called smoke shops and businesses that aren’t licensed by the state – and whose catalogs often feature illegally-derived cannabis products – are operating with signs advertising “THC” or “DISPENSARY” in big, bold letters, Bodamer said.

“Anytime we are restricting awareness of our state-compliant, tested products that are medicine, any restriction or awareness acts like an indirect subsidy for the illicit marketplace,” he said.

Heavy marketing restrictions – and the absence of medical marijuana references in the general public – may also insinuate something’s illegal or wrong about consuming the drug, Bodamer said. That could serve to continue the stigmatization of marijuana.

“It’s either medicine or it isn’t, and once you pass a law that says it is, we should treat it like that, not treat it like a countercultural symbol of the 1960s and ‘70s,” he said.

State Sen. Steve Huffman (R-Tipp City) is one of the lawmakers who authored Senate Bill 9, a massive medical marijuana overhaul plan. Included are provisions that Huffman said will help attract new patients, including allowing license holders to post on social media without prior approval and easing advertising restrictions for dispensaries.

“The plan is to let them advertise to say, we are the marijuana dispensary, and we’re located at this address,” Huffman said. “What we don’t want is, ‘We’re the marijuana dispensary on Main Street and you’ll get the best buzz possible.’”