If you live in the state of New York, you may have seen some new public service announcements in the past several weeks. With bright blocks of color and bold lettering appearing in English and Spanish iterations, they look like any other PSAs about mask-wearing or being polite on public transportation — except they’re about weed. “Be mindful of your smoke in public,” says one graphic emblazoned on the back of a city bus. “Cannabis es legal en Nueva York pero solo para adultos mayores de 21 años,” reads another. Several urge residents to “Join the cannabis conversation.”
In the wake of adult-use legalization in the state, these infographics about safe cannabis use are popping up everywhere, from billboards to the sides of buses to inside New York City subway cars. There are ad spots on local TV news stations showing short videos about not driving while high or how cannabis can affect pregnant and nursing women and their babies. In one clip, a dad texts his kid a link to a state government page on cannabis. “Major note,” he types. “Cannabis is still illegal for anyone under 21 — it says that’s because your brain is still growing.” The ads are also on major social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Where you won’t see the ads, however, is TikTok. That’s because, according to a letter New York’s Office of Cannabis Management sent TikTok this week and shared exclusively with Rolling Stone, the notoriously censorious platform won’t allow it.
According to the New York Office of Cannabis Management, which launched the Cannabis Conversations campaign in April, TikTok is refusing to host the public service announcements about the state’s adult-use cannabis law based on the company’s blanket ban on drug advertising. The platform’s advertising policy forbids the “promotion, sale, solicitation of, or facilitation of access to illegal drugs, controlled drugs, prescriptive drugs, drugs for the purpose of recreation, homeopathy, enhancement, performance, including weight loss.” (TikTok did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.) The agency claims this prohibition cuts off their access to a key age demographic of young residents who need to be informed about safe cannabis use as the legalization process moves forward.
In March 2021, New York became the 15th state to legalize recreational cannabis. Though recreational sales aren’t expected to begin until this fall at the earliest, shortly after then-Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, possession of small amounts — and even smoking pot in public — became legal for adults 21 and over. At the same time, government agencies began working on how to regulate what’s expected to be a multi-billion-dollar industry in the state. As part of that process, the law required an “education campaign regarding the legalization of adult-use cannabis and the impact of cannabis use on public health and safety.” The law says the same campaign should also include general education about cannabis law.
“[Legalization] was a such a significant policy shift, lifestyle shift for the entire state, regulators and law enforcement included, but also parents, educators, and anybody dealing with young people,” says Chris Alexander, executive director of New York’s Office of Cannabis Management, which was established by the legislation. “The mandate to our office was that we work with our partners in state government to educate the state population on what this means, as well as take important steps to improve public health outcomes across the board.”
TikTok isn’t the only platform that resisted — just the most consequential. Alexander says he’s been surprised to receive pushback from some TV stations being reluctant to air what he describes as “innocuous” government public education ads. But no single regional news affiliate monopolizes a market. With over one billion users, TikTok has much more sway, especially among young people. The letter sites a report that indicates 75 percent of TikTok users are between the ages of 18 and 34, a group regulators are eager to target with their informational ads. “If the local Channel Seven said no, okay, we’ll go to Channel Nine and Channel Five or 10,” Alexander says. “We’ll still hit the market. It’s so different with TikTok because of the stronghold that they have on their users.” There’s nowhere like it where the government — or anyone else — can reach that number of young people.
In the letter, signed by Alexander on behalf of his office, he makes a plea for access. Alexander writes that people under 21 are not permitted to use cannabis under state law because of the drug’s risk to brain development. The age group on the platform also includes new parents, who the government wants to inform about safe cannabis storage in the home. Driving after smoking is another concern to the agency (although research about weed’s true impact on someone’s ability to drive remains somewhat inconclusive). “Our public health education campaign also delivers the message that it’s both unsafe and illegal to drive while impaired by cannabis, another important message for this age group where decision-making often leans toward risk-taking,” the letter states.
In the letter, Alexander asks TikTok to reconsider its prohibition of the ads to help make legal weed safe for New Yorkers. “I’m hoping that additional pressure can get them to waive their no cannabis advertising policy for this cannabis education program,” Alexander says. “They’re trying to do this one-size-fits-all approach. It just doesn’t doesn’t work here, and it’s frustrating our mission.”