A billboard that formerly advertised marijuana sales has been replaced after a city councilor complained the sign was next to a children's bus stop.

The old billboard advertised "weedmaps," promoting a website listing information about retail pot shops. The sign was above Maria's Restaurant at the corner of Essex and Locust streets in downtown Haverhill.

"I'm just trying to limit exposure to kids, so they're not being influenced as long as possible," said Councilor Colin LePage, whose complaint led to the change. "It was at a bus stop. That qualifies to ask what that audience (to buy marijuana) is, and it isn't kids at a bus stop.

"It's a city bus stop for Whitter (Regional High School) and a few others," LePage said. "I noted there's at least four different schools that have a pickup at that location. High school students were the oldest, and it went down to middle school ages."

The new replacement billboard encourages children to use seat belts and "buckle up."

LePage had a meeting with Yano Amara of the Clear Channel advertising company on Sept. 17, to tell him the billboard advertising marijuana sales was near the bus stop. Although the sign was more than 500 feet from a school — a threshold for such advertising — LePage pointed out to Amara that children gather there. He also showed Amara a photo of children waiting for the school bus.

Two days later, LePage received a followup email about the billboard saying Clear Channel "was working on moving it."

LePage said it was unclear if the weedmaps billboard would be relocated in Haverhill.

"He said he would see what he could do, and I believed he would," LePage recounted of his meeting with Amara. "It took a couple of weeks, but we got it (the billboard) changed."

Several weeks ago, LePage gave the City Council a presentation on existing billboard advertising and its influence on young people.

LePage said Massachusetts law prohibits advertising, marketing and branding of marijuana products on any billboard or other outdoor advertising unless current and reliable audience composition data shows that at least 85% of the audience will be 21 or older.

"Posted at a bus stop, that qualifies to ask if that audience isn't kids at a bus stop," LePage said.

Now that marijuana sales are legal in Massachusetts, several pot shops are planning to open in Haverhill. A shop planned for downtown is targeting a date before the end of the year, according to the owner. Another shop plans to open early next year on River Street, its owner said.

At a recent City Council meeting, John Sofis Scheft, a lawyer with the Bellotti Law Group of Boston, who represented the nonprofit Massachusetts Prevention Alliance, said the state Cannabis Control Commission has established the strictest standards in the nation for outdoor advertising.

“You have to prove, in advance, that your billboard is only going to reach an audience where 85% of the audience is 21 and over,” he said, noting that the Massachusetts standard exceeds those of California and Maine.

He said the state’s regulations and law regarding marijuana advertising require “reliable, up to date audience composition data.''



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