Why cannabis sponsors the cleanup of more Colorado highway miles than any other industry

Cannabis companies are the leading sponsors of Colorado highways, accounting for cleanup on two-thirds of the roads maintained by Clean Colorado — a program the industry has leveraged as a loophole in the state’s strict limits on marijuana advertising.

Currently, 51 cannabis dispensaries, cultivators, manufacturers and edible producers sponsor roadways throughout the state, according to data from the Adopt a Highway Maintenance Corporation.

Though they represent less than half of all organizations that participate in the Clean Colorado program, those cannabis firms’ reach spans about 198 miles, or 66% of the roads actively sponsored.

The business category with the next highest level of participation is general services — ad agencies, pest control, plumbing, real estate — which represents 13% of miles sponsored. Other sponsoring industries include retail (8%), restaurants (4%), and casinos and hotels (3%).

Drivers in the Denver area likely have noticed. Clean Colorado signs with the names and logos of local dispensaries and grows dot most major highways here, and often are strategically placed near exits where passersby can find the businesses. That’s no accident.

Colorado’s rules governing how and where cannabis companies can advertise are famously strict. In an effort to prevent marketing messages from reaching minors, state regulators prohibit canna-businesses from advertising on TV, radio and in print unless they can prove the audience is predominantly 21 and older.

Digital and social media platforms are even more restrictive — and not just in Colorado, which bans cannabis-related pop-up ads. Post something that violates often-ambiguous advertising protocols, and Facebook and Instagram will shut down a company’s account.

That’s one reason Sponsor a Highway, a cousin to the better-known Adopt a Highway program, is a magnet for marijuana. The Colorado Department of Transportation says the signs are not intended to be an advertising medium, but they have become a clever workaround for an industry with few other consumer-facing options.

“The rules governing highways signs are in a different section than rules governing the cannabis industry,” said Nico Pento, government affairs director for Boulder-based Terrapin Care Station, which operates six dispensaries in the metro area. “The highway signs were a loophole that was overlooked.”