In the last decade, when pot-law reform advocates have faced off with the status quo on equal footing, pot reform has won. Initiative backers in a dozen states, for instance, have spent big bucks passing medical-marijuana measures despite fierce opposition from federal officials. Nevertheless, the adult recreational use of pot (as opposed to medical use) doesn't have majority support to pass in any state. Before voters will ever approve that sort of proposal, pot advocates must first change attitudes toward the drug by going toe to toe with the White House's multimillion-dollar antidrug media campaign.
The national ACLU has decided to fund a pilot effort. Beginning on Valentine's Day, television viewers in the Seattle media market will begin seeing a slick, 30-minute pot-reform infomercial.
Hosted by television travel guru Rick Steves, Marijuana: It's Time for a Conversation will initially be available on Comcast On Demand cable, says Alison Holcomb, director of the ACLU of Washington's Marijuana Education Project, which produced the show. Holcomb says the ACLU plans to spend at least $20,000 per week airing the program around the state. Three local network affiliates (KOMO, KING, and KIRO) have already received and approved copies of the script, she says. However, none of the station's advertising managers could be reached for comment. "We're working with the stations to figure out what times are available," Holcomb says. By the end of 2008, she expects the program to begin airing in more conservative regions, including Pierce County, Clark County, and greater Spokane.
"It's good to be in a corner of the country where we can test-market for this," said Steves at an advanced screening. The national ACLU, which opposes punitive marijuana laws they believe chip away at civil liberties, chose Washington because polls suggest reforming marijuana laws is most feasible here. (Disclosure: I used to work for the ACLU of Washington.)
The program makes its case against pot prohibition by chronicling the racial hysteria behind the drug's criminalization in the 1930s and examining the impact of modern-day pot laws, under which about 800,000 people are arrested in the U.S. each year.
The format—an infomercial with the requisite gregarious host and an audience that robotically claps on cue—is clearly geared to strike a chord with its target demographic: moms, a group traditionally wary of marijuana but proven to buy products sold on TV.
But, to fit within cable and station programming guidelines, the show cannot advocate for any specific legal reforms. It must settle for encouraging viewers to start a discussion on the issue and prompting them to visit Marijuana Conversation.org for more information.
The absence of overt advocacy actually makes the program compelling—it encourages the viewer to hang on and find out what he or she is supposed to do. Although, the potential for backlash does exist. When the program wraps up without defining its goals, moms may wonder what exactly the ACLU wants. Does the civil-liberties organization want to allow adults to smoke pot in the privacy of their bedrooms, or is this part of a nebulous liberalization agenda that would make drugs more available?
Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen, the state's leading critic of drug-reform efforts, worries that the infomercial turns pot smokers into politically sympathetic characters. "When you start running ads and say, 'Golly, gee whiz, look at all the things happening to people who get [unfairly] arrested,' you start putting out a story saying there is no problem with marijuana," says Owen. These messages lower the perception of pot's harm, he adds, thus increasing the rate of marijuana use, especially by kids.
"The show doesn't encourage anyone to use marijuana," Holcomb responds. "This show acknowledges risks associated with heavy marijuana use, and no one is saying that marijuana use is a good thing."
"The question we are positing is this: Is criminalizing marijuana use actually increasing public safety and decreasing health risks," Holcomb says, "or is it hurting us on both counts?"