Pubdate: Mon, 04 Nov 2013
Source: Las Vegas Review-Journal (NV)
Copyright: 2013 McClatchy
Author: Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON - When televangelist Pat Robertson announced his support 
for legalizing marijuana last year, pot backers wasted no time in 
putting his picture on an electronic billboard in Colorado.

Marijuana billboards have popped up along freeways from Seattle to 
Florida. In September, one greeted fans going to Sports Authority 
Field at Mile High in Denver for the first NFL game of the season. In 
July, pot supporters tried to get a video ad on a jumbo screen 
outside a NASCAR event in Indianapolis, but objections forced them to 
pull it at the last minute.

In the latest twist, pro-pot billboards are emblazoned on city buses 
in Portland, Maine, aimed at winning votes for a Nov. 5 ballot 
measure that would make the city the first on the East Coast to 
legalize marijuana for recreational use.

Critics fear that the increased advertising is a sign of things to 
come as support for legalization continues to grow, reflected by a 
Gallup poll released last week that found backing from a record-high 
58 percent of Americans. They see the stepped-up promotion as a 
dangerous trend that will lead to more drug abuse among children.

While the Greater Portland Transit District has banned tobacco ads, 
it accepted $2,500 to display the marijuana billboards on the 
exterior of four of its 32 city buses and in two bus shelters.

In one ad, a bespectacled woman says: "I prefer marijuana over 
alcohol because it's less toxic, so there's no hangover." Another 
features a smiling young man who says he prefers pot over booze 
"because it doesn't make me rowdy or reckless."

Transit officials say the ads are constitutionally protected 
political speech since they also encourage a "yes" vote on a city 
ballot initiative.

"We're allowing this message because it's political speech. It's 
designed to help change a law," said Gregory Jordan, the general 
manager of the transit district. "It's not the promotion of a 
commercial product. We don't have a position on the content of the 
advertising, just that it's a political message and by its very 
nature it's protected by the First Amendment."

Opponents say the ads go well beyond endorsing a ballot measure, 
instead promoting an illegal product. They say the ads shouldn't be 
allowed in places where they're so easily viewed by youths, including 
high school students who ride city buses to school.

David Boyer, the Maine political director for the Marijuana Policy 
Project, which bought the ads, said the backlash had surprised him. 
He defended the ads, saying it's important that everyone, including 
kids, knows that marijuana is safer than alcohol.

"When you don't talk to kids like they have a brain, then they kind 
of resent you for it and they end up tuning everything else out that 
you do say," Boyer said. "I think you do the best with them by 
telling them the truth."

Legalization opponents say marijuana is addictive and should remain 
classified as a controlled substance.

"We're witnessing the birth of Big Marijuana," said Kevin Sabet, the 
director of the University of Florida Drug Policy Institute and a 
former adviser on drug issues to President Barack Obama and 
Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. "And I really worry about 
the messages this advertising is going to be sending to kids, giving 
them the impression that marijuana is safe."

He said the marijuana industry was relying on similar tactics that 
had helped advance the tobacco industry: "It's the advertising. It's 
the billboards. It's the vending machines. It's the lobbying groups, 
all the things that Big Tobacco has mastered for 80 years."

The Portland vote is the first ballot test for legalization backers 
since last November, when Washington state and Colorado approved 
plans to sell and tax the drug for recreational use beginning next 
year. If the measure passes, residents of Maine's largest city who 
are 21 and older each will be allowed to possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana.

"It would be big for the East Coast, especially New England," Boyer 
said. "It's just another domino. And this movement has gained 
tremendous momentum in the last year."

So far, 20 states and Washington, D.C., have approved the use of 
marijuana for medical purposes.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom