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February 15, 2008 -- The Stranger (WA)

The Bong Show: Pot Legalization Goes Prime Time

By Dominic Holden

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

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 www.Marijuana 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?

February 14, 2008 -- The Seattle Times (WA)

ACLU, Rick Steves Launch Marijuana Campaign

By Nancy Bartley, Seattle Times staff reporter

Travel writer Rick Steves and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington have formed a partnership to tackle a topic they call the equivalent of the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s: the criminalization of marijuana.

Steves, the Edmonds-based travel guru who five years ago openly acknowledged that he uses marijuana while visiting Europe, says he's not "pro-marijuana," but in favor of discussing the laws that affect the 830,000 Americans who are arrested annually under existing marijuana laws. About 90 percent of the arrests are for possession.

Saying the laws disproportionately affect minorities and can impose severe consequences for possessing as little as 40 grams (roughly the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes), the state ACLU received funding from the national organization to create an informational program it hopes will air on television stations and the Internet. Steves appears in the program.

Washington was considered a good place to launch a campaign to discuss marijuana laws because it's viewed as being on the cutting edge of drug legislation, the ACLU's Alison Chinn Holcomb said. A law allowing medical-marijuana use was approved by state voters in 1998, and in 2003 Seattle voters approved Initiative 75, which made the adult use of marijuana a low priority for law enforcement.

Washington's medical-marijuana law and similar ones in 11 other states are not recognized by the federal government. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling said states cannot enact laws that supersede federal criminal laws - in this case the Controlled Substances Act. So despite voter approval, even getting medical marijuana is legally risky, ACLU members say.

Some $7.5 billion is spent annually for marijuana-law enforcement nationally, according to the ACLU's research. The organization contends that the arrests clog the courts and criminal-justice system, diverting resources from more serious crimes.

"Marijuana use should be treated primarily as a health issue, not a criminal one. In Europe I've seen how more thoughtful approaches to social issues can really work. Our government's war on drugs sounds very tough and results-driven, but all it really succeeds at is being enormously expensive, tearing families apart and treating nonconformists as criminals," Steves said. He said as a society we've made the same mistake as was made when lawmakers banned alcohol during Prohibition.

In Washington, possession of up to 40 grams of marijuana carries a minimum penalty of one day in jail, a $250 fine for the first offense and sentences that can go up to 90 days in jail plus a $1,000 fine. For possessing more, the sentence can be up to five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.

Growing one marijuana plant for personal use is a potential felony subject to the same penalties as possession of more than 40 grams, the ACLU reports.

Nationwide, while 74 percent of marijuana users are white and 14 percent of the users are African-American, blacks account for 30 percent of the marijuana arrests, the ACLU reported.

In 2006, an African American was 12 times as likely as a white person to be cited for marijuana possession by the Seattle Police Department, according to the ACLU.

But Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr called the claim unfair and statistically insignificant.

"What they're doing is sensationalizing a number that has no statistical validity because the numbers are so small," he said.

The issue of marijuana laws is one for state legislators, he said. "We enforce whatever laws are on the books."

Throughout most of the country, the popularity of decriminalizing marijuana use has waned, said Tom Riley, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The potency of the drug has tripled in the last 10 years and its use is not "a harmless pastime," he said, "but a much bigger part of substance abuse and a much bigger part of mental-health issues."

Contact Nancy Bartley at 206-464-8522 or

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