Congressman Seeks to Censor Public Service Transit Ads with Drug Reform Messages -- Istook Provoked By Pro-Marijuana Ads on DC Metro 12/5/03

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Change the Climate, the Massachusetts-based organization that places public service ads touting reform of the marijuana laws on big city transit systems, has now aroused the ire of at least one Republican congressman, Oklahoma Rep. Ernest Istook. Enraged by an ad touting marijuana legalization that showed a couple embracing above the caption "Enjoy Better Sex!" that appeared on DC Metro buses and subway stations in October (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/306/climate.shtml), Istook has now moved to punish DC Metro for accepting the ad and to censor similar ads in other transit systems that accept federal funding.

DC Metro and other transit agencies that run public service ads have little choice but to accept Change the Climate's ads -- unless they want an expensive and publicity-generating court battle over the group's First Amendment rights. Boston transit officials barred the group's ads in 2000, and they are still in court. DC Metro at first hesitated to accept the ads, but backed down when Change the Climate and the American Civil Liberties Union threatened similar action. Such subtleties were lost on Istook, chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee.

"At a time when the nation and the Washington DC area, in particular, suffer from chronic substance abuse... I find it shocking that [the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority] provides this ad space, and at no cost!", Istook wrote in a letter to DC Councilman Jim Graham, chairman of the Metro Board. "Since [Metro] has the resources to provide $46,250 in free ad space for this very advertising," Istook wrote, "I have to wonder why [Metro] should expect to receive the $67,050,000 in federal funding." Neither was Istook aware of the irony of berating Graham for DC Metro's decision. Graham, normally a staid liberal, had himself lashed out at Metro over the ads in October before someone explained the Constitution to him.

 
new Change The Climate's
controversial subway ad
Jim Graham wasn't the only liberal irked by the ads. Paul Begala, one of two liberal representatives on CNN's Crossfire, provided yet more evidence that marijuana causes mental disorders -- in those who are frightened of it. Begala surprised his foe, co-host Tucker Carlson, by not only warning that the ads send a "dangerous public health message," that marijuana is "a dangerous drug," and that it is full of "cancer-causing agents" -- then going on to repeat, with an amazingly straight face, one of the wildest old myths about marijuana: "There have been many cases documented in the medical research of men actually getting breast enhancement out of smoking pot." [At least Begala didn't accuse marijuana of causing his hairy palms -- though perhaps it did. :)]

Istook has now inserted language into an omnibus appropriations bill that would eliminate $92,500 -- twice the amount of free ad space DC Metro provided to Change the Climate -- in DC Metro funding "as a warning to other transit agencies," according to the legislation. But he didn't stop there. Istook also included language barring the use of federal funds if a transit agency "is involved directly or indirectly with any activity... that promotes the legalization or medical use" of illegal drugs.

"I was stunned when the Washington Post called and told me Tuesday night," said Joseph White, executive director of Change the Climate. "On one level, we are grateful to Congressman Istook for bringing these issues so clearly to the forefront. This gives us an opportunity to present our views and contrast them with his," he told DRCNet. "But this cannot pass constitutional muster, and we are prepared to take our campaign to every mass transit city in the country and challenge this on constitutional grounds." Using Istook's maneuver as fodder, White has already begun fundraising for similar ads in transit agencies in Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Miami, St. Louis, Seattle, and, of course, Oklahoma City.

This battle will most likely be fought in the courts, because the omnibus appropriations bill where Istook inserted the language in conference committee this week will pass or fail on a single up-or-down vote. With all federal spending at stake in the bill, it is unlikely to be defeated. Even more cruelly, the same bill would spend $145 million in taxpayer dollars for anti-marijuana government propaganda.

"That's right," warned the Drug Policy Alliance in an action alert it sent out Thursday in a last-ditch effort to kill the omnibus bill. "Congress wants to run anti-marijuana ads with your tax money, while at the same time banning you from using your own money to run ads in support of marijuana law reform. They want to prohibit you from spending money on things you believe in, while taking money out of your paycheck to spend on things you don't believe in. Without being able to advertise on buses, trains, and subways, it will be very difficult for drug policy reformers to get our message directly to the American people -- which is exactly what the drug war extremists fear. They want to shut us up! And they will get away with it if you don't act right now!"

Visit http://www.changetheclimate.org to see the ad that aroused Istook from his dogmatic slumber.

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