The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) kicked off a TV ad campaign aimed at gaining support for a California marijuana legalization bill in the legislature on Wednesday, but ran into problems with several TV stations around the state, which either rejected the ad outright or just ignored MPP efforts to place it. Still, the spots are up and running on other Golden State stations.
Playing on California's budget crisis -- the state is $26 billion in the hole and currently issuing IOUs to vendors and laying off state workers -- the 30-second spots feature middle-aged suburban Sacramento housewife Nadene Herndon, who tells the camera:
"Sacramento says huge cuts to schools, health care, and police are inevitable due to the state's budget crisis. Even the state's parks could be closed. But the governor and the legislature are ignoring millions of Californians who want to pay taxes. We're marijuana consumers. Instead of being treated like criminals for using a substance safer than alcohol, we want to pay our fair share. Taxes from California's marijuana industry could pay the salaries of 20,000 teachers. Isn't it time?"
As Herndon finishes speaking, the words "Tax and regulate marijuana" appear on the screen, as well as a link to Controlmarijuana.org. Clicking on that link actually takes you to MPP's "MPP of California" web page.
"I'm a medical marijuana user," Herndon told the Chronicle. "I was at Oaksterdam University with my husband looking at some classes, and the chancellor [Richard Lee] came out and said I would be perfect for an ad they were thinking about. I talked to my husband, and he said maybe I should do it. It is a cause near and dear to my heart, so I did," she said.
The response from acquaintances has been very positive, she said. "I've gotten lots of positive messages, and a few who are worried for my safety or that my house might be vandalized," said Herndon. "I have gotten a couple of odd phone calls, though, so I've changed my number."
The spots are aimed at creating public support for AB 390, a bill introduced in February by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco). That bill would legalize the adult possession of marijuana and set up a system of taxed and regulated cultivation and sales.
The bill and the ad campaign come as support for marijuana legalization is on the rise in California. A recent Field poll showed support at 56%. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has gone on the record saying that legalization needs to be discussed. And, thanks to the state's medical marijuana laws, millions of Californians can see with their own eyes what a regime of legal marijuana sales might look like.
It would appear that marijuana legalization is a legitimate political topic in California, but that's not what a number of the state's major market TV stations think. At least six stations have rejected or ignored the ads. Oakland NBC affiliate KTVU and San Francisco ABC affiliate KGO declined to air the ad, as did San Jose NBC affiliate KNTV. Three Los Angeles stations, KABC, Fox affiliate KTTV, and KTLA also refused to air the ad.
KGO told MPP that they "weren't comfortable" with the spot, while KNTV said only that "standards rejected the spot." KABC claimed the ad "promotes marijuana use."
But while some local stations have balked, the ad is running on stations in Oakland, Sacramento, and San Francisco, as well as on MSNBC, CNBC, and CNN, via California cable operators.
"We are astonished that major California TV stations chose to censor a discussion that Governor Schwarzenegger has said our state should have on an issue supported by 56% of voters, according to the Field poll," said Aaron Smith, MPP California policy director. "The two million Californians who use marijuana in a given month deserve to have their voices heard -- and their tax dollars should help solve the fiscal emergency that threatens our schools, police and parks."
"That those stations would refuse to run the ad is appalling," said MPP communications director Bruce Mirken. "This wasn't something we expected; this wasn't a stunt to get press coverage. This was intentionally a very innocuous ad."
Mirken took special umbrage at KABC's suggestion that the ad "promotes marijuana use." "It's a really tortured reading of that ad to claim that," he said. "The ad is simply recognizing the reality that there are lots of marijuana consumers out there unable to pay taxes on their purchases because we have consigned marijuana to a criminal underground," he said.
Alison Holcomb, drug policy director for the ACLU of Washington, told the Huffington Post that while the refusals don't "implicate the First Amendment from a legal standpoint," she believes the practice "undermines a core principle underlying the First Amendment: that the strength of a democracy flows from the exchange of ideas."
As Holcomb noted, the various stations' refusal to accept the ad is not a First amendment violation in the strict sense -- no governmental entity is suppressing MPP's right to seek air time to run its ad, and the stations are within their legal rights to refuse it. But the effect is to suppress MPP's ability to compete in the marketplace of ideas, and MPP smells a double standard.
"When the governor of the state has said we ought to have this debate, it would seem to mean letting all sides air their views," said Mirken. "Pretty much all of these stations that rejected our ad have aired ONDCP anti-marijuana ads, which are often blatantly dishonest, so they are effectively taking sides in the argument. That feels fundamentally unfair."
The battle continues. As of Thursday, MPP was effectively shut out of the Los Angeles market, except for the cable news networks. But Mirken said he hoped to have the ad on the air there by the weekend.