Censored on TV: Why Are Some Stations Keeping Pot in the Closet?

Earlier this month, the organization I work for, the Marijuana Policy Project, inadvertently stirred up a hornet's nest with what we thought was a pretty straightforward TV commercial. That our modest little ad proved too hot to handle for such Los Angeles-area stations as KNBC, KABC, KTLA, KTTV and KCOP (plus a couple stations in San Francisco) says more about socially acceptable attitudes regarding marijuana than about the ad (or the drug) itself.


After a series of images depicting spending cuts expected as a result of California’s budget crisis, Nadene Herndon of Fair Oaks (near Sacramento) looks at the camera and says: “Sacramento says huge cuts to schools, health care and police are inevitable due to California’s budget crisis. Even our state parks could be closed. But the governor and legislature are ignoring millions of Californians who want to pay taxes.

“We're marijuana consumers. Instead of being treated like criminals for using a safe substance, 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?”

The spot concludes with a slide reading, “Tax and Regulate Marijuana. ControlMarijuana.org.”

That’s it. Nothing in the spot urged people to light up, and there were no images of marijuana or marijuana use at all. Yet over half a dozen major-market TV stations, including the NBC and ABC affiliates in LA and San Francisco, flatly refused to air it. The general manager of KABC insisted to me in an oddly heated phone conversation that the commercial advocates marijuana use, and he wasn’t going to advocate illegal activity on his station.

The ad — which you can watch at http://www.mpp.org/states/california/ we-want-to-pay-our-fair-share.html — did nothing of the sort. But what it did do was apparently just as disturbing. It showed in concrete terms that the millions of Americans who use marijuana (nearly 15 million in a typical month, according to government surveys that likely underestimate its true prevalence) are ordinary folks — responsible, hard-working and entirely normal.

This is a group of people that may well include your barber, your accountant, your lawyer, the checker at your favorite grocery store, your kid’s teacher and a respectable proportion of your friends, neighbors and relatives. But most of them don’t talk about it — just like gays and lesbians didn’t talk about their orientation back in the 1960s, when gay sex was illegal in every state.

The official mythology, of course, is that marijuana consumers are “drug abusers” who lead sad, dysfunctional lives. They’ve walked through the dreaded “gateway” to a life of addiction and despair.

Those myths are stated overtly in official propaganda and reinforced far more subtly in the stock footage you see on television news whenever there’s a marijuana story. Because all those lawyers, accountants, etc., would be committing professional suicide if they let themselves be photographed smoking marijuana, the stock images they use always show straggly-looking stoners who look like they just wandered out of a Grateful Dead concert. That such stereotypes represent a tiny and atypical minority of marijuana users is society’s dirty little secret — 2009’s equivalent of Oscar Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name.”

That a legal, regulated, taxed marijuana industry could generate a billion dollars or more in revenue for our cash-strapped state is just one small reason to end the folly of marijuana prohibition. A far more important reason is that prohibition doesn’t make a damn bit of sense. It gives us the worst of all possible worlds — a drug that's widely used and universally available, but produced and sold with none of the common-sense controls we have for beer, wine and liquor.

But arguably the most important reason is people like Nadene — ordinary, hard-working Americans who have made the perfectly rational choice to unwind at the end of the day with a substance that is, by any objective standard, far safer than alcohol: Marijuana is less addictive, massively less toxic, and — unlike booze — it doesn't make people aggressive and violent. And whether anyone likes it or not, those folks are starting to come out of the closet.

Recognizing that reality requires letting go of some familiar myths.  

And some TV stations, we now know, aren’t ready to do that.

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