News & Politics

NORML Puts the Mayor of Pot on the Spot

The NORML campaign featuring NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg has generated lots of publicity, but it may have undermined NORML's objective: to take the heat off city pot smokers.
NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) has launched a $500,000 ad campaign using New York City's new billionaire mayor, Mike Bloomberg, as the poster boy. NORML's goal -- but not the mayor's, evidently -- is to advocate for change in New York City's police policies toward pot smoking and possession.

The campaign, which has been the subject of jokes from late-night talk show hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman and picked up by press around the country and the world, has generated substantial publicity. Yet, by putting the focus primarily on Bloomberg, the ads may have undermined NORML's objective, at least in the short term.

NORML took out a full-page ad in the New York Times and bought time for radio ads and space for subway billboards. The ads celebrated a quote Bloomberg made last summer when New York magazine asked him if he had ever smoked pot: "You bet I did and I enjoyed it," said the refreshingly candid Mayor Mike. NORML is calling the campaign the "largest marijuana-friendly ad campaign ever."

The straight-talking Bloomberg is certainly a welcome contrast to the dozens of mealy-mouthed politicians -- including Bill Clinton, Al Gore, George Pataki and Newt Gingrich -- who tend to admit smoking pot once or twice but not to inhaling or enjoying it. But in blindsiding Bloomberg and putting him on the defensive, NORML may in fact have forced him into a corner.

The Thrill Is Gone

Bloomberg, unfortunately, is not on board as a pot reformer. The New York Daily News reported that Bloomberg was unmoved by the ad campaign, saying, "We should enforce the laws as they are, and the police department will do so vigorously." Elected as a Republican, Bloomberg may have felt he needed to avoid appearing soft on crime in the wake of Sept. 11 and his predecessor Rudolph Giuliani's success as a crime fighter. In fact, arrest data in New York suggest that there has been little change in the new administration.

According to the Chicago Sun Times, Bloomberg has said he regrets his remarks to New York magazine. Bloomberg hasn't denied making the quote, but also said: "I am not thrilled they are using my name. I suppose there is a First Amendment getting in the way of my stopping them."

On the other hand, there is understandable frustration in the pot reform ranks. Some elected officials have ignored history, public opinion and even the law in harassing pot smokers. New York state law, adopted in 1975, mandates that pot offenders who possess 25 grams or less in private be issued a citation in lieu of a criminal arrest. Yet, New York's rabidly anti-drug former mayor, Rudy Giuliani, ignored the law. During his administration, arrests for pot possession grew dramatically from fewer than 2,000 a year to more than 50,000 annually. On top of that, pot smokers arrested in New York are often forced to spend a night in New York's crowded and dangerous jails.

Nothing rankles pot reformers more than their impotence in the face of aggressive harassment of pot smokers in the Big Apple, once known as a liberal and tolerant city, and often used as a bellwether for broader policy approaches in other cities. In launching the campaign, NORML has acted out its frustration about pot policy hypocrisy in a very public way, and in doing so, has drawn a lot of attention to the issue.

"This ad stirred things up more than anything I've seen in years," said one observer, deeply involved in the drug reform movement who preferred that his name not be used. "If the idea is to shake things up, then this is working. But I understand the risk. In the short term, tactically, it could make reform more difficult. The jury is still out on whether this will be seen as a success."

Revisiting Tactics

The gist of NORML's message is that arresting low-level pot smokers is a "waste of taxpayers' money" and a "foolish use of scarce resources" in light of the city's heightened concern over terrorism -- not to mention a double standard. "While we appreciate the Mayor's refreshing candor about his own pot smoking, we cannot have two systems of justice; one for the rich and famous and another for the rest of us," NORML Executive Director Keith Stroup said.

While Stroup's sentiment is understandable, NORML's tactics may need to be revisited. Might there be a better way to make the public case to New Yorkers? For example, pot arrests are often aimed at young, poor people of color, and the racist results of Giuliani's notorious zero-tolerance policies are well known. The Latino and African American leadership in New York have little tolerance for racism and police brutality, some of which has been the direct consequences of the war on drugs. It might be more politically fertile if NORML were to publicize the consequences of New York's current policy.

In fact, many New Yorkers enjoy the ease of home delivery of pot, paying high prices for protection from the city's aggressive policies, while poorer people, or those who don't live in the city are much more vulnerable to the possession laws. And, as NORML points out, there is hypocrisy at play, as open-container drinking violations are handled with a ticket and a fine, while adults found to be in possession of pot are arrested and jailed.

While the subtext of NORML's campaign is concerned with violence, discrimination and wasted resources from the war on pot smokers, the focus on Bloomberg has tended to obscure that message. The ads are also causing a negative ripple effect in some quarters. For example, Bloomberg's frankness led the clearly uptight, misinformed mayor of Chicago, Richard Daley, to blast him, saying "He should be smart enough now that he has the bully pulpit to keep his mouth shut." (Bloomberg made his remarks to New York Magazine long before he was elected.)

Said Daley in the Chicago Sun Times: "It's the wrong message. It's a sad message. It's like getting up there and saying, 'Hey this is great, I'm smoking every day.' Think of that. Adults have to be role models -- whether you like it or not. ... I'm just trying to protect a lot of kids -- who maybe don't have the 44 limousines and all the money." Daley's scrambled comments suggest that maybe Chicago needs its own educational campaign.

So, if the NORML campaign is mainly about getting general attention for the cause, it can claim success. The Bloomberg ads have led to a ton of publicity -- including a cover story in the New York Daily News, a cartoon in the New York Times and news broadcasts in many countries including Britain, Netherlands and Australia, where pot laws are more liberal.

But for poor New Yorkers who continue to get busted in ever-greater numbers for minor pot possession, NORML's "marijuana friendly" ad might not seem very friendly at all.

Don Hazen is executive editor of and executive director of the Independent Media Institute.
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