Chem Tales: Pro-Weed Ads Fail to Make Their Case

Cannabis advocates need to start learning how to discuss their views across what might be called the green gap, with those millions who consider pot unappealing.

In my last column, I looked at some of the ads that cannabis legalization opponents are using to sway voters before Election Day, in what could be the last real chance to hold up legalization. Prohibitionist ads tend to exaggerate the downsides seen in states that have legalized marijuana and emphasize the degree to which legalization will expose kids to the drug — or at least marketing for it. Some of the spots show photos of dirty stoner types.

This week, I looked at the pro-legalization ads, and it’s worth saying what they don’t do. They don’t show anyone using marijuana.

Instead, they fall into two broad categories. In the first, parents, retired cops, and other authority figures — almost all of them White — emphasize how strictly marijuana will be regulated under the proposed rule.

“We’re going to be asking voters not to be afraid to make a common-sense decision,” a former sheriff says in one ad.

In the second type, people with the same level of gravitas — sometimes the exact same people — talk up how good legalization will be for the state economy, especially in terms of generating tax dollars for schools.

In this age of political fact-checking, it’s worth noting that so far in Colorado, despite what the ads say, the taxes have not had a huge impact on state coffers. That’s according to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat who was not initially thrilled that the state legalized weed but who has spoken more favorably of the experiment as it has unfolded.

In their way, the pro-legalization ads fall as far short as their counterparts on the other side. Cannabis activists talk about a lot of reasons to legalize: racial disparities in drug law enforcement, the plant’s medical benefits (both those that are known and others that are yet to be confirmed), economic benefits like taxes and job creation, and the principle that a free society should err on the side of permission rather than prohibition.

Only one commercial that I saw hints at how legalization could alter American life. In the ad, which supports recreational access in Arizona, a woman of about 30 sits at a computer typing an email to her mom. “When I was in college, I used to drink a lot. It was kind of crazy,” she writes. “Now that I’m older, I prefer to use marijuana. It’s less harmful to my body. I don’t get hungover. And honestly, I feel safer around marijuana users. I hope this makes sense, but if not, let’s talk.”

The ad is coy, but at least it is trying to start a discussion. It brings up the new social paradigm that comes with legalization: an alternative to alcohol. We’ve lived our whole lives in a society where one particular impairing substance has been available to law-abiding people. Alcohol is part of life across all strata of society and has a place in mainstream family and religious life. In various forms, it has been incorporated into subcultures across the American mosaic.

For millions of people, these pro-legalization videos are the first “Just Say Yes!” ads that they’ve ever seen. They’re also their introduction to a new industry that wants to move into their neighborhoods and have as robust and intimate a role in their lives as alcohol has now.

Cutting conventional political spots probably makes more sense to get these ballot measures across the finish line.

Among themselves, cannabis people seem to talk about little other than the benefits of the plant. It’s time for them to start learning how to discuss it across what might be called the green gap, with those millions who consider it unappealing. This will hone the industry’s arguments and force it to scrap the weaker ones.

The fact that marijuana is on the cusp of legalization in California and four other states is the result of decades of tireless and often dangerous activism. Why did they do it? Was it all just to get high? Cynics might think so, but there’s also a compelling narrative to be told about why legalization is the right thing to do, including that some people like to get high, and that’s OK.

Cannabis advocates will need to go public with their case for cannabis — because so far legalization hasn’t boosted school taxes.

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