Erika D. Smith

California had a TV ad that promoted drug use? It’s Reefer Madness!

Watch the California Office of Traffic Safety's controversial marijuana PSA

The campaign, released ahead of California legalizing marijuana on Jan. 1, stirred controversy with viewers over its descriptions of the drug.
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The campaign, released ahead of California legalizing marijuana on Jan. 1, stirred controversy with viewers over its descriptions of the drug.

It has only been five days since sales of recreational marijuana started in California, but it’s already clear that coming up with a formula for a public safety advertisement is going to take a while.

 
Opinion

On Friday afternoon, the state’s Office of Traffic Safety pulled its first PSA, which was intended to persuade adults not to climb behind the wheel and drive while stoned. But the ad drew complaints almost immediately.

The reason? It’s “normalizing” marijuana – you know, as if marijuana weren’t already normal in California.

“This CA taxpayer funded PSA spends most air time normalizing/promoting pot use before saying don’t drive stoned. Imagine same extolling virtues of alcohol?” conservative political consultant Rob Stutzman tweeted. “This is is absurd, @JerryBrownGov should nix this.”

Here’s what’s absurd: Pretending that a video of a bunch of people talking about why they use pot – for menstrual cramps, for anxiety, because it smells good, because it’s fun – will somehow lead to more people using it. And that even if that happened, it would somehow be end of the world.

Reefer Madness!

The truth is, smoking a joint is already as socially acceptable in California as having a glass of wine with dinner or a craft beer with friends after work. And it’s certainly more acceptable than smoking cigarettes, because, well, lung cancer and it’s just gross. Heck, we could soon become a “sanctuary state” for marijuana.

How we got here isn’t a mystery.

California legalized cannabis for medical purposes way back in 1996, long before other states dared to challenge federal law with a network of quasi-legal, all cash dispensaries. We were fearless!

But in the process, the state also acknowledged that cannabis was good for treating ailments, such as chronic pain, anxiety and loss of appetite from cancer treatment – the same ailments mentioned on the PSA the Office of Traffic Safety just yanked.

Which brings me to a larger point: Cannabis is different. It’s not like any other substance that California tightly regulates because Californians, like a growing number of Americans, think of it as, at worst, harmless, and, at best, healthy.

Remember comedian Chris Tucker in the movie, “Friday”? “Weed is from the Earth. God put this here for you and for me.”

In California hipsters happily pay $30 for two gallons of untreated, “raw” water to avoid drinking “polluted” tap water. We do locally grown and farm-to-fork like no other state. And weed is organic. It’s natural. It might as well be sold at Whole Foods.

On the other hand, people know tobacco is dangerous. They know nasty things happen when alcohol is used to excess. And compared to meth or opioids, drugs that are destroying millions of lives in real-time, using cannabis is a no-brainer.

All of this presents a real challenge to crafting an effective message for a public education campaign, which is wholly necessary to prevent deadly car crashes like the one that claimed the life of California Highway Patrol Officer Andrew Camilleri on Christmas Eve.

If California is smart, policymakers won’t resort to draconian advertisements designed to scare people into putting the joint down. No one believes pot will fry anyone’s brain like an egg. Instead, the state should be putting out ads that acknowledge adults are going to use the drug, but teach them how to be responsible doing so.

As they say in Colorado, “Be safe. Be legal. Be responsible.”

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