A cannabis ad campaign designed to educate, not frighten

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Poster courtesy of the Marijuana Policy Project

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd took some serious shit earlier this year for a piece she wrote about her scary experience in a Denver hotel room after an overdose of cannabis edibles. She was mocked for being stupid, for not reading the packaging, for not waiting long enough before eating more. And of being sanctimonious and selfrighteous about it, too.

I thought she did us all a big favor. She’s hardly the first person who’s ever had a negative edible experience — come on, it might have even happened to you. And by honestly telling her own story, she showed that even a top-shelf national newspaper columnist who isn’t careful with cannabis edibles can have a bad night. Despite spending a few hours curled in terror, she mentioned that she supported legalization, and the harshest chastisement she had was that the packaging content could be improved, something that Colorado is currently reevaluating in response to Dowd’s column and other experiences like hers.

Now the advocacy organization Marijuana Policy Project has literally made Dowd a poster child for edible abuse in a new advertising campaign beginning in Colorado. A billboard first unveiled on Denver’s Federal Boulevard shows a red-haired woman — Dowd is famously red-headed — with her head in her hands sitting on a hotel room bed. “Don’t let a candy bar ruin your vacation,” the headline reads, “with edibles start low and go slow,” and offers a link to consumeresponsibly.org.

I suggest anyone who uses or is curious about cannabis at least check out this site, which was created by the Marijuana Policy Project to give anyone interested in cannabis the basics from three perspectives: the law, personal limits and the responsibilities that come with cannabis use.

The legal page includes information relevant to Washington and Colorado, the only two states to legalize small amounts of cannabis, including what types of products are available, how much a person can possess and current driving and traveling laws.

The Know Your Limit page explains in detail the three types of products — flowers, edibles/infused and concentrates — and the main ways of ingesting cannabis — smoking, vaporizing and ingesting — and the various ways it affects people. Most importantly, the website explains edibles and how to use them and what to do if you’ve overeaten or accidentally ingested too much. (The main thing to remember is that you won’t die and that the effects will wear off in a few hours.)

It’s not the first time that the Marijuana Policy Project has used advertising to help counter the stoner image that still accompanies cannabis use today. In July 2006, Marijuana Policy Project called out public officials, including two ex-presidents who had publicly admitted to cannabis use, for a radio campaign that asked, “Is it fair to arrest three quarters of a million people a year for doing what presidents and a Supreme Court justice have done?” 

In 2009, it aired a television ad calling for California to regulate and tax cannabis to help pay for education. And last year it managed to show an ad briefly just outside the Brickyard 400 NASCAR race that spoofed the relative safety of cannabis as opposed to alcohol during sporting events.

Compared to a current state campaign that uses slickly designed, humansized laboratory rat cages and warning signs to try and frighten teenagers, “Start Low Go Slow” reeks of common sense. It portrays cannabis’ risks honestly and includes information that everyone who uses cannabis could profit from. I can’t think of an issue it misses. MPP, which partnered with Medbox for this campaign, is planning television ads and online and print advertising to complement the billboards.

At least part of the reasoning behind it is to counter cannabis-prohibition groups who continue to portray it in the negative terms government has used for too many decades. It’s the old THC fear factor we’ve all become used to and is certainly one of the reasons Americans have turned against the drug war.

Not everybody was pleased. “This is reminiscent of other addictive industries trying to gain favor in the public eye by telling people to use responsibly,” Kevin Sabet, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the anti-cannabis lobbying organization, told the Daily Beast about the Marijuana Policy Project campaign, adding, “No small ad campaign is going to counter the fact that marijuana is being sold as candies, cookies, brownies, ice creams, and sodas in order to appeal to kids.”

Of course, for Sabet and Smart Approaches to Marijuana, anything short of keeping cannabis demonized and in the black market would be a travesty, and if you look at the organization’s website, there are no pros and cons to cannabis use. It’s all cons. All use is abuse. And everybody in the industry is trying to hook kids. Blah, blah, blah.

When it really comes down to it, organizations like Smart Approaches to Marijuana are the ones who wind up encouraging kids to try cannabis by forcing-feeding fear, misinformation and lies down their throats to try to scare them away.

For her part, Dowd emailed the Daily Beast that she loves the Marijuana Policy Project campaign and might make the poster her holiday card.

Sabet will never learn. Prohibition doesn’t work. Period. End of story.

You can hear Leland discuss his most recent column and Colorado cannabis issues each Thursday morning on KGNU. http://news.kgnu.org/category/features/weed-between-the-lines/

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com