Smokin’ airwaves

Marijuana decriminalization advocates stoke up a TV ad campaign in Nevada

When pot’s legal and regulated for adults, teen use goes down, contends the Marijuana Policy Project.

When pot’s legal and regulated for adults, teen use goes down, contends the Marijuana Policy Project.

Photo By David Robert

Marijuana reformers are not finished with Nevada yet.

The Marijuana Policy Project, the group that contributed funding to Nevadans promoting the initiative petition campaign that placed marijuana legalization on Nevada’s 2002 ballot, is now running television commercials in Nevada comparing high teen marijuana use here with lower teen use in the Netherlands.

The commercials use a split screen showing Nevada teens on the right side of the screen wearing shirts reading “67%” and Dutch teens on the left in shirts reading “28%.”

Using statistics on teen use from the White House Office of Drug Control Policy and the Center for Drug Research, the TV spots argue that well-regulated but legal marijuana in Holland produces fewer teen users than the current policy of outright prohibition in the United States. The spots are running heavily on most northern Nevada television stations.

Nevada twice voted for medical marijuana in first- and second-round voting in 1998 and 2000. In response, the Nevada Legislature reduced the penalties for marijuana use and created a marijuana health use and research program.

Building on those successes, the Marijuana Policy Project last year funded the Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement’s push to make possession of three ounces or less of marijuana legal. The measure failed in the 2002 election, though 40 percent of voters supported it. The measure was defeated after highly publicized pre-election vehicle fatalities in both Clark and Washoe counties in which marijuana use was allegedly a factor.

MPP focused most of its resources in that campaign on Clark County in southern Nevada, but its television campaign spots are running only in Washoe County, though the reach of those stations is across the northern portion of the state.

The ads were created by the MPP’s non-profit educational arm, the Marijuana Policy Project Foundation. MPP spokesperson Bruce Mirken says the run of spots is a “test run” to see if his group can address what its opinion polls showed was one of the principal concerns of voters last year.

“We found that voters were voting based on a lot of assumptions that were not true, [including] that the current system or something like it is needed to keep kids from smoking marijuana,” Mirken says.

The advertising campaign suggests that prohibition itself fuels teen use and that a Netherlands-style “system of strict regulation and I.D. checks tightly controls marijuana and keeps it away from teens.”

MPP commissioned opinion surveys of northern Nevada before the schedule of TV spots started running and will poll again after the spots stop running at the end of this month.

“They’re running to provoke a discussion on the issues of marijuana use, so people will think about things they’ve accepted without question up to now,” Mirken says.

That leads to the question of whether the spots are being used to soften Nevada up for a second initiative petition campaign.

A screenshot from the MPP’s education Web site at

“The answer, frankly, is we don’t know,” Mirken says. “This is a test run.”

He says there have been strategic discussions in his organization over what went wrong in last year’s initiative campaign, but no decision has been made about mounting another one. In the meantime, the television commercials are regarded as an educational effort to try to dispel myths about prohibition. If another campaign is launched, MPP would likely step away from the effort.

Nevada State Medical Association Director Lawrence Matheis, who has been critical of the previous marijuana initiatives in Nevada, says the television commercials with their teen-usage message are a necessity if the group intends to launch another initiative petition.

“I think they would have to address it [teen use] because it was one of the major issues” in 2002, Matheis says. “[But] I simply don’t think it’s credible on the face of it that Nevada has the bigger usage over Holland. … Being disingenuous is better than having nothing to say.”

Matheis says MPP should not again portray a legalization initiative as a medical-marijuana measure, as was done in 2002.

MPP is a Washington, D.C.-based organization, but two months ago it opened a West Coast office headed by Mirken in San Francisco. The group has also set up a Web page at, where the Nevada commercial can be viewed and the documentation for the commercial’s claims can be examined.

The MPP was established with funding from billionaire investor/philanthropist George Soros, who has given away $4 billion of his fortune over the last two decades. Soros has been attacked for supporting drug reform by defenders of drug prohibition such as White House drug czar John Walters.

While campaigning against the marijuana legalization ballot measure in Nevada last year, Walters challenged Soros to come to Nevada in person.

“These people use ignorance and their overwhelming amount of money to influence the electorate,” Walters said. “You don’t hide behind money and refuse to talk and hire underlings and not stand up and speak for yourself.”

In related news, Washoe County District Attorney Richard Gammick, a principal opponent of last year’s marijuana ballot measure, recently said on KRNV’s Nevada Newsmakers program, “Medical marijuana makes me shiver because there is no such thing. Marijuana is marijuana is marijuana. [Neither] the American Medical Association nor the Food and Drug Administration has recognized marijuana to have medical effect.”

However, according to the American Medical Association, the group has a long history of recognizing the therapeutic value of marijuana while also drawing attention to its dangers. A 1981 AMA report shows that the organization opposed the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, which imposed the first federal restrictions on use of the drug.

“At the time,” the report says, “the AMA was virtually alone in opposing passage of this Act. The AMA believed that objective data were lacking on the harmful effects of marijuana, and that passage of the Act would impede future investigations into its potential medical uses. Furthermore, the AMA’s Committee on Legislative Activities recommended that marijuana’s status as a medicinal agent be maintained.”

In fact, marijuana continued to be listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia (the annual volume of recognized medicines) until 1942, five years after the drug was made illegal, and is still listed in the British Pharmacopoeia.

Since 1937, the AMA has regularly reasserted its support for marijuana as a medicine, including one effort in 1956 when a joint AMA/American Bar Association study called for less restrictive marijuana policies. In 1981, the AMA called on the National Institutes of Health to use its influence and resources to support development of an inhaled but smoke-free form of marijuana. (A pill form promoted by federal drug warriors is available, but it delivers its dosage of medication to a patient’s system with a jolt, often causing the nausea it is sometimes prescribed to prevent. Inhaled marijuana delivers the dosage gradually.) The same AMA report listed 155 studies of the medical uses of marijuana, ranging from breast cancer to spinal-cord injuries.

Gammick also pointed to the Food and Drug Administration’s failure to sanction medical use, apparently unaware that it is illegal for the FDA to act on marijuana. The FDA was stripped of authority over the drug seven presidents ago. Acting on a recommendation of President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, Congress transferred authority over marijuana to the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which evolved into the Drug Enforcement Administration.