PORTLAND — Political ads promoting the legalization of recreational marijuana use will not be pulled from city buses despite complaints that the ads might encourage young people to use drugs, says the bus line’s general manager.
Gregory Jordan said Wednesday that Metro’s policy allows political speech, and rejecting the pro-marijuana ads would infringe on the proponents’ First Amendment rights.
“If we’re going to allow one type of political advertising, we have to allow it all,” Jordan said.
The Marijuana Policy Project, the group behind next month’s ballot proposal to legalize marijuana in Portland, formally launched its ad campaign for buses and bus shelters during a news conference Wednesday. The ads will run until Election Day, Nov. 5.
The series of ads shows well-dressed and clean-cut adults and text saying that using marijuana is safer than drinking alcohol and doesn’t cause hangovers or make people rowdy. The ads ask voters to support the proposal to legalize possession of small amounts of marijuana by people who are 21 or older.
Jo Morrissey, project manager for 21 Reasons, a substance-abuse coalition, sent a message to the Metro board late Tuesday criticizing it for agreeing to place the ads on the buses, which some Portland children ride to and from school. Morrissey asked the board not to accept the ads.
On Wednesday, 21 Reasons called on Metro to change its policy and ban marijuana advertising on its buses.
“If we do not ban such promotions, we will see a significant increase in marijuana marketing and promotion,” the group said in a news release. If the initiative passes on Nov. 5, she said, there could be demand for commercial advertising that “will further erode youth’s perception of risk and harm.”
David Boyer, the Maine political director for the Maine Marijuana Policy project, said the criticism by 21 Reasons is “misguided.”
“These ads encourage people to support marijuana policy reform, not to use marijuana,” Boyer said. “These ads simply highlight the fact that marijuana is objectively safer than alcohol, and that is a fact everyone should know.”
Metro’s advertising policy bans ads that promote the use of tobacco products, and ads promoting unlawful conduct, goods or services. The policy allows ads promoting alcohol.
Portland City Councilor Edward Suslovic, who serves on Metro’s board of directors, said the policy was adopted because the board believes there is no safe way to use tobacco, whereas alcohol could be used responsibly.
Jordan said the purpose of the marijuana ads is political – asking voters to change the law to legalize marijuana – not a promotion of the product or activity.
“It may be a fine line, but it is a political ad that promotes a change in the law,” Jordan said.
The $2,500 ad campaign is being funded by the Marijuana Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that has made Maine one of 10 target states where it hopes to legalize marijuana by 2016.
“We have these ads to spark a discussion with Portlanders about whether people should be punished” for using marijuana, Boyer said Tuesday.
Each ad features a different adult saying why he or she prefers marijuana over alcohol and asking why they should be punished for making the safer choice. In one, a woman says “it’s less harmful to my body.” In another, a man says “it doesn’t make me rowdy or reckless.” A third shows a woman saying “it is less toxic, so there’s no hangover.”
Anti-drug abuse advocates including 21 Reasons say the ads could increase drug use among teenagers by reducing the perceived risk. They cite evidence that marijuana use poses various health threats to developing adolescents.
Marijuana is illegal under federal law, but Maine is one of 20 states that have legalized use of medicinal marijuana.
In the two years after changes were made to the medical marijuana program, in 2009, Portland high school students’ perception of the risk of smoking marijuana dropped, according to 21 Reasons.
In 2009, 60 percent of the students surveyed said they saw a risk of harming themselves by smoking marijuana regularly. In 2011, only 52 percent of the students surveyed said it was harmful.
“Maine high school students who think there is little risk from smoking marijuana are 5.3 times as likely to use it,” the group said.
Bonny Rodden, president of Metro’s board of directors, said Tuesday that she was unaware of the content of the ads and was considering asking the board to take a closer at their appropriateness.
On Wednesday, Rodden, who is also a town councilor in Falmouth, said she will not make a request and she is comfortable with the advertising policy.
“I understand (21 Reasons’) concerns, but I think the debate is out in the political forum, not over whether we should run the ads,” Rodden said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: