WASHINGTON -- When televangelist Pat Robertson announced his support for legalizing marijuana last year, pot backers wasted no time in putting his picture on an electronic billboard in Colorado.
Marijuana billboards have popped up along busy freeways from Seattle to Florida. In September, one greeted fans going to Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver for the first NFL game of the season. In July, pot supporters tried to get a video ad on a jumbo screen outside a NASCAR event in Indianapolis, but objections forced them to pull it in the last minute.
In the latest twist, pro-pot billboards are emblazoned on city buses in Portland, Maine, aimed at winning votes for a Nov. 5 ballot measure that would make the city the first on the East Coast to legalize marijuana for recreational use.
Critics fear that the increased advertising is a sign of things to come as support for legalization continues to grow, reflected by a Gallup poll released last week that found backing from a record high 58 percent of Americans. They see the stepped-up promotion as a dangerous trend that will lead to more drug abuse among children.
While the Greater Portland Transit District has banned tobacco ads, it accepted $2,500 to display the marijuana billboards on the exterior of four of its 32 city buses and in two bus shelters. The ads, which debuted early this month, are set to run until Election Day.
In one ad, a bespectacled woman says: I prefer marijuana over alcohol because its less toxic, so theres no hangover. Another features a smiling young man who says he prefers pot over booze because it doesnt make me rowdy or reckless.
Transit officials say the ads are constitutionally protected political speech since they also encourage a yes vote on a city ballot initiative.
Were allowing this message because its political speech. Its designed to help change a law, said Gregory Jordan, the general manager of the transit district. Its not the promotion of a commercial product. . . . We dont have a position on the content of the advertising, just that its a political message and by its very nature its protected by the First Amendment.
Opponents say the ads go well beyond endorsing a ballot measure, instead promoting an illegal product. They say the ads shouldnt be allowed in places where theyre so easily viewed by youths, including high school students who ride city buses to school.
What we say and what we do is being watched by the kids in our communities, and they look to us for clues on whats acceptable and whats normal and how they should act, said Jo Morrissey, the project manager for a substance abuse group called 21 Reasons, which asked the transit district to drop the ads.
She said the transit line was violating its own policies by allowing the ads because it was promoting an illegal product.
I dont know how you can slice it any other way, when you say that marijuana is safer than alcohol, Morrissey said. I dont know what theyre trying to say other than their product is better.
Jordan said the transit line, which serves nearly 1.5 million riders a year, was on solid legal ground but that he understood the criticism: I can certainly see how maybe its a fine distinction.