Marijuana ads signal new strategy in push to legalize

Rob Hotakainen, McClatchy

In the topsy-turvy world of marijuana politics, conservative Republican Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state is the unlikely hero of the moment, lauded for trying to protect medical pot users from federal arrest.

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In Florida, liberal Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is portrayed as the unlikely villain, a politician willing to send sick marijuana-using patients to prison.

Both found themselves in television advertisements that ran in their home states last month, part of a new trend in the increasingly hot pot wars.

While marijuana lobbyists once were content to play nice in their media messaging, the new ads reflect a confrontational style aimed at exposing records and getting elected leaders to board the pot legalization bandwagon _ or at least get out of the way.

The ads are tougher and more visceral, often featuring pleas from ill people who want to use marijuana legally. They portend a new strategy that promises to be on display in the upcoming congressional elections and the 2016 presidential race, when pot might emerge as a sleeper issue.

Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is already under pressure to side with her husband, former President Bill Clinton, who reversed course last week by saying states should be allowed to legalize without federal interference.

“He’s testing the waters for her, and he’s smart to do that. . . . I’m begging her people to get her to say something,” said Adam Eidinger, the chairman of the D.C. Cannabis Campaign, which turned in 55,000 signatures last week to get legalization on the November ballot in Washington, D.C.

With Washington state and Colorado already selling recreational pot and 23 states allowing the drug for medical reasons, Eidinger warned that politicians who ignore the issue do so at their own risk. He said it was “unbelievable” that Hillary Clinton’s new book didn’t mention marijuana.

“If you’re interested in being powerful, you need to take the marijuana lobby seriously,” Eidinger said. “You don’t want the marijuana lobby singling you out.”

Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, predicted that 2016 will be the first year that marijuana gets more than “a passing mention” in a presidential race.

With the latest Gallup Poll finding that 58 percent of Americans back legalization, he predicted that many politicians, especially Democrats, will campaign on the issue to appeal to younger voters. He noted that even Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a potential GOP presidential candidate, is backing more lenient marijuana laws.

With pot lobbyists eager to show results, St. Pierre expects no end to the harder-edged ads. Before, he said, the industry ran only “pro-pot polemicals” aimed at influencing public opinion, never picking fights with politicians.

“They didn’t want to draw their ire,” St. Pierre said.

The latest ads seek to sway Congress to back a bill to cut off funds for the Justice Department to enforce federal laws against marijuana use in states that have voted to make the drug legal for medical purposes. After passing the House of Representatives by 219-189 in late May, the bill is pending in the Senate.

When Wasserman Schultz voted against it, a group called Americans for Safe Access ran a series of 30-second television ads in South Florida, calling her “out of touch.” The group said she was one of only 18 House Democrats to oppose the measure.

In Washington state, the group ran two ads, one praising Hastings for backing the bill and another criticizing Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers for opposing it.

The latter featured 70-year-old Larry Harvey of Kettle Falls, Wash., who faces a possible 10-year prison sentence for growing marijuana that he used to treat his gout and knee pain. His farm is in McMorris Rodgers’ district.

“I voted to send Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers to Congress, and she voted to send me to prison,” Harvey said in the ad.

Kris Hermes, spokesman for Americans for Safe Access, said the group had decided to run a positive ad featuring Hastings to balance its media campaign, broadening it beyond members who’d been “aggressively oppositional.”

“We just didn’t want to target politicians who have come down on the wrong side of the issue,” said Hermes.

He said the group expected to run more similar ads. The group has also designed a state-by-state report card, showing how members of Congress have voted on medical marijuana.

Hastings and McMorris Rodgers declined to comment.

In a statement, Wasserman Schultz said she supported “evidence-based medical marijuana treatment” but that she’d voted against the bill because it wasn’t appropriate to limit the Obama administration’s ability to enforce federal laws.

Earlier this year, the pro-legalization group Marijuana Policy Project ran ads against two Democratic governors, Mark Dayton of Minnesota and Andrew Cuomo of New York, urging them to back medical marijuana bills.

In the Minnesota ad, a man with muscular dystrophy said he didn’t understand why Dayton would block the legislation, adding: “I am a patient, not a criminal.”

In the New York ad, a psychiatrist made a direct plea to Cuomo on behalf of his wife, who has Parkinson’s disease: “Knowing there’s a medication that could help my wife, but that medication is illegal here in New York, is agonizing.”

On Monday, Cuomo signed a bill that made New York the latest state to pass a medical marijuana law. Dayton signed off on his state’s plan in May.

Legalization opponents say the efforts to stop pot prosecutions are misguided.

“Out here in Washington, it’s sad to me that the politicization of this has ignored the health and safety risks for kids and communities,” said Derek Franklin, Washington state coordinator of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). “And regardless of what folks think of the legalization experiments, part of how this can work is if there’s robust enforcement.”

Franklin said children in the state were getting exposed again to ads with pro-marijuana messages, just as they were in 2012.

“Ads like this just continue to erode what healthy norms we’ve got left,” he said.

Lobbyists predict that their political muscle will only increase.

“The demographics are going to continue to evolve in our favor because of the younger voters, because of the older population dying off,” said Eidinger.

And lobbyists expect the issue’s popularity to result in new alliances. They noted that many Florida Democrats are backing a November ballot measure to legalize medical marijuana, hopeful it will aid gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist. Eidinger also wants Hillary Clinton to go to Florida to endorse the measure.

In Maryland, Republican Rep. Andy Harris is getting a taste of things to come.

Last month, Americans for Safe Access ran an ad against Harris after he gave a speech opposing medical marijuana and voted against the bill to strip funding from the Justice Department.

He’s also upset officials in Washington, D.C., by trying to block the city from decriminalizing marijuana. In March, the D.C. Council voted to make possession of a small amount a misdemeanor with a $25 fine, but Congress must approve the law. Harris got the House Appropriations Committee to back an amendment to kill the plan.

“Congress has the authority to stop irresponsible actions by local officials, and I am glad we did for the health and safety of children throughout the District,” Harris said in a statement.

Last week, Democratic D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray urged residents of the nation’s capital to stay away from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a vacation spot in Harris’ district.

And Eidinger said pot activists were ready to campaign heavily in Harris’ district before the Nov. 4 general election.

“This is serious business,” Eidinger said. “If he’s successful, we’ll have nothing to do but go campaign and fight to get him out of office to make an example of him. That’s all we’ll do.”

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