As early as next week, the Senate will vote on a new provision that would effectively silence community groups around the country from advertising to educate Americans about medical marijuana and other important drug policy issues. After seeing pro-drug policy reform ads on a D.C. subway, an incensed Representative Ernest Istook
(Rep- Oklahoma) made exterminating such ads a personal crusade. His provision, buried within the omnibus federal spending bill that the U.S. House of Representatives approved in December, would take away federal grants from local and state transportation authorities that allow citizens to run advertising on buses, trains, or subways in support of reforming our nation's drug laws.
If passed, the provision would alter the American landscape by setting a precedent whereby the government prevents groups with dissenting voices from accessing public space. "Today, it's the government trying to censor medical marijuana ads. Tomorrow it could be gagging organizations that are critical of US environmental policy," said Bill Piper, Associate Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This isn't just about drug policy--freedom of speech is on the line."
The provision raises both constitutional and political concerns. Local and state authorities could soon be put in an impossible position: if they reject advertising in support of drug policy reform they risk running afoul of the First Amendment; but if they accept drug policy reform advertising they lose federal money.
Courts have generally ruled that public transportation authorities cannot legally discriminate against any political viewpoint. However, if this provision passes, those rulings will be in question; In Michigan, for example, where Detroit residents will soon vote on a medical marijuana bill, groups that support the initiative will not be able to purchase ads on buses.
Critics point out that while this provision would allow the federal government to ban drug policy reform, another provision of the same bill would give the White House $145 million in taxpayer money to run anti-marijuana ads next year. "The government will spend taxpayer money promoting one side of the drug policy debate while prohibiting taxpayers from using their own money to promote the other side," said Bill Piper. "The government is afraid of people hearing the whole story, so they're rigging the debate."
The provisions in the omnibus spending bill are part of a growing controversy over the use of taxpayer money to influence state and federal drug policies: