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Marijuana Ad On Metro Infuriates Lawmaker

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PostPosted: Fri Feb 13, 2004 9:20 pm    Post subject: Marijuana Ad On Metro Infuriates Lawmaker Reply with quote

Marijuana Ad On Metro Infuriates Lawmaker
By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2003; Page B01

An Oklahoma lawmaker is seeking to slice $92,500 from the federal government's annual payment to Metro because he is angry that the transit agency accepted advertising from a nonprofit group that wants to decriminalize marijuana.

Change the Climate Inc. has been using public service advertising space on the Metro system since 2001, but it was the latest round of advertising, this fall, that drew the ire of Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.).

The ad showed a man carrying a tanned blonde in a short white dress, the two of them set against the azure sky of some tropical retreat. Under the picture appeared the declaration: "Enjoy better sex! Legalize and Tax Marijuana."

In a Nov. 10 letter to Jim Graham, chairman of the Metro board, Istook called the ad "shocking" and said the board had "exercised the poorest possible judgment, so I must assure that [Metro] will learn the proper lessons from this experience and will only accept appropriate ads in the future."

This week, Istook inserted into a bill language that would cut Metro's funds by $92,500 and prohibit any transit system that receives federal funds from running advertising from a group that wants to decriminalize marijuana. The money is just a fraction of the federal government's $164 million subsidy to Metro for capital projects.

The language is part of an omnibus bill expected to come before Congress for a vote in late December or January.

"Metro is using taxpayer facilities to promote illegal activity," said Micah Swafford, Istook's press secretary. She said the congressman was unavailable for comment.

Graham sees things differently.

"This is petty and punitive," Graham said. "It's a politically motivated, micromanaging bolt from the blue. I suspect it would never have risen to this level if this was San Francisco or another city. Whatever they're running would never have come to the attention of Congressman Istook."

Metro officials initially refused the ads when Change the Climate approached them in 2001.

But when they were threatened with a First Amendment lawsuit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, officials relented.

"The congressman would rather have us slug this out in court at great expense than follow the judgment of our general counsel," Graham said. "The expense that's going to be involved is considerable. And this group would like nothing more than to sue. It's better publicity than advertising."

Officials at the Boston subway system refused the same ad -- triggering a lawsuit that has continued for three years.

Change the Climate officials said they were trying to attract attention to certain issues. "Yes, we wanted to stimulate debate, but we didn't think a nutcase congressman would try to eliminate free speech," said Joseph White, founder of Change the Climate. "If they don't like what we're doing, they ought to read the Constitution and get a life."

Swafford said Istook was particularly irritated because Metro gave the advertising space to Change the Climate at no charge, as part of its policy of dedicating a percentage of ad space to nonprofit groups for public service announcements.

Metro officials recently voted to abolish that policy, in part because it attracted groups wanting to post controversial ads.

"We're not just talking about allowing them to use the space," Swafford said. "They gave them free ad space. The First Amendment does not require the government to give free space."

The space was worth $46,250. Istook's proposal would cut twice that amount from Metro's budget "as a warning to other transit agencies."

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