'Are you high?': Marijuana advocates fume over new state-backed ads

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Michigan department's advertising campaign meant to caution young people about marijuana use is drawing backlash from pot advocates who label it "government propaganda" and "scare tactics."

Robin Schneider, executive director of the Michigan Cannabis Industry Association, called Friday for the state to stop the ads and take them down immediately. The ads evoke "reefer madness," Schneider argued, and young people are smarter than that.

"Are you high?" one character asks another in an ad entitled "Future Self." "I'm you in 10 years. No career. No friends. No money ... Marijuana messed with our brain. We can't focus."

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is sponsoring ads that are meant to caution young people about using marijuana.

The ad features two people on a couch with pizza sitting on a table in front of them. One of the characters, overweight and unshaven, is meant to be the older version of the other character.

The ad ends with the text "don't let a high hold you back" and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services logo on the screen.

Funded through a federal block grant, the ads are part of a $300,000 campaign that started Dec. 23 and will run through mid-April, said Lynn Sutfin, public information officer for the Department of Health and Human Services.

The ads will appear on social media, YouTube, online music services and video streaming services. The topic was selected for an ad campaign because of Michigan's vote in 2018 to legalize recreational marijuana for individuals 21 years old and older, Sutfin said.

The ads are meant to focus on individuals 14-21 years old as a group "that is vulnerable to health risks associated with marijuana use," she said.

"The goal is to help discourage youth from using marijuana," Sutfin added.

But marijuana advocates, many of whom helped with the 2018 campaign to legalize the drug, argue that the ads are out of line and not clearly enough focused on people younger than 21.

The most insulting part of the ad is what it says about body image, said Schneider, who leads the cannabis industry association and is a mother of four teenagers. Most people who use marijuana are health conscious, and many choose to use marijuana instead of alcohol, she said.

Young people deserve a better ad campaign with accurate information, Schneider argued.

Rick Thompson, board member for the Michigan affiliate of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), said he had been encouraged by forward moves from the state on marijuana. The new ads use old tropes and seem "like a step backward," Thompson said.

If the ads more clearly targeted high school students, they would be more palatable, Thompson added. Currently, there seems to be an inconsistent message coming from state government — discouraging the use of marijuana while licensing marijuana businesses — he said.

While teens and youngsters are banned from using recreational marijuana in Michigan, national studies have shown pot use increasing among teens and young adults.

Recreational sales of marijuana began in Michigan on Dec. 1. From then until Sunday, there had been $10 million in legal recreational marijuana sales in the state, according to the Marijuana Regulatory Agency, which wasn't involved in the new ads.

The sales have resulted in $1.6 million in tax revenue, and the state has licensed 35 retailers.

"What we are talking about is an inconsistent message coming from the state of Michigan," Thompson said.

Jeff Hank, an attorney who worked on past campaigns to legalize marijuana in Michigan, had harsher criticism about the new ads. Hank said instead of using tax dollars to improve roadways, fund education or take better care of people, money "is wasted on government propaganda."

"Substance abuse is a serious issue and money would be better spent on methodology that actually works," Hank said. "Some of our greatest contributors to society like genius Elon Musk or scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Olympians like Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps, all use cannabis responsibly. Too bad our tax dollars aren't more responsibly spent."

The ads ask viewers to visit a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services website about drug use. That page links to the website for the National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. The institute says marijuana use can affect decision-making, concentration and memory. 

Other risks associated with marijuana use include impaired driving, "reduced life satisfaction" and "reduced school performance," the institute says.

"Research suggests that people who use marijuana regularly for a long time are less satisfied with their lives and have more problems with friends and family compared to people who do not use marijuana," the institute's website says.

Researchers have feared that people under 25 years old who regularly ingest or smoke pot over a long time eventually could hurt their brain development, among other issues. By contrast, some scientists are excited about marijuana's potential to relieve pain, treat post-traumatic stress disorder and aid in the recovery from opioid addiction.